Why AMD is betting hard on the GPU

Virtual reality and the future of computing.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Virtual reality and the future of computing.

David Bennett,
Corporate VP, Worldwide
Commercial/ Asia-Pacific
Japan Mega Region, AMD
David Bennett, Corporate VP, Worldwide Commercial/ Asia-Pacific Japan Mega Region, AMD

“Our biggest competitive advantage is the fact that we’re the only company that can design both high-performing CPUs and GPUs and put them together..”

How has AMD benefited from being in both the CPU and GPU business?

In terms of our architectural improvements, we’ve stayed at the same semiconductor node for quite a few generations now. In contrast, Intel has been introducing new nodes, going from 28nm to 14nm and soon to 10nm. They’re driving a lot of their performance increases from shrinking the process node. On our end, we’ve increased performance and decreased power over two generations on the same 28nm node. It is virtually unheard of to achieve these levels of improvements, and we did this by applying lessons learned from our GPU business to our CPU development.

Why does it seem like there has been a lot more excitement in the GPU rather than the CPU space lately?

When Apple released the Mac Pro, it had two CPUs and one GPU, and that was the case for quite a number of years until it suddenly reversed course and went with two GPUs and one CPU. Many people asked why, but the fact is that the increases we were seeing on the GPU side of things were much greater than what we saw with CPUs. CPUs produce incremental upgrades, and there is only so much improvement you can squeeze out while sticking to the same power envelope and clock speeds.

That’s why AMD has bet heavily on GPUs, and it is no accident that graphics comprise a bigger portion of our APUs now.

How do you think VR is shaping graphics development?

CPUs have for the most part improved only in modest, incremental steps, going up by between seven and 12 per cent from generation to generation. On the other hand, GPUs have managed far more massive leaps between generations. These performance gains don’t come from just die shrinks on the silicon and owe a lot to actual architectural improvements.

VR requires 90fps, minimal latencies, and very high resolutions. And in order for the hardware and technology to more closely approximate reality, we’ll require at least a 4K or 8K resolution per eye, which we’re still a long way off from achieving.

Ultimately, I think VR is going to drive GPU development for at least the next eight to 10 years, and performance increases are going to be centered on making VR experiences more realistic.

What are your thoughts on how mixed reality stacks up against VR?

They are very different. At AMD, a lot of the technology and effort is being put into VR now. Microsoft is obviously going in a different direction with augmented reality, which I think is actually an easier entry point than VR for the general consumer. It is less invasive, and we might see the pick-up rate for AR be a lot quicker.

But what VR has going for it is price. The price of a headset is coming down, and if you go to China or Taiwan, there are literally over 80 headsets being made. What’s more, the PlayStation VR just redefined a new price point for VR, and AMD also recently entered a partnership with Oculus to lower the entrylevel price point for a VR-ready PC to just US$499. In comparison, we haven’t heard too much yet about an affordable price for AR.

Outside of gaming, what other VR applications are there?

Gaming is going to continue to drive VR, but if you look at the applications for VR, we’re seeing a lot of interest from a whole bunch of commercial verticals. I think the obvious ones are telepresence applications for things like meetings, trainings, and simulations. But we’re seeing a lot of work being done for the medical field as well, including everything from remote surgery to treatments for patients with dementia or schizophrenia.

Other major applications include construction and 3D modeling. Before VR, you had to rely on your imagination to visualize what a bunch of 2D models look like in 3D, but once you put on the VR goggles, you’re immediately able to see it. We think that’s going to open up the industry to a lot of people who don’t have the ability to do that kind of spatial translation in their heads.


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