VR Cutting the Cord—The Boost the Market Needs?

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2Q 2017 | IN-4556

AMD announced its acquisition of Nitero (IP and staff), a fabless semiconductor company, providing a 60 GHz wireless video link with a particular focus on the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) markets. This represents a strong statement from AMD (with its core market focus on the console market) about the importance of the wireless tether in the development of VRWhile Nitero’s products could serve numerous additional functions within the PC space, VR has the most pressing need to go wireless, since the wired tether is often viewed as the weakest element of the premium VR experience. Bandwidth and latency, however, remain key challenges with wireless solutions; baseline 802.11ad, for instance, is often viewed as insufficient for VR. Nitero is not alone however, with other companies such as DisplayLink, Vive/TPCast, Hendesehane Nefes, Peraso Technologies, Facebook/Oculus, and Rivvr involved in the market. Note that given the early stages of development/commercialization, it is still unclear which of the more integrated players are developing technology in-house, and which are leveraging designs or licensing intellectual property (IP) from one or more of the special purpose startup players.

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AMD Acquires Nitero

NEWS


AMD announced its acquisition of Nitero (IP and staff), a fabless semiconductor company, providing a 60 GHz wireless video link with a particular focus on the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) markets. This represents a strong statement from AMD (with its core market focus on the console market) about the importance of the wireless tether in the development of VRWhile Nitero’s products could serve numerous additional functions within the PC space, VR has the most pressing need to go wireless, since the wired tether is often viewed as the weakest element of the premium VR experience. Bandwidth and latency, however, remain key challenges with wireless solutions; baseline 802.11ad, for instance, is often viewed as insufficient for VR. Nitero is not alone however, with other companies such as DisplayLink, Vive/TPCast, Hendesehane Nefes, Peraso Technologies, Facebook/Oculus, and Rivvr involved in the market. Note that given the early stages of development/commercialization, it is still unclear which of the more integrated players are developing technology in-house, and which are leveraging designs or licensing intellectual property (IP) from one or more of the special purpose startup players.

While past attempts to replace wires (e.g., HDMI) within the entertainment market have largely failed, VR is a different case. Replacing an HMDI cable that is often connected once and then forgotten was not a pressing need, and adapters (e.g., WHDI) were cost prohibitive as compared to inexpensive HDMI cables; the only true benefit came if aesthetics were an issue. Similarly, Miracast or Intel’s WiDi failed to garner much traction, but for different reasons—end users certainly want to view streaming content on the TV, but the myriad of connected devices and more elegant solutions, such as Chromecast, made streaming media from the mobile device to the TV far less efficient. Removing the tether from VR, however, is a significant value-add and is absolutely a next evolutionary step for tethered VR. 60 GHz wireless does have line of sight issues, but Nitero uses beamforming to help mitigate this limitation

AMD stated the company has no intention of releasing a wireless VR HMD, and it’s unclear if AMD would even plan on marketing a wireless add-on to end users. Instead, the belief is AMD will license out the technology and/or sell components to device manufacturers. It is possible AMD could integrate Nitero’s wireless solution into the company’s APU packages, which could support both VR and wireless computing, not too dissimilar to Intel’s wireless vision. If the wireless tether is integrated into the hardware platforms, this could ultimately benefit standalone VR HMD manufacturers the most, as well as improve the game console level of integration with VR functions.

Standalone VR

IMPACT


Tethered VR receives the majority of attention when wireless technologies are discussed, but standalone VR could benefit as well. Once VR HMDs achieve certain milestones (e.g., 4K and eventually 8K display resolution, eye tracking, etc.) the advancements will be marginal, and the hardware could have extended lifespans compared to the PCs, driving the VR experiences. A mature market could then put standalone VR units at a disadvantage—squeezed at both the top and bottom of the market (tethered and mobile). Sulon’s new HMD, the Sulon Q, is one of the first merged reality products coming to the market, and it might give us a clear glimpse into the future of standalone VR, which many might not yet have on their radar.

Sulon’s HMD is still in development, but it is based on an AMD APU and includes wireless connectivity to use the device in tethered VR applications. Why support both? This allows the user to more seamlessly cover the spectrum from more casual VR experiences to high-end tethered VR gaming; external hardware will always offer the best potential experience, and it adds significant flexibility to the standalone HMD.

In ABI Research’s last VR HMD forecast, standalone is anticipated to account for nearly 24% of the 110 million HMDs shipped in 2021, up significantly from the sub-1% share it has in today’s market. For AMD, the option to offer a complete hardware solution for standalone VR HMD manufacturers puts it on the same competitive ground as Qualcomm, Intel, and to a lesser extent, Samsung (its IP portfolio is less comprehensive than the others). The ultimate deciding factor in which segment of the market captures the largest share (mobile- or PC-centric hardware) will depend on content ecosystems, and at this early stage, mobile has the definitive lead, but the PC and console market will ramp up the competition in the coming years. 

Preparing for VR as the Future of Computing

COMMENTARY


At times the VR market feels like it suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder; although, to be fair, this “multiple personality” stems more from the observations from outsiders than the market itself. Collectively the market has seen its fair share of both rampant enthusiasm and bouts of sobering reality; it has gone from being accused of being a niche market for gamers to being anointed the future of computing. Reality has at times touched upon these extremes, but there are some aspects of the market we can confidently lock in as high probability developments. While entertainment, including both gaming and 360° video consumption, will certainly capture most of the media’s attention, the market for commercial applications, including 3D visualization for construction/architecture/real-estate and healthcare, is developing faster and beyond the vision of most casual observers. Entertainment will certainly remain a key facet of VR (and this market is starting to get interesting as new platforms come to market, such as Tencent’s WeGame challenging incumbent Valve/Steam), but if VR is going to live up to its lofty vision as the future of computing, it must extend well beyond these gaming and video roots.

AMD is certainly investing in VR as if this future is on the coming horizon, and if this vision comes to fruition, the company will have played a key role in driving the market forward. There are a lot of moving parts and key milestones waiting to occur, but investments continue to happen, and the market continues to move forward; AMD’s acquisition of Nitero is just one of those pieces. VR has tremendous support throughout the value chain, and while at times it might appear to be another technology looking for an audience, we are simply in the early stages of this market’s development cycle. Every market has to start somewhere. The smartphone market didn’t start with Apple’s iPhone; it just became mainstream shortly after its launch, but each advancement chips away the rough exterior that only an early adopter can appreciate. The VR market will gradually become more appealing to a mass audience—cutting the VR cord is without a doubt a boost the market needs.