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Tech Forecast

Oculus Rift's PC Requirements Are Virtual Reality's Achilles' Heel

If you're not an early adopter or serious gamer, don't get too excited over the breakthrough VR headset—yet.

On Friday, Oculus VR released the specs it recommends for the PC that will be necessary to use Oculus Rift when the company releases its virtual-reality headset in the first quarter of 2016:

  • NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
  • Intel i5-4590 processor equivalent or greater
  • 8GB+ RAM
  • Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
  • 2 USB 3.0 ports
  • Windows 7 SP1 or newer

A post by Atman Binstock, chief architect at Oculus, states, "The Rift will be capable of delivering comfortable presence for nearly everyone. However, this requires the entire system working well…We believe this 'it just works' experience will be fundamental to VR’s success." Binstock's post also makes clear that Rift will be mostly be a device for owners of desktop PCs: He says that almost no current laptops meet Oculus's minimum specs, though upcoming models may provide enough computational oomph.

The reason for these serious specs is simple: Virtual reality requires a high frame rate for the motion within a virtual space to feel natural. Smooth movement is necessary to prevent simulation sickness, which makes people get headaches, dizzy, or even nauseous. Most video games run at 30 frames per second, like television. Some games use 60 frames per second for even more fluid visuals. Oculus makes virtual objects feel almost tangible by upping the frame rate to 90 frames per second. And because they're creating 3-D worlds, VR headsets render a separate picture for each eye, requiring even more processing power.

the Oculus Rift headset

Garden-variety PCs simply aren't up to the job. Oculus requires a machine built in the last 12 months, or one about to be built. It needs a graphics card that costs $300 or more, which means a computer that costs over $1,000. And this is really only the minimum. There will be games that push boundaries, as developers embrace all the graphical features of newer game engines like Unreal Engine 4 or CryEngine 3. Those will demand even better systems that can cost $2,000 and (way) beyond.

In other words, Oculus Rift, along with competitors such as HTC's Vive and Sony's Morpheus— is not a product for the masses. It will cater to early adopters and gaming enthusiasts who will spare no expense to get the best experience. Morpheus may be the cheapest when it is released in first half of 2016, since it will work with a PlayStation 4 instead of a high-end PC.

Embracing what may be a revolutionary technology is not for the cheap or faint of heart. It's a shame that more people won't get to buy the Oculus Rift or the Vive or other VR headsets. But if they try a friend's headset, they may be enticed to bide their time until the technology required to power VR becomes inexpensive—whether it's one or three or five years down the road.

And it does seem like Oculus is keeping such people in mind. The company partnered with Samsung to create the Gear VR, which relies on a Galaxy smartphone for its screen and processing power. It's not as immersive as Rift, but $200 and a phone you may already have beats the $2,000+ requirement to get the most out of the Rift.

Samsung's Gear VR

Some, including me, should find their current computers may be just powerful enough to get into VR, at least the simpler games. Others will invest the money later this year or next to get gaming machines that are screaming with the power and speed required for VR. But most will wait until the technology's cost of entry drops to the point where they just have to buy into these virtual worlds their friends are already exploring. After all, at one point, few people had HDTVs or smartphones. Now they're ubiquitous, and 4K TVs and smartwatches are on their way to becoming everyday gear. It's just a matter of time.

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