How 5G could change gaming in the home

My Docsis 3.1 cable modem from Comcast’s Xfinity can deliver 400 megabits a second to my home. That’s pretty darn fast for multiplayer gaming, and I rarely have any big troubles getting online to play. But the cable lines can only send bits upstream into the network at a rate of 9 megabits a second. In a world of streaming, that’s not really going to cut it.

Maybe this is where 5G wireless networks will provide the answer. In the “last mile” connection to homes, wireless networks could provide connectivity at broadband speeds, both upstream and downstream. And that could have an impact on the kind of games we play and the network service providers that we connect to in order to play those games.

Google is likely to be a big new player in this space with its Stadia cloud gaming platform, and we’ll see whether 5G will ultimately be a factor in delivering cloud gaming. I talked with Spandan Mahapatra, global head of the business solutions unit at Tata Consultancy Services, about this possibility.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: What’s your view on how 5G is going to change gaming?

Spandan Mahapatra: If you analyze the space — call it cloud-based and on-prem-based — what enterprise customers saw in the app world, the on-prem to cloud transformation journey around SAS applications, all the elements are now right at the cusp of that level of transformation and disruption for the gaming world.

To go further, the real opportunity was not yet harnessed, primarily because of the network. I don’t think that needs explanation, about latency and all the other things around multi-user collaboration. Now, with 5G, anywhere gaming with a level of fidelity — let’s bring in that attribute. Fidelity, latency, user feedback, these three connection points with multiple geos, and also continuously learning in terms of user behavior, particularly not facing monotony.

The biggest problem with gaming is that shelf life is continuing to drop. Compared to what it was years back, now that shelf life has significantly changed. The ability to learn and apply AI in a continuous stream, looking at trends in real time, all of that is a big factor that was pretty much a fixed constraint with the network. Now, you bring in that element and 5G becomes relevant. That’s the first piece around 5G, plus the whole cloud play, which is going to significantly offer new opportunities for the old gaming business.

There’s another element that I think is also critical. Any time gaming, any place, any device, any network, that is becoming a possibility. There’s something I call socially responsible gaming. I cover the software services market as well, and all the businesses that consume software. High tech has a trust element. Everyone is trying to become a trust-based business. The gamers, the stakeholders around the gaming business — the parents, the people that are there from an education standpoint, these are all stakeholders.

Then you have enterprise businesses that are also trying to gamify application processes, so that when users — Gen Z, Gen Y, all the millennials, everyone who is accessing application platforms — expect a level of simplified user experience, frictionless transactions. It’s a blurred line between the gaming experience and the user experience.

From that perspective comes socially responsible gaming, in terms of progression of people, and also people thinking of gaming in a positive way. There are two factions there as far as people — I won’t go into a specific discussion about gaming-based addiction, but I think you understand that there is some responsibility around being socially responsible. That’s an element where 5G is also critical, because of the whole idea around slicing and the ability to control network. All of that element is now possible. That’s another opportunity where some of the players can differentiate themselves in terms of value to gamers and other social aspects, where users do not show different social behavior because of a particular affection for a particular gaming experience.

To summarize, the technology attributes around 5G — the specifications are obviously evolving, but the technology attributes around 5G will support all the cloud-based gaming players. The user experience will be much more integrated, much more context-aware. The whole mixed reality piece of it is going to be realized with 5G. And the final part of it is responsible gaming. That will be leveraged out of this.

GamesBeat: One of the challenges facing Google and its Stadia service is that it’s going to have to make this last-mile connection, from the controller in the player’s hands to the Google network. Does 5G have to play a role in that, or can that be done more simply through your cable or DSL network? Their goal is to minimize the number of hops that happen between service providers, so that they get to the Google backbone as quickly as possible. But since they’re not a last-mile service provider, at least not in a big way, I wonder how that happens.

Mahapatra: It’s a valid question. This particular area is going to be a little different. If you remember the initial wave of Netflix, that had similar challenges. It’s not like-to-like, but they had a closer challenge with their media streaming platform and the Prana architecture that they brought into play in terms of communications. Games services have a dependency on Google’s overall network, the data centers and everything else in play. But we feel that in the coming days, there will be better partnerships with some of the other players.

I’m hesitant to name a particular player. You can make your own guesses. But just like what Apple did with AT&T in the initial wave of the iPhone, there will be a more tight coupling with one or more players. Comcast Xfinity has their interaction that’s already happening in the device world. They’re becoming very software-centric now. They have an average 250Mbps across the board. There’s a potential now to form those partnerships. Google Fiber isn’t everywhere. That’s an area where they will look to partner with the service providers.

GamesBeat: For 5G and gaming in the home, do you see a broader solution? Are 5G routers going to accomplish something that we don’t have today?

Mahapatra: The whole concept of additional routing solutions, the mesh network concept, and the boost network concepts that have already been in play for traditional solutions are manifesting. All the players now are providing state of the art routers as a service model. Consumers are upgrading that service earlier. Consumers used to always buy Netgear and other routers for custom solutions at home.

If you’re tracking it, the players’ routers are being consumed by users primarily because of a very quick upgrade cycle. Also, the ability to manage the network better. The routers that are in homes today — just like you have the concept of multiple smaller devices like the digital assistants, whether it’s Alexa or Google, all of them have a federated mesh. Within the home itself, within the enterprise itself, there will be a federated router structure for different types of establishments. There will be different models in apartment communities or mid- to large-sized homes. Also, the network in the enterprise.

We’ll see a new generation of devices which will have different patterns in terms of supporting the whole supply chain. There will be no weak link that network in terms of supporting an end to end consistent experience for the users. Otherwise you’ll have, say, a 250 on-air ballpark umbrella, but you have 75 or 50 in a specific spot. You don’t want that going back and forth and becoming a customer experience issue with each user. That relates to the high fidelity that will be a challenge going forward. That’s something that’s going to manifest itself.

The CSPs will bear the burden. They’ve invested quite a lot in this in terms of the core infrastructure. As far as the last-mile infrastructure, that will be shared by the device makers, by the electronics players, and also with a shared revenue model. Some people are buying directly from the manufacturers of the gear. There will be large volume contracts that they will sign, and that will make it easy for the consumer to pay $9.99 per month or whatever the number is to get a similar user experience. Xfinity is offering — I think it’s $9.99 or $13.99 for a high-end router. Something similar could be provided by all the CSPs, with a cycle where they continuously upgrade the device.

GamesBeat: Do you see something like the cable company providing the high speed to the home, and then the 5G router providing high speed wireless throughout the home, so that gamers can play in the cloud? Or do you see gamers accessing 5G and then 5G router accessing some other network than the cable network to essentially bypass that network? Do you think either of those models is going to happen more?

Mahapatra: It’s a key question right now. It’s a hybrid model. The players that are invested on the infrastructure side, which is the delivery of service into the home, for them, they’ll try to protect the complete delivery of that pipe into the home. You’ll get that landing in the home, and they’ll expect, just like the hotspots that they’re trying to promote — your users will subscribe to the hotspots to get a similar experience. That’s the large players. That model will continue down the line. When they say they’re offering 5G services, they’re not really offering it on the mobile device. They’re offering it through the pipe.

That’s part one. Part two is what you also asked about. There will be other upstarts, which will try to disrupt the larger players who have done traditional investments to get on the network. Their proposition will be, wherever you are, whether you’re changing your location, you’ll have a similar experience at a lower price point. There are two elements there. One, what’s the cost to maintain and upgrade and continuously innovate infrastructure? It’s an evolving specification, as you know. The second one is, what’s the price point at which you’ll be able to not only acquire, but sustain your customer base without significant churn? How do you control your operating costs?

These two elements will determine where the seesaw will land. But to your question, it’s going to be a hybrid. It’s going to be both. That’s where the innovation will continue, on both tracks. For example, the Verizon 5G home broadband — Verizon has been very clear on the specification and what is available. They’ve been careful with their marketing speak. All of that is coming in. From there on, they’re going to expect more user affinity to that network.

GamesBeat: There’s a challenge for the cable network through streaming. Not only are people taking a lot of data downstream now, but they’re also uploading a lot through streaming of gameplay back to the network. That’s where cable is pretty weak. I’m getting a DOCSIS 3.1 modem today from the cable company that will give me 400Mbps downstream, but only 9Mbps upstream. That’s not enough for video streaming back to the network.

Cable seems to have a big problem there, and I think 5G is a solution to that. As long as the latency and upstream capacity is as good as what they advertise, that’s a better solution than cable right now.

Mahapatra: Absolutely. None of them have accelerated past 24 or 25, and that doesn’t cut it. The proliferation of the network, of 5G cells and everything else, should help with that. It depends on the way it gets rolled out, with the towers and all the things that are available right now. It’s a matter of time as to how fast the network will proliferate, but that will definitely help.

GamesBeat: There’s that whole question of, you’re not playing in the home anymore. You’re also playing in the backseat of your car, or somewhere else without direct access to 5G.

Mahapatra: That’s what I was saying about location — anywhere, any device, with the same fidelity. That’s the main play. That’s the big challenge for all the players who want to support the infrastructure for all of this. That and the amount of time people have, just like Netflix has said. Sleep is the main competition. I don’t know what phrase will come up, but — people have moved away from their consoles. You still don’t have the same fidelity in a small device, but if people are guaranteed that with their mobile devices, it’s a whole new world in terms of immersive experiences outside the home.

GamesBeat: What sort of opportunities do you think your company could seize related to both 5G and gaming here?

Mahapatra: We’re part of a startup group. This group focuses primarily on business solutions, IT, and professional services for all the industry verticals that we go to market, big and small. In all of our verticals, whether it’s high tech, retail, or CPG, one of our cornerstones is called a business 4.0 thought leadership framework. This is based on four key pillars.

One is exponential value delivery for our customers. That means helping our customers drive exponential value in terms of their new business models, new customer generation, and so on. Mass personalization, which means helping our customers personalize their production services. Embracing risk, which is the way they’ll be able to quickly disrupt themselves and get into business models. And then finally leveraging ecosystems. How can they forge ecosystems which are multi-ecosystem plays?

All of our technology consulting solutions are geared toward this. We leverage agile, cloud, AI, all the elements there. Quickly translating this to the gaming area, there are two areas. One of the leading players in the gaming industry is a massive customer of ours. Their whole gaming experience, the analytics part, the user behavior modeling across all their users, and being GDPR compliant, having a very tight focus on security and user privacy, that all goes hand in hand for us.

How do we provide better insights to our customers, who are gaming companies, and who are also customers adopting gamified processes? That’s translating to retail. That’s translating to CPG. It’s translating in particular to travel, transportation, and hospitality. All the airlines, all the hotels, all the luxury cruise lines, all of those companies. Those are big market opportunities for 5G, and gaming companies as well.

Many people think gaming companies are only going to cater to end consumers, to gamers. But with 5G, there’s a potential where you will see multi-ecosystem partnerships in order to maximize and open up new revenue models. Gaming companies will also partner or be acquired by enterprise software companies to transform the user experience for end customers in other verticals. They could be insurance, banking, financial services, all of those businesses.

We look at this as a kind of inflection or triangulation activity, where 5G, gaming, and then you ping another part in the triangle, all the industry verticals and the end consumers. Those are the areas where I think we have a lot of opportunity, a lot of transformation. When people first said they wanted to do gamification, all that they meant was reimagining processing to make them more user-friendly, to give incentives, to do things that initially were happening with the first wave of Facebook launching all those web-based gaming exercises. Now there’s a whole new game.

For that, with all the technology, all the networks, what are the things you can do for retailers, for each of the verticals I mentioned? Including health care as well, to do things like demystify some problems. That’s the combination point that hasn’t been unraveled, that hasn’t been explored a lot. It’s a great market opportunity, I feel.

GamesBeat: It’s going to be an interesting year. Google’s rivals may also launch cloud gaming services too. We can expect Microsoft and Amazon and other companies participating.

Mahapatra: It’s a valid point. If you connect the dots, Microsoft with Azure and the whole platform play, because they already have enterprise business — it’s an evolution, really. Apple is also a very logical player there. Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, each of them has unique differentiators. Amazon has a lot of marketing and user-centric applications. All the CMOs run on their platform. The CX side of the business has a lot of investment in Amazon already. Azure has a lot of enterprise business. They’ve been surging very rapidly. Then you have Apple, with Apple News and Apple’s whole integrated ecosystem.

These three players, because of their investments in the cloud already, will have a significantly faster way to bring a new set of innovative offerings in this area. As we discussed in the first part, the last mile will be important for all of these players, because these players have not invested in last mile. That wasn’t their focus. That’s where it remains to be seen what kind of partnerships get formed in this ecosystem. There will be more news, and not in M&A only, but formal ecosystem aligned partnerships. Alliances will be forged in this area, big time, which weren’t done in the past.

That goes back to what I was saying earlier about our business 4.0 platform. The ecosystem partnerships, how can we integrate with that access, with integrated technology architecture, with reference architectures? Those are the areas where we’ll bring value to our customers. That’s another thing that will come.

GamesBeat: Do you have any other topics we haven’t touched on yet?

Mahapatra: A final point that’s integral to all of this is cybersecurity. Gaming, directly or indirectly, and I’m pretty heavy into analytics as well — just like what MoviePass tried to do in the beginning with location and other things, gaming will lead to a lot of information. Not only about habits and usage and preferences and all those things, but it will also lead to a lot of information on alternate personalities and real personalities, gathered consistently, over a long period of time, hours and hours of interaction.

Privacy of user data and other elements will be super critical. Cybersecurity is going to be critical in this space. Earlier we had demographic data and certain statistical entry points around credit cards, all the factual data. But this is even more and deeper data about personalities, like what’s happening with personality insights at all the AI players. Personality insights based on gaming is one area where business will tap into AI and ML quite a lot. But the governance, control, and how you do that is cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is another big play in this area.

Typically the gaming companies — I won’t say they don’t invest, but they’ll rely on ecosystems to take care of it. The large cloud players obviously have embedded cybersecurity in their platforms, but the moment they connect and the handoffs happen with IOT, there’s the possibility of breaches. That’s an area to introspect further and see how safeguards can be put in place properly.

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