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Intel could be the company that makes enterprise virtual reality a thing

Why on earth is a technology company that designs and manufacturers computer chips opening up a virtual reality studio in Los Angeles?

“We’re rapidly moving toward a world where the boundary between the digital and the physical is eroding, and merging in new, exciting ways,” so said Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich in his opening keynote at the Intel Developer Forum yesterday.

Yes, while the largely Intel-powered PC market has stalled and now smartphone sales are slowing, even for Apple, this “merged reality” world is still ripe for the taking.

Worldwide revenues for the augmented reality and virtual reality markets have been forecast to hit $5.2 billion this year. By 2020, IDC believes that figure will reach $162 billion.

And who better to try to snatch a share than the company that created much of the technology that powered the personal PC and then the smartphone revolutions?

Brandishing Project Alloy, the company’s newly announced “all in one”, “merged reality” headset, Krzanich outlined his vision of a world where wires and consoles don’t get in the way of the latest virtual reality experience.

“Be the ultimate concert master  —  fully unplugged. Cut the cord and choose your own amazing musical experience.

“Play a virtual piano with one hand and a cello with your other hand. That’s right: play two instruments at the same time — an impossible real-world feat by even the most talented musicians. Reinvent the world around you. Go from where you aren’t to where you could never be.

“Do so without cumbersome controllers, but with your own two hands in the field of your virtual vision.”

Cringeworthy grandstanding aside, Intel’s using its own innovation around ‘seeing’ and ‘sensing’ robotic technologies, namely RealSense and Replay, to develop a headset that will go live in 2017 with a pretty hardcore software and hardware combo.

All of the hard work will be done inside the headset itself, which means no pesky wires, but also no haptic feedback controls at launch, and no additional power from a connected PC.

Rather than building the hardware itself, Intel’s already said that the Alloy blueprint will be “open” for others to build on. Is this a stroke of genius that’ll mean it can be customised by specialists in all sorts of industries, or just a pain in the neck?

A new partnership with Microsoft has also been unveiled, with the goal of bringing virtual reality to mainstream PCs running Windows 10. The pair have been collaborating for many years and Microsoft is helping Intel to spec out exactly what “mixed reality” looks like.

Less detail has been given on the Intel Tech Experience Labs space going live in LA, but it’ll be on the doorstep of Hollywood film makers.

Big-buck blockbusters aside, though, if Intel, or any other company for that matter, gets the price, apps and services right on a VR headset, as IDC’s Chris Chute says:

“Recent developments in healthcare demonstrated the powerful impact augmented reality headsets can have at the industry level, and over the next five years we expect to see that promise become realized in other fields like education, logistics, and manufacturing.”

Intel joins a growing field of headset manufacturers – all frankly yet to hit the mainstream – not least Microsoft’s own Hololens, which is also wireless, along with Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR and Sony’s Playstation VR.

It’s slightly late to the party, yes, but it’s one that is still only just warming up and Intel gets going with some of the best computing power in the world.

Given that more widely it’s slashing 12,000 staff in a restructure, on top of 72,000 layoffs made last year, Intel needs a new killer app – and quickly.