Is local streaming the next big thing in PC gaming?
4th May 2013 | 15:00
A single PC could power games on tablets, phones and HDTVs
Plopping yourself in front of a desktop PC and playing games. It's so last millennium. The future? It's all about streaming.
Possibly. The critical distinction here is local streaming versus the cloud. The latter, of course, already exists from services like Onlive and Gaikai. It'll be part of the mix to a greater or lesser extent for the impending arrival of next-generation games consoles, too.
The former is all about using your PC as a home hub for gaming. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The model for cloud-based game streaming is pretty well established as are the shortcomings. For starters, you've got the dreaded latency issue. There's always going to be some latency with a technology that involves significant geographical distance twixt server and user.
Ye cannae break the laws of physics
The laws of physics means there's a limit to what you can do to mitigate that short of putting a server in everyone's home, which rather defeats the object of cloud-based apps. Then there's the question of performance and graphical fidelity.
With cloud streaming, you're at the mercy of the choices your service provider has made in terms of machines and specifications. OK, you could imagine a tiered service where you pay a premium for for access to a faster box or a bigger share of said box's resources.
But, fundamentally, cloud gaming isn't compatible with really high end visuals. At least, not until photorealism has not only been cracked but pushed down in price to commodity levels.
Enter, therefore, local streaming. Happily, it addresses both of those key issues. If you're using your PC to stream games at home, the latency problem is much easier to crack.
Since it's your PC, you've total control over its spec and therefore the level and quality of visuals it's pumping out.
But hang on. If you've got a PC in your home, surely that's what you'll be playing on? What's the point of streaming?
Well, imagine if you could have high-end gaming on any device, anywhere in your home. On your HDTV in the living room. On your tablet on the sofa. On another PC or laptop. Whatever.
All you'll need is a single performance PC powering the lot. Got your attention now? Thought so.
It sounds like a bit of a pipe dream. But solutions allowing you to do all that and more are in development. The leading light here is Nvidia and its AFK or Away From Keyboard initiative.
This essentially involves PCs with Nvidia graphics streaming games to other devices. It's been demoed courtesy of Nvidia's upcoming Shield portable gaming device.
Shield, of course, has a pretty powerful Nvidia Tegra 4 chip capable of rendering games in its own right. But the gap between ultra-mobile graphics and even mid-range desktop graphics is still positively yawning.
So streaming enables enthusiast-level desktop gaming on a portable device. Fantastic.
There's just one snag. It's not clear yet, but it looks like Nvidia's streaming tech may be in some way tied to Tegra devices rather than completely open. If so, that would seriously reduce its appeal.
As ever, the best hope is for Nvidia's competitors to come up with something more flexible. So that's AMD and Intel, the latter being more of a long term proposition given that Intel current lacks high performance graphics.
Whatever, the basic proposition of using one PC to power all manner of gaming devices is pretty compelling. But its real-world appeal will come down to the details.