The newest Coffee Lake processors from Intel have arrived, and gamers are pleased. But what does mainstream multi-core performance mean for VR?
Intel has long been a respected manufacturer of computer processors, and as a result have enjoyed a position of privilege since the beginning of the information age. An Intel processor has more than likely powered every computer you have ever used, be it a Windows machine or a Mac made after 2007. Its latest processors, however, bring little surprise to the chip market: enthusiasts, gamers, and engineers all know what they want, and no one chip can satisfy every user. This is no longer simply a question of raw processing power either; rival chip maker AMD has been nipping at Intel's heels for some time now, offering comparable performance at a significantly better value. And after the recent launch of AMD's Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, the gap in performance is closing more and more. So what does Coffee Lake mean for the market?
VR at Home
Obviously, considerations on displaying VR content always begin with a dedicated graphics processor; no amount of intelligent optimization or design would allow VR experiences to run on a CPU's integrated graphics, and so discrete GPUS will be the most important factor in delivering high-quality experiences in the forseeable future.
However, Coffee Lake has brought an important consideration to light by bringing six-core CPUs to a mainstream audience. While increasing the core counts of a single processor has been commonplace since the mid-to-late 2000s (Intel themselves toyed with an industrial-strength 48-core processor for use in datacenters as far back as 2009), every jump to a higher core cound represents a significant jump a computer's parallel processing power, or its ability to multitask. Not unlike a discrete graphics processing unit, CPUs with muliple physical cores and logical threads can juggle more computations at once. While it is obvious how this would benefit any graphically intensive process, including games, the VR and digital entertainment professionals of today should pay close attention to this trend of increasingly versatile CPUs, namely due to the potential for multitasking.
Having It All (At Once)
Futurists are fond of using the term "screenification" to describe the increasing number of surfaces on which audiences consume media, and by extension the number of devices or processes being employed at one time. Consumers often leave the television on while cleaning or listen to a podcast while driving, and this same tendency to quickly switch attention from one activity will be better served by hardware that can keep up. In fully immersive VR experiences, users may wish to duplicate their displays on an external monitor, or leave an automated process running (such as editing software) while completing other tasks.
Perhaps even more likely is the prospect of VR e-sports streamers on services such as Twitch or YouTube Gaming becoming more commonplace as hexa- and octa-core processors become the norm on the market. This should worry Intel somewhat as AMD continues to improve performance against similar Intel chips in multi-core processes and benchmarks such as streaming games.