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The PC VR/PS VR Gap Just Got Way Bigger With NVIDIA’s Pascal

Alessio Palumbo
Posted May 9, 2016
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With the recent releases of the Oculus Rift & HTC Vive on PC and PlayStation VR scheduled for October, Virtual Reality is the new hot technology in the gaming industry.

Many game developers are developing titles for the aforementioned devices and the VR market is going to be huge according to analysts. However, there are some differences between PC VR and PS VR: the Oculus Rift & HTC Vive have better specifications, thus delivering a higher quality VR experience as admitted by Sony Computer Entertainment’s Executive Vice President Masayasu Ito in an interview with Polygon.

If you just talk about the high-end quality, yes, I would admit that Oculus may have better VR. However, it requires a very expensive and very fast PC. The biggest advantage for Sony is our headset works with PS4. It’s more for everyday use, so it has to be easy to use and it has to be affordable. This is not for the person who uses a high-end PC. It’s for the mass market.

Sony’s counter is that you would need a very expensive and very fast PC to have a better VR experience than what PlayStation VR (combined with PlayStation 4) delivers. Similarly, we have reported that PS VR is 60% more powerful than a PC with the same hardware due to several techniques used to optimize performance.

PC VR is about to get a significant performance boost, however. NVIDIA, which retains 79% of the discrete GPU market according to the latest figures, showcased the new Pascal architecture for the first time last Friday.

The GTX 1080 & GTX 1070 GPUs are not only more powerful, they also come with specific VR optimizations. Let’s start with the basics: Virtual Reality still works on the principle of stereoscopy, meaning that two images (one for each eye) need to be rendered thus requiring twice the power. That always struck me as a huge limitation.

NVIDIA’s Pascal cards will fix this longstanding issue thanks to a technology called Single Pass Stereo.

Single Pass Stereo turbocharges geometry performance by allowing the head-mounted display’s left and right displays to share a single geometry pass. We’re effectively halving the workload of traditional VR rendering, which requires the GPU to draw geometry twice — once for the left eye and once for the right eye.

This improvement is especially important for geometry-heavy scenes, and those featuring significant levels of tessellation, which remains the most effective way of adding real detail to objects and surfaces in VR.

With tessellation, affected game elements can be accurately lit, shadowed and shaded, and can be examined up close in Virtual Reality. With other solutions, such as Bump Mapping or Parallax Occlusion Mapping, the simulation of geometric detail breaks down when the player approaches or examines affected objects from any angle, which harms immersion. By increasing geometry performance and tessellation by up to 2x, developers are able to add more detail that players can examine up close, significantly improving the look of the game and the player’s level of presence.

NVIDIA also developed another technology for Pascal cards called Lens Matched Shading that will help with the performance, building upon the Multi-Res Shading introduced with Maxwell.

Lens Matched Shading increases pixel shading performance by rendering more natively to the unique dimensions of VR display output. This avoids rendering many pixels that would otherwise be discarded before the image is output to the VR headset.

Together, Pascal’s improved performance, and new Single Pass Stereo and Lens Matched Shading significantly improve the Virtual Reality experience for GeForce GTX users.

What this means is that developers will be able to choose between considerably bumping graphics quality in VR and boosting the frame rate (though perhaps it will likely be a mix of both in most cases), which is critical in Virtual Reality to avoid motion sickness and other issues.

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NVIDIA touts the new flagship GTX 1080 as being up to 2x faster than the Titan X in VR. Perhaps most interesting in regards to the comparison with PS VR is the GTX 1070, though: priced at $379, it will be affordable and yet likely to deliver a far superior VR experience.

It’s not just about the performance, anyway. NVIDIA also wants to deliver the most realistic experience to PC VR and that includes sound, not just graphics: their new VR Works Audio will deliver path traced audio.

Today’s VR applications provide positional audio, telling users where a sound comes from within an environment. However, sound in the real world reflects more than just location of the audio source — sound is a function of the physical environment. For example, a voice in a small room will sound different than the same voice outdoors because of the reflections and reverb caused by the sound bouncing off the walls of the room. Using NVIDIA’s OptiX ray tracing engine, VRWorks Audio is able to trace the path of sound in an environment in real-time, delivering physical audio that fully reflects the size, shape, and material properties of the virtual world.

Simply put, we’re able to simulate physically-accurate, super realistic real-time audio using the power of your graphics card.

Finally, they’ve also brought the whole PhysX library to VR along with a new addition specifically geared towards making controls more immersive.

Existing VR experiences deliver these effects through a combination of positional tracking, hand controllers, and haptics. With NVIDIA’s new VR Touch PhysX Constraint Solver, we can instead detect when a hand controller interacts with a virtual object and enable the game engine to provide a physically-accurate visual and haptic response.

It also models the physical behavior of the virtual world around the user so that all interactions – whether an explosion or a hand splashing through water – behave as if in the real world.

Overall, NVIDIA Pascal represents a significant jump forward for PC VR. Whereas PS VR used to be almost as good as PC VR with a GTX 970, the new series promises to leave Sony’s offer in the dust though admittedly it was easy to predict, given the incredible rate at which technology improves on PC.

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That might be why Sony is working on the strongly rumored PlayStation 4 Neo. According to some of the leaks, the main target of the enhanced PS4 would be PlayStation VR with a dedicated effort to improve the VR experience with additional processing power.

Still, until then PC VR is bound to attract the most hardcore Virtual Reality fans way more than PlayStation VR, especially now that the higher quality doesn’t come at a huge price anymore.

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