Interview: HP's VR team on commercial virtual reality and backpack PCs

VR was a bigger force than ever at this year's SIGGRAPH, an industry conference held in Los Angeles focused on the world of computer graphics. New hardware, software, and experimental art projects were all on display, and HP made a splash with the reveal of their HP Z VR Backpack. It's a refined, more powerful, and less gaming-focused take on their Omen VR backpack model, and HP's floorspace in the SIGGRAPH exhibition hall was all about ways corporate and government entities were using the company's technology to power new VR experiences.

At the convention I spoke with Josh Peterson, HP's Head of VR Product Management, Louis Gaiot, VR Solutions Product Manager, and Keith Fish, Solutions Performance Engineer, about HP's role in the VR industry, the differences between VR products aimed at consumers and those for commercial purposes, and whether VR backpack PCs actually have a future.  

GameCrate: What's the difference between HP's VR strategy towards gamers and your more commercial-focused offerings? 

Josh Peterson: It really boils down to a few things. The use case is different, so expectations are different. For gaming, it's fun, it's less serious, and probably less critical as to visual defects or glitches in the experience, but on the commercial side, if I'm a car developer or I'm doing military training or something, the glitches can be more significant.

So I think from a use case perspective, it's different. So what does that mean? It means the fundamental technology has to be different as well. You have to have better performance. You have people that are going to be in VR for periods of time in a work setting or even a customer engagement setting, and you want to have the best visual performance. So the performance expectations and the overall experience expectations have to be higher. 

The second thing is, you think about using VR in a worldwide company. Somebody's going to deploy five hundred of these, a thousand of these, or maybe I'm a location-based entertainment company and I'm going to have a hundred different sites around the United States. I'm going to want to be able to manage, update the BIOS, make sure they can join a domain for my corporate network, so you have to have a level of commercial-grade capability. That includes commercial BIOS, TPM security.

Think about the intellectual property that's on the device itself: how do you secure that down, secure the contents? Especially if you're thinking about an automotive customer where you have 3D data residing on a device. How do you secure that? So that's where the manageability and security, the stuff that we've done on workstations forever—and really, nobody does security better than HP—we're injecting that into our VR solutions.

GC: VR is a few years old at this point, and we've seen the development of both the consumer side and the business side. Where does HP fit into the VR industry? 

Louis Gaiot: If you look at the HP portfolio overall, we've got the Omen X series for the gaming platforms, great VR consumer devices, and then we go all the way up to the workstations, which is where the VR offerings and the assets are created, and also deployed not just on the gaming platforms but the professional platforms as well. It really depends on what the target application is.

Typically you want to use a workstation-class device because you are working with 3D models, you're taking those models and using them in game engines. Whether it's a game, whether it's a showroom experience, whether it's a training experience, a military experience, whatever it is, that's the kind of work that goes in there and incorporates our workstations. 

GC: What are some of the highlights for HP here at SIGGRAPH? 

LG: Yesterday we announced the first commercial VR wearable high performance platform. It's called the HP Z VR Backpack. It's a wearable VR computer that is compatible with all kinds of on-the-market HMDs that are out there. It's a flexible platform you can use with all kinds of 3rd-party motion capture systems, as well as the Vive system. We're really excited about it.

It is a commercial-level platform that is targeted at those use cases where you have to have that freedom of motion to interact with the experience that you are creating. Whether it's product review in a virtual garage, or an architectural review in an actual 1-to-1 scale model of a building, or in an entertainment environment like a VR arcade or an arena-based arcade experience. 

GC: Whenever we write about VR backpack PCs, we see a mixture of excitement and skepticism. Is there a long-term place for VR backpacks as we see more wireless virtual reality options come to market? 

LG: That is an excellent question. We are not against wireless. As a company we are closely watching this technology and how it progresses. There are special challenges to this technology that you may be aware of, especially at the frequencies and at the data rates that are required for maintaining an immersive, high fidelity VR experience. 

The two main issues with wireless technologies are RF congestion and RF obstruction. Congestion meaning if you have multiple users in the same spectrum frequencies that are being used for a VR experience you can lose connectivity, you can have dropped frame rates because bandwidth has to be allocated across the devices that need it. 

And the other issues with wireless technologies at the data rates that we need to transmit the visual information at, you're looking at frequencies where any line-of-sight obstruction causes dropped frame rates and loss of fidelity of the experience. So the bottom line is we believe in a backpack-type solution for those that really do require high performance, high fidelity, high resolution, high frame rate applications, and that is the best way to have a mobile VR experience when you have those requirements. 

GC: What does VR offer to businesses outside of the gaming industry? 

LG: We've talked to hundreds of customers, and it expands across all fields in the commercial world. Automotive, military sims, location-based entertainment centers, architecture, data analysis. And there's a common thread, even thogh the applications are widely varied. Companies that have brand equity want to represent their products in the highest quality manner, the highest fidelity manner that they possibly can. And they see VR as a way to accomplish that. They need high performance and high fidelity to represent their work and their assets in the highest quality possible. 

GC: What are you most excited about right now in the VR industry? 

Keith Fish: The amount of energy being poured into enabling the ecosystem, into getting all the pieces and parts to come together, to be able to deliver just incredible experiences in VR, it's amazing. To see it all happening right here, right now, and how quickly it is moving. It's really exciting. 

LG: For the workstation business itself, we're super excited because this reinvigorates high-performance platforms. You need the big GPUs, you need the CPUs, you need the memory to create this stuff.

And also the emerging technologies and the ecosystem that is coming together to enable it, it's phenomenal. It just seems like we are in a new era of platform development. Maybe it's a new platform wave. Time will tell if it's the beginning of a new platform wave that extended realities will be a part of. 

For more, browse HP's VR-ready PCs on Newegg.