DisplayLink, the Californian startup that has specialised in USB graphics chips to help enterprise IT integrate display units with various devices is moving into virtual reality (VR) by designing chips that can be integrated into existing headsets which allow them to work wirelessly.
A week before the company heads to Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona to demo its prototype,Techworld got to chat to the company about its move into VR chip design and its plans to accelerate the development of wireless VR.
From enterprise to VR
When it was designing its popular DL3 docking stations for the enterprise IT environment the problem DisplayLink looked to solve was keeping the video display on multiple monitors, including 4K, at low-latency regardless of which device is being plugged in via USB.
CEO Graham O'Keeffe explained that in the enterprise: "If you move the mouse on your desktop and the cursor doesn't follow, people go nuts, so that's the problem we had to solve technically: how do you do really good video compression without artefacts and with very low-latency."
While attending MWC last year O'Keeffe was struck by how immersive VR already was but that the main problem was "this one horrible wire hanging out of the back of it". He realised that there might be some synergy in the work DisplayLink had been doing in low-latency and wireless display for the enterprise that they might be able to bring to a chip for the VR market to help solve this problem.
So he went to his engineering team, based here in Cambridge, to design a chip that could be integrated into a VR headset to allow it to work wirelessly.
The barriers to tether-less VR
O'Keeffe explained some of the technical issues the VR industry faces, saying: "The problem is the 20 millisecond cliff you go over, which is called motion to photon [latency]. If that is more than 20 milliseconds then you just hurl."
The video rate on HD VR is already around four times greater than HD TV, which means the video needs to be compressed without causing a delay to the feed. O'Keeffe expanded on this, saying: "Most TVs have a 25 or 30 frames per second update rate, and VR needs to be 90 frames per second.
"That equates to 11 milliseconds per frame. So basically every 10 milliseconds the computer has to generate the next image, so it uses predictive tracking. We can do it in about two milliseconds, so within less than one frame, and it is really lucky we can do that because that is the problem everyone is trying to solve in wireless VR."
Director of marketing Andy Davis added: "Everything we have actually done in the enterprise market, so building the codec and compression, moving to VR is kind of just the next building block. So we can leverage everything we have already done in moving cursors between multiple screens at low-latency."
The next issue was connectivity, and O'Keeffe doesn't feel that Wi-Fi is sufficient for wireless VR to work. He said: "Wi-Fi is not necessarily the best environment for VR because we need the bandwidth and low-latency," so DisplayLink is focusing on 60 gigahertz wireless.
Now, working with an industrial design agency, DisplayLink has created a modular prototype wireless VR headset which incorporates power (lithium batteries), display (HDMI), USB and a small 60 GHz antenna which transmits to the PC.
Prototype wireless VR
The wireless DisplayLink VR headset is currently in the prototype phase, but the company is going all in on the technology.
The prototype that Techworld got to try is being run on power tool batteries which you can clip to your waist. O'Keeffe explained: "We were doing this at a time when lithium batteries were catching fire." The newer version that the company will announce "as a fully-formed reference design" at MWC on Monday will have a built in battery with capacity for 2 hours charge.
We trialled the retrofitted HTC Vive headset at the offices of DisplyLink's London-based investor Balderton Capital using the battery pack held in a back pocket and playing a Valve mini game on a green screen.
Davis explained: "The module you see here today is plugging into the standard interfaces of the Vive. We can work with existing headsets today if they are running an HDMI connection to the headset or a display port and they all have USB and the chips we have developed over the years have all of those connections."
The limitations to a 360 degree experience hindered by the green screen and the short battery life are naturally the next challenges for DisplayLink, but the progress it has been able to make in such a short amount of time is a positive indicator for future success.
In short, the idea is for DisplayLink to leverage its expertise in video compression to help existing VR headset manufacturers to go wireless using DisplayLink chips. They will sell the chips to manufacturers and help them fully integrate it into their next generation headsets. O'Keeffe says DisplayLink is currently in discussions with "every contact" in the VR market.
Davis added: "Taking those chips to the next level and integrating them into a modular design that someone can retrofit into an existing headset, we kind of have that, which is why we have the reference designs.
"The next step is getting the big headset manufacturers who are looking to launch their next generation models and have them wireless ready will take a bit more time."
DisplayLink is a privately funded company and has raised more than $75 million (£60 million) to date from Atlas Venture, Balderton Capital, Cipio Partners DAG Ventures and Draper Esprit.