At this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) it seemed every mobile network operator on the planet was hocking the next hotness in data connectivity, the magical alphanumeric ‘5G’. It’s true 5G is slated to make way for plenty of changes in how users consume mobile content thanks to a dramatic increase in bandwidth and lowered latency, but if you’re salivating over the possibilities for what that means for VR gaming in the near future, you may want to step back a bit.

Cloud gaming isn’t a new concept, at least in the world of traditional flatscreen games. Nvidia has GeForce Now, Sony has PlayStation Now, and both Google & Microsoft have their own future cloud gaming projects in the work too. While the infrastructure around gaming-focused edge computing is still very much in its early stages, requiring companies to maintain servers as close to the end-user as humanly possible, the hypothetical benefit to gamers is obvious. Extremely low-powered computers can stream games only previously available on the best of the best rigs.

Mobile network operators like Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Vodafone and many others are signing on to paint the world with 5G starting this year. An increasing number of users will soon have access to data faster than even at-home fiber optic cables can provide, making the migration from wired to wireless almost a forgone conclusion in the minds of many. To wit, some of these companies publicly showed off VR cloud gaming actually working for the first time—one of the most difficult problems due to the inherent need to keep VR games chugging at or below the 20ms latency threshold, which is considered the bare minimum before users notice anything.

Stepping into Ericsson’s enormous MWC booth, second only to Huawei at over 6,000 mt² (~65,000 ft²), I cautiously ambled over to an abandoned station outfitted with a Vive Pro and Vive Wireless Adapter. The booth attendant claimed the “mixed reality” Batman experience, which was built in partnership by AT&T, Ericsson, Warner Bros. and Intel, was delivering a total latency between 4 – 6 ms through their mock-up 5G network. That’s basically the bare minimum you can expect, so I was excited to pop in and see for myself.

Image courtesy Ericsson

Although the real-time rendered experience didn’t suffer any discernible latency, it was an absolute failure at demonstrating why VR users want cloud gaming in the first place. In short: it was hot garbage.

With video from Vive Pro’s passthrough cameras placed as a backdrop behind my head (that’s totally “mixed reality,” right?), essentially what I experienced was a 180-degree mess. I was treated to extremely low poly graphics that looked about on par with what can be accomplished on a mobile VR headset like Gear VR or Oculus Go. Adding insult to injury, the two-minute experience, which featured Batman stopping the Scarecrow from—no joke—using 5G for evil, was presented to me in 3DOF and not in the full positional tracking Vive Pro was capable of. I was also told there was an interactive bit using a single Vive controller, but the booth attendants removed it because “nobody understood what to do.”

After seeing it in 3DOF and without any level of interactivity, I was pretty skeptical whether it was actually real-time rendered experience or just a 180-degree stereoscopic video. I was assured it all real-time.

Image courtesy Ericsson

I imagine this was done for the singular reason of showing the setup’s lowest possible latency. It’s not an unsubstantial achievement from a technical aspect either, but low latency is as good as useless if this is the sort of toothless VR content AT&T, Intel, Ericsson and Warner Bros. thinks will fit into a real-world use case. Cutting literally every possible corner on content to get latency down to something you can proudly advertise as ostensibly solved borders on willful deception.

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There was a company at MWC pushing a more realistic version of VR cloud gaming though, warts and all. Two days earlier I got a chance to visit HTC’s booth where they were showing a similar setup streaming Superhot VR (2017) to a Vive Focus Plus over a mock-up 5G network. Although the implementation was far from perfect, it at least showed real SteamVR content running in the cloud, and delivered in 6DOF like you’d expect.

Image courtesy HTC

HTC’s streaming latency was well above 20ms, and it seemed to be heavily relying on time warp to keep things smooth. To me, it further drives home the fact that even in controlled environments with purpose-built networks completely dedicated to the task of remotely rendering VR games, there’s still a long way to go before we get plug-and-play VR cloud gaming.

While Ericsson’s demo failed to accurately sell the core idea behind the technology, it did manage to unwittingly reveal that VR cloud gaming is going to be an extreme balancing act when it comes at some point in the future.

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  • NooYawker

    In the early days when people referred to the internet as the information super highway, companies were investing 100’s of millions to small internet startups claiming they were going to replace network and cable TV. Today, decades later we finally see it starting to happen.

    While cloud gaming is probably a lot closer I still see a parallel here.

  • Duane Aakre

    I think you have it completely wrong. The issue is not latency. The issue is the telecoms’ desire to maintain ridiculous data caps. If you have anything beyond low-poly graphics, you will blow through your 10 Gb monthly data cap in minutes.

    Seriously, I haven’t seen ANY discussion of how data caps will be revised for the upcoming 5G system. My current home cable internet is truly unlimited. If their 5G systems are anything less, it is a ‘no sale’ for me regardless of its theoretical speed advantages.

    • Ninja

      The whole point of cloud gaming is to avoid sending any of the actual game data to the user, thus avoiding any need for the headset to render anything or do logic other than processing the video and sending positional tracking data back. So poly counts and quality don’t matter once the data leaves the host computers and the size of the data should be the same for the user no matter the quality (except for the video). It just seems they made a bad experience whatever the reason, and the fact that it’s low poly might just be adding confusion here. Not sure who made the actual experience but if they make mobile games regularly they would have an established low-poly pipeline, and probably can create assets very quickly. Just speculation of course. The dev also could have been limited by the time-frame for the show or the fact that the tech is undergoing core iterations.

      • Moe Curley

        How do they determine hits? Seems like this would create laggy deaths?

  • brandon9271

    I wish they’d stop trying to make cloud gaming a “thing.” It’s not going to happen.. not unless we can harness quantum entanglement or bend space time. In-home streaming is crap and it’s a best case scenario. Just stop

    • crim3

      That’s it. We are presented wireless VR as a technological challenge but at the same time want to convince us that VR can be streamed through internet connections?

      • Jorge Gustavo

        True, this doesn’t make any sense.

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  • I can’t imagine that it’s easy to do, or that it will work with “small upgrades” to our existing infrastructure. This is a long-term thing and will require ALOT of work and many years to be ubiquitous. But this is the future of mobile VR and AR systems.

    Moore’s Law hasn’t been a thing in a decade. CPU’s are only marginally getting more power over time, not the leaps and bounds they were at one point. We’re reaching the limits of what silicon can do, it’s down to just a few atoms per wire. It’s only through streaming that super-lightweight headsets and glasses will be possible. This is doubly important for AR, which will really require nearly invisible tech before it’s mainstream.

    For tethered VR, fed off gaming consoles and home computers, 5G will mean little. But for those mobile systems, this is what will be needed to feed them.

  • Baldrickk

    Not to forget that the “cloud” (server) that should be somewhere on the internet is going to be local and probably just utilising a point to point 5G link as opposed to simulating the full network that you would get by going internet?

    I’m keeping my local gaming PC, thanks.

  • HYZENBORG Hyzenborg

    I still dont trust cloud computing in general. Ive worked for a companies that have used it and seen it fail far too many times.