Delivering the Next Level of Web Experiences

For years, Adobe’s Flash, the rapid-prototyping tool turned robust internet development platform…

…has been the premier language for delivering immersive experiences through the web browser.  As the capabilities of Flash (and computing in general) increase, users are raising the bar on designers and demanding more exciting and visceral experiences.  For now, the limitations of the browser, user hardware and available bandwidth have been the weakest links in the computational chain, forcing designers to curtail their designs and developers to spend hours carefully optimizing their code.

Step into the cloud

For years, futurists have boldly predicted that the future of computing would eventually shift from the desktop into the “cloud,” the amorphous world of networked computing.  The boxes on our desks would be “dumb” terminals while all serious processing would be done remotely on server farms.  Industry analysts pointed to online applications like Gmail and Google Docs as the beginning of this trend.  Truthfully, as useful as Gmail or Google Docs are, the computing power of these applications is still handled locally.  Yes, Google hosts the application and related files on its server, but the typing and spell checking occur on my processor.

OnLive, an innovative new “cloud gaming service” unveiled at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), aims to change all that.  OnLive promises the ability to deliver state of the art gaming experiences on even low-end consumer hardware.  The on-the-fly rendering and serious number crunching occurs on OnLive’s server farm.  The user’s computer only needs to decode a high-resolution video stream and feed user input back to the OnLive – no need for a high end graphics card and over-clocked CPU.

Obviously, for the experience to remain seamless, users will need to see the results of their input reflected instantly.  To address this, OnLive claims to have developed a technique that reduces latency to just 1ms.  Amazing.  The service will run at Wii-level resolution with a 1.5 Mbps broadband connection, which, according to the company, 70% of US households already have.  Full 720p resolution requires a 3-5 Mbps feed, owned by a more modest 20% of Americans.

What this means for the Web

Though OnLive is designed to run through a browser plug-in and uses a proprietary system, I predict that it’s only a matter of time before we see a similar development platform that can handle a similar feat via the browser.  By freeing the end hardware of the actual processing, designers will be able to create experiences that truly push the limits of computing, confident that every user will be able to receive the experience they had in mind. I’m looking forward to seeing what our team over here will do with this opportunity.

Upgrades to mobile broadband could bring this experience to mobile handsets.  Imagine an iPhone that can harness the computing power necessary to play Crysis.

With this kind of hardware reliably at our fingertips, we’ll experience an unprecedented level of immersive experience directly within the browser.

It’s a good day to be a developer.