If you’ve tried virtual reality, whether or not it blew your mind probably depends on how you experienced it: whether it was with a high-end headset like the Oculus Rift or one that used a smartphone like the Samsung Gear VR.
While today’s flagship phones can provide a decent VR experience, they have shortcomings. Latency is an issue since the immersive nature of VR taxes the processor. Mobile VR also doesn’t support much interactivity — meaning you can’t touch or pick things up in the virtual environment, which is crucial for games. And even though manufacturers are squeezing more resolution into displays than ever before, when the screen is just an inch from your face, you can see the pixels.
In short, handset makers need to take today’s flagship phone designs to the next level if they’re going to deliver a real sense of “presence” — the hallmark of a good VR experience. Today, the company all those manufacturers depend on is giving them a blueprint to do just that.
ARM Holdings, which designs the architecture for nearly all the world’s mobile processors, is announcing a new type of chip, the Cortex-A73, which is designed with VR in mind. Alongside the A73, ARM is also unveiling a new graphics engine, called the Mali-G71. While ARM improves its chip tech every year, this year VR was very much top of mind.
“We generally try to think about use cases to come,” Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, told Mashable during an advance briefing about the announcement. “When you think about the trends in virtual reality, augmented reality… latency is a huge deal when using a VR headset. You move your head, and the screen’s got to move. Any lag in that, and it can be pretty unpleasant. Refresh rate is key, you don’t want any flicker at all.”
Both designs improve performance while saving energy. The Cortex-A73 performs 30% better than the previous A72, and it’s 30% more energy efficient. But VR phones may benefit even more from the new Mali, which boots performance by 50% and is 20% more energy efficient. The power gains are crucial, since great mobile VR won’t make much difference if your battery drains too fast to enjoy the experience.
ARM, of course, doesn’t actually build processors, so this is just the first step toward building the next generation of phones. Now the chipmakers of the world can take ARM’s design and begin creating designs for next year’s flagship smartphones (think the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7S). ARM says it’s already begun working with Samsung, MediaTek and HiSilicon. Qualcomm, which makes the chips for most of the world’s top smartphones, wasn’t named, but ARM said there were “others.”
Will VR save mobile?
ARM’s new designs will make it easier for handset makers to build VR-ready smartphones, like ones that meet or excel Google’s new Daydream spec for Android. Soon, phones with turbocharged processors, 4K screens and very low latency will be common. The question then becomes: Will consumers want them?
The field of VR is commanding a lot of attention and even greater funding, but it’s very early days, and it remains to be seen whether it will ever become a mainstream technology. Segars believes it will, although he concedes VR is still waiting for the content that will take it to the next level.
“Do I think use cases are going to emerge that will resonate with people — yeah, I do,” he says. “Is it there yet? No, it isn’t. There isn’t much VR content. Gaming will be a great driver for this. It creates a different, immersive experience, but the killer application maybe isn’t quite there.”