The Logistics of Virtual Reality and Thunderbolt 3
The end game for many technologies involves integrating seamlessly with our being, turning us into space-dwelling cyborgs. The problem is that while the process of miniaturization is always in motion, there will always be a suite of technologies on the fringe which have yet to undergo such optimization. That’s to say, they usually start out in something of a clunky state. Virtual Reality headsets are such things, they are new, large and cumbersome.
While the phone-based experiences made popular by the Gear VR hold promise (in that it is a lightweight solution without wires) it remains expensive. Upgrading to a new phone is also problematic. When all one needs is a faster GPU, the only option is to purchase an entirely new phone (a general purpose device) which happens to have a faster graphics chip. This is an incredibly inefficient economy.
Perhaps it’s not as much of a concern for a single user but for a large organisation looking to invest in such technologies, it presents something of a challenge. Do universities invest in VR laboratories or do they come up with something more flexible?
I don’t doubt that the future of VR involves the use of specialist equipment and spaces. To that end, a dedicated lab might present itself as a viable investment.
In the meantime however, during this period of innovation and testing, there are ways to make life easier. When giving demonstrations of VR, we either get people to come to our offices or make an attempt to set up a small stand for the duration of a conference. The issue is that we always have to lug around a giant desktop computer, which is anything but portable.
You might think “why not use a laptop?” – the answer is because the integrated GPUs on these devices are not upgradeable. As of writing, you would need to spend thousands on a machine fast enough to run a VR experience only to have it become redundant overnight. The answer lies in the thunderbolt 3 port, best described as USB 3 on steroids.
With this interface, you can directly connect an external GPU to any compatible device, no matter how small. This means you could invest in a NUC device with thunderbolt 3 connectivity and have a graphical powerhouse which occupies a tiny amount of desk space.
Whilst some newer laptops are sporting these connectors, it’s worth waiting until the standards are agreed on. The beauty of the solution is also that (due its massive bandwidth) rather than having three to five wires connecting the headset, in the future, there can be just just one. Wireless connectivity is also catching up, with wireless video now proving itself usable for gaming.
To sum it up, it’s worth waiting before investing in a long-term VR solution unless you have an application which has already proven itself to be robust and workable on current generation technologies. If you want to be an early adopter (due to personal interest or for reasons of experimentation), there is already plenty of choice. Just be aware that until the prevalence of VR really comes into its own, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.