If you’ve taken a look at the video game hardware industry lately, it seems like designers are betting on virtual reality (VR) as the way of the future. Companies who have been in the game for a long time are adding their own contributions; however, in this unique moment, many companies who are relatively new to video game hardware are also jumping in. With names like Facebook and HTC getting on board, VR hardware is coming from stranger and stranger sources with more and more variety.
The first hardware innovation targeted at VR comes from a familiar source: Nvidia. Nvidia is responsible for creating many of the high-performance graphics cards that can be found in many modern computers. With interest in VR on the rise, Nvidia made the critical decision to aim for increased VR performance with their new flagship cards, the GTX 1070 and 1080.
The GTX 1080. Image courtesy of Nvidia.
The GTX 1080 does have the usual 25% boost in general performance compared to its predecessor, but in VR-specific applications, Nvidia claims it can attain a 100% increase. VR video games are, predictably, very heavy on graphics cards. However, they are heavy in specific ways. The graphics card must not only render the environment around the player, but render it from two separate viewpoints (for two eyes). This type of load is called multiprojection, and it is the same load caused by multiple monitors.
Creating a GPU that can handle these two distinct loads can yield a significant increase in performance. This targeted design, along with manufacturing advancements such as 16-nanometer fabrication and improved cooling capabilities, creates a graphics card that may redefine video hardware.
Perhaps the most critical component of VR gaming is the VR headset. It may seem like many headsets are just smaller screens put closer to the player's eyes, but for a headset to feel truly immersive it must be constructed and calibrated to be as precise as our own senses.
As a result, the two leading headsets have undergone years of testing before being released to consumers. Both headsets have come from rather unlikely sources: the Oculus Rift from Facebook and the Vive from HTC. The Oculus is perhaps better known because of their successful Kickstarter and previous releases of development kits.
The Oculus Rift headset. Image courtesy of Oculus.
The Oculus is the simpler of the two headsets, consisting of a more “bare-bones” approach to VR. All that comes in the package is a headset, a motion tracker, and an Xbox One controller. The headset contains infrared beacons that are monitored by the motion tracker, and the software driver pieces this information into usable data. The headset cable is short, as the Oculus is primarily meant to be used while stationary at a desk. As a result, motion control takes a back seat to the Xbox controller.
The HTC Vive headset. Image courtesy of HTC.
The Vive uses hardware similar to the Oculus, with a few exceptions. While the sensing system uses infrared light to locate the headset in space, the methodology is very different from the Rift. The system uses two “lighthouses” that each consist of two lasers spinning on different axes. The Vive is able to use these lasers and photosensors on the headset to accurately determine its location. This is crucial because the Vive is intended for standing and moving use, instead of sitting use like the Oculus. Along with better tracking, the Vive incorporates a longer cable and handheld motion control.
An inside look at a Vive lighthouse. Image courtesy of Gawker.
Most of the hardware surrounding VR is designed to provide the best experience possible, and that means preventing one thing in particular: motion sickness. Motion sickness in VR can be caused by any number of things such as low framerate, high latency, and imprecise tracking. To combat framerate drops, both headsets have hefty “minimum recommended specs” including a $300 graphics card (The GTX 970) and 8GB of memory. If it isn’t clear why framerate is important, just watch this video comparing different framerates. The lower end causes blurs, while the higher end is smooth and more real.
Oculus advertises that the precise “tuned” length of it’s HDMI cable cuts down on latency, and both headsets have software measures in place to reduce latency. The most interesting design choice may be the means of position tracking. Most position tracking applications use some combination of accelerometer, magnetometer, etc. to accurately place a target in space. While many early VR headsets experimented with this method of motion tracking, positional drift was a serious problem that was eventually resolved by switching to external positional trackers.
The VR market will continue to expand over the next few years and we should hope to see not only more advanced hardware, but also clever solutions for expanding virtual environments and making an even more immersive experience. Even in this year, there are many companies yet to come forward with their 2016 VR hardware, namely AMD and Razer.