AMD’s Updated Role in Virtual Reality and the Wider Gaming and PC Markets

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By Eric Abbruzzese | 2Q 2016 | IN-4047

AMD held a live webcast last month (Monday March 14th, titled “Capsaicin”) from the Game Developers Conference to highlight their new announcements in VR, GPU, and software. Highlights include increasing involvement in Hollywood, a VR council, improvements in LiquidVR SDK, and new GPU hardware to power VR experiences.

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Covering the Full Spectrum


The high-end, tethered Virtual Reality space is heating up, with the three major HMD devices (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR) slated for launch this year. PSVR is currently targeting a holiday 2016 release, leaving players in the PC space to battle it out. The Rift and Vive are relatively similar, but the PC market tasked with powering these devices and their content is tumultuous and currently undergoing some intense changes. Perhaps at the heart of this tumult are the major GPU competitors NVIDIA and AMD. Recognizing this, AMD has jumped the gun and started heavily marketing their VR initiatives in an effort to combat NVIDIA’s stronger position in the PC space and take an early lead in the VR market. AMD has addressed most of the end-to-end PC VR space with new GPUs, hardware partnerships, an AMD-powered standalone HMD, their VR SDK, and development and software tools for VR content creation and consumption. Headlining these VR announcements and products, AMD claims 83% total market share for devices powering VR (more on this number later).

A More Competitive Space


While NVIDIA still holds majority market share in GPUs, AMD strongly pushing VR should upset the balance a bit when it comes to the overall competitive space—which includes GPU as well as SDKs, software, hardware bundles, and distribution platforms. AMD’s reveal of the Radeon Pro Duo is not likely to send ripples through the GPU space, but it does slot in as one of the highest-performing cards on the consumer market, and could attract enthusiasts looking for the bleeding edge in performance in preparation for VR. Similar to Oculus with their VR-ready PC certification and bundling, AMD will have their Radeon Premium badge program for VR-ready PCs, which will highlight their presence in the space which can be overshadowed by NVIDIA.

Outside of hardware, both companies offer VR-focused SDKs for developers, which at their core are similar and whose current differences are mostly minor and should not have a significant impact on either company. One potentially major advantage lies with AMD and overall compute power, especially with asynchronous compute capabilities. Asynchronous compute capabilities are present already with AMD and their LiquidVR, while NVIDIA are still working to support it and have been quiet on the matter. DirectX 12 rolling out this year adds to this, with AMD showing better performance on DX12 than comparable NVIDIA cards. Even so, NVIDIA has enough of a market lead that these facts will not significantly affect the space unless the performance gap widens even more.

Another difference in approach between the companies is the stance on open platforms; AMD have long been proprietors of open standards, and are building out GPUOpen. On the other hand, NVIDIA have favored their proprietary standards, and will likely continue to do so. Again, thanks to NVIDIA’s PC dominance, their proprietary offerings often are chosen over AMD’s puts AMD at a disadvantage, with the potential for poorer performance in games and content utilizing GameWorksVR. Similar situations have played out in the past outside of VR, with titles utilizing GameWorks offering better performance and more features for those running NVIDIA cards; this can be exacerbated by VR and the greater number of components, features, and potential obstacles to consider for development and hardware support. 

Battling for True Market Share


Perhaps the most noteworthy piece of news to come out of AMD’s event was their claim to 83% market share for VR—or more accurately, AMD will power 83% of the total addressable market for VR. This is a slightly misleading figure either way. An ABI Research blog breaks this down in more detail, but essentially powering 83% of the TAM for VR is aggressive and difficult to support. Even with AMD’s VR pushes, market share is still strongly skewed towards NVIDIA. Even assuming an aggressive market share shift to 40% of PC GPUs for AMD is far short of 83%. This 83% must also be ignoring the mobile space, which while NVIDIA is not yet a part of (but easily could be with their Tegra lineup), is dominated by Qualcomm with AMD having no current role.

This leaves the console space, which AMD does control in terms of processing with both the PS4 and Xbox One running AMD. Therefore, AMD can claim 100% of the market for Sony’s PlayStation VR system, which is a big win for AMD and shaping up to be successful for Sony. However, the Xbox one does not have any confirmed VR devices planned or announcements on the matter. In fact, Microsoft’s recent pushes towards Xbox and PC uniformity suggest that the PC space could again come into play for any Xbox VR devices.

So while AMD’s marketing approach is exactly what they need to do currently to compete and take market share from NVIDIA, there is much work to be done to prove their product and position can support what they are marketing—even if an objective advantage lies with AMD in Virtual Reality, NVIDIA’s market share and customer brand loyalty will mask this advantage. NVIDIA is number one currently not only for GPU market share, but also for developers moving to VR and choosing GameworksVR and VRWorks rather than LiquidVR. The VR bundle and certified PC situation favors NVIDIA as well, where VR certified and VR bundle PCs are marketing NVIDIA and their GTX 970 as the better card with a higher price, even though AMD’s VR performance with a comparable card is equal or better than NVIDIA. Also, the quantity of these certified and bundled PCs favors NVIDIA, with approximately ¾ of bundles containing the GTX 970 or a better NVIDIA card. Console VR is promising for AMD but may not be enough. Unfortunately for AMD, these VR fireworks may fade away to reveal not much is changing despite their best efforts.