Is it too early to consider VR a “dead” platform? Virtual reality headsets, with their promise of bringing the holodeck from Star Trek into your own home, or whatever, have failed to thrive in their first year on the market for some strange reason. It could be the lack not only the mythical “killer app” that might convince anyone to actually buy one of these things, or any good software, period; but perhaps the most damning aspect of all is that even faithful early adopters can not simply purchase a VR headset to experience anything other than a stuttering nausea-inducing mess on their current computer. Unless they just built it. Just for VR.
So, what if you, like the fawning tech ‘press’, want to prematurely ejaculate all over VR? Do you, like these hipster wanks, want to live inside a GameCube-graphics-level quasi-reality world? Prepare to do the thing that all of the hardware companies were getting all hot and bothered about last summer: spend money! What exactly does it require for a proper VR build? And – if you are foolish enough (sorry, but it must be said) to jump into this – just how much money would this add to your probably already rapidly-increasing credit card bill? It is a subject worth exploring (at least for the purposes of filling out an editorial), and if any reader is still even remotely interested when they finish this article, I recommend immediate attention from a mental health professional.
I could have titled this editorial, ‘VR: Pricing yourself out of relevance,’ as the cost to build even a capable mid-range VR-ready computer is very high. Let us explore this in depth. As I write this, AMD’s latest and greatest graphics cards for 2017 have not been released (Vega) and their new high-end processors (Ryzen) are about a month away. So, much to the consternation of AMD fans, I will focus the following system recommendations on the Intel/NVIDIA side of things. First things first: the graphics card. Now, a dedicated graphics card is certainly not a requirement to build a basic PC anymore, as most processors include basic graphics baked right into the chip. AMD in particular has offered some very good processor+graphics options with their Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) products, and a custom APU design is inside the Playstation 4 and XBox one consoles. But these are not powerful enough to run VR in a PC, and so we need to look at some higher end discrete options, and that means NVIDIA (for now).
The GTX 980 was a very good mid-range VR graphics option last year, but finding one new is getting more difficult as the Pascal-based GTX 1080 has replaced it in the retail channel. For our mid-range needs I will select the card one step below, which is the GTX 1070. This card is still faster than the outgoing GTX 980, and, now that pricing has finally gone down since launch, it is relatively affordable (as higher-end options go, that is) at $370 and up. This card will produce very good results with current VR software offerings (such as they are), and finishes very close to the top score in Steam’s SteamVR benchmark. So, with $370 spent it is time to build up a PC that will not bottleneck this GPU, and that means an Intel processor (again, for now).
Intel’s brand new platform for 2017 is called ‘Kaby Lake’, and while it certainly isn’t a requirement to use the newest processor version to run VR, the fact that Intel does not discount older products makes it an obvious choice to go with the newest architecture if you are building a PC from scratch. For gaming, a very good mid-range option has long been the “Core i5” series of processors, which offer four processor cores and excellent performance and power numbers; though admittedly nowhere near the price/performance ratio of an AMD offering (such as the under $100 Athlon X4 800-series). The Core i5 processors cost about $190 and up, with the faster “unlocked” Core i5 K-series at around $240 and up. But VR needs as much horsepower (as that is the technical way to measure PC performance) as you can throw at it, and unlike normal gaming software that thrives on four fast cores, even for a mid-range VR PC build you could consider the higher-performance Core i7 processors, which start at about $315. Assuming you will be using the new Kaby Lake processors and buying today, this will be a $350 purchase. For now, however, we will stick with a $240 Core i5 (the i5-7600K).
So we are now sitting at $610, and we still need a motherboard (a solid Intel Z270 option will cost at least $120), memory (16GB of DDR4 desktop memory is selling for around $85 currently), storage (the most basic spinning hard drive option would be a 1TB drive at $50), and a power supply (add $50 for the least expensive option with sufficient power from a reputable company). Of course, while these components could be assembled in a tangled, haphazard pile upon a table or desktop, I would strongly recommend installing them inside of a case, and that will add at least another $50 for an option that is not total garbage. This brings our total to $965, before the operating system. Now, assuming you will not be running Ubuntu or some other free operating system, a copy of Windows 10 (unfortunately this is pretty much a requirement for VR, and is the only operating system that supports DirectX 12) will set you back $100. Now we are looking at $1065 for our PC build, which is surprisingly good considering last spring a mid-range VR build recommendation was around $1500 (with a Core i7, I will add). You can certainly consider adding the much faster SSD type storage instead of (or in addition to) the traditional hard drive, but this will add quite a bit to the cost if you want a larger capacity drive, though SSDs are as affordable as they have ever been currently (a popular option from Crucial is the MX300, which sells for $140 in its 525GB capacity).
After spending over $1000 to build a PC that can really be considered adequate for VR, what is next? Ah, yes: the “HMD”, or head-mounted display (also called VR or headset, or goggles, or utter shit that no one should ever put on their face). The two big players here on the PC side of things are Facebook/Oculus with the Rift, and HTC with the Vive. How much will one of these cost? Just $700 for the former, and $800 for the latter! Assuming you selected the cheaper option, the cost of this build now reaches $1765. Let that sink in for a moment. We are nearly to $1800, and have not purchased a game yet. I will admit that adding in the cost of software is presumptuous, as there is currently nothing to recommend. Sure, Steam offers what amount to VT tech demos, but after spending nearly $1800 I would appreciate something more than a proof-of-concept. Such is the life of the ‘early adopter’, right?
There you have it. I have covered the basic cost associated with setting yourself up with a home computer powerful enough to play VR software without causing instant sickness (unless you are especially sensitive to motion sickness, in which case God help you). It is a very, very expensive little hobby at this point, and tantamount to throwing your money away until some genuinely great software comes out that really sells the platform. Keep dreaming, VR fans, because that will probably never happen (unless creepy apps like the PSVR title Summer Lesson are your thing, in which case, seek mental help.)