Left to right: Bebo White, Bill Rehbock, Dean Takahashi, xx, Jeffrey, and Jen MacLean.

The future of computing and games

Sometimes it’s good to think about the future. And that’s what a group of thinkers did at The International Future Computing Association, which held a conference recently at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

The event was about the coming era of any place, any time, and any device user experiences delivered both on devices and via the cloud. To make this happen, we need a full ecosystem of partners across computing, immersive technology, content and applications, and infrastructure, according to TIFCA, which was created by a bunch of computing partners such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and Nvidia.

I moderated a panel at the event with a group of industry veterans. We asked them to toss out their day job concerns and be futurists for an afternoon. Our panelists included Jen MacLean, head of worldwide business development for small-and-mid-sized game studios at Game Tech at Amazon Web Services; Bebo White, department associate emeritus at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University; Bill Rehbock, head of content partnerships for Blade Group/Shadow; Jeffrey Shih, lead product manager for AI at Unity Technologies; and Gary Radburn, director of virtually everything Dell.

We opened it up by asking them what computing will deliver to them in their dreams, and how we will get to that future in terms of the client, cloud, application, and infrastructure technology that will be needed. We wandered all over the place in our conversation, but I enjoyed the journey, and I hope you do too.

Here’s an edited transcript of our panel. And if you prefer, I have embedded a video of the conversation as well below.

Above: Left to right: Futurist panelists Bebo White, Bill Rehbock, Dean Takahashi, Gary Radburn, Jeffrey Shih, and Jen MacLean.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Jen MacLean: I’m the head of worldwide business development for AWS game tech for small and mid-sized studios. I’ve been in game development and technology in some way, shape, or form for more than 25 years. I don’t know that anyone has ever accused me of providing “dreamy” wisdom before, but I’ll do my best.

Gary Radburn: I’m from Dell. I’m director of virtualization, virtual reality. I’ve been in the industry for a very long time. I’m looking forward to speaking on that today.

Jeff Shih: I’m lead product manager for AI at Unity. Most of my background is AI and machine learning research. At Unity, obviously, we focus a lot on AI in gaming.

Bebo White: I’m emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford, which is the national lab behind physics and basic energy scientist. I’m a computational physicist.

Bill Rehbock: I head developer relationships for a company called Blade Group that produces the Shadow PC streaming service. I go all the way back to–the first trade show I ever worked at was the summer CES in 1978 demoing Star Raiders on the Atari 800. I worked for Atari. I was at Nvidia for 15 years.

GamesBeat: What we’ll start with is, what dreamy thing do you want computing to accomplish for you? A little later we’ll get to what you need to get there, or how you might actually shoot that dream down. But let’s start with Bill. What’s the thing that you really want computing to do for you?

Rehbock: I would say that the biggest win that we could see in the industry in the next, hopefully, five to 10 years, maybe 15, is that the internet of entertainment finally gets to the point where it’s truly ubiquitous. We had the conversation earlier with a lot of people in the room and up on stage over the course of the day saying that they’re not gamers. Which is still weird in this day and age, that there’s a stigma associated with being a gamer. It would be like going to the VSDA show, the big linear content show, and hearing people say, “Well, I don’t watch movies.”

Interactive entertainment could be democratized to the point that it becomes very accessible to everybody, so that it isn’t just people who can afford $2,000 PCs who are talking about raytracing and stuff like that. What we talk about today as being the cutting edge can become more commonplace. That would serve us all better, both from an education standpoint, as well as for our entertainment.

White: I’m going to respond a bit to what you said about gaming. When I first heard about coming to this, that was my response. What do I know about games? But one thing I certainly learned today is the way in which the gaming ecosystem, as it were, really does encompass a lot more issues, a lot more fundamental issues, than simply entertainment. But in terms of my dreams? I’m going to agree with your consensus that I look forward to that true ubiquitousness.

One of my bigger dreams is basically thinking about computing as a utility, just like the lights or the water or anything of that nature. A utility that basically becomes a human right and is available to everyone.

GamesBeat: I think Amazon has created that, except they charge for it.

MacLean: That’s not true! We have a free tier.

Shih: For me, it’s the intersection of AI systems and human interaction in the space of education and entertainment. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in our human abilities that can be unlocked by having a lot of AI systems unlocking our abilities for us. I’m excited about a future our own potential is revealed by better compute, better design, better algorithmic systems. When I’m much older, hopefully I’ll be a much improved, much better version of myself.

GamesBeat: You want to hack yourself.

Shih: Yes, exactly!

FundamentalVR trains surgeons with virtual reality.

Above: FundamentalVR trains surgeons with virtual reality.

Image Credit: FundamentalVR

Radburn: For me it’s really about, first of all, the media and entertainment industry, where they actually take the technology into new directions and really push the envelope. Where I’m standing, it’s really impacting health care. We deal a lot in the industry with people who are now using VR and AR in training surgeons, the treatment of PTSD, autism, giving people awareness of dementia or physical diseases inside of them. All of this is brought about by work that’s being done in service of getting people out of the house and entertaining them, whether it be in film, digital techniques there, or the creation of VR pieces. Taking all of that and putting it into a package that makes something good for humankind.

Gamification is a big thing. One of the examples is doing your exercises. People go for physiotherapy and they have to do this repetitive movement 15 or 20 times in the evening before you go to bed. Oh, I’ll skip that. But if you can put a headset on and play a game, do something where you actually do that, but you don’t know you’re doing it, then that can only be a good thing. I’m looking forward to that more and more.

MacLean: I’d love to see us use computing to build emotional connections with other people. I’d love to see us use computing to address some of the fundamental inequalities that we’re struggling with globally. Fundamentally, I think we should be using computing to make a better place. We shouldn’t hold ourselves to any lesser yardstick.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting that nobody really said, “I want to have all the technology come as fast as it can.” Make it happen without regard to the impact it has. Is that fair to say?

White: I think a couple of people have made the comment that just because we can do it, it doesn’t mean that we should do it, in terms of the capabilities we have. Which one of those should be the driving factor for future computing? Is it simply the growth of the technology, or our ability to use it in a productive way?

MacLean: It’s also interesting to think about how computing actually has a cost, a physical, tangible cost in terms of energy consumption. Everyone in this room, I’m sure, is very aware of climate change. Again, when we think about resources, is using computing in a certain way the best way to use a resource? We’ve had the luxury of not having to think about that, and there are companies, including Amazon, that are making a commitment to renewable energy for computing. But we also have to move past the idea that computing is free, because it’s not.

Real-time ray tracing scene on Nvidia RTX.

Above: Real-time ray tracing scene on Nvidia RTX.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: We can switch it up a bit and ask you about some of the how, how you would get to the things you want. Maybe in the context of the client or the cloud. Bill, you’re at a cloud gaming company. I assume you’d say cloud is going to be very important to where you want entertainment to go.

Rehbock: When I was at Nvidia, I was there when they originally made GeForce Grid, multi-core GeForce and Nvidia’s streaming service. I had a lot of internal arguments there, because I was running developer relations at Nvidia and trying to figure out how cloud computing and cloud gaming for Nvidia could come together more quickly.

The challenge I presented to both Jensen Huang and the GeForce Grid team was, well, this whole notion of containerized gaming and cloud gaming and all that was very interesting, but the problem was that it was really all about–we’re going to offer this selection of games, very console-esque, but no matter how good the developer relations group at Nvidia is, even if we select what we think is the most brilliant collection of 100 games, if you turn around and there’s a user out there that says, “But I want to play Space Engineers, and that’s not one of those 100 games,” that guy still has to turn around and buy a PC to be able to play Space Engineers. That means you’ve failed, because of game number 101.

The thing that attracted me to Shadow is the notion of truly democratized access to high-performance gaming hardware. At the time we were deploying GTX 1080s, and we just started deploying RTX 2080s, so you can do raytracing. But here in the cloud is a great performance PC that will be upgraded on a regular basis for $15 to $30 a month. Giving users access to that hardware, because it’s in the cloud, is much easier. It’s easier to control energy costs and cooling and things like that.

But for Shadow, the important thing is it’s not democratized if you take away choice from the user. Because it’s a full Windows 10 PC and they can install any game they want from Steam or the Epic store or GOG–they can develop their own Unity games on Shadow and it all just works, just like a local PC. That’s the vision for what needs to happen in the future.

The bottom line is, there’s no one in the world who buys a GTX 1060 or 1070 GPU because they want to. They’re settling for it because of the price. The idea of getting access to mass users and education and schools and things like that, because the PCs themselves are in the cloud, is a great futurist way of approaching the technology.

GamesBeat: I’m going to guess that the panel likes this idea of using computing for various kinds of technology. Mr. Unity there, democratization of game development is your motto, right?

Shih: It actually was the motto. It still floats around at Unity, though.

GamesBeat: Democratization isn’t really a function of the most computing power you can have. What does democratization mean? How is it important as far as what you want to see happen?

Radburn: Democratization is great. It’s giving access to all. The more people who can use it, the more people who can experience it, that’s great. There was a big thing when we started to virtualize servers way back when. The response from some people was that you can’t virtualize servers because server sales are blowing up. People will only buy one. But the world’s selling more servers now than ever, because more people realize the benefits of it. They realize it’s actually game-changing.

In much the same way now, I think the days of democratization are going to lead to more kinds of IP that people wouldn’t have otherwise invested in. They’re going to see that. They’re going to play that. They’re going to go more and more professional, go into esports, things like that, where latency becomes more important. No matter what you do with a remote situation, you still have the speed of light coming into it. You can compress or whatever else, but if you’re not co-located in the same place as your data and your compute, you’ll have increased latency time or ping time or whatever you want to call that. Consequently people are going to want to own their own hardware.

Somebody was saying earlier that not everybody is a gamer. I think that’s going to be the case less and less, because you’re going to embrace the casual gamer. You’re going to get people on a subscription model who wouldn’t buy hardware otherwise, and that will be great for the industry as a whole.

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