For all the benefits that cloud-based game streaming may promise, it will live and fall by one word: latency. Beholden to Internet connections and distance from Google’s data servers, Stadia may end up becoming something only a few will be able to enjoy. Like with any problem, however, Google is solving this problem with some machine learning and AI which it dubs as “negative latency”. And if that works well, Google Stadia may indeed be faster than any local PC or console until those reach Star Trek-like FTL speeds.
On a local system, latency can be blamed on things like input lag, heavy system load, display refresh rates, and more. When you factor in online gameplay, you also have to add not only the user’s own bandwidth but also the distance the data has to travel from the closest data center to the gamer’s system. Stadia removes all but bandwidth out of the equation and Google has some sleight of hand to fix that as well.
Google VP of engineering Madj Bakar reveals the term “negative latency” which can also simply be called “predictive streaming”. Using all of the computation power Google data centers are known for, Stadia can determine each individual user’s latency and compensate for it. This could be through a variety of methods, including predicting what move the player will make next.
Yes, this negative latency is basically predicting the next input that will come from the user, play that on the remote cloud computer and prepare or even stream the results back to the user at the moment they make that exact move. It’s almost the cloud gaming equivalent of CPUs predicting the path code will take or the data that will be accessed next and preload those into memory. And just like with CPUs, misses can be quite costly.
Stadia’s negative latency will have a lot more factors to work with, considering it will have to take human whimsy into account. It almost sounds a magical solution and only time will tell if Google will be able to pull it off successfully. And if it does, it could have the fastest gaming PC or console in the world, just one that you will never own nor even see.