Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Playing games in the cloud - NVIDIA's GeForce GRID strategy

NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang introduces cloud-based applications
for the Kepler GPU at the 2012 GPU Technology Conference

Have you ever been relaxing at home, and thought, "I wish I could just turn on my TV and play the latest first-person shooter video game?"  Most likely, if you are a serious gamer, you already have the over-clocked PC or game console to support your hobby. But, what if that game was available "in the cloud", in the form of a Game-on-Demand (GoD?). Would that influence an average consumer to choose a game rather than cable or satellite TV, DVR, streaming Video-on-Demand (VoD) service, or some other form of sit-back entertainment?

That is exactly the argument that NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang has been making recently, while introducing GeForce GRID, first - at the company's GPU Tech Conference (GTC) on May 15th, and more recently - at NVIDIA's 2012 Investor Meeting, on May 24th. GeForce GRID is NVIDIA's future-looking strategy to grow their GPU market into servers for online gaming, along with partners GAIKAI, G-cluster, Playcast, OTOY, and Ubitus.

Cloud-gaming is but one of NVIDIA's targets for their cloud-enabled Kepler GPU. Virtualizing a GPU to accompany an application like the Citrix XenDesktop, to enhance hardware-independence for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Information Technology (IT) in the enterprise, is both a more practical and more near-term achievable objective.
"Just as other mediums... when it becomes more convenient, that medium becomes more accessed." (NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang at GTC-2012)
Nevertheless, Huang pointed to convenience as the factor which will drive demand for online gaming, to both the GTC crowd of GPU enthusiasts, and the audience of analysts at the annual Investor Meeting. To accept the logic, one must buy into the notion that, just as premium video services dwarf revenues for movies on DVD/Blu-ray discs, game services could multiply revenues associated with game media.

To the investors, Huang said the goal was to "do for games what cable-TV did for videos." For the more conservative financial community, he added the caveat that GeForce GRID was for a "certain class of games", and not for enthusiasts. At the preceding GTC however, accompanied by GAIKAI CEO David Perry, the tone was much more aggressive. Perry said the founding of his company was driven by a jealousy for the pervasiveness of the music and movie entertainment industry, and that his vision was to get "the best games that the game industry can really make in front of that massive  audience". (See embedded video below, starting at ~6:30).

The GAIKAI and GeForce GRID vision appears to be a bit of "build it and they will come", in the hope that installing Kepler GPU-equipped servers at the Internet Edge will provide a platform that lures more people to gaming as an entertainment alternative. Architecturally, the concept is identical to that employed by companies such as Akamai, in their EdgePlatform for Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). As a business model, the challenges are much different. 

When EE Daily News presented The GeForce GRID/GAIKAI idea to an attendee at the Android Developer Conference AnDevCon III, held the same week as GTC, his first reaction was astutely -  "What about data plans"?  In NVIDIA's virtualized Kepler GPU concept, graphics are streamed as H.264 compressed video to any compatible display, conceivably anywhere in the world. For a subscriber to cable-TV and Internet service, online gaming could be part of a tiered service package, or it could be just another Over The Top (OTT) service offered by a third-party provider. The latter is the business model for GAIKAI and competitor OnLive. At just one hour of game play per day, equivalent to streaming ~15 movies per month, playing on the GeForce GRID would easily exceed the 250GB cap on Comcast's broadband service.

NVIDIA's strategy, however, is to enable game play on any device anywhere, including tablets, and smartphones. With unlimited mobile data plans rapidly approaching extinction, the notion that virtualized GPUs will attract Angry Birds users to more serious gaming, is up against some difficult economic realities.

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