It might sound a lot like the secret weapon from a straight-to-DVD action movie but Microsoft’s Project xCloud game-streaming tech could have a pretty major impact on your future commute.
But what exactly is it and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know.
1. It streams games to your phone
Or your tablet, or “another connected device” as Microsoft puts it. Presumably that means laptops and PCs, but could eventually include TVs and other streaming kit.
All the heavy lifting that your Xbox One would normally do is dealt with by specially designed blades that sit inside data centres in 54 Azure regions around the world. That means Microsoft has the potential to make Project xCloud available in 140 countries.
Microsoft’s demo showed Forza Horizon 4 being played on an unnamed Android phone using a standard Xbox controller paired over Bluetooth, although you will be able to play using onscreen touch controls as well.
It looks pretty seamless, and you can see it for yourself in the video above, but playing over a sturdy Wi-Fi connection in a controlled studio environment is one thing. Getting the same experience out in the wild is a very different kettle of fish.
2. You’ll need a pretty solid signal
Anyone who’s ever tried to stream a football match on a train will know how inconsistent it can be. One minute your team’s on a flowing counter-attack and the next things have juddered to a halt on the edge of the box. By the time the picture has caught up with the signal the ball’s up the other end of the pitch and in the back of your own net. Now imagine that when you’re in control of the players.
Streaming video is one thing, but streaming games is quite another. The big enemy is latency: the time it takes for the game to register your button presses. If that’s not instantaneous it quickly becomes unplayable, particularly anything involving multiplayer.
Microsoft’s data centres keep this to a minimum but that makes no difference if the phone you’re trying to play on can barely open a webpage. 5G can’t come soon enough.
3. It’s not meant to replace consoles
When the PS4 and Xbox One launched back in 2013 many predicted it’d be the last physical gaming hardware we’d ever see. But here we are six years later and both have been updated with newer, more powerful models.
Microsoft says Project xCloud isn’t designed to replace its console but to complement it. Playing on your phone will never beat sitting in front of a 65in 4K TV with the surround-sound booming, but people don’t like it when you set all that stuff up on the bus.
4. Microsoft isn’t the only one doing it
Project xCloud is by no means the first of its type. In fact, if you go all the way back to 2010 a service called OnLive was launched, offering a monthly subscription service that allowed you to stream a whole catalogue of games to a range of devices, including a tiny set-top box (pictured).
It’s fair to say OnLive was ahead of its time, although with a bigger name behind it things could’ve been different. In fact, Sony bought the patents and, combined with the tech it bought with Gaikai (an OnLive competitor) launched PlayStation Now.
It’s also fair to say that hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm either, but with Google rumoured to be launching a similar service at GDC, Amazon also showing interest in expanding its involvement in gaming, and 5G on the verge of becoming a reality, it feels like we’re much closer to being ready for this kind of tech than ever before.
5. Public trials start later this year
There’s no exact date set for it but Microsoft has promised to get regular punters involved in real-world streaming trials later in the year. That suggests Project xCloud (or whatever it ends up being called) won’t be ready for the mainstream until 2020, but that just means more time for 5G to get up and running.
It also leaves plenty of time to get some more Fortnite practice in. It’s all very well being rubbish in the privacy of your own home but you don’t want to be seen being owned that badly in public, do you?