By Michael Fontanini / December 7th, 2015
Nintendo has already hinted that its upcoming Nintendo NX platform will blend the capabilities of a home console with those of a more portable platform. This may sound like a tricky thing to do, and that’s because it undoubtedly is. While there are still very few details on the Nintendo NX, we just got a few new bits of information. Nintendo has filed a new patent application that sheds some new light on its mysterious upcoming system. The patent application (20150343306) portrays a gaming system that is different from any we’ve seen before. A primary gaming console (the Nintendo NX itself) is able to connect to one or more supplemental processing devices “to increase the speed or quality of a user’s gaming experience.” Some have interpreted this as a reference to the kinds of console upgrade hardware that we’ve seen before, but that’s not actually the case.
The diagram below is from the patent, and it shows an overview of the main idea here. This console can measure the latency and performance characteristics of each supplemental processing device it is connected to. It would use this information to assign appropriate workloads to each supplemental device, which allows the Nintendo NX itself to handle the most important and immediate things in the game. These supplemental processing devices can be connected to the console via wires, or they can also be connected through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Nintendo’s new patent also discusses how end-users might setup their own hardware and make it available for distributed rendering during certain times of the day or night. It also mentions the possibility of rewarding players for sharing their hardware in this way by giving them game time, credits, etc.
This looks like a form of cluster-based console video gaming. The term cluster comes from the fact that instead of doing all of your processing on a single device, you are instead splitting the workload across a cluster of devices. One of the biggest issues with this by far, is latency (the time it takes for a message to travel back and forth between two devices). This is extremely important when streaming large amounts of data. For example, the Wii U has demonstrated a form of local game streaming with its Gamepad controller. The Wii U has to stream data to the Gamepad so that said Gamepad knows what it should be displaying on its screen, and what sounds it should be playing. Of course, some of the Wii U’s processing power gets devoted to sending data to the Gamepad, but with only one Gamepad this performance hit is quite manageable. The Gamepad is a cool feature, and two of its best uses I’ve seen were the scanner in ZombieU, and the editor mode in Super Mario Maker.
Latency is a huge issue with streaming because if the connection isn’t fast enough, then you get interruptions. Many of you have probably experienced this kind of thing while watching YouTube videos, where it has to pause the video until it receives enough data to play more of it. If this happens, it means your internet is not transmitting the video data to you fast enough for the video to keep playing. In other words, your internet needs to send you the data at least as fast as that video data is being played back on your screen. If it doesn’t, then playback will have to stop because the data it needs to continue playing your video has not arrived yet from your internet connection. Despite the problem of latency, the major players in the gaming industry for the most part all have some sort of streaming technology in the works or in use. For example, the XBox One can stream your game to any Windows 10 PC that is running on a compatible network. The PlayStation Vita can stream some PS4 titles.
The supplemental processing devices mentioned in this patent will help the performance of the primary gaming console, and not hurt it as the Wii U Gamepad does. It’s really a game of give and take, a balancing act. In the world of video games, every feature has a cost beyond the monetary cost of creating it. That cost comes in the form of processing power, and Nintendo had to sacrifice a small bit of the Wii U’s processing power in order to make the Gamepad controller work. That isn’t the only cost of adding a feature to a game, there are others like memory usage. As for these supplemental processing devices, little is known about their true nature. Are they accessories you will be able to purchase, or would Nintendo release software you could install on your home PC (or other devices) to allow it to be used as a supplemental processing device when you want it to be?
Nintendo’s new patent doesn’t go into detail on what they think would be good tasks to offload to these supplemental processing devices, but in general it would likely be things that are not immediately important within the game you are playing. For example, you could have the supplemental device handling some background world simulation, allowing the world to change without the primary console having to worry about it. This frees up some of the processing power on the primary gaming console to allow for higher quality simulation of what is going on within the immediate vicinity of the player. For example, the supplemental processing devices might handle simulation stuff for NPCs or other things in the world that need to move around or change (as long as they are not in the immediate area of the player). For example, having an NPC right in front of the player being simulated on a remote device could cause stuttering in that NPC’s movement due to latency.
The possibilities are endless as far as how the supplemental processing devices could be used. In the end, it will come down to what each development team is trying to do with their game. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so how this technology would be used will very likely differ on a game-by-game basis. Looking to the future, Nintendo has previously mentioned that it plans to announce the release date for its upcoming Nintendo NX platform at next year’s E3. Its launch may well be in the holiday season in 2016, as that’s when Nintendo tends to launch their new systems. They’ve also said that the Nintendo NX will be a complete break from the architecture of Wii/Wii U, but it is not currently known who is making the hardware for Nintendo’s upcoming system. For now, all we can do is wait for E3 when we may learn a lot more about the mysterious Nintendo NX.
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