'Mars 2030' VR Demo Unveiled with Steve Wozniak at GTC 2016

By Published April 05, 2016 at 1:21 pm
'Mars 2030' VR Demo Unveiled with Steve Wozniak at GTC 2016 Photo Jim Vincent

NVidia's Graphics Technology Conference (GTC 2016) kicked-off with a keynote from CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, who frontloaded the event with topics on AI, software development kits, self-driving cars, machine-learning, and VR. Of what we've seen so far, the most interesting has been the new “Mars 2030” VR demo, which used photogrammetry to rebuild Mars using satellite flybys. The Mars 2030 VR demo was helmed by computer industry icon Steve Wozniak, whom Huang selected for the Woz's recently vocalized wishes to fly one-way to Mars. Wozniak, providing the most candid form of stage presence, declared “wow! I'm getting dizzy! I'm gonna fall out of this chair.”

Huang: “... Well, Woz, that was not a helpful comment.”

But the exchange sums-up the presentation well – somewhat playful, experimental with technology, and entertaining.

Our initial GTC keynote coverage consists primarily of VR and SDK talking points, with a focus on the Mars 2030 demo.

VRWorks and Lead-Up to 2030 Demo

Leading up to the Mars 2030 unveil, Huang highlighted the VR SDK (“VRWorks”) developed by nVidia's team for implementation in modern game engines. Epic's Unreal Engine is among the first adopters, the backbone for the existing “Everest VR” demonstration.

Of the platform, Huang said:

“VR is an exciting new platform, and with every new platform, you enjoy graphics in a very different way. You're suspended in that room. Because you see the graphics so close to you, and because the graphics are moving with your head and body, any latency is going to cause you some amount of sickness. The latency, the performance, the interaction with the actual applications – they're incredibly important.”

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Huang's supporting slide reiterated the company's dedication to technology development on the front of multi-res shading (improves image clarity) and warp & blend functions; together, these technologies reduce render load of the HMD peripheral visuals in correspondence with human eye limitations toward peripheral vision. VR SLI and Context Priority were listed, but not discussed.

Everest VR is comprised of 108 billion pixels and 14,000 camera shots, reconstructing the mountain in full 3D within the Unreal Engine. PhysX is used to simulate swirling snow and other physically-accurate events, and was re-deployed in Mars 2030 for rover movement simulation.

Mars 2030 Demonstration

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The nVidia team worked with NASA to record real rover audio, which executes during player operation of Mars rovers while on the red planet. Movement is fairly open-world within an 8sq. km. Area of Mars, recreated using photogrammetry, HDR, and global illumination.

The Mars 2030 demo contains a base, a rover (operated by the Woz), and “lava tubes” – cavernous, subterranean environment elements resultant of lava flow under the surface. Because Mars' gravity is one-third of Earth's, the tubes don't collapse post-lava event, and the Mars 2030 demo allows exploration of those caverns.

Founding Apple Programmer Steve Wozniak jumped on-screen to perform a live playthrough of the demo. The unfolding minutes were technologically interesting as we surveyed the newly created VR landscape, imbued with The Woz's typical humor:

“I picked up the controller backwards!” Wozniak said, as an off-screen assistant aided. “Wow,” a few times repeated, as Huang suggested that Wozniak “please find Matt Damon.”

Wozniak: “I'm getting dizzy, I'm gonna fall out of this chair!”

Huang: “Well, Woz, that was not a helpful comment.”

The duo got laughter and applause – but the importance is on the technology itself.

We've been exceedingly vocal in our opinions of VR. We're critical, and have established ourselves as a media brand which challenges VR's immediate deployment in gaming applications. Speaking on behalf of the site, our initial thoughts of the Mars 2030 demo are positive with regard to visuals – “a million hand-crafted rocks” are present, we were told – though we haven't yet experienced the demo. Our opinions of VR remain critical – the technology is cool, but the implementation will take fine-tuning for gaming scenarios – and this demo furthered our opinion that the world creation within VR is a technological high-point. How fun it is to play in this demo, and how many times you'd return, would of course rely upon the user's demands for content consumption.

A few points on the SDK before closing.

NVidia SDK “Toolbox” for Gaming, VR, CUDA, & More

The updated nVidia SDK introduces tools to aid developers working to build deep learning applications (Deep Learning SDK), self-driving cars (DriveWorks), virtual reality (VRWorks), and gaming (GameWorks). The GameWorks discussion at GTC pertained almost entirely to the technologies we already explained in great depth at the Game Developers Conference. Volumetric lighting, VXAO (Voxel-Accelerated Ambient Occlusion), and HFTS (Hybrid Frustum Traced Shadows) were briefly mentioned in the keynote.

Outside of game graphics, the keynote highlighted nVidia's already-in-use VRWorks platform for its HMD-maker partnerships. See above for that.

The DesignWorks package also received stage time at GTC, tag-lined with “what you render is what you see” by the nVidia CEO. The DesignWorks toolkit offers extensions for ray-tracing (IRAY), MDL, Optix (path-tracing for development of ray-tracing atop the SDK), and path-rendering (algorithmic rendering of text and illustration paths). This is primarily deployed for illustrators and designers.

GTC Attendance Count

The keynote mentioned (briefly) the success of nVidia's highly-technical conference. GTC has doubled in attendance count from 2012 (2350 attendees in 2012, 5000 attendees in 2016). NVidia noted that CUDA developer count has quadrupled since 2012 (now a pool of 300,000), with the two fastest-growing segments being Internet and Hyperscale + Auto.

Editorial: Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke
Supporting Photography: James Vincent

Last modified on April 05, 2016 at 1:21 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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