When Advanced Micro Devices created its own stand-alone graphics division, Radeon Technologies Group, and crafted a new brand, Polaris, for its upcoming graphics architecture, it was an admission of sorts. AMD championed the combination of processors and graphics into a single chip, dubbed the accelerated processing unit (APU). But the pendulum swung a little too far in that direction, away from stand-alone graphics. And now it’s Raja Koduri’s job to compensate for that.
I interviewed Koduri at the 2016 International CES, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas last week. He acknowledged that AMD intends to put graphics back in the center. And he said that 2016 will be a very big year for the company as it introduces its advanced FinFET manufacturing technology, which will result in much better performance per watt — or graphics that won’t melt your computer. Koduri believes this technology will help AMD beat rivals such as Nvidia. AMD’s new graphics chips will hit during the middle of 2016, Koduri said.
Beyond 2016, Koduri believes that graphics are going to get more and more amazing. Virtual reality is debuting, but we won’t be completely satisfied with the imagery until we get 3D graphics that can support 16K screens, or at least 16 times more pixels on a screen that we have available on most TVs today. Koduri wants to pump those pixels at you at a rate of 240 hertz, or changing the pixels at a rate of 240 times per second. Only then will you really experience true immersion that you won’t be able to tell apart from the real world. He calls it “mirror-like” graphics. That’s pretty far out thinking.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
VentureBeat: Why did you create a stand-alone graphics division within AMD?
Raja Koduri: The context of creating the stand-alone group is quite simple. Our vision is instinctive computing. We want a focused set of people inside the company, almost in a startup mode, that think and do things around instinctive computing. That’s where the big growth opportunities are. We believe we have an engine to make that work. We’re only one of two companies that can do this.
We haven’t been focused on discrete graphics over the last several years. We’ve pursued integration and other strategies. But we believe that to get to an instinctive computing world, discrete graphics will be central. It’s a very healthy market, 80 million discrete APUs sold last year. We believe that will grow, not shrink, because of the trends we’ve seen, like VR. We want a focus from business, engineering, architecture, content, all under one division.
VentureBeat: Getting the APU established and accepted was the first job. Now you’re swinging the pendulum back a little?
Koduri: Remember a few years ago when we talked about the Future is Fusion? Now we’re back to the Future is Fusion again, because of the performance requirements, the stability requirements. We organized this idea called fast pixels, deep pixels, and immersive pixels.
You’ve been watching this for a long time. If you look at the pixel rate, 640 by 480 was the key gaming resolution 20 years ago. Then 1024 by 768, then 720p, 1080p, Ultra HD (4K), and 5K panels. If you look how fast we’re gaining pixels, and forget about how complex the pixels are, we’ve gone from some really low rates to almost a gigapixel. But this is just at 60Hz. We are getting beyond that. One of the things that we’re excited about in the work we’re doing with VR. [Yet even] this image is substantially lower quality than a simple hand mirror that you look at. A mirror has much better contrast, much better pixel resolution, infinite pixel resolution.
Our goal, the path we’re on, is to get to that mirror-like quality. What the eye can see in a display today is a small fraction of what it can see in the outside world. That’s the next set of technologies that we and our partners at the display manufacturers are bringing in. You look at it and think, “Oh my God. This is so much better.”
VentureBeat: You’re very excited about VR?
Koduri: We’re just entering the VR era. You see all these VR headsets. If you see what it takes to drive a VR headset, the pixel rate requirements are almost doubled up compared to the previous iteration. That’s driving up demand for discrete graphics quite a bit. Now, if you push that forward, when you get to 16K by 16K resolution, 120Hz, you get to a pixel rate of 6 billion pixels per second. We’re not going to get there if we just rely on Moore’s Law. We have to do disruptive things to get there. That’s the goal of our division, to get to the immersive era. We need to double up our products and technology, step by step. You’ll see the key initiatives and technology this year. You’ll see more next year.
There are several opportunities to take us to the immersive era. We’ll be working with game developers and engine developers and so on. If we keep on the current trajectory, we need a million [uncertain – 6:12] per year to get us to the immersive era. This includes the performance you need not just at 200 watts. We need this performance at five watts, so that the VR experience is completely mobile. You’ll need that sense of presence.
When I set the goal, I said, “We need to get here in our lifetime.” We can’t do that with Moore’s law and hardware alone. We have to unleash software on this problem. We’ve been working with developers on all of these ideas. How can we get 16K by 16K displays refreshing at 240Hz with the picture that you want to draw? Developers want more control, on their side. They want console level GPU access on the PC.
What they’ve been able to achieve on consoles in the current generation, versus the current high-end PC — the current high-end PC specs are at least four to eight times faster than current consoles. The Fury X is an eight teraflop machine. The PS4 is a two teraflop machine. It’s four times more compute in that single Fury. You can build a dual Fury PC. But PC doesn’t give you that much better an experience with cutting edge content, because they can extract more performance from a console. They’re also investing a lot of IP into that architecture. They’re doing some really clever things that are not possible on the PC yet.
VentureBeat: What’s the solution?
Koduri: The solution is, we’re opening up the GPU. It’s a point in our journey as far as what we’ve been doing with software over the last couple of years. We’re giving direct access, unprecedented control of the GPU, to the developer. Completely open source software. This has never been done on GPUs. It’s been done everywhere else, but not on GPUs. A large collection of tools, libraries, and SDKs, all completely open source and available to developers.
We’re inviting participation in this effort from both our competitors and our partners. We’re getting some really good traction there. You’ll see a lot more. GDC will be a key event. You’ll hear a lot more about GPU Open and some of the partners that we’re signing up to be a part of it. That’s on the software front. I wanted to highlight that, because unlocking the potential for immersive and instinctive computing is all about software. We believe software is the key.
Our competition’s strategy has been proprietary software and locked down boards. That’s not going to increase the capability of the GPU. We want to increase the health of the GPU and take it far beyond just the PC gamer, the PC enthusiast. That’s the sole reason for us to do this big GPU Open initiative.
We have some exciting hardware announcements as well. This is designed for FinFET. Our guiding principle for the Polaris architecture was power efficiency. We have the new naming scheme for our architectures. It’ll be based on galaxies, star systems, and stars. You’ll see more of this coming in the future. Polaris is the beginning of our journey through space.