Microsoft Discusses the Xbox One and Cloud Computing’s Infinite Potential

Microsoft discusses the Xbox One behind closed doors at E3. I talk to a few developers about Microsoft's cloud computing claims.

Jeff Henshaw from Microsoft’s engineering team brought me and several other journalists into a room to look at three internal prototypes that were not for distribution.

Henshaw introduces us to Frank, “a science geek,” who allegedly knows that NASA keeps its data online, showing the trajectory information for celestial bodies in a 35,000 light-year radius.

Henshaw explained Frank wrote an Xbox One “game” that allows you to navigate the entire universe and see all the asteroids, planets, and stars out in space rendered in real-time.

“We’re in a new generation of consoles and that implies, of course, more compute power,” said Henshaw, continuing, “We wanted to see what we could do with vastly more transistors than we had in the previous generation.”

Frank navigates between Jupiter and Mars. “To make this work we’re showing about, err, exactly, 40,000 asteroids,” Henshaw said. “All that calculation is happening on the Xbox One.”

According to Henshaw, this prototype is possible due to ten times the capabilities of the previous generation. “It turns out with Xbox One we have a lot of transistors in your living room, but we have way way more out in our data centers.” About 300,000 more, actually.

The cloud is doing the calculation for far more stars than could be processed locally, and all of them are moving in real-time. The system is getting about half a million updates of positional information per second, all computed in the cloud, brought locally and then rendered.

Henshaw reassures us that any processing done locally is not affected by latency, which may imply that cloud-computed processes are affected, as seen by the “chunkier” movements of some of the further-out asteroids.

It’s not just for raw compute power, says Henshaw, going on to explain:

One thing is, I can unplug this Xbox. And while the magenta stars are no longer moving because they’re being processed locally, the green ones are still running in the cloud. So my world, my game actually continues to run even when I’m not connected to it.

This allows me to build large persistent worlds that span multiple users as well as span long periods of time. And because that is running even when I’m not interacting with it, things like damage, wear, evolution of a population – birth and death rates – all that can be calculated as I’m no longer interacting with it. When I come back it’s just like I never left.

A colleague with a soft yet determined European accent asks, “If a game developer is using the cloud power and your connection is not as good as mine, how will the game showcase that?”

Henshaw rephrases the question before answering.

“Already on Xbox 360, there’s features that only work when you’ve got any connectivity at all, like online multiplayer,” Henshaw replied. “So the game developers are already trained to disable features that don’t make sense when you lose connectivity. So in the case of an absolute outage, there’s an experience that can be presented that only uses local computing.

And in terms of very low bandwidth, we give quality of service information to the game developers so they can make intelligent decisions based on where you’re at in terms of your stable position but also just in terms of your temporal experience such as someone turns on a microwave or someone starts to dl their favorite movie on some other device.”

Unfortunately, any questions asked during our session, or as far as I’ve read, any other session, regarding whether or not Microsoft’s 300,000 servers were real or virtual went unacknowledged.

Digging deeper, I talked to Scott Bromander, an interactive developer and co-president of The Nerdery, and Christopher C. Booth of Frost Technologies for further insight.

Does [cloud computing] seem like a feasible solution for
essentially unleashing infinite graphical and game-play possibilities on the Xbox One? Or is it unlikely to result in much of a noticeable change in either?

Scott Bromander: I think there is certainly some excellent opportunities that this power brings to the developer, its success will largely depend on the adoption of developers.

Currently, I can think of a couple instances of developers talking about the cloud computing capabilities of the Xbox One. The first is the game Titanfall, where in a development video, they talk about offloading the NPC AI to the cloud. Another is the Drivatar technology in Forza, where the computer learns how you drive.

Christopher Booth: The problem here is not so much the whiz bang gimmicky cloud approach taken by Microsoft but the realization by many of us that this is like a dinosaur who has discovered evolution. Gonna end poorly for ‘ole T-Rex.

Booth: You should be able to access your cloud gaming content from any device, not just the extremely nonportable Xbox.

In the world of iPhones, iPads and Android devices, the Xbox One suddenly looks quite pathetic scratching at cloud computing with its skinny little useless little T-Rex arms. Its firmly now on the wrong end of consumer discretionary spending and they are at the bottom of the bag of cheap tricks to stay relevant.

How will the lack of cloud calculations on the PS4 and Wii U affect developers decisions to use cloud calculations on their Xbox One ports but not on other systems?

Bromander: I’m not entirely convinced that at some level, each of the systems is not capable of Cloud Computing. But as you suggest, this is not about Cloud Computing, this is more about the idea of Microsoft’s 300,000.

I agree, that is some crazy powerful stuff. No one can argue that it is powerful. And while there may be other games planning to use this technology, I am sure studios are being strategic about its use.

Meaning that if those studios wanted to cross platform cost effectively, they are going to do some work at the lowest common denominator at some level. While you may change how you process graphics from system to system, switching from local processing to cloud process may require some effort.

It would be up to the studios to decide how they want to handle these changes.

Booth: Gamers today expect the gaming content that they pay for to be accessible whenever and wherever they want it. Fixed location titles are extremely expensive to produce and being published by only a handful of studios now.

The vast majority of game pubs are transitioning and adopting web and mobile based titles. Thats want gamers want and are willing to pay for.

Bromander: Also, keep in mind that Xbox One is not the first system to use this type
of technology. While Microsoft is saying it is 10 times more powerful in this regard than the Xbox 360, the key point, the idea of “Cloud Computing” is really not all that new.

Lets take a look at MMORPGs like World of Warcraft for example. NPC AI is handled server side in that case. We know this as when you attack an enemy within a group, we are all getting the same information on the enemy sent to us.

I just offer up the example to take away the ‘Newness’ of a catchy name like ‘Cloud Computing’ can bring. It idea is not new, however their (Microsoft’s) support for the console and the process of Cloud Computing is significantly improved in the new system when compared to its predecessor.

There are still things that should be handled locally on themachine and that should not change.

Bromander: But taking the business minded approach, and as a developer, I begin to think about cross platforming (like mentioned above). If you have something really awesome, and don’t have an exclusive title agreement, then why would I not go after cross platforming? Then it would probably turn into a cost/benefit analysis to develop two ways.

The reality as I see it, is that in a cross platforming situation, I may choose to release without taping into the servers’ power. This way, I can cross-platform more cost effectively, and my players can also enjoy offline play (of course, depending on the title I am developing).

Bottom line Opinion?

Bromander: Bottom line opinion, yes, it is a great opportunity and certainly a direction that future games will go down (because it just makes sense), but its actual adoption from the development community, mixed in with where and when to use it still has yet to really be explored on a console. Also, while Microsoft may have made improvements on the Concept, they certainly cannot lay claim to the concept of Cloud Computing.

Booth: Microsoft is not alone in its imminent fossilization, Hollywood too late has seen the incoming meteor that is cable cutting and the onslaught of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and YouTube. Consumers want their entertainment when they want it, where they want it and on their chosen portable device.

Bromander: I think the real conversation looks more like “Now what?” With that said, I am sure there are developers and studious already out there that are dreaming up big ideas about how to tap into this power.

What’s your take on the potential of cloud computer and how it should be utilized?

Johnny is a freelance writer whose work features on PopMatters, Critical Distance, Nightmare Mode, Writer's Weekly, GlobalPost and much, much more. Um, If his mom is reading this, he says he applied at that "one ...