Microsoft’s next Xbox, coming 2028, envisions hybrid computing

    Microsoft’s new disc-less Xbox Series X is far from the only news that just leaked out of the FTC v. Microsoft case. The documents may also reveal Microsoft’s far future plans for 2028 — by which the company believed it could achieve “full convergence” of its cloud gaming platform and physical hardware to deliver “cloud hybrid games.”

    “Our vision: develop a next generation hybrid game platform capable of leveraging the combined power of the client and cloud to deliver deeper immersion and entirely new classes of game experiences.”

    “Our vision: develop a next generation hybrid game platform capable of leveraging the combined power of the client and cloud”
    Image: FTC v. Microsoft documents

    Those are the words on just one slide from a leaked presentation dubbed “The Next Generation of Gaming at Microsoft,” which appears to be a May 2022 pitch document entirely around this idea.

    The company imagined you playing these games using the combined power of a sub-$99 gadget — possibly a handheld — and its xCloud platform simultaneously.

    Image: FTC v. Microsoft documents

    I am familiar with this idea, because it’s the one I advocated for in June 2021, pointing out how Microsoft had a unique opportunity to build games that scale from native hardware to cloud.

    It’s something that Microsoft’s kinda-sorta already tried by offering photorealistic scenery in Microsoft Flight Simulator by streaming in that data from a 2-petabyte cloud instead of your Xbox or PC where most of the game is running. But the best example is still this Amazon demo from 2014 — where the Lord of the Rings-esque armies don’t actually live on your device, it’s only the ballista that runs locally so you can feel that responsive experience.

    Now, in these documents, Microsoft’s calling the idea “Cohesive Hybrid Compute” — a “Cloud-to-Edge architecture across Silicon, Graphics, and OS enabling ubiquitous play.”

    If it’s happening, it may already be happening. The team suggested it would need to ink partnerships with AMD for the silicon by the first quarter of this year to lock down the company’s Navi 5 graphics — for reference, we’re only on Navi 3 right now — as well as potentially nabbing the company’s Zen 6 CPU cores. (It’s also considering Arm.)

    Microsoft suspected it would also need an NPU (machine learning AI coprocessor) to provide a wide variety of benefits, including super resolution, latency compensation, frame rate interpolation and more — see below.

    Image: FTC v. Microsoft documents

    The documents include an entire potential roadmap for the technology that would have seen hardware design begin in 2024, the first dev kits arrive in 2027, and the first hybrid cloud games being produced from 2024 through 2026.

    Image: FTC v. Microsoft documents

    But before that, according to another slide, the company needed to make some key decisions on that silicon, alignment on building a thin operating system to run the local parts of those cloud games, which teams would be responsible, and which hardware it would build to go with it. It’s very possible none of that happened, just as Microsoft abandoned its “dedicated xCloud SKU” in favor of partnering with other providers instead.

    Microsoft increasingly sees “cloud-first” gaming as important.
    Image: FTC v. Microsoft documents

    According to the leaked documents, the pitch appears to have come out of a major ongoing conversation among Microsoft’s top leadership, including CEO Satya Nadella, Xbox boss Phil Spencer, Windows devices and operating system leader Panos Panay, xCloud CVP Kareem Choudhry, and more.

    “We are building 4 types of computers: (1) cloud everything, (2) a hybrid Xbox, (3) hybrid Windows, and (4) hybrid HoloLens,” wrote Nadella, according to the leaded documents. “We need to bring the company’s systems talent together to align on a unified vision.”

    “We can’t go from big idea to big idea. We need a single big idea to rally the company around,” he wrote.

    In another document from May 2022, dubbed “Roadmap to 2030,” the company suggests that its new strategy may revolve around the controller. “Controller becomes the hero,” reads one key tenet, adding “The new Xbox controller is the only thing you need to play on every device.” That document goes on to describe Sebile, a new Xbox controller that includes “Direct-to-Cloud” connectivity as well as Xbox Wireless and Bluetooth.

    It also contains a picture of a possible “Mobile Controller,” a “One-hand Controller” and a gaming keyboard & mouse that Microsoft apparently considered building itself.

    Image: FTC v. Microsoft documents

    The document also mentions a “Cloud Console (Keystone)” as a project that had already been funded, along with the new “Brooklin” Xbox Series X refresh and the aforementioned Sebile gamepad — though it noted that the “full product vision” for Sebile was not currently approved as of May 2022.

    In 2021, Microsoft hired Kim Swift, a former Google Stadia design director best known for Valve’s Portal, to build a new team focused on cloud-native games, but it’s not clear if that has anything to do with this initiative. Sony hired Jade Raymond away from the wreckage of Stadia as well, and her studio is working on cloud gaming technology ahead of a likely new Sony cloud gaming push.

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