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How virtual reality will shape the future of your PC hardware

Mark Hachman | March 28, 2016
VR's very specific set of hardware requirements is already influencing the components that go into your PC.

Strapping a pair of virtual-reality goggles to one’s face used to be the province of bad science fiction. Now, seemingly overnight, VR is here in the real world and dictating the future of the PC.

Why? Because virtual reality—and its cousin, augmented reality—is something of a Holy Grail for the PC industry: a device with potentially mass-market appeal, and one that demands premium components that Silicon Valley has historically struggled to justify. Customers and vendors alike instinctively understand how to use VR. And the price, while high, is within reach of most PC buyers.

Just as importantly, content creators have seemingly embraced it, helping soothe concerns that VR will be just another product in search of a purpose, like 3D TV.

What excites the PC industry most, though, is that while the public thinks of VR as a consumer-electronics device, the technology depends on the PC and its various chips. “We think that the PC will not be just the center of the ecosystem, but on the leading edge of what people do with VR,” said Kim Pallister, the director of content planning at Intel.

High frame rates are the key to VR’s success

VR has its roots in gaming, but backers hope it will transcend PC gaming’s niche standing to become a more mainstream pastime. Given that gaming hardware sales should top $26 billion this year, that would be quite a feat. The potential of the new, emerging VR market has chip companies slavering—and that’s why you’re hearing about VR so much.

“When you think about AMD, you think about three things: You think about gamers, you think about VR, and you think about VR experiences,” Lisa Su, the chief executive of AMD, said at a GDC press conference. 

But gaming and VR experiences differ. PC gamers obsess over higher and higher resolutions, and try to balance that desire with “playable” frame rates, 60fps being the standard threshold. But in VR, frame rates aren’t academic: They determine whether you’ll enjoy the experience, or lose your lunch.

VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are locked at a 2160x1200 resolution, at 90Hz. That makes achieving 90 frames per second an absolute requirement for VR: Input that drops below that will cause the VR images to jutter and stall, creating “simulator sickness.” It’s enough of an issue that Oculus reportedly handed out a list of “barf-o-meter” ratings for its games at a recent press event. I can attest that even Minecraft, a relatively sedate game, gave me vertigo.

That 90fps minimum will ripple through the industry, executives say. “It’s going to absolutely influence chip design,” Frank Soqui, the general manager of the enthusiast desktop group at Intel, said in an interview.

 

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