Ever wish you could travel to other planets in our solar system? Maybe see what Earth looks like from Mars, or even what would happen if two planets collided? My colleague, Prowess engineer Julian Lancaster, knows the feeling, because he’s experienced it in virtual reality (VR). Here’s how he described it:

“Recently I used a VR application that allows the user to view a simulation of the solar system. There are many examples of computer programs that can do these simulations, but there’s something fundamentally different, and fundamentally new and compelling, about viewing that simulation using your entire field of vision, and being able to view it from any perspective, and at any scale. To truly demonstrate the distance between the Earth and the Moon, you can stand between them and hold one in each hand, and then zoom the scale out to real-size and see each one become a speck of light in the distance. Or you can grab the Moon between your virtual finger and thumb and give it a small flick to see what effect it has on its orbit.”

Figure 1. Universe Sandbox lets you explore and alter planets in virtual reality.

As I listened to Julian’s animated description, I considered how remarkable it is that any consumer can go online and purchase the gear needed to experience VR like this. That led me to ponder several questions, like how much processing power does it take to generate a believable VR experience? How do you generate 3D graphics that respond in real time to your inputs? And how can all those capabilities happen in a consumer-sized device?

A Brief History of VR

Part of the answer lies with the brain, or CPU of the computer. But to see how we arrived where we are today with CPUs, I needed to take a brief journey back in time to trace their development. It turns out that it isn’t a straight, clear path from doing rapid calculations—which the original processors were designed for—to generating VR environments. Sure, CPUs and chipsets have matured to handle increasingly complex mathematics and tasks, but the reality is that, for years, most consumer and business needs just weren’t all that complex. We reached a point where office tasks, internet browsing, email, and even some analytics could be handled quickly and efficiently with affordable processors and a moderate amount of RAM.

When basic processing needs were covered, chipset manufacturers turned their attention from adding horsepower to reducing electrical power. They also worked to shrink components down to support thinner, lighter portable devices. If someone needed more power for complex analytics, the answer was (and often still is) to purchase CPUs with higher core counts. That solution can be effective, but it is typically not scalable due to cost and hardware limitations.

Gradually, chipmakers needed to respond to specific workload needs that went beyond the typical office worker or consumer. For example, architects, designers, and animators needed support for demanding 3D graphics applications. Those needs were frequently met by offloading the graphical heavy lifting to a separate graphics processing unit, or GPU. The core CPU didn’t need to change radically.

Today, the industry is realizing the limitations of merely offloading discrete tasks, like graphics. There’s increasing demand for much more powerful systems to support more sophisticated 3D animation, high-performance computing workloads for research and manufacturing, gaming, and the developing VR field.

In many ways, the timing for VR is perfect. Advanced graphics cards, high-definition (HD) display technologies, new CPU architectures, and growing interest from consumers and businesses are combining to form a collective tipping point for VR as a viable field.

New Processors Are Game Changers

Companies like Intel have responded to these changing demands by designing chipsets with new architectures and accelerators to process complex data faster. Case in point: new Intel Xeon Scalable processors are designed with an innovative “mesh” on-chip interconnect topology that reduces latency and increases bandwidth between cores, memory, and the I/O controllers. Intel Xeon Scalable processors also support Intel Advanced Vector Extensions 512 (Intel AVX-512), a set of new instructions that can accelerate performance for scientific simulations, analytics, artificial intelligence, 3D modeling, image and audio/video processing, and, of course, VR.

While Intel Xeon Scalable processors improve server performance, newer Intel Core processors boost performance for VR and other demanding tasks on PCs. Intel Core i7 processors, for example, are designed to power the advanced game physics, 3D visuals, and immersive 3D sound required for VR.

Intel, ARM, and other chipmakers are also providing more powerful mobile processors that improve performance for assisted reality apps, like Pokémon Go or an IKEA app that lets you place virtual versions of furniture into a view of your actual living room.

VR Means More than Gaming

When people think of VR, they usually think of gaming. But it might not be the gaming industry that pushes VR technology forward. VR could be a game changer—pun intended—for healthcare organizations, governments, and education, in addition to other industries. Here are just a handful of use cases:

  • Training for dangerous environments, such as for engineers learning how to perform work on a nuclear submarine or in a nuclear power plant
  • Support for an oil refinery, where remote technicians can communicate using a headset with a front-mounted camera, while an expert on shore can use VR to view and identify repairs
  • Medical education or diagnosis, where doctors can view anatomy in 3D and enlarge organs or other body parts for a better view from any angle and size

The same technology advancements that power VR can also advance other important and emerging fields, such as 3D rendering for architecture or animation. But ultimately, it’s VR that has the potential to truly transform computing and how we interact with the world. As Julian states:

“We’re no longer looking through a picture frame and making interactions by proxy; we’re using our own eyes and hands to interact with applications the same way we interact with objects in the real world, except we’re doing things that are dangerous or impossible in the real world. It really is a new medium.”

Learn more about how Intel is powering VR technologies on its VR website: www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/virtual-reality/virtual-reality-overview.html. And, to keep up on the latest developments in VR and other technologies, follow Prowess on our blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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