Innovations in modern PC design are taking VR to new heights.
Over six million dedicated VR systems were sold last year, but this week at E3, the giant gaming and entertainment conference in Los Angeles, many people experienced for the first time technology breakthroughs that are leading VR further into the mainstream.
Systems that power VR have different needs than traditional desktop PCs and even gaming rigs, and the industry is racing to build gear to deliver smooth, life-like VR experiences.
The earliest personal computers, like the Altair 8800, were designed as open systems, so people could build their own computers, swapping out chips and components that cater to their specific needs.
This design ethos of openness allowed the PC to excel at developing creative, experimental technologies without restrictions or restraints. The art of 3D graphics, for instance, was pioneered for decades on the PC before Pixar’s Toy Story wowed moviegoers with colorful computer generated graphics in the ‘90s.
The idea that PC customization leads to innovation still holds true today. Even though market analysts forecast that cheaper mobile VR will outpace dedicated VR on PC, accounting for 75 percent of the install base by 2021, innovation will happen on the PC first.
“The PC has played an integral part in making VR what it is, and the PC will continue to be a very important part in pushing VR to its limits,” said George Jijiashvili, a VR analyst at CCS Insight.
New and Rejiggered Tech
Recently released computer technologies, ranging from bigger and faster memory to top of the line computer processors like the Intel Core i9 Extreme Edition, deliver horsepower needed to bring computationally demanding VR experiences to life.
In some cases, existing technologies are rejiggered to meet the requirements of VR. HTC demonstrated wireless headsets, for example, that use Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig), a wireless communications technology that Intel developed years ago, but with VR in mind.
“We had been working on the tech, and we saw that it could be very applicable to the high-bandwidth, low-latency needs of doing VR wirelessly,” said Kim Pallister, director of Intel’s Virtual Reality Center of Excellence.
For VR to work smoothly, a huge amount of data needs to move from the computer to the headset very quickly, thus the cables. When trying to stream VR wirelessly over standard Wi-Fi, the signal wasn’t strong enough. The headset would flicker and go blank, making the user nauseous.
WiGig’s high speeds worked wonders though, eliminating the need for wires.
Similarly, new Intel Optane Memory was developed with other goals: to help PCs load data quickly from the hard drive. But Pallister said the benefits were immediately obvious for VR.
“Nobody likes long load times,” said Pallister, yet waiting for the computer to load the next screen is uncomfortable in VR. “When you switch applications, the screen can go blank, and you are sitting there floating in blackness.” The faster memory alleviated the problem.
And the highest performing technologies are often used to demonstrate new VR capabilities. At E3, Intel used a new Intel Core i9 Extreme Edition processor to power Multiverse’s Seeking Dawn, a large scale VR FPS and RPG.
Another recent trend in PC design is the diversification of the physical shape of machines. No longer just identical-looking gray boxes, PCs are available in creative designs that better fit the way people use them. A good example is the Microsoft Surface Studio, which flips down into a tablet-style sketchbook.
— Intel Gaming (@IntelGaming) June 14, 2017
This new era of customized computing has vast implications for VR. Already VR-ready backpack PCs, like HP’s Omen X VR backpack, allow people to take virtual experience outside of VR rooms. Eventually, this type of powerful, portable computing could allow VR applications to sense a person’s environment and incorporates their surroundings, creating mixed or merged reality experiences.
VR requires huge processing and graphics power, so equipment can get hot. Special care must be given to dissipating heat. For instance, the G11CD, a VR-ready desktop from Asus, employs eight air vents to give the processor much needed relief.
Pallister believes the biggest changes in PC design are yet to come. For PCs to run VR out of the box without the hassle of setting up equipment, the internal wiring, the placement of Wi-Fi transmitters and cameras, and the capabilities of the components will need to change.
As VR gains popularity, the PC will continue to evolve, allowing for even greater experiences.