You may have heard of OnLive. I myself have been very interested in its progress and have been following it for the better part of two years. In many ways, OnLive represents the dream of our time - that of an entirely untethered entertainment experience, delivered in a way that actually exceeds our expectations and sets a new high watermark for hassle-free gaming.
Before I get ahead of myself, though, let's clear up what it actually is. If you are not familiar in any way with OnLive, allow me a minute or two to explain what it is and what it means for you as a gamer.
OnLive, in a nutshell, is cloud-based gaming. If you are tech-savvy, you have probably heard the term "cloud-based computing" in the workplace or, failing that, the terms RDP or Citrix. OnLive is a service that functions in almost the exact same way as these business technologies, but instead is used to provide you with games instead of business applications.
Operating in a way very similar to Netflix Instant Streaming, OnLive is actually a construct of supercomputers spread across North America. These supercomputers are built to run many games, and many instances of each. What you see when playing is actually streaming video and audio of that game running on one of these remote supercomputers. Your controller inputs are transmitted to it, and the video and audio are transmitted back to you. It is really no different than playing the Xbox 360 on your couch, but with your HDMI cable stretching from the back of your TV all the way to an Xbox 360 in Nebraska.
As of this writing, OnLive can only be accessed on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, via a tiny downloadable thin client. However, a "MicroConsole" is planned for release later this year in the form of a small black box that plugs straight into your TV. It will also come with a wireless OnLive controller.
Also, I should mention that even though OnLive currently requires you to connect to its service using a wired connection, it has been announced that wireless connectivity will be available via beta test in mid-September.
If cloud-based gaming sounds technically unfeasible to you, you may want to sit down, because it is very real, very seamless, and you won't believe how well this service works when you sit down and start playing.
Upon launching OnLive, it is very clear from the get-go that the developers of this technology know what they are doing. The service is stylish and snappy, blending logic-based client-side code with real-time remote video-feeds all over the screen. Menu items are always thumbnail animations, every background is alive with movement, and every aspect of the dashboard screams that it is alive and well-populated with players. In many ways, it completely beggars the dashboard offerings of both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. Both Sony and Microsoft should take a long look at OnLive's interface and take a few notes.
The method of control I recommend is a gamepad, preferably an Xbox 360 controller. If you have the classic wired controller that came bundled with the original Xbox 360 "Arcade" pack, just plug that into an available USB port on your PC. Windows detects it without issue, and so does OnLive. If you have a wireless 360 controller, as I have, I recommend you buy the wireless adapter and connect it that way. Using the keyboard and mouse for OnLive seems somewhat against the grain of the experience it is trying to deliver. This is a stone-cold console experience. Once you have connected the Xbox 360 controller, all button hints for menu navigation become those of the 360's face buttons, and are as intuitive here as they are on the 360's dashboard. The Xbox button brings up a quick launch menu, B is back, A is confirm, etc.
The main menu allows access to the PlayPasses you have purchased, either through full ownership, 3-day rentals, or 5-day rentals. Additionally you can access your messages and friends lists. You can also browse the store, check out the coming-soon videos, and look at brag clips: 10-second recordings by players of their greatest exploits. The last item is the one you'll use to show off to your friends, for it is most impressive: the Arena.
Since OnLive is a service that provides your entertainment to you via video feeds, it can also serve video feeds of other people's games to you with no additional overhead. That is essentially what the Arena is - a patchwork quilt of animated thumbnails of other players' games currently in progress. Move your cursor over any one of these thumbnails and you get a pop-up telling you who the player is, what game they are playing, how many other spectators they have, and whether or not those spectators have voted to "cheer" or "jeer" the player's actions.
This is where the power and potential of OnLive begins to take shape. If everyone using OnLive can spectate any one gaming session at the same time, I believe the age-old challenge of successfully hosting game championships as both competitive leagues and a spectator sport has been solved.