Now that Oculus has officially opened preorders on the Rift, the question of the day is whether a potential buyer's computer can support it. The Rift, along with HTC's Vive, requires what's currently a $1,000 (or more) PC with a top-of-the-line graphics card, capable of rendering high resolutions and super-fast framerates. Gaming hardware company Nvidia, which makes many of those graphics cards, recently estimated that only 13 million PCs will fit the bill next year. But at CES, it introduced a seal of approval for the ones that do: Nvidia VR Ready.
At CES, VR Ready is basically an excuse to show off some of the most fun experiences the Rift and Vive have to offer. After a quick introduction, I jumped straight into something I've wanted to try for a while: Everest, an incredibly detailed rendering of the world's tallest mountain. Made from 300,000 photos stitched into a complete virtual environment, it lets you climb ladders and cross deep ravines using the HTC Vive's motion controllers. It might be one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in virtual reality, and it's only possible on something with a lot of graphical power and the ability to walk around.
Bullet Train, which I've written about before, is a similarly great piece of work that relies on Oculus Touch controllers to create a truly innovative shooter; it's the only thing I've ever played that lets you pluck bullets from midair and throw them at your enemies. The third demo, a seated game called Adrift, is a recipe for nausea — but it's also the closest you can get to being in zero gravity on Earth. It's clear that the best option for all of them is a motion control interface and the ability to roam free.
"As developers are creating more immersive content, it's going to require more performance."
Beyond how many people will be able to get these computers, though, the big question is how long "VR Ready" will actually mean ready for VR. There's no such thing as a permanently "gaming ready" PC — specs change quickly enough that keeping up with high-end games means being prepared for a perpetual upgrade cycle. But where beautiful graphics and fast framerates are nice for a flatscreen game, virtual reality graphics that aren't fast or crisp enough may invite motion sickness. And if a future generation of Rift can't support an older generation of PC, players could potentially lose access to an entire category of experience, not just a couple of games.
Nvidia doesn't seem sure how much of a moving target "VR Ready" is going to actually be. "This right now is the bare minimum," I hear at their booth. "As developers are creating more immersive content, it's going to require more performance." At the same time, we've got (hopefully) at least a couple of years before anyone has to worry.
In a Q&A session with Reddit earlier this week, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said that the first-generation Rift would be around "somewhere between a console and a mobile phone, much closer to a mobile phone." And during that time, the PC specifications won't change. Just as importantly, he said that one of the most important goals for Oculus is working with computer component manufacturers to optimize their parts for VR, so the same hardware will support better games. "For the average person, the PC is by far the biggest cost, not the headset — the end goal is to make sure people can use the PC they already have in most cases," he said.
It's not much to go on, but it's a good sign — because while Gear VR and Cardboard have their benefits, high-end virtual reality is worth waiting for.