by Anton Shilov
05/27/2013 | 08:06 PM
Rumours that Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox One game console is up to 50% less powerful than Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 4 when it comes to graphics performance have existed for months now and Microsoft has not denied then during the official announcement of the console. Nonetheless, it looks like the company has at least one secret weapon: 300 thousand servers that will run Xbox Live and will provide additional compute power to consoles.
The world’s largest software maker will use cloud computing to assist game consoles in latency-insensitive cases while leaving processing of latency-sensitive things to local graphics and general-purpose hardware. It is hard to estimate how much additional performance Microsoft can add using cloud technologies and whether it can actually conceal the performance difference between Xbox One and PlayStation 4 using the approach, but one thing can be said for sure: it will require support by game developers as well as constant and advanced Internet connection at the gamer’s home.
"Things that I would call latency-sensitive would be reactions to animations in a shooter, reactions to hits and shots in a racing game, reactions to collisions. Those things you need to have happen immediately and on frame and in sync with your controller. There are some things in a video game world, though, that do not necessarily need to be updated every frame or don't change that much in reaction to what's going on," said Matt Booty, general manager of Redmond game studios and platforms at Microsoft, in an interview with Ars Technica web-site.
Things like physics effects modeling, fluid dynamics, lighting and cloth or hair motion are examples of effects that require a lot of compute performance that could be handled in the cloud without adding any delays to the actual gameplay. Basically, everything that does not need to be updated every frame can be processed in the cloud.
“Without getting too into the weeds, think about a lighting technique like ambient occlusion that gives you all the cracks and crevices and shadows that happen not just from direct light. There are a number of calculations that have to be done up front, and as the camera moves the effect will change. So when you walk into a room, it might be that for the first second or two the fidelity of the lighting is done by the console, but then, as the cloud catches up with that, the data comes back down to the console and you have incredibly realistic lighting,” explained Mr. Booty.
According to Mr. Booty, for every Xbox One available in one’s living room, Microsoft “will have three of those devices in the cloud available”.
"Game developers have always had to wrestle with levels of detail... managing where and when you show details is part of the art of games. One of the exciting challenges going forward is a whole new set of techniques to manage what is going to be offloaded to the cloud and what’s going to come back,” said the head of Redmond game studios and platforms.
As it appears, game developers now will not only have to be able to offload certain computations to the cloud, but keep a rendering path that can be performed only locally for the case of occasional break-down of an Internet connection. That render-path will naturally provide considerably lower image quality but will let gamers to continue playing without any web connection.
"If there’s a fast connection and if the cloud is available and if the scene allows it, you’re obviously going to capitalize on that. In the event of a drop out—and we all know that Internet can occasionally drop out, and I do say occasionally because these days it seems we depend on Internet as much as we depend on electricity – the game is going to have to intelligently handle that. […] It is a new technology and a new frontier for game design, and we’re going to see that evolve the way we’ve seen other technology evolve," concluded Mr. Booty.
Microsoft Xbox One is based on AMD Fusion custom-designed system-on-chip with eight x86 low-power/low-cost Jaguar cores, AMD Radeon HD graphics with GCN architecture (with 32MB ESRAM/EDRAM buffer) as well as 8GB of DDR3 system memory. The console features 500GB hard disk drive, Blu-ray disc drive, 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity, output of video with up to 4K resolution (3840*2160) using HDMI 1.4 as well as 7.1-channel audio. The new Xbox One comes with completely redesigned Kinect sensor that will feature 1920*1080 RGB camera, improved infrared sensor and enhanced voice controls. The console sports a number of functions, e.g. TV-cable pass-through that will seamlessly integrate it into the living room
Microsoft Xbox One is expected to hit the market in October, 2013. Pricing is not known, but it is not expected to be affordable.