As the semiconductor industry matures and consolidates, the year 2016 has been a vibrant season to the computing industry with latest breakthroughs.

A year ago, analysts were divided over whether virtual reality would gain traction in 2016 or just crash and burn again. Some suggested it might be “a belly flop.” Before the end of the year, the Khronos group recognised the need for an open applications interface to smooth the growth path for a sector that had already spawned a dozen products. Meanwhile, developers working on real-time remote presence apps for 2017 are suggesting that gaming may not even be the biggest use of VR headsets.

Along the way, mobile VR is pushing smartphone electronics to the max while Intel and others are crafting a new generation of integrated headsets.

The high prices of the high-end headsets and PCs to drive them are still holding back mainstream buyers. But enthusiasts are hungry for the latest apps, controllers and experiences. Skeptics admit that the low-cost mobile VR experience can be exhilarating, though it still has kinks to work out.

A whole new of world for AI

At an annual developer conference in May, Google’s Chief Executive, Sundar Pichai was unequivocal. Artificial intelligence has become the new strategic application and platform for “hyperscalers” like the search giant. Google’s big rival, Amazon, was already shipping its Echo, a low-cost device for delivering AI services to consumers at home. Pichai’s announcement of the Tensorflow Processor Unit, or TPU, hit Silicon Valley with megaton force. It was the official starting gun in a race to define a new class of microprocessor. By the end of the year, x86 giant Intel purchased two AI chip startups, Nervana and Movidius, and rolled out a first draft of its road map for the emerging sector. AI was what Andy Grove would have called an inflection point.

Intel’s longtime rival, Advanced Micro Devices, wasn’t far behind. Less than a month after Intel’s event, AMD rolled out an AI strategy centred on its latest graphics processors and a new open software suite.

The move comes at a time when AMD is trying to drive down costs of 2.5-D chip stacks that mount high-end GPUs next to stacks of memory on a silicon substrate. The company’s chief graphics architect, Raj Koduri, called for a broader ecosystem of chip foundries and packaging specialists to master and drive the technology into the mainstream.

By the time Intel and AMD made their moves, three high-profile AI processor startups had already thrown their hats into the ring. Graphcore, Wave Computing and Cornami are all expected to field working chips in 2017.

The IEEE was quick to step in, calling for engineers to weigh in on the need for standards for ethics in AI design. Ironically, one analyst speculates that virtual assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home could be the big holiday present for 2016.  
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