Apple Dips Its Toe in the VR Waters
The word “finally” gets bandied about a lot in Apple news coverage, but it definitely applies today as Apple finally announced new Macs that meet the HTC Vive’s minimum recommended specification. Apple will bring built in VR support to the high-end configuration of its 27” iMac, featuring the AMD Radeon Pro 580, which should be roughly equivalent to current min-spec graphics cards on the market for VR. Macs with lower-end GPUs but sporting Thunderbolt 3 ports will be able to join the party with an external GPU enclosure.
Apple is currently selling a third party enclosure to developers, made by Sonnet, including an AMD RX580 card, for $599. The enclosure is relatively bulky, but priced in line with the competition on the PC side. This will be the solution for MacBook Pro users for the time being, rather than something more ambitious like NVIDIA’s Max-Q reference design, as Apple continues to optimize for quiet operation and long battery life. For a point of comparison, the RX580’s performance sits in between the Nvidia 1060 and 1070 cards.
Apple says they may not make the eGPU solution available to consumers until “Spring 2018”, giving them plenty of time to design a sleeker first-party enclosure. For now, only members of Apple’s $99/year developer program are eligible to purchase the hardware, but those purchasers will receive a $100 discount on an HTC Vive, so new enrollees can offset the cost of membership.
Apple also pre-announced a higher-end machine, the Space Gray iMac Pro, which will feature the AMD Radeon Pro Vega GPU. In Apple’s cut-down configuration, the Vega should return performance slightly better than the NVIDIA 1080, so it should run all current VR games very well. Unfortunately, it will not be available until the end of 2017, so it will only be on users’ desks for a few months before Spring 2018 sees the release of new video cards, and the hardware is not upgradeable. The machine will also be powered by an 18-core Xeon which will be good for content creation workflows, but is unlikely to do much for gaming performance. The price tag is very steep: it starts at $4999.
Apple confirmed in their press release that the iMac Pro does not represent their long-promised replacement for the Mac Pro, and that unannounced computer will feature a “modular design”, which hopefully includes an upgradeable GPU.
The VR community is heavily populated with PC gamers at the moment, so an unsurprisingly large amount of criticism was lobbed at Apple for the price/performance ratio on their latest offerings. But overall this is a positive development. Apple users are not as price sensitive, so the high cost of VR won’t be quite as big a barrier to them, and we could see a healthy Mac VR market as a result (in the Oculus DK1 days, we saw a lot of demos running on Macs). Most developers are insulated from the complexity of supporting the platform by Unity and Unreal Engine, which do the heavy lifting on cross-platform support.
Most importantly, this lays the groundwork for Apple’s move into the mobile VR and AR market with a future iPhone or dedicated HMD. Apple’s Mac-based developers will have a desktop based solution in the HTC Vive for rapid prototyping rather than being forced to wait for a lengthy build and run process with every tweak.
The VR runtime on the Mac is provided by SteamVR. According to Valve’s Nat Brown, SteamVR beta will run on Mac OS 10.11.6 or later, and almost any recent Mac can achieve stable Vive tracking in simple scenes, meaning users can play with VR without investing in the eGPU. OS 10.13 High Sierra is required for Unity’s beta support and provides Direct-to-Display, making setup easier, and offers better performance with the Metal 2 graphics API. Firefox has also added Mac support for WebVR in its experimental version.
To conclude its VR presentation, Apple invited ILMxLab to demonstrate VR development on the 27” iMac in Unreal Engine, leading to a fun Mixed Reality greenscreen demonstration wherein Epic’s Lauren Ridge placed some Star Wars assets on the surface of Mustafar–including an animated Darth Vader–while Photoshop creator and VFX legend John Knoll narrated from the stage.
Apple Dips Its Other Toe in the AR Waters
iOS got in on the fun as well. Apple announced the ARKit API, based on technology it acquired from Metaio in 2015 and Flyby Media in 2016. The framework gives app developers a reliable, performant, markerless SLAM tracking solution with advanced features like surface detection and lighting estimation, all of which work on any device with an A9 chip or better (iPhone 6S, iPhone SE, iPhone 7, 2016/2017 iPad Pro, 2017 iPad). Therefore it does not require the depth sensing camera from the iPhone 7 Plus, as had been rumored.
ARKit does not support mesh estimation the way that Tango and Microsoft’s MR technology do, and it is somewhat limited since it must make do without specialized cameras. It’s also not completely unprecedented in its abilities, as other SLAM tracking algorithms have been available on the platform for over a year. But it does work very well and it’s free/built in, which should encourage developers to play with it. It’s also supported by Unreal, Unity and Apple’s SceneKit.
The highlight of Apple’s presentation came from Peter Jackson’s Wingnut AR, which showed off a tech demo running on an iPad with some extremely sophisticated animation and destruction effects, powered by Unreal Engine. Peter Jackson’s involvement in the AR space goes back to a controversial demo video for Magic Leap that was published two years ago (it received criticism because it was all VFX, not a demonstration of their technology). It’s clear that while the demo shown at Apple’s presentation was awesome, but would be far more exciting with an HMD. We’ll get there eventually, folks.
Valve Reveals that SteamVR Tracking 2.0 Will Make the Vive Obsolete
Valve announced that its new Lighthouse base stations will go into production in November of this year. The new base stations will be cheaper and more reliable, eliminating the “sync blinker”, which limited the effective range of the older base station design and caused multiple Vive setups in the same room to interfere with one another. That feature has been replaced with something called “sync-on-beam” that allows data to be sent through the laser pulse. This enables the tracked devices to detect which base station’s laser is sweeping its sensors, which in turn enables more than two base stations to be used. This will allow future installations to cover volumes of nearly any size or shape. In addition, relying solely on lasers should allow a pair of lighthouses to cover a much larger area.
Unfortunately, recognizing the “sync-on-beam” signal requires new TS4231 sensor chips, which will become available for hardware developers over the summer. Therefore, existing HTC Vives, controllers and tracking pucks will not be compatible with Vive’s new base stations. The new sensors are capable of working with the first-generation lighthouses, however, so users who have adequate coverage already will potentially be able to save some money by ordering new equipment a la carte.
Los Angeles’ Electronic Entertainment Expo begins next week. Traditionally, the conference has catered to industry professionals, offering journalists and developers a look at major upcoming titles and enabling lots of back-booth meetings. This year will be different, with the general public being offered admission for the first time. UploadVR posted a rundown of what to expect at E3 in the VR and AR arena.