How AMD plans to conquer virtual reality

AMD wants to provide technology so VR headsets are cloud friendly and can be untethered from PCs

AMD's Raja Koduri, Senior Vice President and Chief Architect, Radeon Technologies Group.

Raja Koduri, AMD's Senior Vice President and Chief Architect, Radeon Technologies Group.

Credit: AMD

AMD's Raja Koduri is a soft-spoken and mild-mannered man, but bring up the topic of virtual reality, and he's unstoppable.

As AMD's graphics chief, he's at the center of developing cutting-edge technology so VR headsets provide life-like visuals in virtual worlds. He's now driving AMD's aggressive plan to provide underlying technology to turn VR headsets from a niche into a mainstream product.

Koduri's plan entails providing technology to make VR headsets lighter while making visuals more realistic. Another goal is to untether VR headsets from PCs, and to provide tools so that the 360-degree interactive content isn't nauseating or a strain on the eyes.

AMD makes graphics processors that can render high-quality graphics on VR headsets like Oculus Rift that are hooked to PCs. The company on Monday announced the Radeon Duo Pro, which it claims is the fastest graphics card for VR.

There's more cool stuff coming from AMD, said Koduri, who is the company's senior vice president and chief architect of the Radeon Technologies Group.

"Practically every month we'll have new things in software and hardware," he said in an interview with the IDG News Service.

It's the beginning of a five to 10 year journey, Koduri said.

VR is seen as a big driver for growth in GPUs, much likes games over the last few decades. AMD will continue scaling GPU performance while driving down power consumption.

It will next release GPUs based on the Polaris architecture, which will ship later this year. At the Game Developers Conference, AMD demonstrated a Polaris GPU running Valve’s Aperture Science Robot Repair on an HTC Vive Pre headset.

AMD has been implementing new innovations like the high-speed HBM memory so GPUs draw up images faster. HBM, which stands for High-Bandwidth Memory, is a new type of memory that provides more internal memory bandwidth than existing GDDR5 memory.The technology will continue to improve with Polaris and other architectures, Koduri said.

AMD won't release it's own headset as it is satisfied with the innovations in headsets from companies like Oculus and HTC. Sony this year plans to ship a PlayStation VR headset for its PlayStation 4 console, which is already powered by an AMD chip.

Koduri wants to provide components so VR headsets can be untethered from PCs, but the product has to be reasonable in size and weight. He's not sure when that will be practical, but product development is heading in that direction.

"We want something that's much lighter to put on," Koduri said.

Headset maker Sulon announced a HoloLens-like headset with AMD chips that doesn't need to be tethered to PCs. The headset allows users to interact with 3D objects that show up as floating images superimposed on the real world, much like holographic projections.

Many processing elements will drive VR in the future, Koduri said. A lot of processing for VR content will happen in the cloud, but many latency issues need to resolved. AMD's vision is to provide technology that blends graphics processing on the headset GPU with VR content generated in the cloud.

Beyond the hardware, AMD is also providing the software tools like LiquidVR -- a virtual reality software development and rendering kit -- that will guide users to make good VR applications. The LiquidVR tools have been opened up via GPUOpen, a set of low-level APIs so developers can take full advantage of features on Radeon GPUs.

Since the announcement of GPUOpen a month ago, the developer engagement has grown by 300 percent, far exceeding expectations, Koduri said.

AMD is also working with external development tools, and could exploit APIs like Vulkan and DirectX 12. The Sulon Q headset is a good example of how AMD will take advantage of Microsoft's DirectX 12 tools to deliver VR experiences.

AMD claims it has a 83 percent market share in home VR systems, but lags behind rival Nvidia by a large margin in the standalone GPU market. Nvidia had a 74 percent market share in the fourth quarter last year, up from 72 percent a year earlier, according to figures from Mercury Research. AMD had 26 percent, down from 28 percent the year before.

But AMD has taken aggressive steps to push its hardware for VR applications. The company has certified desktops from HP and Dell as being "VR-ready" to which headsets like Oculus Rift can be hooked up. AMD has also announced the VR First initiative with Crytek, and is equipping university computer labs with Pro Duo graphics cards for VR content creation.

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