Microsoft Research comes up with a workable low-end VR system

A virtual reality system with high-quality video and lower-end hardware? That would be quite a trick.

Microsoft Research comes up with a workable low-end VR system
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There is one inevitable real-world reality when it comes to virtual reality: you need high-end gear. It’s no accident that VR headsets like Oculus Rift and Vive are taking off this year because both Nvidia and AMD are launching very powerful video cards that can generate the realistic graphics needed to make VR work. 

There are more low-cost VR alternatives, such as Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR, but they don’t give the same experience as Oculus and Vive. However, Microsoft Research may have come up with a workaround that can lower the barrier to entry for VR systems and make underpowered devices viable VR platforms.

FlashBack is a new system from Microsoft Research that eliminates real-time frame rendering and instead relies on cached, pre-rendered frames that are displayed based on the user’s actions. According to a research paper just published (PDF), the system provides eight times improved frame rate, 97 times less energy consumption and a 15-fold latency reduction in mobile devices.

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In some cases, Microsoft claims Flashback delivers even better frame rates and responsiveness than a tethered HMD configuration on graphically complex scenes.

The FlashBack system uses something Microsoft calls “megaframe,” where dynamic objects, which are supposed to be moving, can be fully pre-rendered. It then only displays the frames needed relative to the user’s position.

Flashback compresses and stores megaframes either in the GPU’s VRAM, in regular memory or on the SSD of the device. The frames are decompressed in the GPU’s memory when they are needed. The compression algorithms are impressive. The paper states that a decoded 4K texture consumes up to 8MB of memory, but in its compressed state, it needs only 100KB.

Since it’s a research project, it’s still in an early state. No doubt the researchers will improve its ability to handle multiple dynamic objects through caching and compression, and advances in smartphone technology will only help. Microsoft has no tentative release date for Flashback, but thanks to Satya Nadella lighting a fire under these guys, maybe we’ll see it sooner rather than later.

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