Re­mote con­trol

Meet Blade, the French startup that’s rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing cloud gam­ing

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How a French startup is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing cloud gam­ing by giv­ing every user their own re­mote PC

Blade’s co-founder and CEO, Em­manuel Fre­und, gets right to the point. “Even for me, cloud com­put­ing – cloud gam­ing, what­ever – has been shitty,” he says. “It hasn’t been work­ing, let’s be clear; if it was work­ing then ev­ery­body would have cloud-gam­ing stuff.”

Fre­und’s com­pany has been run­ning its cloud-com­put­ing ser­vice, Shadow, in its na­tive France since the mid­dle of 2016. Now, ahead of the ser­vice’s roll­out in the UK and US, Blade faces the chal­lenge of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing Shadow from a legacy of sim­i­lar prod­ucts that, at best, have achieved lim­ited suc­cess. Like OnLive or PlayS­ta­tion Now, Shadow pro­vides users with ac­cess to games from any de­vice with a screen and an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. Un­like those ser­vices, how­ever, Shadow’s of­fer­ing isn’t lim­ited to a provider-ap­proved cat­a­logue of games. In­stead, Shadow pro­vides re­mote ac­cess to a pow­er­ful PC with a topend Nvidia GPU, 12GB of RAM, 256GB of stor­age and a Win­dows 10 in­stal­la­tion – and that’s it. Users are free to do what­ever they want with their Shadow PC from that point, in­clud­ing in­stalling games from Steam or other down­load ser­vices, brows­ing the In­ter­net, work­ing – any­thing and ev­ery­thing a PC can be used for, re­ally. Each user is guar­an­teed ac­cess to their own ma­chine when­ever they want it.

“The big­gest threat we had to face was the fail­ure of other ser­vices.” Fre­und says. “That’s why ev­ery­one had a shitty im­age of the cloud – even me. I mean, the cloud? Come on. I use Spo­tify, I use Net­flix, I use what­ever, but for my PC? The cloud? No. That’s only be­cause they tried to sell a ser­vice that was not work­ing fully.” Fre­und is keen to stress – and to demon­strate – that Shadow is dif­fer­ent.

“Nor­mally in cloud gam­ing, or cloud com­put­ing in gen­eral, you’re talk­ing about mu­tu­al­i­sa­tion,” he tells us. “You try to fit as many users as pos­si­ble on one server in or­der to not spend a lot. Here, we’ll give a full com­puter to every user. That’s one of the things that will be al­lo­cated to you and not to any­body else. That will be ded­i­cated to you dur­ing your us­age. But as soon as you stop us­ing it, it can be used by some­body else.” Where pre­vi­ous cloud-gam­ing ser­vices have charged the sort of sub­scrip­tion fee typ­i­cal of Net­flix or Spo­tify, Shadow’s pric­ing model is more akin to a smart­phone con­tract. Euro­pean users pay 45 a month, or

30 if they com­mit to 12 months in ad­vance. Spa­ces are lim­ited, with the doors opened to new users when­ever avail­abil­ity in Shadow’s data cen­tres per­mits. The ser­vice cur­rently has 15,000 users in France, with ex­pan­sion to the UK kick­ing off as you read this. Blade has also re­cently estab­lished a data cen­tre in Cal­i­for­nia, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of a US roll­out that is ex­pected to take place over the next six months.

We’re shown Shadow work­ing in mul­ti­ple con­texts at Blade’s Paris head­quar­ters (where, Fre­und is keen to em­pha­sise, the in­ter­net con­nec­tion is “ab­so­lutely shitty”). First on the agenda is stream­ing con­tent to a PC mon­i­tor via the Shadow Box, a small stand­alone unit in­tended as a re­place­ment for your ex­ist­ing PC. The Box con­sists of four USB ports, two HDMI ports, an eth­er­net port and au­dio jacks. Any­thing users con­nect to the Box is treated as if it’s con­nected to the ma­chine in Shadow’s data cen­tre. The im­age qual­ity is crisp, both while us­ing the ma­chine as a desk­top PC and play­ing Rise Of The Tomb Raider, with no no­tice­able in­put lag – al­though, it should be stressed, Tomb Raider’s heavy use of scripted an­i­ma­tions make lag less ap­par­ent than it would be in a strat­egy game or FPS.

Al­though Blade rec­om­mends a 15MB broad­band con­nec­tion for get­ting the most out of Shadow, Fre­und con­tests that the fail­ure of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of cloud-com­put­ing ser­vices was not wholly due to in­con­sis­tent con­nec­tiv­ity. “It’s not to­tally true,” he says. “The main net­works are fi­bre. The prob­lem is the last mile. If you go from Paris to Mar­seilles, it’s five mil­lisec­onds. The in­put lag on a com­puter, for ex­am­ple, is nor­mally 40 mil­lisec­onds. If you look at other cloud ser­vices, the main is­sue was that it was tak­ing some­thing like 50 mil­lisec­onds just to cap­ture and en­code the im­age. Our tech­nol­ogy – we have some patents on some spe­cific things – achieves en­cod­ing of the im­age in less than ten mil­lisec­onds. It gives us a huge ad­van­tage in terms of la­tency.”

The same demon­stra­tion is then loaded onto a tablet, Mac­Book and smart­phone in quick suc­ces­sion, with ad­di­tional sup­port for touch­screen fea­tures such as pinch-to-zoom. An Xbox con­troller, con­nected via Blue­tooth, al­lows the game to be con­trolled on the phone, with the game-state tran­si­tion­ing seam­lessly be­tween de­vices – the core ma­chine you’re con­nect­ing to doesn’t change, sim­ply the screen be­ing used to

“Here, we’ll give a full com­puter to every user. That will be al­lo­cated to you and not to any­body else”

ac­cess it. In ad­di­tion to be­ing able to play games on the move, this also po­ten­tially acts as an al­ter­na­tive to Boot­camp for Mac users who want the op­tion to use Win­dows for games. “Ba­si­cally, you don’t need a gam­ing con­sole any more,” Fre­und tells us. “Be­cause you have a bet­ter PC than an Xbox, and you can play any game that you’ve bought on your TV with a con­troller. That’s al­ways been the vi­sion: that you can ac­cess your PC from any­where, and it will not change.”

Given the con­trolled na­ture of this demon­stra­tion, we ask to see Shadow run­ning in the wild. To that end we take a smart­phone and an Xbox con­troller out to the street and at­tempt to use the ser­vice over a 4G con­nec­tion. Re­mark­ably, it holds to­gether: we play sev­eral rounds of Street Fighter V out­side, with min­i­mal in­put lag, though there are a few no­tice­able pauses and frame drops. Even so, the qual­ity of the per­for­mance would be suf­fi­cient to use the ser­vice for less la­tency-de­pen­dent games or pro­grams (it likely would have been fine, iron­i­cally, for a slower sin­gle­player game such as Tomb Raider.)

There are ob­vi­ous

lim­i­ta­tions to an of­fer­ing like this. If your In­ter­net con­nec­tion is in­con­sis­tent, your experience with Shadow will be too (al­though Blade is work­ing on im­prov­ing the adap­tive qual­ity of the ser­vice). If your ISP has an out­age, you can be left with­out a PC. If you let your sub­scrip­tion lapse then your data will be stored for 30 days, af­ter which point it’s at Blade’s mercy – though the com­pany says it is con­sid­er­ing of­fer­ing a cheap sub­scrip­tion op­tion that will al­low users to put their Shadow to ‘sleep’ if they’re likely to not need it for a pe­riod of time. It’s also nat­u­ral to be wary of for­go­ing own­er­ship of PC hard­ware in favour of rent­ing it as a ser­vice, al­though this is a di­rec­tion in which the in­dus­try is al­ready mov­ing. More and more soft­ware ‘own­er­ship’ takes the form of dig­i­tal li­braries on Steam or PSN, and Shadow’s price point un­der­cuts the cost of buy­ing, main­tain­ing, and run­ning a PC with this much power.

There’s also the mat­ter of pri­vacy and data se­cu­rity. “We built the prod­uct with gamers,” Fre­und says. “The first ques­tion was: ‘How do I know that you’re not look­ing at my com­puter? Specif­i­cally, at one in the morn­ing when I’m do­ing some­thing I don’t want you to see?’ It’s not le­gal. Your data is yours. That’s not like Google Docs, or what­ever. We don’t own your data. It’s yours. It’s pri­vate. We’re go­ing to jail if we ever look at what you’re do­ing on your com­puter with­out your au­tho­ri­sa­tion.” Be­cause Shadow gives users full con­trol over a Win­dows in­stal­la­tion, they are also able to se­cure their data in any way that they’d nor­mally be able to. “You can put a pass­word on Win­dows, and of course we won’t know what it is. You can en­crypt your data and we won’t have the key to de­code it.” Fre­und ex­plains that Blade’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a ser­vice provider are sim­i­lar to those of an ISP. If a court is­sues an or­der to serve up user data to the po­lice, it will com­ply. “In the same way that a po­lice­man will go to your place and ask you to hand over your com­puter,” he says.

None­the­less, Blade does mon­i­tor the hard­ware used to pro­vide the Shadow ser­vice. This means that it has ac­cess to CPU, GPU, and net­work us­age data – this wouldn’t in­clude what a user was do­ing, but would in­di­cate when they were mak­ing use of the ser­vice. This in­for­ma­tion is nec­es­sary, Fre­und ex­plains, in or­der to main­tain the hard­ware. It also al­lows Blade to mon­i­tor for cer­tain sus­pi­cious us­ages: users are pro­hib­ited, for ex­am­ple, from us­ing Shadow to mine cryp­tocur­rency, and keep­ing an eye on GPU load al­lows Blade to po­lice the ser­vice with­out vi­o­lat­ing user pri­vacy.

“The goal is for the prod­uct to be to­tally open,” Fre­und says. “Not to be a li­brary of games, not to only be able to play, or what­ever. It’s a com­puter. You need to be to­tally free on it. We ex­plained to our com­mu­nity that if too many peo­ple are do­ing bad things, we’ll be obliged to put poli­cies in place. We want them to play along. Of course there will be ass­holes, but mostly users just play games. They play by the rules with us.”

Blade wants to do for cloud com­put­ing what Tesla has done for elec­tric cars: to take an on-pa­per good idea and be the com­pany that makes it work. “Cloud com­put­ing will be the fu­ture of computers.

“We’re go­ing to jail if we ever look at what you’re do­ing on your com­puter with­out your au­tho­ri­sa­tion”

We’re pas­sion­ate about that,” Fre­und says. “We started to think: what about a world where you can re­place not only the com­puter, but a smart­phone, or any­thing, by hav­ing a de­vice that is just a screen, but can have un­lim­ited power, and a su­per-long bat­tery?”

Cloud com­put­ing is also a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion to some of the tech is­sues sur­round­ing VR, and Blade is ac­tively in­ves­ti­gat­ing how its tech­nol­ogy might be adapted to that end. “At this size,” Fre­und says, in­di­cat­ing the coin-sized chipset fun­da­men­tal to the Shadow Box, “you can stick it in the head­set. You don’t need a wire­less head­set: you can have the com­puter inside. It en­ables a lot of things. We’re work­ing on it. It will be ready when it’s ready.”

If Blade can make cloud com­put­ing work for gamers, Fre­und be­lieves, then more wide­spread use of the tech will fol­low. This is the most de­mand­ing au­di­ence that the ser­vice will face – the most sen­si­tive to fail­ure, and the least for­giv­ing of it. “When we started with the cloud, we saw that for ev­ery­one – en­ter­prise, gamers, my mother – the cloud sucks. For dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but, the cloud sucks. And we de­cided that if we were able to con­vince the most de­mand­ing guys first with a high-end PC, it proves that it’s work­ing. That cloud com­put­ing is a fact.”

For fast-paced and la­tency-de­pen­dent games like Street Fighter, a speedy and re­li­able in­ter­net con­nec­tion will be es­sen­tial. That said, those who are se­ri­ous about com­pet­i­tive gam­ing likely al­ready have one

Be­ing able to play graph­i­cally de­mand­ing games at the high­est qual­ity lev­els is cen­tral to Shadow’s prom­ise. Blade boasts sup­port for 4K dis­plays and 144hz mon­i­tors, al­though not both at the same time

Of­fer­ing the abil­ity to play PC games on any de­vice which has a screen, Shadow is be­ing po­si­tioned as an al­ter­na­tive to Switch. How­ever, the ser­vice has a clear ad­van­tage in pro­vid­ing ac­cess to desk­top soft­ware that was pre­vi­ously un­avail­able on mo­bile

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