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Inside Intel’s race to build a new reality


n many ways, virtual reality is still a moonshot.
The $2 billion acquisition of Oculus by Facebook in 2014 lent the neo-futurist hobby a decidedly shortened timeline for consumer adoption. To the tech titans operating alongside it, the purchase was a signal. Mobile’s most prominent success story was setting its eyes on what could possibly be the next platform shift. To the companies that had been burned by mobile, this was a signal to act on virtual reality.

It’s ironic, if not unsurprising, that so many of the companies investing heavily in VR and AR are the ones that screwed up the mobile revolution or lost control of it.

HTC is actively positioning itself to turn VR into a core business as its handset sales collapse. Nokia, once the mobile phone market king, is building high-end virtual reality capture systems. Microsoft, which never seemed to strike a chord with Windows Mobile, is working heavily to build up Windows Holographic OS for headsets.

Intel’s past decade has in many ways also been defined by its failure to capitalize on the demands and opportunities of the mobile platform shift. Decisions to cling to the past in terms of system architecture made it difficult for the company to keep up with companies like Qualcomm, Apple and Samsung. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to lay off nearly 12,000 employees and kill development on some of its Atom mobile chipsets.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich will be the first to tell you that his company’s mobile woes are its own doing.

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He sees his company’s virtual reality initiatives as very early-stage projects that could end up becoming a critical business for the nearly 50-year-old Intel, where he’s worked since joining as an engineer in 1982.

That year, VR was mostly a futuristic dream captured by movies like Tron. VR has arguably arrived in 2016, yet there’s still a growing cynicism that current VR efforts are nothing more than a host of PR stunts for many wayward companies to feign innovation with modest RD dollars.

All of this was on my mind as I traveled to Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters to take an exclusive first look at the company’s virtual reality lab where it’s researching how to virtually replicate our sensory experiences. This research into how we see, hear and feel the world is feeding into the company’s first major head-mounted display initiative, Project Alloy. It’s a wireless standalone VR headset optimized for its own brand of VR — something it calls “merged reality.”

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