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Build a PC for Virtual Reality: a Guide for Developers and Engineers

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With Oculus Rift and HTC Vive ushering virtual reality into the consumer space, the relatively beefy system requirements (Intel Core i5-4670, GeForce GTX 970 / Radeon R9 290) sent mainstream users into upgrade mode to ready their PC for virtual reality.

In business computing, companies are figuring out how to optimize workstations for developing virtual reality applications and content. Developers look to requirements in VR headset manufacturer Software Development Kit (SDK) documentation, and work with engines with application programming interface (API) support for VR machines.

For example, Oculus Rift has its own SDK and provides API plugin support for several popular game design and 3D rendering programs. Being able to run these applications smoothly without a hitch determines the hardware for the job.

SDK system requirements and VR programming APIs

 

SDK name CPU Graphics RAM
Oculus PC (1.3) Intel Core i5-6400 GTX 970 or R9 290 or better 8 GB
Oculus Mobile Any 2.0 GHz or faster Unspecified 2 GB
Unity (5.3) Depends on complexity  Any with DX9 shader 4 GB
Unreal Engine 4 Any quad-core 2.5 GHz of faster Any DirectX compatible 8 GB
OpenGL 4.5 Unspecified NVIDIA GeForce 400 + 8 GB
Unigine Unspecified Unigine benchmark test unspecified
Maya 2016 Ext. 2 Any dual-core 2.5 GHz or faster HD 4400 /GTX 465 / R9 260X 4 GB

 

These are modest specifications for professional developers using 3D modeling and simulation software, the types working on the cutting edge of VR programming.

Dedicate one monster workstation for VR development

Shops that do 3D computer-assisted modeling or graphics work commonly designate one super-powerful workstation for the heavy lifting phases of design. In many cases, this type of computer handles VR programming as well.

“Early design stages can have a lot of iterations, so being able to handle 3D modeling, rendering, drafting, or BIM [building information modeling] on one machine is key,” says Chris Donnell, a New York-based technician working in a design studio. “Project team membership fluctuates constantly, so having people with hardware that suits any project keeps us agile—agility and the ability to create guides our purchasing decisions.”

I asked Donnell and several techs working in design and engineering about their workstation specs on Spiceworks, and it turns out they are working with some serious hardware. Here are a few notable builds:

Architectural design workstation

CPU 2x Intel Xeon E5-2609
Graphics Card NVIDIA Quadro K5200 (8 GB RAM)
System Memory 32 GB
SSD 256 GB

 

Computational fluid dynamics workstation

CPU 2x Intel Xeon E5-2609
Graphics Card NVIDIA Quadro K2200
System Memory 128 GB
SSD 480 GB

 

3D prototype design and VR workstation

CPU Intel Core i7-5960x (3.5 GHz overclock)
Graphics Card NVIDIA Quadro K2200
System Memory 64 GB
SSD 500 GB

 

Several techs mentioned their go-to mainstream workstation is a Dell T5500 tower with a 6-core Intel Xeon and 16-32 GB of memory.

Obviously, these machines far exceed the minimum requirements outlined in the Oculus SDK, but developers can begin exploring VR with more modest builds—here are some guidelines for putting one together.

Do you need a professional grade graphics card?

Graphics cards that are marketed for gaming (called desktop graphics cards) and the more expensive “professional” models marketed for design and rendering (workstation graphics cards) have subtle but important differences. Workstation cards might cram in more onboard RAM to boost performance, but the hardware and chipsets are actually are very similar.

Can you create VR content using a gaming card like a GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290X? Absolutely.

But why would anyone pay extra for a professional graphics card?

The real difference between “gaming” and “professional” graphics cards are certified drivers that app makers design especially for Quadro and FirePro and other pro-grade cards. These drivers fine-tune the hardware for the specific programs developers use—whether those are for hefty CAD and industrial design applications (SolidWorks, Autodesk) or for the programming engines used in VR production.

Professionals will pay extra for these features most of the time. “The majority of my 2D draftsmen have a Quadro K600,” says Brian Fulmer, a construction IT manager who has users running the BIM software Revit. “Revit doesn’t really do much with video cards, but I buy them because of the certified drivers.”

“Our old CAD manager used to do Revit training on accounting notebooks,” he adds as a counterpoint. “It’s not the bad old days of display list drivers, thank goodness.” Overall, the prevailing attitude is if a company uses design programs to make money, it is compelled to have the best equipment for the job.

That said, business customers do purchase gaming graphics cards for work use—the best selling graphics cards for business customers in 2015 is evidence of this.

Which CPU? Intel Core i5 vs i7

Performance-minded PC builders have two real choices, the Intel Core i5 or Intel Core i7. The quick explanation is that Core i5 will be fine for simpler graphics and rendering tasks wherein the file sizes stay relatively small. For advanced simulations and 3D rendering in a professional environment, a Core i7 is more commonly deployed—as shown in the 2015 best selling CPUs for business customers.

Oculus Rift recommends programming with current generation Skylake CPUs, which have a -6XXX designation in the product name, like the Intel Core i7-6700K for example. While developers do use Skylake processors, Haswell processors such as the Intel Core i5-4690 will work for Oculus applications. It all depends on the level of detail the design demands.

For help pairing performance needs to specific CPUs, see the 2016 Desktop Processor Buying Guide.

A big HDD for files, a medium SSD for the apps

Video files are large. Storing video files in hard drives connected to the motherboard yields the best performance. Installing anywhere between 2-5 TB of HDD storage will suffice in most scenarios. Performance HDDs that spin at 7200 RPM are standard for production work.

Modern workstations usually have separate solid state drives to store the operating system and critical applications. A medium capacity SSD (256-500 GB) suits most needs adequately.

Final thoughts

I love talking to folks working on the cutting edge of technology. If you are developer or engineer working with a PC for virtual reality, please tell me about your build in the comments!

Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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