The Intel Developer Forum is going on this week in San Francisco, and at this morning’s opening keynote, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich talked a lot about the behind the scenes hardware and software the company is working on to help developers create the next generation of gadgets. While there was a lot of general talk about future possibilities, Krzanich did have something a little more tangible to show off — Project Alloy, a VR headset that solves a couple problems holding virtual reality back in the early going.
As the name implies, Project Alloy represents a fusion of two things — specifically, virtual reality and augmented reality, creating what Krzanich calls merged reality. But, unlike Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, for example, Project Alloy doesn’t create an overlay on the real world. It’s a genuine VR headset — the twist is that instead of putting virtual objects into the real world, it can put real objects into the virtual one. The keynote demo showed the user’s hands appearing in the real world, and, most impressively, generated Krzanich himself when the demonstrator was about to run into him while wearing the headset.
One of the current problems with VR (which some would argue is a feature, not a bug) is that it completely cuts the user off from the real world. Something like Project Alloy seems like a happier medium — even just getting the user’s hands into the virtual world is a huge step. Virtual reality, as it stands now, has failed at being immersive because it doesn’t create a sense of presence. This is a step towards actually feeling like you’re in the virtual world.
Project Alloy does this by using Intel’s RealSense camera. Their 3D, depth-sensing camera is used to scan surroundings and detect obstacles, which is combined with Microsoft’s holographic software, also at use in HoloLens, to render those obstacles in the virtual world if the user gets too close. And, most promising of all, there are no wires to trip over, either. Intel didn’t say much about specs, but the Project Alloy headset is a self-contained VR rig — it doesn’t require a connection to a PC or a smartphone. We know that there’s a desktop-grade 6th generation Skylake processor in there, and given the size of the headset, we’re guessing it’s using Intel’s integrated Iris graphics instead of any sort of a discrete graphics card. The demo didn’t look as sharp as what’s possible on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, so while not needing to connect it to a PC or use any external sensors is very convenient, there’s definitely been sacrifices made to performance.
As usual for Intel, Project Alloy will likely never be sold. It’s meant as a reference design for developers and hardware manufacturers to play around with and make their own. That said, something like Project Alloy may never see the light of day, either. There was a lot of talk on the show floor about the potential of Wi-Fi and WiGig wireless connections in VR. During a VR talk shortly after the keynote, an Intel rep said that connecting a VR headset to a PC over a wireless connection is still at least two years away from being viable, but it seems like that’s where the future of the technology is.
At the keynote, Krzanich also briefly discussed Intel’s 7th generation of Core processors, called Kaby Lake. This will be Intel’s third straight generation using the 14 nm die — usually Intel shrinks the die every two years, but word is it’s become harder to do this lately. While we don’t expect Kaby Lake to be a huge upgrade over Skylake, Intel has said that the new chipsets will include integrated 4k graphics processors and will generally be better for gaming. At the keynote, an unnamed Dell XPS laptop running a Kaby Lake processor was shown playing Overwatch smoothly, although the demo was of the game being played in training mode without other players, so the hardware wasn’t being pushed. Playing a game like Overwatch on a laptop isn’t unheard of anyway, although it does look like Kaby Lake processors could provide more stability. The new processors are shipping out to device manufacturers now, and Intel is saying we should expect Kaby Lake devices on the market by the end of the year — we expect we’ll see some next month at IFA in Berlin.