Microsoft’s Project Scorpio picks up FreeSync, but VR support remains hazy

Last week we discussed the new Project Scorpio Xbox refresh, and what the enhanced gaming capabilities can do in terms of 4K and VR support. Now we’ve got some new information on what the developer kit hardware can do, but signs are mounting that VR capabilities may not be baked natively into the platform.

story by Gamasutra discusses details of the new hardware and how the dev units differ from the mainstream product. While the consumer version of the console has 40 CUs (2,560 GPU cores total), the developer variant will have 44 CUs, for a total of 2,816 GPU cores. The base clock speed is also the same, at 1172MHz for the GPU and 2.3GHz for the custom CPU.

These stats give developers a little more horsepower to work with, which can be important when testing various ideas to determine which approaches to a scene yield the best results. “At a high level, it’s much easier for a game developer to come in higher and tune down, than come in lower and tune up. Or nail it. That just rarely happens,” said Gammill, by way of explaining why the Scorpio dev kit is a bit beefier than its retail counterpart. “Our overarching design principle was to make it easy for devs to hit our goals: 4K, 4K textures, rock-steady frame rates, HDR, wide color gamut, and spatial audio.”

Gammill also stated that Project Scorpio would increase coherent bandwidth between the CPU and GPU. In theory, this should make it easier for developers to offload workloads between the two components or take advantage of HSA capabilities. The original Xbox One isn’t thought to have put as much emphasis on HSA as the PS4 did, but Xbox Scorpio could change that, too.

FreeSync support baked in?

One particularly interesting tidbit from Gamasutra is that Project Scorpio will support variable refresh rate technology (aka, FreeSync / G-Sync). This is a capability that’s been added to the DisplayPort standard; the HDMI 2.1 standard is expected to include the technology as well. Microsoft wants to enable the feature on supported monitors, while working with TV manufacturers to convince them to add it as well.

“This is new technology we expect to see coming to displays over the coming years,” said Jason Ronald, head of the Xbox Advanced Technology Group. “We want to make sure Scorpio is set up to take advantage of it when it comes out.”

This could be a huge step forward for FreeSync and gaming in general. Technologies like FreeSync are most useful when frame rates are relatively low (think 25 to 40fps). FreeSync and G-Sync both eliminate the refresh rate ‘stutter’ you sometimes see in games, and it works best when the gap between frames is relatively long. If your game is running at a rock-solid 60fps with a 60Hz refresh rate, you won’t see nearly as much advantage to enabling FreeSync as you would if your system was running 30fps and a 30Hz refresh rate. More information on these technologies and a discussion of how they work can be found here.

What about VR?

The elephant in the room no one seems to want to talk about much is virtual reality support. Comments from Microsoft over the past few days point towards MS keeping this capability — but they sure aren’t emphasizing it, while they’ve been comparatively willing to talk up 4K, game performance, and compatibility.

Phil Spencer has noted that VR developers will not have to sign exclusivity agreements and that he’s opposed to requiring game devs to decide which platforms they’re going to support. This jives with some of what we’ve heard about Windows 10 and Microsoft’s own desire to make VR cheaper and more accessible to larger numbers of people. Of course, these VR applications and capabilities can only tie to the hooks built into Windows 10 if the app in question is a Universal Windows app. This won’t matter for Xbox gamers, but given the abysmal quality of Universal games thus far, I won’t hold my breath waiting for PC players to thank MS for the privilege.

When we covered Scorpio late last week, we noted that there are no HDMI ports for dedicated VR-out. Some people speculated that these ports might be on the front of the unit, but if they are the Scorpio dev kits don’t have them.

scorpio_dev_kit_99

A Scorpio dev kit. The system has additional USB ports and an extra NIC port for debug information in multiplayer. There’s no sign of a third HDMI port, however. Image by Gamasutra

It looks as if Microsoft must be planning one of two things. Either:

1). You’re going to have to disconnect the HDMI output from the Xbox to your television every single time you want to play in VR;

or

2). MS will use some kind of breakout box to provide the capability, similar to how Sony uses that solution for the PS4 and PS4 Pro.

Between the two, the second makes far more sense than the first. MS may simply not wish to keep any but essential functions baked into the primary console, and a breakout box might let them add some additional capabilities, like the way the PS4 can simultaneously display VR content on a second TV while you play. We should learn much about Scorpio by E3, when MS is expected to focus its presentation on the new hardware platform. Stay tuned.

Now read: The best free games on the Xbox One

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