If you’ve been around the world of games and tech for a while, it’s natural to be just a little cynical about the new wave of virtual reality. It was 20 years ago that consumer-level VR last looked likely to touch down, and if you got burned by Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy or dropped a bundle on the VFX1 Headgear, then you’re likely to be looking at the new crop of VR technology with some skepticism.
With hindsight, of course, we can see that in the mid-1990s the technology simply wasn’t up to the job of delivering on VR’s lofty promises. VR was supposed to immerse us in glorious digital worlds, enabling us to interact with technology in new ways and experience gaming at its most intense and absorbing. Instead, what it gave us was eyestrain, neck ache and motion sickness.
That was then, though, and now the new generation of VR is ready to deliver on those promises. 2016 will see the launch of three new VR systems, and this time around we’re pretty sure that the technology is indeed up to the task. Facebook’s Oculus Rift , Valve’s Steam VR, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR are able to take advantage of all the progress made in graphics technology. As well, they’ve learned from the mistakes made by previous attempts to deliver something that lives up to expectations — and that, crucially, won’t leave us feeling nauseous. But without a top-of-the-line GPU, delivering a great VR experience isn’t possible.
Graphical demands of VR are immense. On a basic level, everything needs to be drawn twice, and delivering the best VR gaming experience requires seven times the graphics processing power of traditional games.
However, it turns out that your desktop frame rate simply isn’t enough. While 60fps is more than acceptable on the desktop, for VR — in which the screen isn’t a couple of feet away but right in front of your eyes — to appear smooth requires at least 90fps. You may not consciously notice the difference, but your optic system is a lot more sensitive than you realize. Up close, it takes an uninterrupted 90fps or better to receive seamless visual input rather than a succession of flickering, headache-inducing still images.
In addition to producing two lots of high-resolution imagery at a much higher frame rate than usual, VR systems also need to ensure that latency is kept to a minimum, so that when you move your head and your field of view shifts accordingly, there’s no noticeable lag; that way lies motion sickness.
Thankfully, the big graphics hardware companies have been working with the VR manufacturers to smooth the way towards top-quality virtual reality visuals. NVIDIA technologies such as VR SLI — enabling you to assign the rendering for each eye to different GPUs — and Multi-Res Shading — which renders each part of an image at a resolution that better matches the pixel density of the warped image needed for VR — are just two ways in which it’s improving VR performance and enhancing the VR experience.
Consumers can also tell if a new PC is up to the demands of VR with the GeForce GTX VR Ready program.It recommends you have a GeForce GTX 970 or greater on PC (or a GTX 980 for notebook VR), plus the following hardware:
a head-mounted displaya PC with USB 3.0 supportCPU: Intel Core i5- 4590 equivalent or greater CPU8GB+ RAM of Memory/RAM2x USB 3.0 ports and HDMI 1.3Windows 7 SP1 or newer
Beyond all this, though, there’s another aspect of VR that doesn’t garner quite so much attention: the controllers. Traditional console controllers may be fine for traditional games, but they’re not remotely suited to the sort of sophisticated interactions that you’d expect in VR. In an environment that’s all about maintaining the illusion of reality, thumbsticks, buttons and triggers just serve to remind you that you’re in a game, and so each VR system has its own controllers — one for each hand — that replicate your hand movements in 3D, enabling you to grab and manipulate virtual objects as if they were really there.
The hardware is all in place, then, but VR also requires the games to go with it; games that not only look amazing, but which also deliver experiences that take advantage of the unique gaming opportunities of VR. Take Crytek’s The Climb, for example, in which you scale stunning and vertigo-inducing cliffs and crevasses without a rope or a safety net. Or EVE Valkyrie — due to be bundled with Oculus Rift — which puts you into the cockpit of a heavily-armed fighter for what’s promised to be the most realistic and immersive space dogfighting game on any platform.
In a similar vein, Elite: Dangerous provides a whole universe to explore, trade, and fight in, while iRacing on Oculus Rift is the closest you’ll get to driving the F1 world championship-winning McLaren MP4-30. And while you’re just as unlikely to ever get to rock out on stage in front of a stadium crowd, Rock Band VR looks set to deliver the next best thing.
For something more light-hearted, you can enjoy the visceral thrills of Surgeon Simulator or re-live the glory days of work as imagined in the year 2050, in the bizarre and tongue-in-cheek Job Simulator. And for something completely different, there’s Henry, a full virtual reality movie created by Oculus’ Story Studios and starring an adorable but lonely hedgehog celebrating his birthday.
It’s exciting and innovative titles like these that VR’s going to need to set it apart from more traditional gaming platforms, and there’s plenty more in the pipeline. With original and immersive content to showcase the unique promise of the technology, it seems that VR really is ready to hit the mainstream and start pulling people into its fantastical worlds.