The companies that brought the world the PC boom have a plan to trigger a similar explosion in virtual-reality hardware.
Intel and Microsoft announced Tuesday that they are working together to help computer manufacturers get into the business of making stand-alone VR headsets. Today that market essentially consists of just two products, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the competing Vive from phone company HTC.
At an Intel event in San Francisco, CEO Brian Krzanich showed off his company’s new prototype, Project Alloy. He said it eliminates the inconveniences associated with existing headsets like the Oculus and Vive devices, and that next year Intel will give away the plans to computer manufacturers so they can make their own versions.
“Intel will open-source the Alloy hardware, allowing everybody to create their own branded products,” said Krzanich.
Intel’s headset doesn’t have to be tethered to a PC, so a user can walk around to explore a virtual space. The device also has two depth-sensing cameras built in. Those can track hand and finger movements, enabling users to interact with virtual objects just by reaching out in space. By contrast, Oculus and HTC headsets require the use of hand controllers to interact with a virtual world.
The depth cameras in Intel’s headset are also used to map physical surroundings and warn if a user walks too close to a real-world obstacle.
An Intel employee demonstrated the Alloy headset onstage. He explored what looked like a room on a spaceship by walking around, reaching out with his hand to interact with levers and other objects. He also showed how objects held in your hand, such as a dollar bill, also appear in the virtual world.
“We can do that with almost any object: we can take the virtual world into the real world,” said Krzanich. “This is going to be a big driver in innovation, because it’s different from anything out there right now.”
Terry Myerson, who leads Microsoft’s Windows group, joined Krzanich onstage and announced that an update called Windows Holographic will add support for virtual- and augmented-reality headsets to all Windows 10 PCs starting next year. In December, Microsoft and Intel will release guidelines intended to standardize VR headsets and make content and software compatible across different products. Microsoft said earlier this summer that it is already talking with hardware companies about making their own versions of Microsoft HoloLens, the company’s augmented-reality headset.
Myerson also boasted that Intel and Microsoft had found ways to run virtual-reality applications on less powerful PCs than the ones the Oculus and HTC headsets rely on. Both require high-powered gaming PCs that start at around $1,000.
Myerson showed a demo video of a woman using Intel’s Alloy headset and Microsoft’s software that he said was running on an Intel-made PC small enough to hold in one hand. “Intel is enabling us to bring this experience to mainstream PCs,” he said. He didn’t provide details of what Intel and Microsoft had done to make that possible.
The video Myerson introduced was intended to show how a headset like Intel’s can be used for conventional workplace tasks as well as gaming. In it, a woman walked up to an empty desk in a sparse room. When she put on the headset, she saw giant interactive screens showing her calendar and other PC applications on the walls. At one point she selected a calendar entry for an upcoming trip and was virtually teleported to outside the Pantheon in Rome.
“You’ll be able to interact with your familiar Windows apps as well as these 3-D apps at same time,” said Myerson.
Intel’s Krzanich also talked about technology his company has developed to capture virtual-reality content more effectively. The company is installing systems of cameras in sports stadiums across the country to capture the action from multiple angles. Intel software uses the multiple viewpoints to digitally re-create the action in 3-D.
“You can move anywhere on the court or field,” said Krzanich, showing a video clip of 3-D footage made during a game in last season’s NBA finals. “You can watch a basketball game from the three-point line and, if you see a dunk coming on, move to by the basket.”
Krzanich contrasted Intel’s technology, called 360 Replay, with cameras that capture 360° and 3-D footage from a single point. Google, Facebook, Nokia, and several other companies have created cameras of that type. Krzanich said 360 Replay could be used for concerts and other performances, and to create new kinds of movies. Intel is setting up a production studio with the technology in Los Angeles to court Hollywood content creators.