SAN JOSE, Calif.—Nvidia is adding another technology to its virtual reality portfolio as its engineers continue to address challenges in a technology that has become popular with consumers but holds even greater promise in the professional and enterprise worlds.
On the first day of the company's GPU Technology Conference (GTC) here April 5, Nvidia executives unveiled the GPU maker's Iray VR technology, which is designed to enable developers to create virtual worlds in what co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang called "photoreal" detail. In addition, David Luebke, vice president of graphics research at Nvidia, outlined some of the technological hurdles that the company is trying to overcome to make VR even more realistic.
If businesses, content creators, consumers and others are going to reap the benefits of VR technology, what users see inside their headsets has to make them feel like they're in that world completely, Huang told the 5,000 or so attendees at this year's show.
"Realistic is not enough," he said. "It's got to be real. It's got to be photoreal."
VR and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), are rapidly growing in popularity in both the consumer and commercial markets, and tech vendors are rushing to address the demand. Nvidia and fellow chip makers Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and Qualcomm are all pushing to grow their capabilities in VR, while hyperscale companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft also are pushing innovation. HTC, with its Vive, and Facebook with Oculus (with Rift) released VR headsets within days of each other. In addition, Dell and HP Inc. have unveiled workstations designed for VR.
For many of these vendors, the rise of VR and AR has come at an opportune time. Systems and components makers have been hurting in recent years by the contraction in the PC industry, and Qualcomm is beginning to see a slowing due to the maturing smartphone market. Now companies have a new growth area they can target and innovate for, according to Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst with TECHnalysis Research.
"VR and AR has rejuvenated these companies' businesses," O'Donnell told eWEEK. "When all your markets flatten, you've got to find new markets, and there they are."
Nvidia is doing just that, he said. The company, which has made the bulk of its money in GPUs for gaming, over the past several years has made decisions to pursue new markets, including VR, connected cars and deep learning and artificial intelligence, all of which demand significant processing power that Nvidia's GPUs can provide.
During his keynote address, Huang said that VR is more than just new technology.
"It's a new computing platform," the CEO said. "It's changing how we design and experience products."
Businesses are beginning to realize what VR can do for their businesses, according to Anshel Sag, an analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. For example, architecture firms see how they can use VR applications to create designs that they can send to customers, who can then view the designs in a virtual world, Sag told eWEEK. In addition, Swedish furniture store Ikea on April 5 introduced an app that can be used with HTC's Vive VR headset for kitchen design and building projects.
Car dealers can help potential buyers find vehicles by taking advantage of VR.
"The potential here is virtually unlimited," Sag said. "It allows architects … to be unencumbered by the physical world. … It's very early. A lot of people are interested in VR."
Huang showed off a VR simulation of Mount Everest built with 108 billion pixels of images of the mountain, while engineers also recreated an 8-square-kilometer section of Mars that users can see via VR headsets. During the keynote and via a remote link, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak demonstrated the Mars software. Wozniak, as he drove a virtual rover over the Red Planet, said he was impressed with the demo, though at one point he said, "I feel dizzy. I'm going to fall out of this chair."
Huang deadpanned, "Well, Woz, that was not a helpful comment."
The Iray VR technology is designed to create more realistic worlds through improved rendering software that creates light probes around the scene—such as a room or the inside of a car—to see how light travels into and through the area. It enables users to view the scene with more realistic lighting based on where the person is standing in the virtual space.
Huang showed off the technology by using it to take a virtual tour of the company's planned new headquarters.
The CEO also introduced Iray VR Lite, which uses similar ray tracing capabilities that can be viewed through something like Google's Cardboard headset.
Both the Iray VR and Iray VR Lite will be available in June.