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. It won't just work with Xbox controllers
In its current testing phase, xCloud works with the standard Xbox One controller and runs on Android devices.
Microsoft has announced that this will change when the service launches properly next year, though. Windows 10 PCs will naturally be supported, with plans to bring iOS on board too. And perhaps more surprisingly, Sony's DualShock 4 pad will be compatible, as well as controllers from Razer. Flexibility is a big selling point for Google Stadia, and Microsoft is clearly keen to ensure that xCloud has the same appeal.
5. It has more games than Stadia
While Microsoft is yet to announce when exactly Stadia will launch in 2020, its beta testers now have access to 50 new titles, including Madden NFL 20, Devil May Cry 5 and Tekken 7. Stadia launches on November 19 and will offer just 12 games to day one users.
Even bigger news is that Game Pass subscribers will be able to stream titles over xCloud too, which would make an already excellent service even more tempting.