Spotlight Interview with VR Production Director, James Knight

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[Source: Caroline Stelmach, Edelman & AMD]

We're on the cusp of incredible new immersive computing experiences with the rise of virtual and augmented reality. This new immersive era, referred to as the third wave of computing, will require unprecedented levels of graphics processing power and is poised to dramatically transform a range of industries, from gaming to filmmaking to education and beyond.

Today's and tomorrow's graphics demands a different approach to address immersive pixels, featuring significant advancements in both software and hardware and close collaboration between players across a variety of industries.

James Knight, Virtual Production Director at AMD, is one of Hollywood's leading visual effects and motion capture experts who was part of the pioneering never-seen-before motion capture techniques with James Cameron on the epic blockbuster AVATAR. James speaks to AMD's vision for virtual reality, how we can achieve full immersion and the company's efforts towards driving VR filmmaking in particular, including the latest technological developments and key partnerships with major film studios including 20th Century Fox, Legendary and many others.

Renderosity Magazine had the good fortune to speak to James Knight about the technology behind VR and ask him about the challenges that artists face in creating content for this exciting, new medium.

Note: All images courtesy of AMD


Interview with James Knight

Renderosity Magazine: Many people I meet who know little bit about VR express a concern that the recent growth of VR/AR is mostly hype. However, those who know the technology are convinced that AR/VR will introduce serious changes in our media consumption and usage. Why has VR and AR become so viable now? Is it primarily because the hardware is now ready for it? Is the current VR/AR push really hype?

James Knight: Recent advances in graphics horsepower has definitely produced more interest in virtual reality. AMD powers the overwhelming majority VR experiences around the world with an estimated 83 percent market share. Creators have recognized the value that graphics cards play in the production of VR. Earlier this year, AMD FirePro W9100 32 GB graphics card introduced memory support for large asset workflows with creative applications. And just recently we announced the Radeon Pro WX 7100 - AMD's workstation solution for professional VR content creation priced under $1,000.

No, it's not all hype. With any new medium as exciting as this, there's always a portion of over emphasis; but with VR/AR, from what AMD has seen, in many ways this is exceeding expectations. Just as some politicians might disparage video games without playing them, many people are having an opinion on VR without actually trying it OR seeing a bad experience. Granted, we all might feel a little silly putting on the headset at first and that might be off-putting; however, when people put it on and see good content, we've always witnessed them being amazed. When the content is run on AMD's VR ready GPUs, experiences run flawlessly and as the creators intended.

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Can you tell us a bit about the background of the Wright Bros. VR Project development and creation? What role did AMD play in it?

James Knight: I was approached to join an effort to recreate the Wright Brother's first flight using Virtual Production and performance capture. It had been in development for a while, however, in October of 2014 they were ready to start production. I had worked with the talented team at MatterVR, including Dan Gregoire and Steve Holtzman, years before. I went to them to mock up a low-res version of the flyer, the environment and Wilbur standing by the plane, so we could show it to the two Wright Brothers experts at the Smithsonian. We wowed them just with this demonstration and from that point onwards we worked closely with them, down to the smallest detail, to recreate this seminal moment in world history. With this, we all realized the power of education and recreating history in VR.

AMD had an important role in the VR experience by providing the hardware to make the vision come to life in the realistic sense - so that the viewer actually believes they were at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and saw the Wright brothers fly for the first time.

You mention in the interview with Larry Jordan that "You want to look at a GPU that has lots of on-board RAM". Won't this be cost prohibitive for many potential VR/AR users? Will you need a high-end card to consume/develop VR?

James Knight: Flash memory or SSD memory right on the GPU isn't actually that cost prohibitive. It's all relative. If you're looking to do ambitious VR, you'll need to render large amounts of data in real-time, and for that to happen without hiccups or latency, you need to have all those digital assets right there on the GPU. If you're going to do something particularly ambitious, it's reasonable to think your cost may increase. This is why we released the AMD FirePro W9100 with 32GB right on the card and why we announced the creation of our Radeon Pro SSG technology, starting at a full TB on the GPU! The cards with large amounts of memory on the GPU are for content creators at this point and the Radeon Pro cards have certain certifications for professionals, higher performance and more memory.

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In your presentation "3rd wave of computing", I noticed a chart that is labeled "Entering Deep Pixel Era", can you elaborate on this idea?

James Knight: We're on the cusp of new display technologies that will let us see pixels as we see the real world. As display manufacturers, content creators and game developers start exploring High Dynamic Range, we don't just have to power efficient pixels, we also need to power what we call "deep pixels". This, too, is taxing current GPUs as we're trying to replicate what the human eye sees. As a result, we need to create even more powerful graphics solutions to meet the rich visually immersive demands of the creators and consumers.

Overall, what was the point you were trying to make in the 3rd wave of computing presentation? Is the presentation available anywhere on video?

James Knight: That presentation, which has been shown to a wide variety of audiences and forums, was intended to identify the growing need for more and more powerful graphics solutions to meet the demand of the viewing audience and the limitless mind of the content creator, as they continue to push our technology. It's a rallying cry for the industry to focus efforts on the GPU as the central point of creativity and getting the industry to recognize the real-time computing power it provides. Live, onset visual effects is a powerful tool, and one more readily available than content creators might think. The organizers of FMX 2016 posted the presentation originally made by AMD's Raja Koduri. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez-p59hlzBQ)

How is AMD pushing VR production forward both for the entertainment media and other professional uses like medical and architecture?

James Knight: For the entertainment community, we actually opened up an office Hollywood. We are actively listening to the needs of the content creators and creating hardware with them in mind. With VR, you now need a GPU to consume the content, as well as create it, so this seems a great time for us to have a presence here and listen, create tech and empower the epicenter of content creation.

We recognize that there's definitely interest in VR creation beyond the traditional media and entertainment field. We're working closely with vertical application creators to enable their solutions to take advantage of the power of professional graphics. For example, using a professional graphics card for virtual reality in medical situations allows medical experts to see the human body in new ways and perhaps solve medical issues from a new point of view. Architects can use the accurate realism that AMD professional graphics provide to showcase their creations with ease by quickly changing lighting, textures and color, all in an easily accessible VR environment.

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How would you advise a digital artist who wanted to get started creating virtual reality content?

James Knight: My simple answer would be to say: just start creating. Get messy. Try new things and be willing to make mistakes. We've created graphics products designed for major workstation vendor solutions with the intent to enable limitless creativity. Get to know the Game Engines, or 'Content Engines,' as we're beginning to call them. Our Radeon Pro cards work seamlessly with all the engines, as we have strong relationships with all of them.

We don't want to slow down the creative process by any potential graphics limitations. We create these workstation solutions in a hardware and software ecosystem so that the creator doesn't need to stop and worry about whether there's enough computing power or application performance to do the job. We want to make the creative process as easy as holding a paintbrush. We want creators to be limitless. We focus on the technology so the content creator can focus on the art.


About James Knight
James is one of Hollywood's leading visual effects and motion capture experts who was part of the pioneering never-seen-before motion capture techniques with James Cameron on the epic blockbuster AVATAR. He is also the youngest member of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Sci-Tech Committee and has worked on other blockbuster hits, including The Amazing Spiderman and Hulk.

About AMD
​​​​​​​​​​​​​​We design and integrate technology that powers millions of intelligent devices, including personal computers, game consoles and cloud servers that define the new era of surround computing.

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