Apple, Mac and Virtual Reality

N.B: This blog entry is in Matrise’s category “Lights”, which holds more technical, often smaller posts, that concern actual and recent events. These entries stand out from other entries at Matrise, which is often more conceptual, ideal and philosophical. Lights entries need not be very related to VR, though they will always be related to computer science. You can read about Matrise here.


Apple has never created computers capable of much graphical power. Although Mac’s are often preferred by those working with media applications for video and photo editing, etc., these kind of operations rather need a good CPU rather than GPU. This means that the Mac has never been a good candidate for gamers, who require heavy graphical power to run their games. Unfortunately, this bitter ripple effect of Mac’s crappy GPUs, also extends to VR support. As the Mac has not really been a candidate for good gaming, Apple has been left out of the loop by HTC Vive, Oculus, etc., simply because none of their machines would fit the minimum requirements of running VR.

So although the choice to not try to stuff a GTX 1080 ti into a Macbook has secured its ability to look pretty and slim it has been dissapointing for developers and VR enthusiasts with a fondness for the Mac OS X.

External GPUs for Mac

Last year, Apple revealed that their new operating system MacOS High Sierra would take steps to support VR on mac. As part of this, Steam VR for Mac was released — and support for external Graphical Processing Units (eGPUs) was added as well. Mac’s had unfortunately always have had terrible GPUs relative to their PC equivalents, which has limited their use for gaming- and VR purposes. Though this has secured the Macbook’s ability to look pretty and slim, it has been dissapointing for developers with a fondness for the Mac operating system.

Thunderbolt

The latest Macbook Pro series, for instance, has four slots for Thunderbolt 3. Now, the new Thunderbolt 3 support transfer speeds up to 40Gbps, which is significantly higher than the cables connecting your Mac to your internal GPU. This has opened the possibility of using the slim, pretty laptop for lectures, meetings or writing at home — all the while being possible to augment the same laptop to a graphical beast while coupling in the eGPU. You bring the light parts, and leave the heavy ones.

The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box for coupling graphics card externally via a Thunderbolt 3 port. In Matrise’s eGPU, we currently host an AMD Radeon RX 580 “Sapphire”. This does a good job at supporting the HTC Vive in a Macbook Pro 15.

In the fall of 2018, on the introduction of their new eGPU support, Apple partnered up with Sonnet to sell eGPU cards with a Sonnet cooling chassis from their Apple Store. As the support for eGPUs were still in beta, Apple only sold the eGPUs to registered apple developers. Matrise bought one, obviously, as this opened up for VR development, and testing, at the Mac.

In the beginning (the beta stages), the support for this was decent, but slightly annoying. Everytime you plugged in the eGPU you had to log in and out of your account — and sometimes there were trouble to get the screens connected. For the last months, however, the support feels more solid, with an icon in the menubar that can be used to eject the eGPU. You no longer have to log out everytime to connect it, which simplifies the workflow of those who use this to power , say, one 4K screen and another WQHD display at their work station.

The Office. Apart from VR development, the eGPU is useful in giving graphical power to external monitors, at the same time as providing electricity. For this setup of two >HD screens, only one Thunderbolt cable is used.

Apple and VR

Although Mac users now have the possibilities that come with increased graphical power — this does not mean that VR and Apple is a very great match yet. They have, however, lately opened their eyes to the fact that they need to support developers of this new medium. Last month they introduced their new MacOS “Mojave”, of which “Dark Mode” we discussed in our previous “Lights” entry. What is perhaps more important, however, is that the new Mac OS Mojave would have plug-and-play support for the new HTC Vive Pro (which Mac users now luckily can actually use thanks to the eGPU support). Matrise has ordered a HTC Vive Pro Kit, and will post a performance test using an eGPU in Mojave when it arrives.

The HTC Vive Pro is to receive plug and play-support in the new Mac OS “Mojave”

Although now Apple with their Mac’s have the technical solutions that make it possible to create and view VR in the same way that normal Windows PC’s have, this does not mean that Apple’s Mac stand equal before the task. The outcome of long years where Mac’s would not really be able to play any VR games still stand, and there are therefore very few games that bring support for Mac users. Hopefully this will change in the future, now that Apple at least actually plans the road ahead to be friendlier rather than hostile towards the technologies.

Modular Computing
What is an interesting in the way we see these eGPUs work, is how this kind of modular computing may be the future for laptops. Stationary computer parts have the benefit that they can be as big as they need to be, which reduces the cost of the labour of fitting these components into thin laptops. Scenarios could be imagined where it is normal to have a strong GPU and/or even CPU at home and at work, along with some monitors, to augment your computing once you are there — while always keeping the base parts (your laptop) in your bag to go. This workflow may remind us of the new Nintendo Switch — which can change from console to portable by simply removing the necessary parts and thus “switching” to portable.

What may be even more convenient than modular computing, we can admit, may be cloud computing. When web transfer speeds finally turns good enough in the future, we could upload all our computing into a queue in the sky, to be performed by some quantum computer centres in a desert somewhere… Probably.


What do you think of Apple and VR? Could you imagine the modular computing scenario working in your everyday life? Please comment below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *