Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality or extended reality. All of these technologies are showing promise, but many are trying to figure out how to take advantage of them, either as a business or for their business. In what appears to be such a short time, there have been numerous developments in these areas and customers that are looking to use these technologies are becoming more and more bewildered at the choices and the question of, “Are they betting on the right technology?”
Only a few years ago, virtual reality (VR) was the domain of very niche areas — it was expensive and cumbersome to use and view. Now, we have two major vendors — HTC and Oculus — that have released cost-effective headsets that have opened up new possibilities to all verticals to explore opportunities. Close on the heels of these VR headsets, Microsoft has developed an augmented reality (AR) headset, Hololens, opening up even more expansive opportunities.
Today, the market for these technologies is predominantly in the media and entertainment space, but this has grown a public thirst for more and more types of data to consume. This ranges from immersive video (360 degree) all the way though to AAA gaming (one that is expected to be a bestseller with larger development and promotion budgets). This consumption is done on machines that are specifically built for this task. For example, Dell’s Alienware gaming systems that tend to give the best user experience possible. As the technology matures, businesses are looking at alternative reality technologies to reduce costs in their organizations.
Imagine training a firefighter or oil rig worker in a virtual environment, allowing them to experience modeled, real-life situations which can help to build muscle memory for when they encounter it in real life. What about consultants collaborating on a patient on an operating table in VR where all of them see the procedure and can work together, pooling their knowledge? What about patients that have nerve damage that can be aided by motion in VR translating to the brain and actually heal those damaged areas? These may seem far-fetched ideas but they are actually already happening today. Gaming and entertainment seem to be the majority of the new medium’s uses today, but the projection is that other verticals such as healthcare and industrial applications will be far bigger markets in the next five years.
With the technology moving so fast and new devices for VR appearing almost daily, then how does a business stay ahead of the curve? Dell looked into this issue and has formed a strategy that is more of a partnership with customers and Independent Software Vendors (ISVs). Instead of customers taking a chance and buying equipment that is underpowered or way overpowered for their usage model, customers are invited to look at the VR-Ready systems at www.dell.com/vrready. This platform gives a good indication of what combination of head mounted display, processor, memory, hard drive and graphics card will give the best experience. In VR the optimum setting is to achieve 90 frames per second at 90Hz – which gives the user the best feeling of ‘presence’. This is where the eyes fool the brain into thinking that the scene is real and gives the best immersion into the augmented reality. It also minimizes the loss of the user’s ‘VR Legs’ where feelings of nausea are caused by a mismatch of what the eyes are seeing and what the body is feeling as motion. Apparently, this human feeling goes back to caveman times where the body took a mismatch of the senses as an ingestion of something poisonous and needed to evacuate the stomach in order to prevent further effects. Some people are affected by this effect more than others, but it is an issue that programmers and designers need to take into account when designing their VR and AR experiences.
This is all very well if you control the environment and have the capability of reducing the number of objects on the screen or can reduce the texture sizes in order to fit the power of the destination machine beforehand or dynamically. This is typically how games work today — it assesses the capability of the machine it is running on and then scales accordingly. However, we are now talking about the real world with business environments where reduction of quality and fidelity of your product, that you are trying to make stand head and shoulders above the competition, is not an option. Imagine you are in architecture and construction and you have a beautiful new VR model of a building that you can take a customer through. The customer will be able to visualize the space exactly, no more trying to visualize from elevation drawings, no more 3D models being made so customers can walk around the outside — they can see the space, they can see the lighting at different times of day, they can see how the staircase and other architecture designs flow. Now imagine if you do not have a computer powerful enough to run it at the frame rates mentioned above. Do you lose one of the four walls? Do you make surfaces that have low fidelity for the sake of performance and then lose the ‘wow’ factor? This is not an option for businesses. Dell has thought about these pain points for their customers and are delivering solutions.
Rather than taking a chance and hoping the right power of PC is purchase for the models, Dell invites customers, via their account teams, to book time in one of the VR Centers of Excellence around the world. There the customer has access to many different configurations and experienced resources that can help to shape the experience with the customer’s data. At no money down, it is a risk-free environment that a customer can see if VR is right for them and what size system would be best suited to their requirements.
Another key factor in VR creation is using the right tool for the job. It does, at first glance, seem that you can take a base level system, add a consumer graphics card that supports VR, take your software and then create a VR opus. This may be true for hobbyists to get a feel for the system, but in professional organizations, time is money. Consider cable TV brought into the home — you consume that at a resolution of 1080i, but the production companies do not film in that resolution. They are filming at 4K, 8K or above resolutions. This allows them to re-release content as technology progresses by rendering the higher resolution content to the destination platform. In much the same way, the consumer level system is the destination platform with a lower processor core count and a smaller GPU frame buffer than a system that a professional would use.
At Dell, the Dell Precision range of workstations are tailored to give the best performance and reliability when creating VR content. For the larger textures and video stitching there are GPUs available with up to 32GB of frame buffer memory and CPUs with up to 22 cores per CPU — all of this amounts to a powerhouse for creating VR and having a shorter time to market and faster return on your technology investment. The workflow is also important when deciding on the system you intend to use — ISV applications (certified and fully supported applications on a tested platform) will still make up 80% of the VR workflow and will still be run in the traditional 2D, monitor environment. The remaining 20% will be validation of the output in a VR head mounted display. Therefore, when considering your next VR-Ready system, make sure you are looking for an ISV-certified workstation, such as Dell Precision workstations, for the applications you are running that also supports VR, rather than looking for a VR system that you could run an application on, but may not be supported. The savings in initial hardware cost could be far exceeded over time by loss of productivity through slow rendering and potentially inaccurate models and longer times to market.
By considering the points above and partnering with Dell for your next VR project, the fruits of your labor should be smoother, more cost effective and faster than ever before.
Gary Radburn is the Director of Workstation AR and VR at Dell.