In 2013 I was lucky enough to get a leading Virtual Reality Development Kit for the sole purpose of showing the possibility of VR. I loaded a roller coaster application and a head-pong game (yes, you can play pong with your head!) onto my powerful gaming notebook and set out to evangelize this new VR capability at my company. Even with the first low resolution screens, people were immersed in the ride and would often ‘exit the roller coaster’ dizzy, off-balance and smiling ear-to-ear.
I’ve seen VR demonstrated at nearly every major trade show since, in nearly every conceivable fashion. From roller coasters to games to industrial training tools and data visualization, the ecosystem continues to invest in VR. Yet six years after that developer kit, VR is still a work in progress. Several companies make VR headsets, yet wide-spread adoption is still elusive. In 2014 a $2 billion VR acquisition set a goal of getting 1 billion people into VR1.
So how far have we come and what’s ahead for VR?
Today: Tethered Virtual Reality
Because a VR headset is strapped to your face and close to your eyeballs, Virtual Reality needs high resolution screens (>1080×1200/eye), a high refresh rate (70-90Hz), and perfect pixel rendering to the screen. Any tears, missed frames or halting will be noticed and degrade the user experience.
This demanding graphics workload requires high performance GPUs with high power. Because of those demands, traditional VR headsets are tethered to a high-end PC which performs the game compute and render. For mobile VR, there are several arcades which put the PC in a backpack that you then carry through the attraction site as you save the world from zombies.
Even with a high-end gaming rig rendering incredible graphics, traditional VR headsets tethered to the PC still have a drawback. Mainly, they require the user to be local to the PC with their headset on. One might think that sitting and playing in Virtual Reality is no big deal, as gamers are notorious for all-night dungeon raids, but a recent survey found that VR gamers only spend on average 6.2 hours/month with their VR headset on2.
Things are About to Change – Enter Virtual Reality Freedom
Things are about to change. Recent advances in edge compute allow stand-alone VR headsets to put the necessary graphics power into a headset and free the VR experience from the PC. Imagine if I could chase monsters across the room or kill zombies on the go using the portability of handheld gaming platforms with the immersive experience of Virtual Reality.
But there’s more at play.
Building Embedded Virtual Reality Systems
Storage advancements are also contributing to this mobile VR experience. Many popular PC games can require a whopping 30-60GB of storage. As VR games create bigger and more complex worlds, their file sizes will require similarly large amounts of storage.
The challenge is that all this technology needs to fit into a slim headset design without requiring additional cooling or draining your battery. The role of flash has been critical in enabling low power, high performance, low latency and high capacity in a very small form factor. Take a look for example at our iNAND® Embedded Flash Drives that take advantage of Universal Flash Storage (UFS). These are a great example of an ideal solution helping to equip stand-alone VR headsets with a combination of high performance and high capacity, allowing users to immerse themselves in an on-the-go virtual world.
Virtual Reality On-the-Go: Get Up and Game!
Companies have announced or launched VR stand-alone headsets which have been well received by critics. The ability to define a boxing ring in any room or continue your galactic fight throughout the house opens a new and exciting dimension in VR play.
A stand-alone headset with an embedded GPU won’t enable the kind of demanding games that require high performance graphics cards. The trade-off between tethered and stand-alone headsets for the next several years will be rendering incredible graphics vs. an immersive mobile gaming experience. That said, if more OEMs continue to innovate with stand-alone VR and invest in games and the VR game platform, there will be a lot of fun VR games to choose from!
This leaves one final issue to resolve – how much ‘energy sword’ training am I really going to get in once my daughter gets ahold of my new headset?
Scott Mahrle has over 20 years of semiconductor experience, from manufacturing to marketing, with a passion to evangelize new technology.