Cloud based interfaces – a game changer.

First Published Sep 23rd, 2011

First a bit of history. In about 1997/98 I attended a conference on interactive TV. Presenting at the conference was a chap called Steve Perlman who had produced in his garage, Apple style, a hardware/software system called WebTV. The name explained what it did well and the key to the whole system was a chip called the Solo chip, named after Steve’s dog. This chip allowed televisual effects such as fades, wipes and screen flips on the box, after all it was being shown on a TV. At the time I asked him if he saw what he was a doing was a challenge to gaming consoles. He said no, it was a different market. This was understandable especially given Steve’s WebTV had also just been bought by Microsoft. They turned the service into a WindowsCE system so the Solo chip didn’t last long and all televisual effect potential died. The service is now distantly related to Microsoft Mediaroom that, in a distorted form, is what drives BT Vision in the UK.

Fast forward to 2011 and the same Steve has just launched in the UK a new cloud based service for games called OnLive. Despite not having the fastest internet connection in the west, I’ve signed up and had a go and it works. The service is the first true cloud based game service, or interactive video service come to that. The set up allows for a very simply client that sends back game control messages to the servers, the servers looks after the interface and runs the game and streams the video and sound back to the client. As that client only needs to send what’s happening with the controls and decode a video stream (720p), that’s it. This means that OnLive can provide a £69 ‘console’ for TVs and run the client on PCs and mobile devices. So given enough bandwidth to your low end device you can run any game in HD as if it’s running on a high end PC. All scaling and updating of hardware is server side which radically changes the proposition to customers.

Where this could really change things is if this technology goes beyond the world of games. I work in the world of TV service and have worked on the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) and general interfaces for three different services, two already available and one that will be available outside of the UK and possibly here as well. At the time of writing I’m working for Sky. In all those platforms, even ambitious future platforms, the propositions resolve around what the hardware can do. Provisioning hardware is a very costly exercise that is mostly driven by new subscribers and then upgraders. In the mobile world there is a natural cycle that leads to the users that spend the most money upgrading their phones on a regular basis. In the world of TV set top boxes thing are more stagnant and this leads to a wide range of boxes out there with customers, all capable of various degrees of interface delivery. So unless there is a major refresh the interfaces tend to stay fairly static and text based, not televisual at all. Even new offerings such as the recent Virgin Media TiVo launch are still using very flat page after page style delivery that hasn’t changed in years. We are bound by our hardware it appears.

So as soon as you remove the restraints of a set top box on the interface and make it a matter of throw centrally located server power at it, well, if you can run the latest PC/Console game then running a 3D rendered interface with televisual (there’s that word again) effects should be a easy. It does put more challenge on the UX and interface developers, but it’s a challenge that is no longer limited by legacy hardware and the box cost. Updating the TV experience becomes more akin to updating a website and growing the user base means growing your server farm. The cloud could change the nature of TV interfaces, bandwidth allowing.

Update May 2014

Onlive laid off all it's staff in August 2012, roughly a year after I wrote this. It was turned into a new company that, quite frankly, turned what was a promising and clear proposition into something that is a mess in terms of interface and in terms of proposition. Cloud services are confusing and getting them right means keeping them simple like Dropbox, not opaque and multilayered like iCloud.

Meanwhile the idea of games and TV in the cloud has far from gone away but has been embraced. Playstation Now has brought Playstation games stream to consoles and some of their TVs and cloud based TV is being explored my many different companies, each with their balance of what lives at the users end and what lives at the cloud end.

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