Nvidia’s Ansel, VR Funhouse apps will enhance screenshots, showcase company’s VR technology

Friday night’s big GTX 1080 unveil was the talk of the tech community, but it’s not the only project that Nvidia unveiled this past weekend. The company also showcased a pair of software projects it’s working on to showcase both its efforts in VR and its ability to beautify game screenshots.

Nvidia’s Ansel (named after Ansel Adams, the famous American environmentalist and photographer) is a new tool designed to allow users to create screenshots and even 360-degree “bubble” images. The ability to take screenshots in games is nothing new, of course, but Ansel allows you to step “outside” your character and manipulate the camera position before settling on a shot.

Nvidia-Ansel

One of the frustrating things about trying to create “perfect” screenshots in gaming is that how easy it is to do so largely depends on whether the camera is a flexible, powerful, and intuitive tool or something kludged together by three chimpanzees and a rat after six years of perpetual crunch time. Ansel aims to reduce this type of problem by giving gamers powerful tools to pose and create screenshots — provided that developers support the feature, at least.

Ansel allows you to freeze time inside a game and adjust the camera position to anything you like — even in games that don’t allow a completely free camera already. It then scales up the resolution of the final screenshot to as high as 32x native resolution (4.5 gigapixels). These truly enormous image files — because seriously, that’s going to be onehell of a file size — can then be downsampled for an incredibly high-resolution focus on one specific area.

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Other features include the ability to apply specific filters (Instagram for games, we suppose), capture and export in OpenEXR, and the option to capture 360-degree “bubbles” for viewing in VR. Nvidia announced at the same event that it has released an Nvidia VR Viewer for the Google Cardboard app (sadly only Android is supported as of this writing). You’ll be able to adjust the yaw, pitch, and roll of the camera, change the brightness or color, and create 360-degree shots (a gallery of these is available on Nvidia’s website). It’ll be supported on all Nvidia GPUs from the 600 family forwards, which means Kepler and Maxwell users will still have access to this tool.

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The only downside is that support will be baked in on a game-by-game level, not implemented across the board at this point. Whether Nvidia will be able to convince game devs to standardize on a set of capabilities that enable Ansel in the future or not is unclear. But since support will ship in some games that have already been out for quite some time, it’s clearly something that can be patched in rather than required from Day 1.

The other major Nvidia announcement on the software front was its new VR Funhouse. This is a clever way for Nvidia to highlight the advances of both its VRWorks SDK and its overall technology — the various mini-games in VR Funhouse showcase technologies like Nvidia Hairworks, particle effects, Nvidia Flow (used for simulating fire and water) and PhysX.

Nvidia Flex (partical-based physics simulation) and the company’s physically simulated audio engine (Nvidia VRWorks Audio) are also used in Funhouse, which is best understood as a tech demo to showcase cutting-edge capabilities in a series of mini-games. It should also serve as a fun introduction to VR technology for early adopters and users who want to show visitors an easy, simple series of mini-games with low stakes and friendly controls.

We didn’t have the opportunity to demo much of Nvidia’s VR work this weekend, but the Nvidia audio demo we attended was quite good — the ability to simulate position based on where we were in the virtual space was impressive. Whether or not this capability will find much uptake in the real world, however, is less clear — multiple companies throughout the years have tried to convince game devs to implement impressive audio capabilities (most recently AMD, with its TrueAudio DSP) and the vast majority of developers seemingly can’t be arsed to bother.

Nvidia will also use VR Funhouse to support its VRWorks SLI capabilities. While most VR games and apps to-date are single-GPU affairs, both AMD and Nvidia are working hard to change that. Nvidia will support VR SLI with VR Funhouse, dedicating one GPU to rendering each eye. Unlike Nvidia Ansel, VR Funworks appears to be a Pascal-only title.

Nvidia’s excellent first quarter buoyed by gaming, automotive wins, and data centers

Nvidia announced first quarter results for its fiscal year 2017 yesterday, and the firm’s results were excellent — particularly in a market where companies like AMD and Intel have been taking a hammering. First-quarter revenue was up 13% to $1.3 billion, with strong gains in gaming, data centers, and the automotive market.

The slide below breaks down Nvidia’s revenue in two different ways. Reportable segment revenue reflects Nvidia’s chosen method of grouping its businesses (Tegra, GPU, Other). Revenue by market platform provides additional color into how each individual area of the company is performing. One does not map cleanly to the other, but it’s worth considering both data sets.

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These two charts suggest that the bulk of Nvidia’s growth is linked to its strong performance in gaming, data centers, and automotive sales. The drop off in the OEM and IP market was most likely caused by declines in Nvidia’s original Tegra mobile business and offset by a significant uptick in demand for Nvidia’s automotive designs. Nvidia logged a 63% increase in data center revenue, driven by its efforts to position itself at the center of both the driverless car initiative and deep learning networks. Both of these efforts have been front and center during a number of recent company demos and presentations.

Gaming also saw strong gains year-on-year, and Nvidia implied this was due to increased sales volume in all areas rather than increased ASPs. The 8% quarterly decline is in line with seasonal projections, which means Nvidia has probably taken market share from AMD over the past 12 months. The company’s recent GTX 1080 and 1070 announcementshave set the stage for an aggressive move to take over the high-end of the market. AMD countered the GTX 980 Ti with the Fury family in 2015, but Polaris isn’t a high-end uber-GPU and Nvidia has obviously planned to sweep both the high-end market in general and the VR space, specifically.

AMD hasn’t formally announced Polaris positioning or performance yet, but the rumor mill suggests it’s an extremely potent competitor in much less expensive markets that constitute the actual bulk of the GPU space. For all the ink lavished on high-end cards, very few people actually buy a $600 GPU. Most of the market is in the $150-$250 space, and if AMD launches a strong midrange part, it could seize leadership in that area. We don’t know yet how all these variables will play out.

Nvidia’s long-term success

It’s interesting to look at where Nvidia is now as opposed to what conventional wisdom predicted roughly eight years ago. Back then, AMD and Intel both had plans to combine GPUs with CPUs to create products that would likely kill the low-end GPU markets. By and large this happened, which is why both AMD and Nvidia focus on the $100+ space these days. The cards sold below that price point tend to be older hardware from previous low-end generations.

Nvidia poured enormous resources into Tegra to win early space in mobile — Tegra 2 was one of the most popular smartphone and tablet processors in the early dual-core days — before pivoting the entire segment towards automotive designs. Using GeForce cards fordeep learning and HPC work is another market Nvidia has largely dominated. Until quite recently, AMD didn’t seriously compete for these spaces and the company has a long way to go to ramp up its resources to match Team Green.

The flip side to this is that Nvidia’s own Project Denver CPU core hasn’t amounted to much in the market to date, and Nvidia’s efforts to create a comprehensive SoC platform with Icera’s modem technology also failed. Like Microsoft and Intel, Nvidia has had difficulty breaking out of its core GPU market — but one could argue that it’s also spent less money chasing alternatives that haven’t panned out. Microsoft and Intel have both pivoted their business strategies and created new products, but both also threw huge amounts of money and mobile for a number of years.

Overall, the company is well positioned for FY 2017 (calendar 2016). We’ll see if and how that changes when Polaris launches this summer. And just to be clear: Knowledgeable sources ET has spoken to have confirmed that Polaris is on-track for a mid-year launch. Rumors that AMD has pulled Vega in for an October launch are just that — rumors.

Micron confirms GDDR5X now in mass production

This announcement might seem a bit anticlimactic now that Nvidia has already stated that the GeForce GTX 1080 will use GDDR5X RAM, but Micron has announced that GDDR5X is now in mainstream production, months ahead of its originally expected schedule.

One interesting thing about the GTX 1080 is that the RAM it uses is at the lower-end of the memory Micron said it could ship. GDDR5X has previously been touted as a solution capable of providing up to 12.0 Gbps of bandwidth in quad-data rate (QDR) mode. Nvidia, in contrast, has stated that the GTX 1080 uses just 10Gbps memory — towards the low-end of the scale. One potential advantage of starting at the lower end, however, is that the company has plenty of headroom to scale in the future.

Absolute bandwidth on the GTX 1080 is 320GB/s, which nearly matches the GTX 980 Ti while retaining the GTX 980’s 256-bit memory bus. Keeping the memory bus small is one way to control die size and lower production costs; large ring buses eat up die space and consume a significant amount of power.

Brand-new standard or GDDR4?

We suspect that GDDR5X will be similar to GDDR4. GDDR4 was introduced by AMD in 2006 as a way to improve memory bandwidth and GPU performance. Nvidia never switched to GDDR4, preferring instead to retain GDDR3 until GDDR5 became available. AMD used GDDR4 in various products from 2006 – 2009, at which point it moved to GDDR5.

AMD hasn’t said whether or not it will use GDDR5X in upcoming products, but the fact that Nvidia is only using GDDR5X for the GTX 1080 suggests that the memory is still rather expensive; the GTX 1070 uses GDDR5. AMD’s Polaris is expected to target the mainstream PC market, which means it’ll likely use GDDR5 as well. Meanwhile, both AMD and Nvidia are planning late-year launches for next-generation products, both of which are confirmed to use HBM2.

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The implication here is that GDDR5X’s market position long-term will depend on whether or not AMD and Nvidia see a need for the memory to offset higher costs in HBM2. If HBM2 costs come down relatively quickly, there may not be much room left for GDDR5X in the market, given that GDDR5 is produced by multiple companies and is relatively cheap (Micron, thus far, is the only company building GDDR5X). If, on the other hand, interposer costs stay high, we may still see all three standards in-market for some period of time.

What’s highly unlikely is that we’ll see any single GPU supporting both HBM2 and GDDR5X. Sources we’ve spoken to have indicated that supporting both memory standards simultaneously in the same silicon would be extremely difficult for minimal benefits. Supporting GDDR5 and 5X in the same silicon is much simpler than an HBM2 + GDDR5X configuration.