THIS YEAR WILL see the first batch of new Virtual Reality (VR) devices like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, and Sony’s PlayStation VR released to the general public.
While Samsung and Sony’s version will require a phone or console to run respectively, both Oculus Rift (which announced preorders are opening on 6 January) and HTC Vive both require a high-end PC to run.
That’s a bit of a problem for the majority of PC owners. Nvidia, the world’s largest maker of graphic chips for PCs, says that roughly 13 million PCs in the world – or less than 1% – will have the capability to run VR. That is high-end machines capable of running VR with optimal settings and can ensure that frame-rate is constantly high (if it isn’t, it can cause motion sickness).
Considering there are more than one billion PCs out there, that means a tiny proportion of PCs are ready for it, limiting the amount of people who can buy it and have it running perfectly.
Why the low figures?
While the current VR experiences are immersive – you can be transported down to the bottom of the ocean and see a giant blue whale pass by or be thrown into a Wild West-style shooting range – the graphical power needed to run them is significant.
For Oculus Rift, it requires either a Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD 290, graphics cards that would cost around €400 to buy. While they’ve been around since 2014, they’re still high-end requirements that would only be found in gaming PCs. On top of that, users will also need an Intel i5-4590 or greater and 8GB+ of RAM.
HTC hasn’t announced the requirements for Vive yet. When we tried it out last month, they told us they were working on reducing the specs required before announcing them. Still, the requirements will likely be similar to Oculus Rift when they are announced.
So why are the requirements so high? The short answer is the number of things you have to run to create a good VR experience are far greater than on a normal screen. As there’s a disconnect between you and the screen, you don’t feel odd if it slows down. In VR, even a millisecond of slowdown is noticeable.
This was something explained by Oculus VR’s chief architect Atman Binstock back in May. He mentioned how there are three graphical challenges for VR: raw rendering costs, real-time performance and latency. The high specs aren’t there just to run a VR experience, they’re also there to cope with any unexpected demands.
Traditionally, PC 3D graphics has had soft real-time requirements, where maintaining 30-60 FPS has been adequate. VR turns graphics into more of a hard real-time problem, as each missed frame is visible. Continuously missing framerate is a jarring, uncomfortable experience. As a result, GPU headroom becomes critical in absorbing unexpected system or content performance potholes.
Not letting history repeat itself
The above is one of the biggest concerns for Oculus VR and other major players. The concept of VR has popped up every now and again since the 80s but the promises it made failed to materialise.
This was down to a number of things: the technology needed to run VR properly not being available, the headsets being uncomfortable or offering jarring experiences or the setup costs were far too expensive for the average person to consider.
That’s why getting it right for these new VR devices is paramount (and also why so many of them have been taking their time before launch). If it isn’t, that could set the industry back years.
For many new devices launched, the first year or so will see the more enthusiastic fans buy them first before the general public start taking an interest.
Its founder Palmer Luckey believes this slow buildup will help it in the long-run, creating anticipation for devices before the average person can realistically buy them. But setting the standard and making sure everyone knows what you need first is essential.
In the case of Oculus, it doesn’t need to go out all guns blazing and make a profit from day one (being owned by Facebook has its benefits and is something Luckey acknowledges), and has enough breathing room to make things right.
The other factor to consider is how hardware improves over time. What is seen as high-end now will be the standard in a few years time, and for those VR experiences that rely on smartphones like Gear VR and Google Cardboard, high-end devices now will be the norm in a year or two.
So if you’re thinking about buying a VR device, just make sure you know what’s needed first as you might have to spend more than you would expect.