This week Facebook announced the launch of cloud-streamed games from Facebook Gaming. These are games which are rendered in the cloud and then streamed to your computer. Cloud-based gaming has been seen by the industry at large as a way to make games more widely accessible by making them playable on less powerful hardware. Facebook is also betting that one day they’ll be able to do the same for VR.
Facebook Gaming’s new cloud streaming functionality doesn’t support VR today, but it’s clear that the company is eyeing it up as part of its roadmap.
Not only is the company’s just-launched cloud streaming service headed by Jason Rubin, a former Oculus executive, but VR cloud streaming is being talked about at the highest levels of the company.
Responding to a question during Facebook’s most recent quarterly earnings call this week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the intersection of Facebook’s cloud gaming and VR initiatives:
“Over the longer term, I think the VR piece will obviously come into [our gaming strategy] as well. Some of the cloud gaming stuff that we’re doing will, of course, be useful for VR as well, and we’re building a big community around that on Oculus. But [our cloud gaming service]… I do think will be a very exciting growth opportunity and ability to offer a lot of innovation over the coming years,” Zuckerberg said.
Jason Rubin, the former Oculus executive turned ‘VP of Play’ at Facebook, laid out the company’s cloud-gaming vision this week, opening with a not-so-secretive jab at Google’s cloud streaming service, Stadia:
We believe in the long-term future of cloud gaming, but we aren’t going to try to wow you with the wonders of our data centers, compression algorithms, resolutions, or frames per second. Cloud game streaming for the masses still has a way to go, and it’s important to embrace both the advantages and the reality of the technology rather than try to oversell where it’ll be in the future.
Rubin also touched on the reality of game streaming latency as it stands today, knowing that competitive and VR games share exceptionally demanding latency requirements which the service isn’t ready to handle just yet.
It’s critical for us to start with latency-tolerant games so we can deliver a good experience for players across a variety of devices. For the purposes of our beta, that includes genres like sports, card, simulation, and strategy games. This is cloud gaming after all, so even with latency-tolerant games players may notice some glitches. […]
As our beta progresses and cloud technology scales, we’ll increase the variety of game genres. That expansion will start in 2021 with the addition of action and adventure games.
Though Rubin doesn’t mention VR in the Facebook cloud gaming announcement, he explicitly addressed the it in an interview with Protocol earlier this year:
I can tell you this: Nobody is banking on cloud processing making standalone VR headsets viable. We have to make them viable with the chipsets that are in them. But in the long run, cloud solves a lot of problems because it most effectively puts the processing power where it’s needed. Now there’s latency issues, resolution issues, frame rate issues, tons of issues. And it’s a hell of a lot more uncomfortable when it’s a frame that’s right in front of your face than it is when you miss a frame on a TV that’s across the room. So all of these things have to be solved, but no one thinks it’s impossible. It’s a hypothetical that can be done but it’s not coming anytime soon. It is very, very complicated.
Elsewhere he added, “ultimately we’ll throw those processors in a server farm somewhere and stream to your headset. And a lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh my god, that’s a million years away.’ It’s not a million. It’s not five. It’s somewhere between.”
So while we don’t expect that the company will be rolling out VR game streaming in the immediate future, the Facebook is actively positioning itself to be offer the service further down the road.
As the only company in the consumer space with a complete tech stack for VR cloud streaming, the strategy seems sound. While other companies like Amazon, Google, NVIDIA, and Microsoft are building out their own cloud game streaming services, none of them have both a standalone VR headset and a major VR ecosystem for a complete end-to-end solution.