True-to-life worlds, sensory-rich feedback, and the end of lag. From edge computing to faster-than-ever response times, 5G is coming for the gaming experience — and it’s going to be better than ever.

With more than 2.69 billion players in the world, video games have climbed the charts as one of the most popular ways we spend our time. As the most convenient platform for on-the-go users, mobile gaming has entered the stage as the industry’s rising star, with more than 209 million mobile gamers in the US alone. Despite its popularity, gaming’s got a lot more potential to be realized. Here’s how.

Gaming on the edge

Today, most game processing is done locally on devices. While it’s possible to allow some processing to be done on a cloud server — where a device can send data to be processed and then returned — these servers are usually faraway in large data centers, which means the time it takes for the data to return will ultimately degrade the gaming experience.

Mobile edge computing, on the other hand, relies on several small data hubs that are deployed in closer physical proximity instead of one large faraway server. It allows you to save processing power on your device for a better, faster gaming experience because the device won’t have to send data to a central server, process it, and then return the information,

“You can offload the processing of your devices into the network while also improving the experience of the game,” says Carlos Bravo, our Ericsson Director of Cloud Strategy Execution. “Before edge computing, you had to send a lot of information between the players to make sure everything fit well together. This put high demands on the device processors and batteries. Edge servers can be dimensioned in a better, more efficient way, generating a synchronized gaming experience in the cloud. You won’t feel any lag as you’re moving around, which is critical for a good gaming experience, and you won’t have to be hooked into a Wi-Fi network.”

Or, as Tommy Palm, founder and CEO of Resolution Games (a Swedish developer specializing in VR and AR games), puts it: “With 5G, we’re heading into a future where we will be able to do a lot of cloud-based gaming, where the processing power isn’t necessarily on your phone, but it’s on a server somewhere. If you have cloud-based gaming, you can run all the calculations on the same machine, and you don’t need to synchronize a lot [of individual players’ phones]. This opens up [the possibility] for games that we could only dream of, where you have fully destructive worlds, for instance.”

A better augmented reality

5G (together with edge) could also help AR games live up to their potential, going well beyond the limitations posed by the available technology.

As an example of the current situation, think Pokémon Go, where images of game characters are merely overlaid onto feeds of the real world using mobile phone cameras — an experience made even less appealing by the toll it takes on battery life. It’s precisely these kinds of limitations that prompt many mobile phone users to simply shut off their AR functionalities altogether.

Paired with edge computing, 5G will effectively fix these issues, and games will do most of their processing on the edge without people even realizing it.

AR devices also tend to require a huge amount of processing for object recognition, among other things, and in location-based AR games (where multiple people play the same game in the same place), the same data has to be individually processed on each device. But with edge processing, this redundancy can be removed, allowing certain data to be processed just once before streaming the results to multiple users. As a whole, this will bring a more enjoyable and accurate AR experience, enhancing the mobile AR gaming experience and improving battery life.

These advances in cloud and edge computing will decrease the need for high-end devices in order to play high-quality, collaborative games, removing an entry barrier to gaming and increasing the number of people who can access the enjoyment of gaming from our everyday devices.

Gaming communities and 5G

Today’s gaming communities include more than just the players — esports, for example, has largely become a spectator sport – and 5G can help improve the audience experience by providing high-definition video streaming on the go and in real time. If done properly, it is possible for the audience to follow multiple players across multiple screens, some powered by different providers, and all without lag.

In fact, 5G already made its first grand appearance for professional gamers during 2019’s Milan Games week, successfully supporting the finals of the first live mobile gaming tournament on Vodafone Italy’s 5G network.

“If you take Fortnite or Call of Duty, the latest versions are free to download and free to play, but then it’s all about having as many players as possible. Smartphones, in sheer numbers, are probably the broadest platform developers can find,” says Greger Blennerud, Head of Marketing, Mobile Broadband here at Ericsson. “The challenge there is, of course … the network quality. I think the key characteristics of 5G that really make it relevant are the bandwidth and the low latency that we’re getting. Gaming [is] maybe one of the most obvious beneficiaries of 5G.”

Wearable game devices

From headsets and glasses to vests and gloves, a new sensory frontier is ahead of us in the gaming world, promising spine-tingling realism and — most importantly — fun. Future games will incorporate lifelike haptic feedback in virtual worlds, giving us the same physical rush as real-world motions and sensations. To achieve this, wearables should be built on similar architecture and utilize the same development tools as mobile phones, allowing them to similarly benefit from cloud computing and network features.

“When it comes to successful headsets, they’re going to be built on mobile technology,” Palm continues. “But a consumer is never going to know that unless they’re very interested in what is powering them. We’ve released two proper games on the Magic Leap, which is an AR headset. Both that and Oculus Quest for VR are actually running kind of mobile phone technology in the background, and they’re building on that type of hardware. They’re very similarly performing devices, whether it’s a mobile phone or a next-generation headset.”

Towards the future

Ultimately, we want this experience to be seamless for everyone. Game providers should be able to utilize network features without concern of what specific network is being used and users should be able to play games without too much concern of their specific hardware There are, several challenges that need to be addressed to accomplish this.

Game designers will have to figure out which part of the processing should be done remotely, which part should be done locally, and how to effectively balance this out to achieve the best possible experience. We also have to understand tradeoffs and when to apply them. Ideally, everyone would have the right amount of bandwidth and latency for the game they want to play. But what happens when a spike in online players occurs? Should we sacrifice high frame rates for resolution? Or should we preprocess based on all possible outcomes beforehand, utilizing more central processing unit (CPU) power to preserve quality?

Game designers are also in for a whole new level of integration with networks. They may need to inform a network of a person’s bandwidth demands beforehand or ask the network how the user’s bandwidth is going to be for the next five minutes, then adapt the game accordingly. For example, if someone is going into a tunnel for 30 seconds, the game may choose to preload some objects or reuse existing local objects without changes to the gaming experience.  Such network APIs will have to be built not only with user experience in mind, but also considering the developer experience of those using the APIs.

Some considerations depend on the genre of the game. First-person shooters, for example, may be more demanding in terms of video quality than strategy games, while arcade games may be more sensitive to latency. And then there is the question of mobility. If we know people are playing online games in their autonomous vehicles on the way to work, should we sacrifice arrival time for better playing quality during their journeys?

Interactions of the future will incorporate more senses than just vision and hearing too. The Internet of Senses applied to gaming will bring haptics, spatial audio and smell to the forefront. All of these will be communicated over networks, which will present a few exciting challenges in understanding human factors, including the strengths and limitations of our senses. Research into ergonomics, cognitive psychology, kinesiology, and human-computer interaction will play an important part in ensuring we understand people — especially gamers — before committing to technical designs.

When it comes to providing great experiences with these new interactions, the role of the network is evolving, and in turn, our work is evolving with it. My team’s charter is to investigate the impact of interactions on the network, and the impact of the network on interactions. There are many people working hard with domain experts and industry leaders to realize not only what it means to build these networks alongside developing technologies, but to understand what it means to provide a truly great experience for end users and developers.

We’re here to bring tomorrow’s gaming experience to more people today.


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