What that headline just told you isn't a surprise per se, but the fact that its existence is being unofficially confirmed now, if not officially named, and the manner in which I experienced it are, in fact, tasty surprises.
(That preamble is for that portion of you who will say "no duh it exists," and that portion who would harangue us for not saying something early if we knew, regardless of the official or unofficial status of this news. For the portion of you who must know right now all of the details, the when, the what, the how much, the how fast, we will just have to wait. But I get the sense we won't have to wait too long.)
Just to be clear, I saw a demonstration of Showdown running on the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay, being powered by an unannounced Radeon R9 flagship ultra-enthusiast product. Those words, in their exactness, were told to me officially, as in on the record, by AMD.
Showdown is an immersive experience where a giant robot is wreaking havoc on a city, causing flying debris (at you, around you), a flying car with a person inside, and explosions in 360 degrees, among many pieces of action. I saw Showdown last at CES in early January, and then it wasn't running on this AMD hardware (so presumably Nvidia's). I obviously cannot recall the nuances of that demo earlier this year for precise comparison, but I can say that the performance of this demonstration was remarkably responsive. I tried everything I could to throw off head tracking and introduce latency and I could not, which is to say I didn't experience any latency. The environment is incredibly rich in texture, lighting and immersion. On the other hand, at this point the demonstration is relatively short.
This comes on the heels of AMD's announcement of its virtual reality initiative, called LiquidVR, and the associated SDK, announced yesterday here at GDC. (You can read about the details of that here, and the key pieces of it are listed in the image above.) At a separate meeting this week, AMD emphasized that most of the work behind LiquidVR, especially aspects like Asynchronous Compute Engine (ACE), was already part of GCN, but was now being exposed via APIs.
Naturally, new hardware like this next Radeon R9 would come as a natural part of AMD's release cycle, but the idea that a new generation of graphics processing will be necessary for the experiences being promised in the Oculus Rift further heightens its importance. Earlier in the day, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang stole some thunder (and maybe Nvidia's own, given that its GTC event is less than two weeks away) with an early announcement of the Titan X during Epic's presentation on Unreal. (You can read more details about that here.)
AMD representatives said the heavy lifting that a new Radeon engine and muscular APIs exposed through LiquidVR really just get us to a point where there's true comfort in a virtual reality experience. That is, all of the performance barriers to low latency are removed.
That may sound like table stakes, and in many ways it is; and it may even disappoint many consumers to learn that it will require some pretty beefy hardware to take on the rich immersive experiences we keep hearing about or seeing in early demonstrations. Latency has to get below 11 milliseconds at 90 fps, without dropping a single frame. We are talking about the higher end of the virtual reality spectrum here, and it remains to be seen what lesser hardware can really do. Perhaps the mere novelty will be enough to satisfy manner consumers. But Oculus, AMD, Nvidia and others are aiming higher.
Once the technology achieves this basic level of performance, the real work begins, AMD representatives said, and the kind of quality we're seeing in PC gaming, especially when it comes to photo realism -- something both AMD and Epic stated as goals for future VR -- will start to take off.
I did see a few quick demonstrations of other aspects of LiquidVR. For example, AMD showed a simple demonstration application running at 65 fps, doing about 1000 draw calls. It then turned on the settings to enable Affinity multi-GPU and the frame rates essentially doubled, thus allowing the same 65 fps on each eye.
If it's not clear: VR is about to explode, and companies like AMD and Nvidia are clearly going to grab their piece of this. Or better yet, fuel it.
Bring it on, Captain.