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AMD bets big on virtual reality with new cards, partnerships

Mark Hachman | March 15, 2016
Having trailed behind both Intel and Nvidia in the PC graphics market in recent years, AMD is preparing to go all in on virtual reality.

Having trailed behind both Intel and Nvidia in the PC graphics market in recent years, AMD is preparing to go all in on virtual reality.

AMD highlighted its VR play at the the Game Developers Conference this week in San Francisco, announcing a comprehensive platform that the chipmaker clearly hopes will evolve into an ecosystem.

AMD claims that a new dual-GPU Radeon Pro Duo will be the hardware that powers future VR content creation, using its existing LiquidVR software development kit. That content will include experiences co-developed with Crysis and CryEngine creator Crytek, and provided to universities and businesses under Crytek's VR First initiative. Finally, AMD claims that it powers 83 percent of the home entertainment VR systems used to actually experience that content, and announced a certification program to ensure that future devices meet its own standards.

Why this matters: The numbers tell you why AMD is betting heavily on VR. According to Jon Peddie Associates, AMD’s share of the overall graphics market slipped to 11.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015, versus 16.6 percent for Nvidia. (Intel, of course, dominates the remainder with its Core integrated processors.) In discrete graphics, AMD captured just 18.8 percent of the market during the fourth quarter, with Nvidia holding the remaining 78.8 percent. 

AMD’s Polaris GPU: The foundation of next-gen VR

Peddie was also the source of AMD's claim that its VR penetration topped 83 percent. But that’s due to the fact that Peddie also counted “VR-ready” game consoles; AMD already powers the Xbox One, Sony PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Wii U, though only Sony has announced a VR headset, “Project Morpheus,” due to ship in 2016.

What all this means is that AMD’s PC processors—especially its upcoming Polaris GPU, which it showed off at CES in January—will be at the center of the company's VR push. AMD has positioned Polaris as a chip that can deliver the same performance as a “comparable” Nvidia part, but using substantially less power; the desktop system it showed off in January rendered Star Wars: Battlefield at 1920x1080 resolution at 60fps and consumed just 86 watts. At GDC, AMD showed off a new Aperture Science Robot Repair demo from Valve Software running on a Polaris system connected to an HTC Vive Pre VR headset.

Over time, however, it seems that AMD will be encouraging developers to use the mobile versions of Polaris, which we haven’t seen yet, but which will be increasingly useful as AR and VR devices become untethered. As a case in point, AMD called out the intriguing Sulon Q headset, which performs both augmented reality and virtual reality inside a single wearable device—sans power cord, even. 

AMD emphasized, however, that it's working closely with VR makers Oculus and HTC, whose Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have dominated VR’s early headlines. Both are using AMD’s LiquidVR technology, according to AMD. 


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