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August 28, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:54am

AMD Q&A: Bringing the virtual world into reality

Will Virtual Reality ever deliver? AMD's Sasa Marinkovic takes CBR through the past, present and future of virtual reality technology.

By Ellie Burns

Virtual Reality, or VR, has always been a technology on the cusp of greatness. Movies and popular culture have created a consumer expectation of VR which has never really materialised.

Although not a reality today, can VR one day fulfill consumer Matrix-like expectations? How far are we away from realising those VR ambitions?

Answering those questions and more, CBR sat down with Sasa Marinkovic, Head of VR Marketing, Computing and Graphics Business Group at AMD, who painted a picture of the VR world of today and tomorrow.

EB: How would you define Virtual Reality?

SM: Virtual Reality or VR is a computer-generated environment that delivers immersive, interactive and lifelike user experiences that seem every bit as real as the physical world. VR creates a sense of realism by simulating a user’s physical presence within a software-created world, assisted by powerful computer hardware, software, and visual technologies.

Currently, VR requires powerful computing and graphics capabilities, advanced VR software, a camera/device that tracks your movements, and a specialized goggle-style headset or head-mounted display unit. The VR headset creates a three-dimensional effect and enhances the illusion of depth, similar to how special 3D eyeglasses create a sense of depth when viewing 3D movies, although the technology is vastly different.

EB: Where are we now with Virtual Reality technology and the market in general?`

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SM: At the moment, Virtual Reality is at the consumer pre-launch phase. Think of it as a pre iPhone 1 release. Tens of thousands of developers are working on an array of applications, including simulation, gaming, entertainment, education, social media, travel, medicine, real estate, ecommerce, and more.

A crucial factor in having a comfortable VR experience is creating and maintaining what is known as "presence" — a state of immersive awareness where situations, objects, or characters within the virtual world seem "real." Presence can be assessed by the degree to which the virtual environment faithfully evokes a sense of reality that causes you, the user, to suspend disbelief. The greater the suspension of disbelief, the greater the degree of presence achieved.

Short term, solving motion-to-photon latency — where you turn your head in a virtual world and it takes too long for a new perspective to be shown to your eyes — and maintaining VR presence can deliver the illusion of the real world. Creating and maintaining presence requires a unified effort of the companies and technologies participating in the VR processing pipeline, from initial input controllers all the way to the display technologies within a head-mounted display.

Medium to long term, we as the industry need to deliver immersive, interactive and intuitive user experiences. Rendering near-photorealistic imagery — in real-time, at high resolutions, in stereo, and at high refresh rates is a challenge for even the most powerful GPUs and CPUs available today.

EB: Virtual Reality has always been full of promise, but never really delivered. Will VR ever make the same impact as the smartphone?

SM: There are a number of technologies that significantly improved over the past couple of decades, namely display resolution and graphics processing capabilities. The development of visual computing has evolved dramatically from the advent of real-time 2D computer imagery back in the 1970s, to graphics accelerators enabling 3D gaming in the 1990s, to the advanced GPUs enabling near-photorealistic 3D images a decade later. Display resolution has evolved from 640×480 pixels (0.3 MPixels) in the 90s to 4k resolution (~8 MPixels) today.

I am a big believer that VR will not only transform the way we perceive and interact with the digital content, but also transform the way we experience the world.

EB: Looking at how the smartphone has made such an impact on our daily lives, how do you think VR, if successful, will change our lives and society?

SM: Using VR technology, people will be able to able to walk around, pause, rewind, and see historic events from different vantage points. Every detail can be thoroughly researched and reproduced. Imagine what that could do in education.

I foresee scientists working with top researchers and institutions around the world discovering new insights about the human body previously not possible. New tools and technologies that enable visualizing our anatomy and functions can give us all new insights and a better understanding of treatments needed for illness or injury.

Tomorrow’s entertainment holds the promise of all-encompassing worlds of life-like interaction, where the viewer becomes part of the plot, lives the characters, and alters the action, all made possible by VR.

However these entertainment possibilities will only be fully realised when such technology is undetectable, and we truly feel like we’re in the same room as a long-distance relative when having a virtual conversation. VR has the potential to enable incredible experiences but the real key to this technology in the future will be for it not to be seen or acknowledged, just believed. In VR, creativity will reach a whole new level.

EB: How would visual computing impact the workplace?

SM: I believe that the workplace of the future will look vastly different than today. The creation process will become much more collaborative where someone working on the simulation of the car, for example, will be able to take input from a colleague in real time.

We will be able to twist and turn models, change background images, lighting, build virtual "real life" models before wasting money and material on prototypes. The content will become significantly more visual where the database will not be textual but a colourful, layered 3D object.

EB: Do you think people’s high expectation of VR graphics versus existing capabilities have damaged the growth and adoption of VR?

SM: From my personal experience I can tell you that trying out Crescent Bay from Oculus and the HTC Vive for the first time blew past my wildest expectations. I expected that the experience would be amazing, but I didn’t really know what to expect.

Within the first 10 seconds of looking at the content I experienced something like never before in my life. You have to see it to believe it. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t think that expectations are hurting the adoption.

EB: What are the main technical and creative challenges of VR?

SM: One of the big technical challenges is motion-to-photon latency. This is most obviously felt in situations where you turn your head in a virtual world and it takes too long for a new perspective to be shown to your eyes, causing a motion sick type feeling.

The "motion" in "motion-to-photon" typically refers to your movements as a user, and "photon" refers to the light being emitted by the head-mounted display. If a scene takes even a few milliseconds longer than it should to be displayed to your eyes – meaning that you moved your head and the motion-to-photon latency was too high – you’ll feel uneasy. Minimizing that motion-to-photon latency is a key first step in the path to presence.

It’s not just AMD who has a part to play in solving motion-to-photon latency and creating a sense of presence. It takes a unified effort of companies that make up the processing pipeline — from input controllers to the display technology in a head-mounted display — to reduce critical latencies and enable a comfortable and enjoyable VR experience.

However AMD’s GPU software and hardware sub-systems are playing a major part in that latency equation. AMD engineers have been collaborating closely with key technology partners in the ecosystem to understand the problem and implement latency reduction techniques.

Long term, achieving full presence in virtual environments involves innovations in basic senses other the sight, like hearing, touch and other stimuli like temperature, kinesthetic sense and balance. AMD sees a great opportunity to leverage our heterogeneous and scalable architectures to deliver acceleration to simulate all sensory experiences in years to come.

EB: How is AMD addressing these challenges faced by VR?

SM: AMD recently released the Alpha version of its LiquidVR SDK to select number of developers. The LiquidVR creates a platform that provides software functionality to simplify and optimize VR development, and unlocks many unique hardware features designed to seamlessly interplay with headsets to enable smooth and immersive VR experiences.

We believe that VR has an incredible future ahead, and AMD is committed to ensuring that people using AMD products and developers creating VR content to run on AMD products will enjoy and create the best possible VR experiences.

AMD’s current VR technology initiative focuses on the "Three C’s" of ensuring an enjoyable VR experience: content, comfort, and compatibility.

EB: What is AMD’s future vision for VR?

SM: An amazing range of visual experiences are being developed by the content creators for VR, and we need a hardware and software strategy that is different than the "one-size-fits-all" model employed for most 2D applications. With LiquidVR, users of AMD technology can build multi-GPU and multi-core CPU systems with solutions available in the market today.

We expect a wide variety of VR devices to emerge in coming months and years. Many of these devices may represent entirely new categories, and may not initially have native support from content and operating system ecosystems. Our goal with LiquidVR is to help make the end-to-end installation experience as intuitive as possible — particularly for the display and GPU subsystem portions.

Achieving full presence in virtual environments involves innovations involving human senses other than sight, and may incorporate hearing, touch, and other stimuli like temperature, balance, and kinesthetic senses. AMD envisions a great opportunity to leverage our heterogeneous and scalable architectures to deliver acceleration to simulate all sensory experiences in the years to come.


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