AMD’s CEO Lisa Su and SVP Raja Koduri both came out strong for VR at the company’s pre-GDC “Capsaicin” event — naming VR, along with gaming, as AMD’s top two markets going forward. To convince us it’s not only serious, but that it has the goods to back up its ambitions, AMD rolled out both new VR-friendly GPUs and brought out over a dozen execs from a wide-variety of VR and gaming related companies to sing the praises of its latest hardware and software during a two-hour press conference marathon.
Making VR go faster with LiquidVR
Using better hardware and software to make VR go faster was a common thread across all the presentations, and the demos, at Capsaicin. Top of the list is accelerating what VR developers call “motion to photon” — reducing the lag between when you move your head and the display catches up. Faster response not only makes for a more-realistic VR experience, but is a key factor in reducing the motion sickness induced in many people by laggy VR offerings. The trouble is that not only does a VR experience need to be producing frames at 90fps for smooth motion, it needs to produce two of them at a time (one for each eye). So, instead the more-traditional 60fps target for most games, the GPU and CPU need to be churning out 180 frames every second — with a lag of less than 15 milliseconds to get to the sweet spot of responsiveness.
AMD has innovated in a number of areas to help developers achieve this goal. LiquidVR is their name for a set of capabilities that it is making available with its newest GPU offerings. In particular, LiquidVR offers support for Asynchronous Shaders (allowing more parallelization of processing), multi-GPU support, and Late Latch (for async update, allowing faster response to sensors). Under the covers, LiquidVR also implements Direct-to-Display rendering to supported VR devices, bypassing the OS for lower latency.
Of course, more efficient software is only part of the solution for developers. AMD also showcased its massively-powerful new dual GPU graphics accelerator — the new Radeon Pro Duo (that we covered separately) — and demoed its Polaris 10 and Polaris 11 next-generation GPUs. The Polaris 10 was shown running Hitman and Battlefront in fairly-convincing fashion. I was able to demo a passively cooled Polaris 11 running a VR video on an Oculus DK2, which worked well given the limited ambitions. AMD is hoping the passive cooling capability will allow it to deploy the Polaris 11 in some new situations, like theaters or other shared venues, that haven’t had access to high-quality VR playback before. On the more traditional graphics front, AMD also announced that it was providing a free rendering library — Fire Renderer — that will natively be able to take advantage of the dual GPUs on the Fire Pro Duo.
AMD rolls out an all-star array of industry supporters for its efforts
Most of the two-hour-long announcement was taken up with testimonials from industry partners making use of AMD’s new products — for gaming, 3D rendering, and VR. Many were expected, but there were some interesting applications mentioned. For example, with high-end Cinematic VR, it has been very difficult for directors to get realtime view of what is being shot because of the massive processing requirements. Matthew Lewis, Director of Fox’s newly-announced Assassin’s Creed: VR Experience, said that AMD’s new Radeon Pro Duo allowed him to keep up with filming the way he has always wanted to.
Cevat Yerlic, of Crytek, took the opportunity to announced that their VR First academic initiative is now being rolled out at eight institutions, including CSU Monterey Bay, Purdue, RIT, USC, and the University of Florida in the US. Those schools will get development systems that include AMD Pro Dual hardware.
Dice & Square Enix are using AMD-supported GPUOpen to quickly remap functionality onto new hardware. Nathan Griffiths of AP and Sean Liu of 360 Video both explained how the better performance made possible with AMD’s LiquidVR and its new GPUs was improving their workflow and allowing them to get their journalistic content published in a more timely fashion.
For those used to the dominant market share of Nvidia in the desktop GPU market, AMD provided the interesting statistic that 83% of VR systems are powered by AMD (which of course includes a large number of consoles). That gives its efforts in the area quite a bit of weight among both hardware and software developers. One illustration was the appearance of execs from both HTC and HP on stage to promote their partnerships with AMD in optimizing their users’ experience of VR.
Sulon Q and its Magic Beans stole the show
For those who have been impressed by demo videos from Magic Leap or Microsoft’s HoloLens, the demo video from startup Sulon is at least as impressive. The “Magic Beans” video that was projected on stage was shot through Sulon Q hardware, and combined a remarkably realistic augmented reality scene that segued into a VR experience. The object tracking and alignment of the AR sequence was superb — which Sulon attributes to processing its forward-facing images in real time with its proprietary Spatial Processing Unit (like Microsoft and Google, Sulon has realized that custom hardware is needed for realtime AR). Like so many early AR demos, though, it was shot in the company’s office, so we didn’t get to see anything happening live.
Like Microsoft’s HoloLens, the Sulon Q is un-tethered — a huge advantage. However, the Q is a full-face headset (like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive), rather than a see-through display. That gives it a better ability to do real VR, and a wider field of view, but does mean that the user’s view of the outside world when used in an AR mode is provided entirely by cameras — making the rapid processing of camera data especially important. Sulon CEO waved a prototype of the Q around on stage, but otherwise kept it carefully hidden under his jacket, and later under glass, so the only glimpse we got of what it will be able to do was the projected video.
The Sulon Q hardware runs Windows 10 on its embedded AMD FX-8800P processor with Radeon R7 Graphics (4 compute and 8 GPU cores), and features a 110-degree FOV on its 2560×1440 display. It has an interface for controlling the Windows UI from the device, but we didn’t see that demonstrated. The device supports DirectX 12 and Vulkan, as well as integrating AMD’s LiquidVR technology. Rounding out its capabilities is AstoundSound for 3D spatial audio, as well as a pair of noise-canceling microphones. Sulon claims its device is “coming in Spring,” although we assume that will be an early developer edition, rather than a full-on consumer release. Either way, it has huge potential to be a flagship in this space, as getting rid of the tether, and having a single device that supports both AR and VR is something of a Holy Grail in the mixed-reality market.
The Capsaicin event was one more illustration that GPU vendors realize that VR (and AR), along with machine learning, represent some of the largest potential growth areas for their businesses. It was also good to see AMD’s focus on cross-platform solutions like Vulkan, as there are a growing number of different platforms and markets that are all worthy of investment and attention.