AMD’s GDC 2016 press conference could convince the most diehard VR skeptics

amd am4 desktop platform bristol ridge apu a series hp lenovo at gdc 2016
At AMD’s ‘Capsaicin’ press conference last night, taking place at San Francisco’s Ruby Skye night club, an audience consisting of press and game developers was greeted with a fascinating combination of the technical and the whimsical.

“We are about two things: we are about gamers and we are about VR,” professed an overjoyed AMD executive.

In the moments ensuing, another executive stood on stage donning a lab coat and showing us a “Happiness Index” he had devised, with the amount of alcohol consumed directly correlating with productivity. It was a humorous way to draw a crowd, but it wasn’t long after that the same congregation being spoken to would grow petulant.

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The rest of the conference blended transparent marketing rhetoric with some intermittently interesting ideas. A plethora of special guests appeared, including Ubisoft VP of Digital Publishing Chris Early, who talked about its upcoming Eagle Flight Virtual Reality simulator powered by AMD’s GPUs and Liquid VR.

He even casually referenced the officially unannounced Watch Dogs 2, and went back to the publisher’s roots by reminding us of how Rayman came to be. With no arms and no legs due to the original PlayStation’s lack of processing power back in 1995, Early joked that he “bet [Rayman] wishes he had some of those AMD GPUs back then.”

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Digital Trends / Gabe Carey

Despite some of the comic relief, the event’s high points were sporadic. Notably, Square Enix’s showed a buttery smooth DirectX 12-powered Hitman demo running on a Polaris 10 GPU in 4K at 60FPS — the first time AMD has shown its upcoming graphics architecture in action. But many of the other announcements were reiterations of reveals we had already seen.

There was a segment on low-overhead APIs, like DirectX 12 and Mantle (which is apparently still a thing) that made AMD appear a lot more impartial than you might expect. Richard Huddy, AMD’s Chief Gaming Scientist reminded us that the first DirectX 12 games — Ashes of the SingularityHitman, and 3DMark — would all be supported on AMD graphics cards. Likewise, it addressed some upcoming DirectX 12 software as well, including Battlezone, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the Frostbite 3 engine, and Oxide.

AMD even took time to talk about Vulkan, albeit without going into much detail, likely as a result of the Khronos Group borrowing a number of its ideas from Mantle.

Virtual Reality saves the day

But it was VR where the presser really shined, despite it being well over an hour too late. By that point in the conference, a handful of audience members had already begun to leave, and those who didn’t were beginning to grow increasingly irritable.

Nevertheless, AMD assured us, VR is “here to stay,” reminding us that with today’s technology, digital reality will be drastically better than it was during its 15 minutes of fame in the 90s.

I’m a bit of a VR skeptic, but this part of AMD’s conference almost changed my mind. Almost. For developers, Radeon Pro Duo, AMD’s VR development platform, probably showed some potential. It is, after all, Crytek’s choice platform for its VR First initiative.

But for me, as a consumer, it was Sulon Q that blew me away — not in terms of present capability — but in terms of what VR could be in the future.

About a month ago, I spoke with an augmented reality app developer who believed that the future of digital reality was a single device that could do it all. Virtual, mixed, or otherwise, no version of an obscured reality would be off limits for this hypothetical hardware.

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Sulon Q is that fantasy come to life. It bears its own processing components — an AMD FX-8800P CPU with Radeon R7 graphics — and even runs Windows 10 without any external device connected. But even more interestingly, it serves as both an augmented, or mixed, reality headset as well as a virtual one, meaning you can bring objects from the real world into your experience or you could opt to remain isolated.

In theory, Sulon Q combines aspects from most of the popular HMDs, without being tied to a particular piece of hardware such as a mobile handset or a gaming PC. But alas, its flexibility is otherwise diminished by its evidently under powered built-in hardware.

Although advertised as offering “console-quality graphics,” the visuals I saw in the Sulon Q demonstration were far from what you would expect from a PS4 or Xbox One. It looked more like a high-end mobile game.

VR journalism is making gains

The last thing I recall before zoning out from the more developer-centric specifics was AMD’s collaboration with the Associated Press on Virtual Reality journalism, featuring a guest appearance from the AP’s Interactive Editor Nathan Griffiths and Product Manager of 360 Video at Oculus.

AMD’s conference may have sold me on VR headsets.

In that, the company discussed the possibility of 360-degree cameras taking off with prosumers, and the importance of faster VR news deliverance to result from better GPUs and the more streamlined editing/rendering process that would result.

Regardless of my thoughts on VR, the fact that so many of these tech giants are prematurely committed to the technology is indicative of its commercial success yet to come. AMD’s Capsaicin press conference may have been an hour and a half too long, lasting nearly three hours in total, but a few things worth mentioning piqued my curiosity — it may have even sold me on the first headset of my own.

That alone made for time well spent.

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