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Intel recently hosted a 100-year-old man at its virtual reality lab in Hillsboro, Oregon. Lyle Becker was a big fan of the VR flight simulator, which reminded him of the planes that he flew in World War II. That kind of first-time experience evokes a sense of wonder at the immersiveness of VR, and that’s why Kim Pallister, director of VR excellence at Intel, believes so much that VR will be a transformative medium.
While VR is off to a slow start, Pallister believes that it will catch on in the long run. Intel recently pivoted away from a tech demo that it called Project Alloy, a stand-alone VR headset, to something entirely different. The first generation of VR headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, are connected to powerful personal computers via wires. Everybody wants those wires to go away, but how you tackle the issue matters.
Pallister said Intel tried at first to put the processing power in the headset itself so that you don’t have to connect a wire to a PC. But the company also worked on connecting the headset display to a PC via a wireless technology. Pallister thinks that will deliver a much better experience.
The WiGig wireless networking technology, which uses a short-range 60-gigahertz radio, can transfer data at fast enough rates to feed VR imagery from a PC to the display in a VR headset. With the WiGig connection, VR headset makers will be able to exploit the extra processing power available in a full desktop computer, rather than a more limited processor that has to run on battery power in a compact headset.
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I recently joined a small group of journalists who jointly interviewed Pallister. We talked about Becker, the immersive nature of VR, Project Alloy, WiGig, and Intel’s partnership with Blueprint Reality on a VR presentation technology. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I saw that video of the 100-year-old man visiting [the VR lab].
Kim Pallister: That was in my lab up in Oregon. That was so much fun. We had a guy based in Oregon. His daughter is friends with the ops manager on my team. She said, “Hey, my dad is really into tech. He’s been hearing about VR, and I know you work on that.” We said, “Bring him by!” We have this open — the lab is behind locked doors, but there’s a “knock for VR demos” sign up, and we bring people in all the time. People bring their kids in. It’s a bit of a zoo sometimes.
We brought this guy in. He’s 100 years old. If I’m as spry as he is at 100 years — the guy came booking into the lab. He’s in great shape. We put together some demos for him to film it and make a thing out of it. He was a pilot, a commercial pilot, and a pilot in World War II. He flew these supply routes that went from Burma over the high mountains in southeast Asia. It was known to be a pretty dangerous route. If you took the wrong route in the dark, you’d hit a mountain you couldn’t get over. We thought, “Hey, we’ll put him in some flight sims and see what he thinks.”
The one question we asked him was — he was born in 1917. You’ve seen the advent of television, the advent of computers, the advent of the internet. You’ve seen the advent of commercial flight. So what’s the one technology you think was the biggest thing? You’d think maybe the internet, maybe computers. Maybe that’s my bias because I work at Intel. But he says, “Without a question, GPS.” As a pilot, seeing the world before and after, that’s the biggest delta.
GamesBeat: Do you work with Project Alloy?
Pallister: The team that worked on that is the other lab down in Santa Clara. They’re the group that worked on all our sensing technologies. It’s a different team, but I work with those guys all the time. We’re trying a lot of different stuff. There are ways they’re related. With Alloy we said, “We have this great sensing technology. We have this high-performance PC technology. Let’s see how far we can push the envelope of putting it all in one form factor.”
We realized this is not necessarily the optimal form factor. We learned a lot of things. We think both the inside-out tracking technology and the 3D depth sensing technology are absolutely applicable across a lot of VR areas. But the way we saw the price and performance versus form factor and the fact we were getting increasing confidence on the WiGig side of things — the best way to deliver a high-performance PC experience is to wirelessly talk to a high-performance PC plugged into a wall outlet.
GamesBeat: Is the dev kit for Alloy still supposed to come out this year?
Pallister: I think we’ve said we’re not necessarily doing it. We haven’t seen that much interest. All the technologies are still applicable, so we’re looking at ways to deliver those. Guys on my team are taking that same inside-out tracking tech and integrating it into the smartphone demo you saw there. We’re working on that now. The tech is still very much being worked on, but we’ve seen there isn’t necessarily a good fit for bulky-form-factor PC on your head. If you want the PC-quality experience, you’re better off with a full-powered PC and doing it wirelessly.
All the technology components are still there. But bringing it to market as-is, that was never our intent. It was a proof of concept to try out all these different things. We saw that you don’t want to have the wire and that the PC experience can deliver a more rich experience than what you can deliver on your phone. One way is to say, “How much PC can we deliver in something you wear on your head?” Another is to say, “How do I remotely deliver the signal from the PC wirelessly?” The latter turned out to have more legs.
GamesBeat: It seems like more people are still pursuing the stand-alone headsets, though.
Pallister: There are people working on them. Facebook talked about theirs. The Oculus guys talked about theirs. There will be a place for those things. Even putting our position in PCs aside, I think we’re quite a ways off still from people doing enough VR that buying a dedicated appliance that does nothing but VR makes sense.
You can imagine certain verticals where it makes sense. Something you use in a retail outlet to demo products to people, something like that. But for all these other spaces, whether it’s smartphone based or PC based, you have this Swiss-army-knife platform you use for a bunch of things and therefore, you can justify spending — what’s Apple charging for the latest phone? $1000? Or you can justify a high-end PC. But are you doing enough VR that you can justify that price? If you can’t, you end up putting less compute in there, and you deliver a less good experience.
It’s not surprising that people are working on that. I think they’ll have their place. But our bet right now is that the biggest employment you’re going to see with these things is on general-purpose compute platforms, whether it’s a phone at the low end or a high-end PC or something on the spectrum in between.
GamesBeat: You don’t think there’s too much room for mixed reality, then?
Pallister: That’s a different question. You can do MR or AR or pick your mix of terminology, things along that spectrum. Those will also have ways to do it in a dedicated platform and ways to do it in a general-purpose platform that you’re then either putting into a headset or wirelessly talking to a headset or something.
An example might be, you already have the ARKit stuff people are doing on phones. One could imagine somebody putting something like that up either on through-the-display AR, or — people are doing the kind of reflective, “Let’s mount the phone like this with a half-mirror visor.” That’ll be the Google Cardboard, Gear VR approach. Then, there are people already doing PC-connected headsets of some kind, which will then say, “I’ll use this open platform for development and leveraging the compute power there.” You don’t need to do a dedicated device if you’re going to do MR. Certainly, there’s room for it. HoloLens is a great example.
GamesBeat: Do you have a road map for the launch at this point?
Pallister: No. What we’ve said is that HTC has announced that they’re doing something. It’s up to them to announce when. They’ve said they’re not saying when yet or how much. We’d like them to say something soon, but they tend to announce things on a very short runway.
GamesBeat: Obviously the TPCAST is available for pre-orders now.
Pallister: Yeah, it is. We believe the WiGig solution is going to be better. But you guys will have to try it when it comes out.
GamesBeat: Are you completely in line with the Microsoft MR event?
Pallister: As much as we’re always aligned with Microsoft. We’ve been working really hard with them on a bunch of stuff there. Myself and a number of people went in there a couple of years ago and said, “OK, VR is happening. Where is the DirectX of VR? What are we going to do?” They formulated their plan, and we got behind it in a big way.
In some ways, what they’re doing is their own offering, very much along the lines of what Oculus or HTC offers. It’s a high-end gaming headset instead of offering single controllers. A thing we’re doing that’s different, they’ve made a deliberate effort to scale down into a set of experiences that will run well on mainstream PCs. That’s something we’ve had whole teams of dedicated engineers working hard on. It’s a collaboration between us doing the right power/performance profiling and custom drivers and optimizations on pieces of code we run and then doing a set of vectors of scalability and different knobs and sliders within their rendering stack and their applications.
I’m excited about it. We have a bunch of the headsets in-house now. We’ve been using their desktop shell. We have versions of Minecraft running on 15-watt notebooks at full framerate. It’s going to be great.
GamesBeat: They’ve confused things a bit with the term “mixed reality.”
Pallister: Yeah, as marketing people are sometimes wont to do.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen some price movement this summer, which is good. It seems like we’re still waiting for the point where it’s in line with other consumer electronics devices — $299, $399 — where someone can try out VR, have a great time, and not get hit by sticker shock when they find out how much their own headset would cost.
Pallister: That’s the goal with what we and Microsoft are trying to do. Can you take a sub-$300 headset and say, “This will work on the notebook you were going to buy, anyway?” You don’t have to change the notebook you were going to buy and get a high-end gaming machine. You can buy the notebook you wanted anyway and have a great set of experiences. If you want to play high-end 3D games, if you want to play Raw Data, then you’ll buy a different machine. If you want to play Minecraft, though, it’s fine.