Far more than a game streaming service, Google Stadia represents a transformative shift in digital communication, writes Adrian Pennington.
Google’s announcement of a cloud gaming service does far more than shake-up the video games industry. It’s part of a global shift in computing technology, in which in Google’s own terms, the data centre becomes the platform.
“This is a huge evolution for digital services, cloud computing and for digital communication,” said Ed Barton, chief analyst for entertainment at Ovum.
“The idea of the data centre becoming the platform shifts the compute demands away from personal devices to the network and the cloud meaning that developers are no longer bound by the limits of silicon at the end user. Instead, the amount of resource you can draw on is of Google scale. That, potentially, is extraordinarily powerful.”
Edge computing relocates computer processing from hardware devices in the home or mobile devices into data centres hosting massive compute firepower with data relayed over fibre networks or to one of the billions of new 5G cellular sites being installed worldwide (or combination of both) back to the user’s screen in next to no time.
Edge computing could reduce the workload and battery drain on mobile devices while providing a superior end user experience.
For applications like games but also future media experiences in virtual reality and augmented reality that require astronomical levels of computing power, edge computing moves the heavy lifting to the cloud. The geographic proximity and low-latency network access to a 5G connection mean a souped-up mobile experience.
Intel, Verizon, Fox, Facebook, AT&T all have innovation labs intent on exploiting the edge.
Paolo Pescatore, media and telco analyst, PP Foresight explained that “more devices connected to the network allows users to access more bandwidth hungry applications and will lead to a proliferation of data traffic”.
He added: “The need for more computing power closer to the edge is paramount. Networks will become more efficient leading to the emergence of new business models.”
Google’s hard-hitting announcement places Stadia as a direct competitor to rivals Microsoft, Sony and Steam. When it launches later this year, in North America, the UK and most of Europe, subscribers can stream blockbuster games to any smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV running Alphabet’s Chrome web browser.
It would be possible for a user to start playing on their TV and resume playing on their phone when they leave the house. There’s no need for any console or set-top-box style hardware to buy or upgrade, just a familiar joystick controller which links to the device by WiFi.
On launch, it will support the streaming of games in high dynamic range at 60 frames per second and in 4K resolution with 8K and frame rates of 120 anticipated.
It is being primed for multi-player video gaming, a trend which has recently gained mass popularity with Fortnite in which players using Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles can compete together.
Google will look to capitalise on the 4 billion smartphones in the market worldwide, a significant increase on the number of active home gaming consoles, expected to reach 170m in 2019, according to Futuresource.
One of Stadia’s features is the ability for players to record sequences of gameplay which they can then share as a link over YouTube for other players anywhere to join.
“Google’s hard-hitting announcement places Stadia as a direct competitor to rivals Microsoft, Sony and Steam.”
Crucially, all this will have minimal lag in processing the interactions of gamers round-tripping to the cloud and back over the internet.
That’s because Stadia uses Google’s data centres housed in more than 200 countries and territories, to power the service and rely on the 7,500 edge node locations of Google’s Edge Network.
Its data centres will make use of GPUs built by AMD that are claimed more powerful than those in Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One X consoles. AMD’s custom chips can ship 10.7 teraflops of power compared to the 6 teraflops delivered by an Xbox One. Each Stadia computing instance is powered by a 2.7GHz x86 processor with 16GB of RAM, according to the company.
Combined with custom CPUs which, Google says, are “elastic” in that the cloud-hosted hardware can be multiplied to create more visually ambitious (data-intensive) games.
While Stadia will work over 4G mobile networks, the service is primed for the launch of 5G for which between 1 Gbps and 5 Gbps speeds are promised even in 5G’s early phases.
- Read more: 5G: The vision, the reality and the future
“The ability for Stadia to compete against console or PC gaming processing power is reliant on the user having access to a strong internet connection, otherwise gamers may choose to stick with their existing console or PC set up,” says Futuresource analyst, Morris Garrard.
“With the imminent adoption of 5G and Wi-Fi 6, some latency issues will be solved, however the roll out of these next generation connectivity technologies will be slow. China has committed to the rollout of highspeed 5G networks, and as the largest mobile gaming network worldwide, there is certainly a lot of opportunity for the uptake of Stadia.”
The latest flagship smartphones set for release this year from Sony, Samsung, LG and Huawei are 5G-enabled. These devices also come with multiple cameras and larger (flexible) screens. Sony’s Xperia 1 has a 4K cinemascope-style display. All of which points to video as the driver for consumer use.
“Mobile is set to come into its own as a primary video entertainment distribution channel,” Ed Barton, Ovum
Cisco predicts that by 2021, more traffic will created in one year than in every year since the inception of the internet combined. The vast bulk of that data will be video.
“The video space is ripe for innovation with the transition to 5G,” says Barton. “Rather than supplementing viewing experiences native to other screens, mobile is set to come into its own as a primary video entertainment distribution channel.”
Over 5G, an entire box set could be downloaded in UHD quality within seconds. Cristiano Amon, president at chipmaker Qualcomm says that 95% of the time 4K video will be streamed at full bitrate over 5G.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be a showcase for 5G applications including Virtual Reality in 8K resolution (probably 4K per eye) in a demonstration organised by Japan’s NTT Docomo. RYOT Lab, Verizon’s innovation hub, is experimenting with holographic presence over 5G.
- Read more: Video hailed as the “killer app” for 5G
Stadia is also well placed to push 8K gaming content, Futuresource feels, despite the current installed base of capable screens being a major sticking point for its usage.
The name Stadia, according to Google, is meant to reflect that it will be a collection of entertainment, of which the viewer can choose to sit back and watch, or take an active part in.
Many observers believe gaming will be the killer app to entice consumers to subscribe to 5G services. Niantic, makers of mobile AR game phenomenon Pokemon Go, is shortly releasing a new multi-player realtime AR game Harry Potter: Wizards Unite to maximise the low latency and edge computing aspects of 5G.
“We’re at the beginning of a whole new era of digital interactive experiences for information and entertainment,” founder & chief executive John Hanke said at MWC2019. “A paradigm change like this happens once every couple of decades.”
Hanke began Niantic as a start-up within Google that helped build the apps that became Google Maps and Google Earth. The developer has now built a games-engine that maps the physical world around users of its games via their mobile phone cameras. It is doing this with a machine learning algorithm able to calculate the pixel depth of people and objects in real-time.
“That means we can photograph and analyse a user’s immediate environment and their positional data to create an AR map in the cloud and serve it back to share with other users,” explained Hanke.
It means that virtual characters or objects and all interactions with them will be visible to all game-players at the same time.
“Edge computing allows us to perform compute intensive work such as arbitrating the real-time interactions of a thousand individuals playing in a small geographic area.”
The other Achilles’ heel of AR is the latency of data being sent over the network in response to user actions. “Even good latency times today are 100 milliseconds. With 5G we can get that to a near instantaneous 10ms,” Hanke said.
New applications like this will still put a huge strain on congested networks. Analyst Pescatore says that telcos need to deploy ultra-fast broadband connectivity far more quickly.
“5G combined with the cloud powered by artificial intelligence and computing distributed from the cloud to the edge will enable the vision of services like Google Stadia and other mixed reality content to come to life.”
Digital players like YouTube, Tencent and Facebook benefitted hugely from the transition to 4G as they and not the telcos capitalised on the rich video services that faster broadband enabled. The dilemma for telcos this time around is to avoid becoming a dumb pipe.
“5G and edge computing will further empower the already awesomely powerful digital networks,” warns Barton. “There is no simple answer for telcos who must invest heavily but somehow generate revenues from next-gen services like Stadia.”
Futuresource expects mixed or extended reality to be on Google Stadia’s roadmap. “AR and VR are certainly technologies Google continues to back [and] thanks to the popularity of the Android operating system, it has one of the largest AR ecosystems, through ARCore,” says Garrard.
“As a content platform Stadia, may negate some of the entry costs for consumers to access VR content. This, however, will require further investment and high bandwidth internet connections.”