It has long been known that Microsoft was working on an Azure-powered Xbox streaming platform. At E3 this year, the project was confirmed, with a promise of further details to come. Following Google's Project Stream going into beta last week, Microsoft has made good on that promise, with new details released this week.
The project is currently known as Project xCloud, likely a combination of Xbox and Azure Cloud, being as those are the platforms being combined to make it possible. The project represents the next generation of Microsoft's Play Anywhere initiative, which brought Xbox games to PC, and vice versa. That feature required a game to be built using Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform, which is a platform designed to allow software to run on a variety of devices, including PC, Xbox, Hololens, embedded systems (like an arcade cabinet), and more, or have a special relationship with Microsoft. UWP has its limitations, though, and has not gotten complete buy-in, which has meant that the catalog is not huge.
The thing that makes Project xCloud a step forward is the fact that developers need to do absolutely nothing special to make their games compatible with the platform. Any game that can run on the Xbox One can be streamed to devices. That means that the catalog at launch could be massive: far larger than any other game streaming platform.
Another thing that sets Project xCloud apart is the platforms that it will support. In essence, if the device can pair a Bluetooth Xbox controller, it is likely going to be able to stream games. Microsoft is also testing touch input, so that could expand the lineup of devices. This means that nearly any phone or tablet, provided it has enough resources, will be able to play any of the games. This is because of the way game streaming works: the game does not actually run and render on the device but instead is run and rendered on a server, and only the video is streamed to the device. This has been a technological concern for other companies that have tried it, but Microsoft has ideas to overcome the downfalls.
Developers and researchers at Microsoft Research are creating ways to combat latency through advances in networking topology, and video encoding and decoding. Project xCloud will have the capability to make game streaming possible on 4G networks and will dynamically scale to push against the outer limits of what's possible on 5G networks as they roll out globally. Currently, the test experience is running at 10 megabits per second. Our goal is to deliver high-quality experiences at the lowest possible bitrate that work across the widest possible networks, taking into consideration the uniqueness of every device and network.
Being as Microsoft has Azure datacenters across the globe, they might be the first company that can actually overcome the biggest issue: latency. Pressing a button on your controller and having to wait an extended period of time to see a result prevents quick action gaming, which is required for most big titles. The fact that they are already working to eliminate the problem on only a 10Mbps connection (just barely above 1 MB per second) is impressive.
Microsoft will begin public trials of the technology in 2019, testing capabilities, stress and more. As the tests get closer, we will make sure to keep you updated on the development.