IEEE member Steve Perlman’s inventions include QuickTime, WebTV, and the Mova Contour facial capture system, which made Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button character so lifelike that the movie won the 2009 Oscar for visual effects. Perlman’s latest creation is OnLive, a cloud gaming service due out in the United States and Canada in the fourth quarter of 2009 and elsewhere later on. Announced at the Game Developers Conference, held 23 to 27 March in San Francisco, OnLive has already generated a lot of buzz—and skepticism—about its ability to change the gaming industry. Perlman, OnLive’s CEO, spoke with Anna Bogdanowicz on 2 April 2009 about the origins of OnLive, how console makers will have to respond, and how Internet Protocol telephony—of all things—made cloud gaming possible.
IEEE Spectrum: How does OnLive work?
Steve Perlman: The games run on high-performance servers in our five service centers in the United States. If you have a PC or Mac, you download a 1-megabyte plug-in from OnLive.com to your browser, and if you want to play on your TV, we provide you with a Microconsole. Then you hook up your PC, Mac, or Microconsole to your DSL cable modem, or fiber-to-the-home connection, and you can play all the games you want. When you hit a button on the controller or on your mouse, that message gets sent up to the server that’s playing your game in our service center. The game calculates the next frame, and then, using a proprietary compression technology we developed, it compresses the video and sends it immediately through the Internet. It appears on your screen so rapidly that perceptually it appears that the game is running locally.
Spectrum: What are the requirements to use OnLive?
SP: Any Intel-based Mac and pretty much any PC running XP or Vista will run our client—it’s not very demanding. All you need is a broadband connection. There’s no GPU needed; we’re only using the CPU for the decompression. So even if you have a very-low-performance computer, you can go for it.
Spectrum: How did you develop OnLive?
SP: My idea for OnLive came in 2002. It grew out of my realization that the amount of computing power that was going to be needed to achieve the level of realism video games were approaching would soon be impractical for a device you hook up to your TV in the living room. I began to realize, Gee, these boxes are getting bigger and bigger.
One of the things about being an engineer is that you like Moore’s Law. Given the growth of some sort of demand—in this case computer graphics demand—you just project what size silicon is needed and how much power and cooling will be needed. If you follow that, you realize that what would be needed for the new games coming out would outstrip the pace of what could be developed in a home setting.
We developed the facial capture technology, for example, for photorealistic humans, so I knew exactly what kind of level of computing power was going to be needed for that. I also knew that by the end of this decade we are going to see games with photorealistic humans. To run those kinds of graphics at home, the console would have to be a huge monster box that would have big fans in it and cost [US] $1000, and no one’s going to buy it. So I said, ”If I can’t put computing power in the home, where can I put it?” The answer had to be the cloud.
I had been thinking of online games for a long time. Back in 1982, I worked for Atari as a summer intern, and I proposed something to them, which they thought was a pretty dumb idea at the time. It was called AtariNet, and it would have allowed kids to play against one another over a phone line. They were not really impressed. They said, ”People want to play games by themselves; they don’t want to tie up their phone lines.” So this is something that’s been a longtime dream for me.