Could Mainstream PCs be Used to Power Better VR?

On January 25th, I wrote a piece in our main area where I asked the question, “Should Apple Jump on the VR Bandwagon?”

I said Apple had not yet made much noise in the area of VR but that, even though they were not trumpeting things about VR, I suggested this does not mean they are not looking hard at this area and, in the end, would let the market develop and jump in with a better solution eventually.

But recently news leaked Apple had hired a VR expert as well as purchased a company or two with roots in VR. Many articles began exploring the idea Apple was getting serious about VR and could have something on the market sometime in late 2016 or early 2017.

Given all of the activity in VR and the potential it has to bring a more immersive computing experience to all types of users, Apple would be crazy not to be accelerating their own plans for this area and try to figure out how not only to innovate in hardware but also services related to VR in the near future.

As I have been studying the VR space, it seems to me that what is emerging is a rather high end market for VR in which one needs a powerful PC, additional graphics card and a relatively expensive set of smart goggles, as represented by the Oculus Rift approach to this market. At the lower end, you have a smartphone-powered VR experiences that can be viewed either by a special set of low cost goggles, like Samsung’s $99 Gear VR headset, or at the even lower end, Google’s $20 cardboard goggles that work with Android devices or iPhones.

With this in mind, I see Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and Sony’s Playstation VR goggles being what one might call the best of breed in VR headsets. At the lower end of this spectrum is what I call the “good” category — the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard headsets that deliver a passable VR experience but the quality of images is lacking.

But I wonder — is there another layer in this VR mix we might call “better” as in part of a good, better, best scenario for delivery of VR content in the near future?

More importantly, could “better” be delivered by a relatively powerful PC that does not need an advanced graphics card to power the goggles? The goggles themselves could be priced in the $249-$349 price range. In the Oculus solution, one has the cost of the headset at $599, a $300 graphics card and a PC with at least an Intel Core i5 processor or better: in total, at least a $1500+ solution. At this price, it would be out of the reach of most PC users.

It turns out, the major PC players are pondering this exact question. In what could be an interesting twist in thinking, a PC or laptop VR solution with the right priced goggles may even help drive PCs sales again. In this model, the kind of PCs and laptops needed would be ones with advanced processors and integrated graphics that could drive the VR goggle experience yet, as a whole, be priced around $800-$1000.

From a historical standpoint, PC users are well accustomed to the good, better, best scenarios since Intel and their partners have positioned Intel’s Core processors accordingly. A Core i3 processor is considered good, a Core i5 processor is better and a Core i7 is best. In turn, PCs using these chips are positioned in the same way. So using this approach, one could imagine a VR experience that perhaps maps this idea. A lower cost VR solution would be good, a PC-based VR system would be better and a gaming PC or game console VR product would deliver the best VR experience available.

What is interesting in this scenario is the quality of the PC experience as well as the tethered goggles rely on the kind of advanced processing available to drive the VR experience. The lower end models are driven by a smartphone that clearly has powerful processors in them and even solid graphics performance but the cardboard or $99 goggles have mediocre optics in the glasses that make the experience good but by no means great.

On the other hand, the best goggles, like the ones from Oculus, not only have better optics but ones powered by the PC processor and graphics cards so the VR experience is clear and more immersive. The big challenge for the mainstream PC vendors will be to create a powerful enough PC with integrated graphics in the processor that could be tied to a lower cost set of goggles to deliver a better experience over the low end yet powerful enough to drive a lower priced set of goggles to make viewing VR content great or better for a large mass market of users.

I have been speaking with my contacts in China and they tell me there are some amazing VR goggles being designed that could be driven by PCs without expensive graphics cards, have advanced PC-driven optics and could be in the $299-$349 price range by late this year. Apparently, they will work well with most VR content created today, except for the higher end games that need an Oculus Rift or Sony Playstation VR set up to power them.

If this is true and the mainstream PC makers can marry them to next generation mainstream PCs and laptops, the potential for a “better” VR experience that could meet the price range of much of the consumer market may be available the end of 2016.

Also, since these goggles would require PCs with, at the very least, an Intel Core i5 processor in them, even the lower end of the PC market may be tempted to upgrade to a VR/PC experience much sooner than they have in the past, where they turn their PCs over every 5-6 years.

The more I look at the market for VR, the more I see this big hole between a top-of-the-line VR experience and the bottom-of-the-line VR experience powered by smartphones and low cost goggles. Perhaps a PC-based “better” VR experience could fill this gap and, if so, I hope the PC makers move things in this directions so more and more people can experience a solid VR experience for themselves.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

4 thoughts on “Could Mainstream PCs be Used to Power Better VR?”

  1. What complicates things even further is, depending on the chip expert you believe, the processor that Apple designed and deployed for the iPad Pro is equivalent to an Intel Core chip. Not an i7, but it can keep up with an i3. Add to that the rumors that Apple is thinking of designing its own graphics processors, and you could potentially see a $1,500 VR experience delivered in a $500 Apple device.

    Whether it’s dedicated, or a case for your phone, I don’t know. It’s far too early to tell where this whole market is headed, but in much the same way you can buy a perfectly capable $49 Android phone from Walmart and a $750 iPhone from Apple, that same spread will likely be persistent with VR.

    Not even going to touch AR, because A) That makes the situation even more complex, and B) I don’t know enough about the latest advances in AR to say anything worth reading.

    1. You are is way to early to determine how this falls out and even how Apple could deploy this. But it does seem that the PC vendors have a window of opportunity to do something interesting with this technology. Ben and I got a demo of Sony’s Playstation VR which is more higher end, but the experience on this VR headset is amazing. I am more convinced now that VR is the only way to deliver an immersive computing experience and there probably needs to be a good, better, best solution for delivering it if it is to get to the mass market anytime in the near future.

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