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Sunday April 23, 2017
Interview: Frank Soqui, Intel's General Manager of Virtual Reality
by David Hollingworth | Mar 6, 2017 | Comment Now
Intel is doubling down on VR. We talk about games, the lack of AAA content, and how the technology can change... everything.
Interview: Frank Soqui, Intel's General Manager of Virtual Reality

Everyone’s bullish about virtual reality. Developers are continuing to develop new titles, and are starting to design games that take advantage of the unique opportunities of the medium. The makers of the HMDs themselves are starting to see sales increase, and with that increased market, we're seeing the first round of price drops, with Oculus now cutting about a hundred dollars from the Rift's starting price.

And, at the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, Intel is pushing the technology hard - after all, you need high end PC hardware to make the most of VR, so anything which drives CPU sales is definitely a good thing.

The one sticking point, though, remains the lack of truly killer titles and applications. Even Intel's own Frank Soqui, the General Manager of the company's VR division, admits that we're still waiting for the content that's really going to make VR sing. "We need those triple AAA titles," he told me. "The games that will drive VR take up." Essentially, VR needs its Crysis moment, when a game is so good that people will invest not for the novelty of the hardware, but for what can be done on it. Which kind of begs the question - is VR actually... ready? Is it, as many vendors continue to promise, here to stay?

"Well, for me 'here' has a specific meaning," Soqui says when I ask him, after pointing out that it is a kind of nebulous thing right now. "But I look at the level of industry investment; I'm looking at the hardware capabilities that are there. I'm looking at the cross-sector investments that are being made, not just in gaming, but they're getting made commercially, in the enterprise. I look at price points coming down, at the quality of the experience - I think that's here."

"What's not here," he says, "is the compelling content."

We're really, really close, though. 

At Intel's hardware demo area at IEM, VR featured heavily alongside high-end gaming PCs pushing out 4K gaming content, and sleek laptops with all the power of a desktop themselves. 

There was the inevitable high-end driving simulator, complete with hydraulic shocks to rock a racing chair around as your tackle your racing line. There was a Virtuix Omni - if you were at the last Upgrade Australia event in Sydney, you may have already tried one! - where you could run about on the spot shooting zombies, and an impressive sail-boarding simulator that was a tonne of fun - if somewhat impractical for the home.

There were two really great demos that really stuck out for me, however, and both showed what VR can do without needing to invest in even more tech, like racing-sim chairs or full-motion harnesses.

The first was an upcoming game, one that I've been excited about for a while - Star Trek: Bridge Crew. The game pretty much does what it says on the tin, placing you on a starship bridge, as either Captain, Helm, Tactical, or Engineer. It can be played solo, with AI in each position apart from yours, but it's ideally a co-op experience, with a live player in each position. The demo shuffled you through each of them, showing off how each role plays, and it was pretty amazing. I'm a Star Trek fan, so may be biased, but the sense of presence was stunning. Using controllers, I could look down at my virtual hands as they manipulated various ship functions, and it really was just like in the movies. 

I may have gotten a little quietly emotional. For me, it's the first true killer app of VR. When I pointed this out to Frank, he predictably called me a big nerd, and I'm not going to deny it. 

"For me," Soqui went on, talking about the game that was his 'ah ha!' moment, "it was playing a game where my avatar was a woman, and I looked down, and... Wow! I'm in someone else's body!"

"I've talked to film makers about this," he says, warming up to the topic, "about empathy. How does it feel to be in someone else's shoes?"

The second impressive use of VR was in eSports broadcasting. Watching a stream of a game online is nothing new, but what Intel's aiming for is letting viewers get inside these matches - virtually. There's something very compelling about the chance to be virtually present in the arena for a big eSports match, and even more compelling about then being able to actually get inside the game, to watch it from any angle. In fact, finding new ways to present eSports to wider, more diverse crowds is one of Intel's big challenges in growing competitive gaming.

They're both heavily gaming-focused though, and Intel's looking well beyond play for where VR can have the most impact.

"Let's look at a collaborative work space, for instance," Soqui posits. "Say I'm trying to show you a 3D model, and I want to show it, and collaborate with someone over it. I've got to use Skype to talk to, you and spin this thing around with a mouse... Is this how want to work together?"

"But with VR goggles and a shared space, I can spin that model with my hands, and so can you, we're going to look at it from different angles - whatever that object is. It could be art, it could be a building... We work that way naturally, and VR let's us do that."

Which goes back to Frank's earlier point about empathy, and VR's ability to let us see the world from new angles. "What is it like to be in... Sarajevo," he says. "How does it feel to be a person of a certain ethnicity... How does it feel to be someone in a wheelchair? You don't know that point of view until you see it; and VR can do that."

Another challenge that's facing VR at the moment is the hardware-based silo mentality that tends to be the norm when in comes to technology and software development. Games that are only on one platform, for instance. Developer Ubisoft has already promised that all its VR titles will be hardware agnostic - they'll run on PSVR, Rift, and Vive. But more needs to be done keep VR open.

"I wouldn't say we're pushing for open standards, but we're certainly trying to influence people about the value of interoperability. It serves both consumer and business interests to have more content on more platforms. There's often a tension between business interests, as well as providing the best experience possible, as well as open standards - a lot of times those conflict with each other until the market matures."

"I know that if I lock something down, I can create the best experience. But is that what the end user wants? Yeah, they want to the best experience, but they expect interoperability."
"You just can't lock people into one platform," Soqui adds.

"I wouldn't say we're pushing for open standards, but we're certainly trying to influence people about the value of interoperability."

Of course, there's more to VR than just games and hardware. It always comes back to that unique experience of being there that really separates it out from any other form of media we've known. So how do you combine old media, like films, and traditional film-making techniques, with the startlingly young field of VR. Flat media, whether it's a film, a TV show, a documentary, even news broadcasts, all work based on similar principles, base around cuts, editing, and camera angles. When I point this out, and quiz Frank about his work with film-makers, his response was almost philosophical.

"Why," he asked me, "is the cut used as a narrative device?"

"Because," I replied, "it's something we're watching, not something we're in." Which was as dumb answer, but hey I'm no film student. And it was also what Frank wanted me to be say.
"Yes, exactly! And here's the other thing - most of those of those movies or stories are based around something the author was in, around an experience, and it had to be translated from that experience into a flat space... I would argue that creators don't have to translate anymore. With VR, what they create, or write about, is what you experience. No cuts, no edits. You can just be there."

As Frank's talking about film, and narrative, and a new way to explore these things, he's getting more animated. This is his last interview of a long day, so his passion and excitement is all the more astonishing. But then so is this still relatively new technology, and that helps keep things fresh, and capable of still surprising a veteran and evangalist like Frank.

"You know what still gets me," Soqui says, sitting back and looking up at the ceiling. "What surprises me is how people react to it, that first time. When I see people's physical reaction, when they shout out, or when they duck..." 

"And we're just at the tip of the iceberg for how your senses can be fooled." 

Which makes me wonder, if a game like Bridge Crew can get me excited now... Maybe Frank's right - we ain't seen nothing yet.



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