As of yet, VR is little more than shits and giggles. It’s not really taken seriously beyond early-adopter gamers, probably due to the lack of realism involved. Even with the most immersive virtual reality experience, your mind is still very aware what your eyes are seeing is merely a mirage, and isn’t convinced of what is unfolding in front of you.
But what if those images were so detailed, and looked so realistic that your brain began to think what you’re seeing might actually be real? Imagine being able to see any combination of options for a car interior you’re thinking of buying -- in photorealistic detail -- and from any angle. Or being able to experience the feeling of a new building’s interior -- from any corner of a room -- before it’s built, and be convinced that it’s just right there.
You might think we’re a long way off that yet, but graphics firm Nvidia is ready to prove you wrong. The company once only known for its powerful graphics cards is taking a step back from its PC gaming roots and has given virtual reality a stab, announcing Iray VR at its GTC conference in Silicon Valley this week. According to Nvidia, this is the future of VR. And it looks flippin’ awesome.
While Iray VR is new, Iray as a technology isn’t. It’s a rendering engine used by creative professionals such as designers and visual effects artists who work with 3D content and require photorealistic imagery. Nvidia designed it to offer faster interactive renders and better visuals when bringing creations to life in gaming and applications.
Basically, Iray works by building up realism in an image, pixel-by-pixel, complete with a live preview to accurately predict the final results of a design so that designers can reduce the number of prototypes.
But now Nvidia seems to think the future of virtual reality is to integrate it into its Iray rendering tech to create these photorealistic results in virtual environments. By simply strapping on a headset and prowling around these photo-real digital worlds, users can be a part of something that feels truly tangible but doesn’t actually exist yet.
Nvidia’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang claims with Iray VR, “you’ll be able to look around the inside of a virtual car, a modern loft, or the interior of our still unfinished Silicon Valley campus with uncanny accuracy”.
They’ve managed to do this in a way that’s no different to how Pixar for example would use a supercomputer to render a scene in a film. So as you can imagine, it can’t just work on your Samsung Gear VR, or Google Cardboard headset, for example. It needs something a little more powerful than that.
“An entire super computer is used to compute each and every frame meticulously,” explained Huang. “Like how it takes days and days to create a movie scene, this is no different, with Iray VR we are creating a scene, but the team created a brand new technology to do it.”
The technology works by rendering light probes throughout the area of a room in a 3D environment, with each reproducing how light would emanate from certain spots. The technology follows photons as they bounce around a room: as they travel through glass and refract; picking up different wave lengths of light as it hits different surfaces. Each one of these probes is essentially a 4K render that takes approximately one hour to render on a server, which ridiculously, is made up of eight super-powerful graphics cards.
“We render a hundred of these probes to make this happen, meaning a hundred hours were dedicated to the probes that go into a photo-realistic room. Next, on a work station, with a really large frame buffer, all of these light probes can be resident,” added Huang.
The scene is then created from the point of the eye, with the probes being mixed, filtered and processed. The eye picks up the information that was rendered from the combination of those hundred light probes. And lastly, with very low latency, the engine is integrated into head mounted displays, allowing users to experience Iray VR.
Huang showed off a virtual rendering of Nvidia’s unfinished new headquarters, and the level of detail made it look like he was just filming inside an actual building.
While this is pretty impressive stuff, it’s got to be said that not many people have access to supercomputers loaded with Iray tech. So for now, to bring it to the masses, Nvidia has created a way to make composites from the hundred light probes that make up an Iray VR environment, and bring this to people irrespective of the devices they have.
Enter Iray VR’s little brother: Iray VR Lite.
While Iray VR Lite won’t be able to render full 3D as realistically as full Iray VR, it will – with just the press of a button – create a ‘photosphere’ from Iray VR that is retraced. Once users download an Iray plug-in, an Android Viewer app and grab a compatible headset, the photorealistic VR will be ready to view by any Tom, Dick or Harry, from June.
Nevertheless, Iray VR Lite is nothing more than to appease the masses wanting to experience photorealistic VR, and it’s not the full experience, nor is it really what Iray VR is about. Nvidia is not looking for Iray to become yet another notch on the VR hype bed post. The firm isn’t fixating on photo-real VR for entertainments, like rollercoasters or deep sea experiences, but it’s about creating convincing environments before they become real places.
While traditional VR is all about trying to make virtual reality as realistic as possible, Nvidia says that for many different types of applications, for example product design and architectural design, ‘realistic’ is not enough. “It’s got to be real. It’s got to be photo real,” says the CEO.
As a result, Iray VR could be the first time we see VR in a more serious, industry changing context. And that’s not to say it won’t be just as exciting as all the fun stuff we are seeing now with Oculus, Vive, et al. With Iray VR, virtual reality is finally looking like it’ll add something valuable to design and architecture industries, for instance designers wanting to model their designs in a truly real environment, without limitations. If Nvidia has its way, VR could finally be a game changer in previewing building construction, car design or interiors, and the level of detail could solve a lot of problems – and wasted dosh – before those designs become physical objects.