Interview: AMD's Roy Taylor on the dawn of the virtual reality age

2016 is shaping up to be the first year of the virtual reality era, and companies throughout the gaming, hardware, and entertainment industries are working hard to position themselves to capitalize on the technology. 

One of the industry figures who has been at the forefront of VR is AMD's Roy Taylor. I recently had the chance to speak to Roy about why he believes AMD is the best partner for VR, his predictions for widespread VR adoption, and his personal favorite VR experiences. 

GameCrate: Let's start with the basics: what's your position at AMD, and what do you actually do on a day-to-day basis?

Roy Taylor: I'm Corporate Vice President of Alliances and Technology, and I have a team which is responsible for everything and everybody which is neither a customer nor a supplier. So we work with Google, with Microsoft, games publishers and developers, peripherals, standards bodies, governments, anybody who can have a positive influence on the AMD experience.

GC: What is AMD's position in regards to virtual reality?

RT: Our position is we think it's wonderful. Virtual reality is great for us because it's unusual in that virtual reality is a great market both for content creation and content consumption. That's not true of traditional gaming, where the consumption market is enormously larger than the creation market. But there's so much creation going on right now, so there's enormous demand for both our CPUs and our GPUs at both ends of the spectrum.

We have a professional graphics range called FirePro, and FirePro products are being used to do very high quality video stiching in 360 VR. And they're being used to run professional application packages for modelling and so on. And then we have our consumer GPUs being used to consume the content. So VR is enormously important for us. 

GC: A lot of how it all goes down over the next few years will depend on the VR adoption rate. What are your personal predictions as far as how that will play out? Specifically, how many years do you think will pass before there's a VR headset in 25% of homes? 

RT: I've been asked that question a few times Nick, and the answer is it will be directly proportional to the quality of the experience that is delivered. Right now I think it's crunch time for VR. This spring both HTC and Oculus will start to ship in volume the consumer version of their headsets, and I believe that everything they make they'll sell in the first instance, because there's pent-up demand to try it out. The real question is not, "Will they sell?" or "Will that be a success?", in the short term yes it will, anybody can see that. But to get to 25% of the population as you say, that's going to require not just enthusiasts and early adopters, that's going to need the mainstream.

Someone is going to desperately want to get a headset and take it home if there's something she can do with it when she gets it there. Now, what will that be? That's the question. So I think nobody can answer your question until we know what those experiences are going to be. And I don't necessarily think it's going to be a game, by the way. 

GC: Do you have another specific thing that you think it will be, then?

RT: I recently did a keynote where I talked about VR as a service, "VRaaS," I think what we're going to see is people using VR to start to produce goods and services in VR, and that will become an industry in and of itself. So things like real estate, instead of going out and spending the whole day looking at houses, you'll just use the VR and you'll view the houses in VR. Things like training, safety training, military training, and also things like bungie jumping. I am terrified of heights. I will never do a real bungie jump, but I might try it out in VR. So I think that we will have VR used to deliver us experiences that we either couldn't do for whatever physical reasons, or economical reasons, or safety reasons. I think that will be really really big.

But probably the thing that might make all of us compelled to get VR, is going to be something to OASIS. Did you read Ready Player One Nick?

GC: Yes, I did. 

RT: Right, so I think that probably whoever comes nearest to developing OASIS, that will become the killer app. Because we'll be able to go and live somewhere else and have an alternative life, somewhere else. 

GC: You've mentioned the existence of quality content as one of the drivers of VR adoption. What are the other obstacles limiting widespread adoption of VR? 

RT: They are two-fold. First of all, it's expensive for a lot of people. Now the people who really want it, just don't care. Quite frankly Oculus could have sold their headsets for a thousand dollars and I'm pretty convinced they still would have sold all of them. Because this first wave of adopters just aren't going to care. But when you get to the second wave of adopters, to people who are not technically savvy, then the price becomes tentative. And right now it's cost-prohibitive for a lot of people.

If you look at the minimum spec for either the Oculus or the HTC, and then you look at how many units of the minimum spec have been sold since their launch, so I'm talking about the Radeon 290 or GeForce GTX 970, according to Jon Peddie Research, the total install base of those parts or better is 7.5 million units. So we're going to have to make it possible to run good quality VR at a much lower price. And I'm confident with Polaris we're going to have a big impact to help that.

The second barrier is that, right now, you try VR out and your reaction is, invariably, "That's really really cool. That's super cool." But then you take the headset off. I would defy anybody, I haven't met a single person yet who could say to me: "I tried something and it was so great, I would have spent 10 hours in there if I could have done." That doesn't yet exist. So I think this content thing is absolutely critical, and it's why I talk about it so much, and why we now have a worldwide team, frankly in search of that content. 

GC: You've talked a bit about this already, but why do you believe AMD is the best partner for virtual reality? 

RT: That's a great question, thank you. First of all, we invested in it and took it more seriously than our competitors far sooner. We announced LiquidVR at GDC last January. So we're at least a year ahead in terms of our commitment to VR. Second of all, we have a great, great team of scientists and engineers which are working on it, and it's the only thing that they do. So we were able to announce and launch LiquidVR because we have some of our best minds on it. So we really really have a great team with some of the best minds. And if you look, traditionally, at AMD all the way back to ATI vs. NVIDIA, AMD/ATI has always had a lead in video. So both companies are very good at 3D, and have fought fiercely for years on 3D, but AMD has always had the edge on video.

And VR splits into two categories. There's game engine VR, which has the advantage that you can interact, but the quality isn't good enough for the movie and entertainment industry, which right now is spending more money than the game industry on VR. That leads me to the second kind of VR, which is camera-caught VR, using things like the Nokia OZO camera, or the Jaunt VR camera, or the GoPro rigs. And what we're probably going to see at some point is a merging of camera-caught VR with engine created VR. That requires a real deep knowledge of video, video stitching, and how video works. The fact, for example, that we're way in the lead on HDR, high-dynamic range, in the panel market, and also that our FreeSync technology was so successful, all points to leadership in video. That's the first thing. 

The second thing is, I mentioned just now that we're going to need the minimum specs to be available at a much more aggressive target price to drive the number of platforms available. We're ahead to market with 14 nanometer FinFET process, way ahead of our competitors, so our ability to ramp high-performance parts which are at a very good price with low power consumption is also going to be an advantage for us.

So to sum it up, it's our team, it's how long we've been working on it, it's our expertise and history in video, and it's the fast launch of a new process node. 

GC: Two of the biggest recent announcements from AMD concerned the Polaris GPUs and the GPUOpen software. What do those two initiatives mean for AMD and VR? 

RT: Polaris as I mentioned will give us GPUs which perform faster while consuming less power, at a smaller dye size. So that would be pretty easy to see. GPUOpen I think is really interesting. When NVIDIA launched GameWorks the concept that you could help developers by giving them pre-written code for things which they want to put into their game was a really good one. I'll take a step back and explain. Nick, from the point of view of a game developer, the two value points on a game are the gameplay, is it fun to play, and the story. So you really want to spend your money and your engineering time on those two things. But if you want to have some water effects or you want to have an explosion or you want to design a forest, then that's very expensive in terms of the time it takes to develop, and it detracts from the things that you want to do, which is gameplay and story. So saying to a game developer, "Don't worry, you don't have to produce water effects, you don't have to produce explosions, here's some code to copy and paste into the game," is a very good idea. It helps everybody. 

Unfortunately, when NVIDIA did that, they provided the code as a kind of "black box." It was sealed. So there was no access to the source code. Which meant that game publishers suddenly found themselves with games with hundreds of thousands or millions of lines of code, over which they had no control, no visibility, no QA access, and as we've seen with some of the GameWorks game titles, that's resulted in horrible problems.

So we've said, basically what they were trying to do was a good idea: help people to produce their game. But the right thing to do was to give open source. Make it open source, they can see what they've got, see what's going into their games or applications, and allow them full QA control. So GPUOpen is exactly that. It's a library of effects, SDKs, and shader libraries and so on, which we are putting out, it's on GitHub, and everything is available. We're open to collaborate with everybody. If NVIDIA wanted to go and take part and port GameWorks into GPUOpen, that would be great. I don't think they will, but they could. We're happy to collaborate with anybody else in the ecosystem, for the benefit of everybody. So we can all have great games and experiences. So that's why I think GPUOpen is a big deal, and it's been very warmly welcomed by the community. 

GC: You've talked a lot about the importance of that VR experience, and people getting to try something that works for them and is meaningful. So what are the best VR games or experiences that you personally have tried? 

RT: I am a very big fan of The Martian, by 20th Century Fox, which was produced by a really fantastic...I live in Hollywood, and Chris Edwards, the CEO of Third Floor, which helped to produce The Martian, has really done a terrific job, and I'm really excited about that. One of the other things I forgot to mention in AMD's advantage is, we have a team of five people in Hollywood, working with every major studio. Because every major studio is looking to produce content in VR. So I love what Third Floor has done, I really praised them for The Martian, I think it's terrific. 

The other piece of content I've enjoyed personally is the Paranormal Activity VR experience, from VRWERX. It absolutely terrified me. I was telling myself, "I know it's not real," and it was still scary. So that was really really great, I loved that too. 

Some other things I think are important and noteworthy, one is Nurulize, a company called Nurulize, based in LA. They have a product called Nu Reality. They have a concept I like a lot, which is...when you put your headset on Nick, you should be in your favorite place. Whatever your favorite place is, your den, your living room, your bedroom, the beach, it doesn't really matter, but we all have our favorite place. With Nu Reality they create this living space for you, so when you put the headset on you're in that place. And then you can interact, so just like in the real world you can actually turn the TV on in there, and you can play a game in there, and you can walk around. That's a really cool idea, and once they get the editing tools out, we'll be able to download and presumably purchase pre-constructed favorite places, or build them ourselves. 

And then the last one I think is worth mentioning, I've been championing for a know the way VR gets made today Nick, it's almost agricultural. What I mean by that is, you put the headset on, you look around, and then you have to take it off. Then you write your code, make your changes, then you put the headset back on and see what happened. So there's a lot of taking the damn headset on and off.

So there's a company in Seattle called Envelop VR, which has created something called EVE, and that's a toolset which allows you to create VR in VR, and they use the forward-facing camera on the VIVE, so you can see your hands and actually use a mouse and keyboard inside VR. And I think that's going to be revolutionary in terms of speeding up the process to create VR. So I'm really excited about what those guys are doing. 

GC: So let's say you have somebody who has never tried VR, and who is skeptical of it. What's the one experience you think they should try, to get them started on the right track? 

RT: Well it really depends who they are. I'll tell you a funny story. As you can hear I'm English, and I live in Hollywood. My parents flew over from England. They're in their 70s, they're elderly. And I said "Dad I'm really excited about VR," and he said "Oh it's a lot of rubbish." So I said, "Why don't you come and try it?"

So my dad tried it and I went through a couple of experiences, and he didn't like any of it until he tried this house music rave. And he said, "Oh, I would never ever got to a rave, but they look like a lot of fun." And if you would have asked me which piece of VR my dad would like, I never would have guessed. But he said "I get it now, and this is really cool." 

Now, coincidentally, I tried it with my mom, and I made a big mistake. I put her on a Ducati motorbike doing 200 miles per hour around Nürburgring. She screamed so loud security came running in the room. That was a big mistake. But we have a VR experience where you can walk around a Van Gogh painting, and she thought that was wonderful. So I think we're going to need a wide range of VR experiences, and which one's best will depend on the person trying it. 

Many thanks to Roy for taking the time to answer our questions. Stay tuned to GameCrate for more virtual reality coverage throughout 2016 and beyond. 

For more from Roy and AMD, check out his keynote from VRLA Winter 2016:

Article header image via Fritzchens Fritz on Flickr