In its Oregon skunkworks, Intel is plotting to turn your laptop into a VR rig

Intel isn’t the first company to come to mind when you think of virtual reality. The processor giant is eclipsed by Oculus and AMD and Nvidia and HTC, which focus tightly on cutting-edge VR experiences. It’s not sitting in the shadows – Intel attempted a major breakout in VR with its innovative Project Alloy headset – but others have hogged the spotlight.

That’s OK with Intel, to a degree. The company isn’t in the business of making virtual reality headsets, and it doesn’t plan to enter. Yet Intel is heavily invested in virtual reality for a reason so obvious you may have forgotten – Intel processors power most VR experiences. Sure, AMD’s Ryzen is now available, but it’s only an option for a desktop niche. Most VR-capable PCs have a Core processor, and for Intel, that’s just the beginning. The company also wants to see Intel UHD Graphics power VR headsets.

Intel wants to be a part of the entire VR scene, from the most lavish desktop rigs to budget laptops. Making that more than virtual reality will take a lot of work, so we swung by Intel’s Hillsboro, Oregon campus to discuss the company’s plans in person with Kim Pallister, director of Intel’s Virtual Reality Center of Excellence.

Accelerating high-end VR

Right now, the virtual reality conversation is dominated by the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Owners of these devices tend to be die-hard fans who believe slipping on a headset will soon be an everyday experience, like pulling out a smartphone or booting a PC. They own powerful computers with the latest graphics from AMD or Nvidia – though those video cards are almost always paired with an Intel Core processor.

Intel’s dominance is likely to remain strong, despite the arrival of AMD’s Ryzen processor, but Core processors are just the tip of the iceberg. The company wants to not only accelerate VR but also find ways to free virtual reality from its many restrictions. According to Pallister, this begins with the cable.

Watch people get their first Vive demo. They usually say, ‘How do I get this cable off my head?’

“If you watch people get their first Vive demo, they usually say ‘Where are my feet?’ and then ‘How do I get this cable off my head?’” As Pallister told us, Intel has a way to solve that problem in WiGig, an extremely fast Wi-Fi solution developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, of which Intel is a member.

Intel and HTC partnered to show a demo of WiGig in real-world use at E3 2017, and we had a chance to try it, loading up Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality for fifteen minutes of pure chaos. The demo was exactly what you’d hope for – VR, but without the wires. Having tried the game before, we knew what to expect from it, and we noticed absolutely zero latency despite the crowded Wi-Fi environment on the E3 show floor. Everything, from image quality to motion control accuracy, felt exactly as with a wired HTC Vive.

WiGig is the most exciting example of Intel’s attempts to improve high-end VR, but it’s not alone. Intel sees opportunities for many other technologies, such as RealSense – which was used to create the Project Alloy concept headset – and even Optane, the company’s high-speed memory technology.

Intel Virtual Reality Center for Excellence

“It turns out that for things like snapping […] into your application, that load time in VR is disorienting,” Pallister told Digital Trends. “There’s a time where it blanks out, and you’re floating in space like, what’s going on? So, reducing that actually increases the comfort level, and we think that’s a thing that will help push Intel Optane.”

AMD is also focusing on ways to improve video memory, as its new RX Vega cards make clear. While their approaches different, it’s clear both companies think lower memory latency is important for tomorrow’s PC entertainment. Virtual reality performance is often measured in frames per second; latency and load times must be improved to fulfill the dream of a seamless virtual world.

Bringing VR to the masses

As exciting as technology like WiGig and Optane may be to the hardcore geeks, they target a niche. Mainstream acceptance is VR’s real challenge, and so far, the technology hasn’t been up to the task. Intel wants to help change that, and it’s using an unlikely piece of hardware to do it – integrated graphics.

“There’s no reason Minecraft in VR isn’t feasible,”

Almost every PC – laptops, in particular – has an Intel UHD graphics chip. Most only have that. If virtual reality hopes to become mainstream, it needs to become compatible with what people already own, or plan to purchase. Intel thinks it can help.

“The PC industry […] works really well when there’s a good, better, best model, and people can pick the price-performance tradeoffs they want,” Pallister explained. In other words, you should be able to choose a price-performance tradeoff you’re comfortable with and still experience VR. To make that possible, Intel must pick its battles, optimizing integrated graphics with realistic goals in mind.

“We started to do a number of things to say, OK, what would it take to still hit a really high-quality experience, one that doesn’t make people nauseated or things like that, but dials down other areas, in terms of visual fidelity,” Pallister told us.

Intel UHD graphics won’t be powering a game like Elite: Dangerous in VR, but it could be used for other, popular applications. “There’s no reason Minecraft in VR isn’t feasible,” Pallister said. “The important part is that […] it’s still comfortable, cool, and immersive.”

Walking the walk

It’s easy for Intel to say it wants integrated graphics to power virtual reality, but the company is doing more than just talk. That became clear at IFA 2017, where Microsoft provided details about Windows Mixed Reality and several headsets were teased or announced.

Microsoft and Intel have worked closely over the past year to make Windows Mixed Reality possible. “We zeroed in on a collaboration with Microsoft and their Windows Mixed Reality headsets,” Pallister told us. “They’re more focused on how we get to a low-cost headset design […] and we work with them to see how we can deliver a set of experiences on it that will run on mainstream notebook graphics.”

The result is a headset like the Dell Visor, which starts at $350 without handheld controllers. Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and HP also have headsets in the works. All of them are more affordable than the Oculus Rift, yet most also offer a higher display resolution and support room-scale VR without the need for external sensors.

Intel Virtual Reality Center for Excellence HTC Vive
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

These Windows Mixed Reality headsets will, of course, support the most lavish games, including VR games available on Steam. Yet they also offer an entry-level tier that focuses on desktops and laptops with integrated graphics, and will target a low-latency, 60 FPS viewing experience, instead of the more common 90 FPS.

While that may not be enough to handle a game like zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine, it’s plenty to power 360-degree experiences and games with simple graphics. Minecraft is the popular example, but Intel also showed us a high-resolution prototype of an experience built in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute. It paired high-resolution captures of a museum hallway with motion controls for a detailed, up-close look at several paintings and sculptures. It felt similar to the applications commonly available for smartphone-based VR headsets, but with better image quality and support for room-scale use.

Intel thinks the standardization of experience offered by Windows Mixed Reality is good for everyone. Affordable headsets that deliver consistent quality should bring VR to more homes. “You really need to have that wide audience available so you can have an ecosystem that’s sustainable. Developers, if they’re going to make money off titles, they need to be able to sell units beyond a niche market,” said Pallister. “Bethesda needs to sell Fallout to that whole stack, so they can reach tens of millions of people, not tens of thousands.”

A turning point

Windows Mixed Reality powered by Intel integrated graphics could be a turning point for virtual reality. If it works as promised, it will massively expand the number of VR-capable PCs. The new 8th-gen Intel Core processors bring quad-core performance even to 13-inch laptops and 2-in-1s. It’s hard to imagine such thin systems powering a VR headset, but that’s the goal.

These new headsets will start to arrive through the last few months of 2017 – the Dell Visor, for example, should be on store shelves on October. That dovetails nicely with the launch of Intel’s latest generation of Core processor. Content is the only missing piece of the puzzle – while we already know that Steam will support Windows Mixed Reality, it’s not clear what else is coming to the platform.

Keep your eyes peeled for that information in coming months. If the content does come, it could turn even the humblest laptops – including the one you already own – into a capable VR machine.

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