A few weeks ago Tom's Hardware was invited to the Canadian Film Centre's annual Charity Barbecue. Taking place during the Toronto International Film Festival, this event was a who's who of Canadian film and television talent, but amongst all the glitz, the CFC had also set up a virtual reality tent.
Along with being a school for film and television production, the CFC also supports Canadian new media talent with training, and even financial support, in the realm of digital entertainment. VR is a big part of the CFC Media Lab program, and the virtual reality tent was set up to showcase to all the guests the work that the CFC is doing in this area.
One of the sponsors of this event was AMD, and it was there to show off its LiquidVR tech. On display were a number of Oculus Rifts, including a CV1, and also an HTC Vive. All of these demos were being powered by Radeon R9 Furys (both X's and plain ones), with the Vive being shown running on AMD publicly for the first time.
We were able to talk to Sasa Marinkovic, AMD's head of VR marketing, at length about VR and why they were demoing at the CFC. Sasa will also be appearing at the next week's Immersed VR/AR Conference, which we will be covering extensively, so expect to hear more from him on Tom's Hardware in the near future.
Tom's Hardware: We wanted to ask why AMD is here today at the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), and why are you demonstrating VR?
Sasa Marinkovic: Virtual reality is going to be a really disruptive and transformative technology, changing every aspect of our lives – all the experiences you can imagine are going to be completely transformed.
When you look at gaming or video or real estate or travel, they are all very much going to be changed – no longer will you be only a spectator, you will actually be part of the action. And this is the draw of VR video and entertainment, and the angle that we are taking at the CFC. We want to help the next generation of producers, directors and creative people bring their vision to life. We also need to help them realize that the technology needs to go away, and the presence and the experience is what's going to be memorable. So the less they have to worry about technology, the better it's going to be for VR users.
TH: Lately there has been a lot of talk about the future of storytelling and the language required to create VR content, and we’re still very early in the days. Obviously, from a technology perspective, AMD is leading the drive to make the technology work to help those experiences be better, but from an artistic perspective, how do you see AMD’s role in helping these artists create this content and figure out what works for the viewer and works for the audience?
SM: There is this event that we held in 2008. It was called Cinema 2.0, and we presented our vision for the future, where we showed that content is going to get to the point where it has the quality of the movies and the interactivity of games in one. VR is a continuation of that vision of AMD enabling the merging of those two worlds.
I think artists are going to be defining how they want to tell their story by themselves. Our role is to make sure they don't have to worry about technology while making it happen. We are the processing power behind the pixel, and we are going to help make sure that there is nothing that they cannot do when they want to create their images. So when you are turning your head, you can see quickly that your head is turning in no time -- latency is minimized. Realism on the screen is as it is in the real world. But it is going to need to be their vision that they're going to bring to market. And I think at this point, the beauty of this technology is that it's so transformative that anybody can bring their vision to life. And I think you're going to see a lot of different views changing a lot of different things [in entertainment].
TH: So getting a little more technical, we’ve talked about LiquidVR on Tom’s Hardware. Are there any recent developments as far as the technology goes you can tell us about? Also, one thing I’ve been curious about is the recent change in AMD's corporate structure, with graphics becoming more separated. Is that going to change how AMD approaches VR?
SM: It's going to allow for more focus on VR. You have it [the graphics unit] working as a business unit that is solely focused on bringing that photo-realistic view to the market, and you will see that in the professional graphic standpoint, as well as our foray into virtual reality. But it does bring even more focus on VR, what we set out to do is to bring more comfort, content and computability to VR. And you see the latest Oculus has already implemented some of these features -- that is the direct display, so the experience of taking the headset and plugging it into the PC is a plug and play experience. And we're working on all those other features, like Affinity Multi-GPU, for scaling the graphics performance to implement it in the gaming engines and applications, and other features as well.
TH: Does AMD see Multi-GPU as the best solution now for the best VR experience? Because that’s an expensive option for a lot of people.
SM: It is expensive. It basically lets people scale up. So you're going to see the Fury X offer an amazing experience, and if you want even more, you can do that by adding one more, and a third, and a fourth. The difference in virtual reality is that you can add more and more without as much overhead as you had in PC gaming, so Affinity Multi-GPU works different than Crossfire.
In Crossfire, you are aiming for the ultimate framerate -- it will be one frame after the other. With Affinity Multi-GPU, you are basically broadcasting one GPU per eye, because it needs to be the same in both eyes. So you are broadcasting everything in real time. The technology works differently, but the more processing power you put, the more you are going to get.
There was an interview with Palmer Lucky where he was saying if he were to have one thing more in virtual reality, it would be more graphics processing, and you can see how we are helping resolve those technical issues.
TH: Here today [at the event] we have both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and I know you said you wanted to work on supporting all VR solutions. Are you working with OSVR too, or are HTC and Oculus your primary focus?
SM: So at this point, HTC and Oculus are getting the most visibility in the market, but obviously we are evaluating other solutions and engaging with other partners that are appropriate and helping them get to market. In terms of Oculus and HTC, they are coming to market sooner. We are working with Star VR as well, for the Walking Dead, and a number of other companies.
TH: AMD also powers the consoles. Are you working with Sony on PlayStation VR? Are they getting any input from AMD, to make their VR user experience better?
SM: Obviously, PlayStation 4 is powered by AMD. But Sony controls its VR ecosystem, and they are bringing it to the market as their vision.
TH: In the future, could there be some opportunity [with Sony] to make things better, because partnerships always makes things better?
SM: I have no visibility into it. [laughter] But it could be, but like I said, I have no visibility into future plans. But I have tried Morpheus [PlayStation VR] by myself, and I really loved it. It was a very good experience.
TH: Now one thing that concerns me, and I think some of our readers as well, is that obviously we have [AMD] and we have Nvidia, and we have Oculus and HTC and all these standards. And in the non-VR PC gaming space, we've had this issue of "made for AMD, made for Nvidia,” and then the specific features and things like GameWorks. How are we going to avoid this happening in the VR space?
SM: Our approach is very simple. We are not adding proprietary features and blocking off others. So from our perspective it is this -- we develop a feature and enable it through certain applications, but obviously others are free to use it as well and to market it on their own. It's part of the open strategy that AMD has been promoting for all these years. We are going to continue on the same path.
If you remember on the Crossfire side, we did the same thing. We brought out Crossfire, and it was open on both Intel and AMD, and both ecosystems could take advantage of it. FreeSync was one of those ones that opened up and we gave it to everyone. So we are just going to continue the same thing.
TH: You mention Fury X and Fury, and Fury is considered to be the best AMD card for VR. When Oculus announced the official specs for CV1, they said that most notebooks with GPUs, even the most powerful ones, are incapable of powering the VR properly. When does AMD think we will see mobile architecture that can run Oculus at the specifications required? [Nvidia has since announced an Oculus-ready GTX 980-powered notebook standard.]
SM: Well, for Oculus, actually the minimum requirement is an R9 290X -- that's published on Oculus' site. I think this is a very good question for the content developers. If you look on the PC side, when you're building a game, the game developer says "this is the minimum requirement." I think on the VR side it's a little bit different, because there is no stake in the ground at this point to say, "This is the minimum requirement." And we are trying to guide the developers to say, "This is the minimum in order to deliver this experience."
But you are going to see some of the experiences that are going to be less demanding, and you'll be able to run them on mobile GPUs or APUs. But it's going to be up to content developers to develop it appropriately so the content can be run. At this point, I think what we are trying to do is cast a wide net in order to say, "You know all of them should be able to run on this." Creating a superset and not a minimum requirement. I think that dynamic is going to change in the future.
TH: What about actual mobile VR, as in smartphones. Are you investigating that space?
SM: Not at this point, we are not in smartphones.
TH: Because you’ve dabbled in tablets [APUs] and stepped it back a bit.
SM: I mean, I look at VR and the tremendous amount of processing space needed to run it, the size of the files, and if you need to do it in mobile, how streaming would work, how you could bring that immersive experience... I think the PCs at this point are perhaps not the only choice, but the ultimate choice for VR.
I think the market can be broken down into good, better, best, where mobile VR is good, and the PC offers the best experience. But this is early on in the life of VR. I think that experience is going to scale, but I think we're at the point where the best, most immersive experience is going to be on the PC.
TH: Are the LDK kits, the Liquid Developer Kits [pre-built VR development PCs using AMD technology], available yet?
SM: That project is still in the alpha stage, so certain developers have access to it, but it's not available to the public yet.
TH: Any more updates on the Quantum PC? Obviously it is a proof of concept now, but are we also going to see that product come to market?
SM: At this point we don't have any updates. There are a number of people working on this to see what is the best path to market. Obviously it's gathering a lot of attention, and a lot of people would love to see it and get their hands on it, so we are exploring different paths here.
TH: At the end of the year we’re going to see some HMDs available to buy. Any predictions of where the market will be by that time, and come the launch of Oculus? Without disclosing anything you can’t discuss, are you doing anything to promote the release of these HMDs?
SM: Yes, we are looking at what we are going to do at CES and what our involvement is going to be, and our involvement in traditional events that we are participating in every year. So the extent of that involvement changes depending on what technology products we have and how the storyline fits into the overall picture. You can expect us to be doing similar [promotional] things like in the past.
TH: With more announcements coming at the end of the year, I think we’re going to see some acceleration, and we hope there will be more interest in VR technology.
SM: And to that point, we are the Platinum sponsor for the Proto Awards in LA, which is the night before Oculus connect, and that is kind of the Oscars of VR, and everybody comes there. All the developers at AMD will be the focal part of that event.
I mean, yeah, our big push is to help partners create the ecosystem. So game engine developers, application developers, as well as the hardware vendors, not only the headset developers but also the guys making input methods, audio, haptics, all of that -- everything needs to go to that next level.
For example, if you are developing gesture recognition, you need to be cleaning up the images, working with the camera guys. If you are working with the audio, what do you need to change to help those guys? It's the whole ecosystem that needs to get it to the next level.
TH: So our last question, I totally forgot to ask about input -- we have the Vive here, and Vive has a great solution. You don’t have an Oculus Touch demo yet? Are they keeping that under wraps? Is AMD helping how input translates to the screen?
SM: On the PC side, we had a number of technologies that, when you are in front of the camera, it helps clean up the image, and how we helped the responsiveness in interactivity. So you'll see more of that. But as I said, it's a full ecosystem, our role will be to help with the processing standpoint to help with all these different touchpoints, get to the next level.
TH: The Vive’s room-scale experience is very interactive, with very immersive input. Then you have the Oculus sit down experiences...do you think sit down is going to be where it’s at initially, or…?
SM: I think it really depends on the audience. You can look at it from two sides: There is essentially content creation, and I think there are going to be a lot of companies that want to be using the HTC Vive, for example if you are building a condominium development, you are going to want to be able to walk around the apartment and see how it's going to look, or to see the views on the balcony. When you are watching a movie, I think you might want to sit down and enjoy the movie.
So I think both platforms bring something unique. I think it's going to be up to the developers, and the end users, to choose the type of experience they want.
TH: At a recent HTC Vive event we attended, people said they are going to buy both.
SM: I'm leaning that way as well, because I'm impressed by both headsets, and they both look amazing. So if we can help developers create a plug-and-play experience that's interchangeable between Oculus and HTC, and it just works, I think that would work.
To close, I think we covered a lot of topics. What I would like to say is that this is a technology that is very disruptive and transformative, and we're all trying to figure out how to get it to market. At this point, it's better than anything else you have ever seen and experienced, and it's the first step toward full immersiveness. We're trying to get the experience to be very intuitive and easy to use, and user friendly.
We appreciate the time Sasa took to talk to us, and we are looking forward to meeting up with him again at Immersed 2015. Sasa will be opening the conference with a keynote called "The Tipping Point For Virtual Reality," and he will also be on the "What's Under the Hood" panel being moderated by yours truly (Alex Davies).
You can see a full list of speakers here, and the full schedule is online here. Tom's Hardware is a media sponsor for Immersed. Tom's Hardware readers can get a $100 discount on registration by using the code "TomsHardwareImmersed2015" when you sign up using this link.
Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware and Tom's IT Pro, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.