AMD buys into wireless VR: Is it the start of something bigger?

It’s no secret AMD has had its struggles in both the CPU and GPU markets, and has been left behind by Nvidia when it comes to the booming area of GPGPU (General Purpose computing on GPUs). AMD is aiming to change things up by focusing heavily on the emerging VR and AR markets. It has been working hard over the last several years to become a dominant supplier of GPUs for use in VR and AR, including sponsoring device companies like SulonQ and even VR-based internet cafes. Now, it has acquired Nitero, maker of chips for wireless streaming of VR content to further bulwark its position.

Ditching the wires is crucial for the future of AMD’s VR effort

MoVR is a signal amplifier that has the ability to be programmed to rapidly change its transmit directionWhile the undisputed leader in high-end VR is PC-based solutions, the vast majority of actual devices in the market are mobile headsets that rely on existing smartphones. Sure, Google Cardboard is more or less a toy, and Samsung’s Gear VR is nothing that would make a PC gamer proud. But along with Daydream, they are a lot less expensive, and a lot easier to use than the tethered versions attached to high-power PCs. Given how much AMD is betting on VR for its future success, it makes sense that it will do everything it can to level the playing field. That starts with getting rid of the clunky tether.

There are a number of competitors working on wireless VR — we’ve covered both Vive partner TPCAST and MIT’s MoVR research project. But Valve’s significant investment in Nitero make it a fairly safe choice for AMD. Nitero’s technology promises very low latency (the company says “on the order of 100s of microseconds”) which makes it ideal for VR, and claims that it does not require line of sight — making ideal for room-scale VR.

However, in the CES 2016 demo, there were some connectivity issues as the user moved around. At the time, Nitero said it would be developing a better solution for non-line-of-sight, possibly including multiple RF arrays. Of course that in turn will drive up the cost and the complexity of the solution. Another part of the systems’ effectiveness comes from built-in data compression, ranging between about 4:1 and 16:1, and a power requirement under a milliwatt.

Nitero is full of promise, but still a bet on the future

The TPCAST receiver clips onto the top headband of the ViveJust like every other wireless VR system we know of, Austin-based Nitero’s 60GHz chipset isn’t available in any production offerings yet. After the CES 2016 demo, and promises of a product by the end of 2016, not much has come out publicly besides the Valve investment. So we don’t know when to expect a product from AMD, or when the chipset will be incorporated into mainstream headsets like those from Oculus, Vive, and Sony — almost certainly not until 2018.

AMD also stressed the importance of the intellectual property and the team it gains with the acquisition. Those are always important, but often when they are mentioned that prominently, it means the company needed to find a buyer, which likely means its technology needs additional investment to bring it to market.

It may also signal a broader push into wireless chipsets for AMD. Nitero CEO Pat Kelly will gain the newly created position of Corporate VP of Wireless IP at AMD, and Nitero was also reportedly working with makers of 360-degree cameras and devices to provide them with wireless technology. AMD competitors Qualcomm and Intel already have wireless chip divisions, so with wireless becoming an important piece of VR solutions, AMD may feel it needed to have its own offering.

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