Stadia: Google’s bet on the future of the internet
Let’s talk physics for a bit. The maximum theoretical velocity that anything can reach is the speed of light, which is about 300,000 km/s (about 186,000 miles per second). Consequently, for any two points on the surface of the planet, the minimum internet latency between them is of about 6.66 miliseconds per thousand kilometers (that is, for sending a data packet and receiving it again). For the maximum distance between any two points on the surface of the planet (20,000 km), the latency is of 133.33 ms.
Not bad, right? Of course, those are best case estimates. It is taking into account only the time the data spends inside the optical fiber cable (both for going and for returning). There is also hardware and software latency to be considered, although they don’t really add much to it themselves.
The point is: optical fiber is pretty fast. It is almost as fast as hardware tends to be, depending on how close the server you are pointing to is.
If you are used to playing multiplayer games online you are probably calling your ISP right now to get you some optical fiber internet (if you don’t have it already). High latency is the bane of any online gamer because quick reflexes are always important, and latency as low as 100 ms can be the difference between life and death for professional players.
But what if we went farther? What if we put the entire game in a server a played it remotely?
Streaming Media Enter Google Stadia
That is exactly what Google is aiming to do with its platform Stadia. Instead of upgrading your PC every few years and downloading and storing hundreds of gigabytes of games, you just pick your game and immediately start playing it, anywhere, using any computer. Or even your phone. It features even the latest releases, like the fabled Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
Can it work? Can “game streaming” give the same experience as playing the game on your own computer?
Theoretically? Yes. The calculations above prove that. Google didn’t make the platform available for every country as their servers need to be physically close to their users to minimize latency. And that is a rather expensive investment, as each game by itself can use a lot of processing power. Latencies below 100 ms are pretty much unnoticeable to the casual player.
In practice? Well, a quick Google search can show you how it turned out. Latency is the biggest problem the platform currently faces, because not every household has access to optical fiber internet, and because both the user and the server can experience problems which lead to higher latency, such as high use of RAM, the servers being overloaded, poor Wi-Fi connection quality, among other things.
So why is Google investing on it right now?
First, because it can. Google has tons of money sitting around which could be better off used to make more money. As they already invest a lot of it for short-term returns (improving infrastructure, creating new productivity apps, adding functionality, improving Android, that kind of stuff), they also use some of it for more experimental projects aiming for long-term returns (remember Google Glass?).
Second, because the web is their expertise. Stadia is a web app, designed to run inside Chrome, and the games run on remote servers and are “live streamed” to the user, like a YouTube live stream. They just patched up a lot of the things they were already used to to create something new. They are still well into their comfort zone.
Third, because Google also invests on internet infrastructure, mainly with Google Fiber. So not only are they working on improving Stadia, they are also working on the internet infrastructure that will make it truly viable in the near future. And, of course, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find out that Google Fiber connections are optimized for Google services, as Google tends to do, meaning it could be even better for Stadia users.
So yeah, chances are Stadia will really be very viable in the near future, because Google will make it work. It is a long-term investment, but being a pioneer has its advantages. Stadia may very well become the next Steam.