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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.

“The more people see content, the more they want to see realistic content,” Soqui added. “It’s going to put pressure on the CPU to perform more physics and rendering....There are things we want to do with frame rate, and responsiveness, and latency—you have to get rid of as much latency as possible, to make sure people don’t get seasick. You’re going to go from 4K displays to 8K displays, from 4K total to 4K per eye. And then they’ll want holographic [images]. It’s a never-ending process of how do I get more immersion.”

Since GPUs from either AMD or Nvidia can be used to power VR, each company has begun positioning itself as the premier VR hardware partner. Nvidia’s VRWorks technology uses multi-resolution shading to avoid rendering pixels that aren’t viewable by the user, and warps the image to make it more comfortable to view with a VR headset. AMD has its own technology, known as LiquidVR, which also performs image warping. Both AMD and Nvidia are also encouraging PC makers to consider using multi-GPU rendering, with each GPU’s output sent to each eye’s display. 

To ensure that consumers receive the best experience—and to establish their respective hegemonies—Oculus and Intel have each begun releasing their own “VR Ready” certifications. Last year, Oculus released its minimum specs for an acceptable VR experience. The first Oculus Rift-PC bundles rolled out a month ago, at prices that begin at $1,500. That might be tough for consumers to swallow, but those are the sort of prices that propped up the PC industry for years.

VR has a desktop/mobile roadmap, too

We often talk about VR devices, like the Rift, and AR devices, like the HoloLens, in the same breath, but the two are very different things. 

VR headsets are more like external displays, with some intelligence inside them to track where a user looks; they’re powered and driven by a desktop PC. AR devices, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, roam without a power cord, but they place all their computing power—as well as a battery—on the user’s head.

Of course, this bifurcation is nothing new to the PC industry, which has built portable laptops and more powerful desktop workstations for years. Some believe that AR devices will evolve like laptops, with an emphasis on mobility and battery life, while reserving their limited compute power for the handful of virtual objects the AR environment demands. VR headsets, on the other hand, will have the horsepower to render a complete detailed virtual landscape, but chances are you’ll be sitting at your desk or couch to enjoy it. 

CPU and GPU vendors aren’t saying yet if they’ll develop optimized VR chips, or simply adapt what they already have. And it’s unclear whether headsets will sport a traditional X86 chip or a mobile chip like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. Naturally, other mobile technologies, like the 4K displays built into phones like the Samsung Xperia Z5 Premium, make sense: When a display is strapped three inches from your eyes for possibly hours, you’re going to want the best available.

 

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