After many months of waiting for the Oculus Rift to go on sale, the virtual reality headset began shipping last week and should reach consumers starting today. More to the topic at hand, it was also last week when Oculus spoke at large of a new feature added to the Oculus SDK (software development kit) v1.3 on Windows OS. Initially announced during GDC 2016, the new feature is known as Asynchronous Timewarp (or ATW for short) and aims at making the Oculus virtual reality experience "20 to 100" times smoother.
The Oculus Rift and other high-end virtual reality headsets designed for the PC market require powerful hardware in order to deliver smooth VR gameplay. A consistent frame-rate is perhaps one of the most important aspects contributing to an immersive virtual reality experience. This is generally achieved through powerful hardware, but even so, there are cases when a computer's CPU and GPU might need to handle other background processes (especially on Windows OS), which can lead to frame rate dips in the VR gameplay. These frame rate drops can translate into jagged / laggy head motion tracking, and can break immersion or contribute to the feeling of nausea. Fortunately, there are various software techniques that can be used in order to improve performance and reduce this effect. One such technique is called Asynchronous Timewarp (ATW) and was added in the latest Oculus PC SDK version. In layman's terms, ATW separates the process of graphics rendering from the process of head motion tracking, so assuming that the computer's hardware stalls on rendering a certain frame, the Oculus Rift can pre-emptively account for the user's head movements and reproduce a smoother VR experience that isn't directly linked with the game's performance and frame rate.
It's worth noting that all applications benefit from Asynchronous Timewarp without game developers having to change parts of their code. It's also interesting to mention that ATW has been used by the Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus) for over a year before it was introduced on the Windows platform. Bringing ATW for the Oculus Rift on PC proved to be a more difficult and time-consuming endeavor, as Oculus had to work closely with Microsoft, AMD, and Nvidia in order to prepare the Windows operating system and the GPU drivers to support Asynchronous Timewarp on the Oculus Rift. Either way, while ATW hasn't been available on the Oculus Rift developer kits launched throughout these past few years, the feature comes at the right time for the headset's highly anticipated market debut.