Virtual reality is definitely a buzz word for 2016. This is not to say that the concept is new, far from it, but this year it finally feels like the technology is getting there and catching up to our vision. But ambitious projects like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive share a common dependence on an overwhelming abundance of processing power, with the new generation of GPUs from both Nvidia and AMD struggling to come through. Even mobile projects like Samsung’s Gear VR rely on the very best hardware smartphones have to offer and struggle with its limitations respectively.
Microsoft Research is attempting to approach the problem from a different angle. It’s FlashBack technology aims to improve VR performance on all devices, especially lower-end ones, by shedding the dependence on real-time rendering and instead going with a clever scheme to use pre-rendered scenes. The main idea here being that mobile storage is becoming cheaper, faster and a lot more abundant across all price segments and is vastly underutilized when it comes to VR.
The provided short video offers a comprehensive overall explanation of the technology, but it does boil down to pre-rendering every possible view the player can have in a given environment and then providing the given angle and perspective as needed. And if this sounds somewhat familiar, you are definitely not mistaken. Microsoft’s project couldn’t be more aptly named as it is essentially a flash back to ingenious solutions, developed back in the 90s to cope with achieving 3D graphics with the severe hardware bottlenecks at the time.
Now technologies like ray casting and binary space partitioning that created convincing 3D illusions in essentially 2D games like Wolfenstein 3D or Doom are making a comeback as inspiration for coping with the the new challenges of VR. Researchers have already achieved 8x better frame rates and a whopping 97x less power consumption using FlashBack VR on lower-end mobile devices. Give more time and enthusiasm, the technology could be powering inexpensive virual experiences in the near future.