Apple talks a lot about AR, but how does the Mac fare for VR? We asked Survios devs.
CULVER CITY, Calif.—When Apple unveiled the iMac Pro in December, it did so with an assist from third-party developers. The company showcased creators who were working on applications that applied the iMac Pro's capabilities to new things previously not possible on prior, less-capable Mac hardware. Most notably, more than one dev was using the iMac Pro for virtual reality (VR) development, something Apple had announced its intentions to support at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June of last year.
One of the participating studios, Survios, had been approached by Apple to port its new title Electronauts to macOS. Electronauts is a virtual music-production tool that allows the user to DJ quantized music with various 3D tools, as if they were standing on a stage surrounded by equipment.
After hearing about Electronauts in December, Survios invited Ars out to its studio in the Los Angeles municipality of Culver City (one of the United States' most concentrated hot beds of both VR and indie game development) to hear more about exactly what was involved in porting VR software to the Mac.
It may still be early days for VR on Mac, but at least one longtime development studio sees potential for the platform after experiencing Apple's support firsthand.
Apple’s first steps into VR
Founded in 2013, Survios is financially backed by film and television production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—its first licensed game, a boxing sim called Creed is due later this year. The studio has also received venture funding from Shasta Ventures and Lux Capital. Survios has always been focused on VR development, and its first-person shooter, Raw Data, was the top-selling game on Steam for a while.
This is a company that has compiled a solid VR resume. So after announcing VR support at WWDC 2017, Apple reached out to Survios hoping to snag a potential early partner to showcase the iMac Pro's VR capabilities.
"Right now, on the Mac front, they're kind of coming from behind. They're just now adding support for Vive and SteamVR and stuff," Jason Meisel, the software engineer responsible for the Electronauts port, said when describing Apple's current position in the VR space. "We've been working with them directly to get everything up and running because... there aren't a lot of games that are in VR on iMac yet."
Despite being new to the game, Apple has made portability ease an early focus. VR is supported on the Mac through Valve's SteamVR platform (hence the Vive exclusivity at present), and Electronautswas developed in Unity, a game engine and editing suite that can build directly to a multitude of platforms, including both Windows and macOS.
"Essentially, what they've done really well is that they've been working with Unity and with Valve to make that whole process of porting a game that already exists using Unity and just get it running on the iMac," Meisel added.
Currently, Electronauts only supports the iMac Pro. So we asked Mike McTyre, the studio head (formerly of game companies Carbine, THQ, and Blizzard), why Survios would port a game to a machine with such a small install base:
To us, it's not just about 'Hey, this is limited now.' It's not going to be limited in the future. Here at Survios, we're making products to invest in the future of VR. It's not about having a big cash payout today. We're doing this because we believe this is going to be the future.
We're seeing a lot of resources on their end, a lot of effort, a lot of passion. They want to focus on this and work on this. So that might be true now, but that's just the starting point. It starts here, and let's see what they add on to that next... I truly believe that they're going to put a lot more growth into that going forward beyond this. This is just a starting point.
When we asked McTyre and Meisel what Apple would need to do to drive adoption of VR on the Mac from here, they offered two answers. Meisel said the best way Apple could support VR would be to support teams that are bringing non-gaming applications to the Mac. He noted that the Mac does not have a strong gaming history, but there are other applications of VR that are a more natural fit. If Apple makes headway there, the games might follow. Also, “If they support Oculus, that would be awesome," he said.
McTyre offered a more logistics-based plan. "I would love to see—I don't know if five years is realistic, or if it’s three years or two years—I'm hoping within another couple years, we're going to start seeing just the default PCs with graphics cards that are good enough to do the minimum spec VR right out of the box."
Today, the iMac Pro development kit includes an external GPU enclosure, and as we noted in our iMac Pro review, it's clear that Apple sees that as a path forward for its entire Mac lineup to support more graphics-intensive applications like VR, though the iMac Pro's GPU is well-equipped to handle VR applications without it. macOS 10.13.4, due to launch very soon, is slated to expand eGPU support for consumers and developers, which could be the key to VR support on other current Mac hardware.
Neither McTyre nor Meisel had much to say about eGPUs, however. Instead, McTyre reiterated his hope is that, soon enough, most Macs' integrated or discrete GPUs will meet the minimum spec for VR. "I do think we are not that far off from the built-in GPUs just being good enough to just, out of the box, play VR," he said.
At this point, we mentioned that many desktop PC users are able to simply swap out a new GPU to attain VR capability, but Macs don't have that upgrade path without the eGPU enclosures. "Would the adoption rate be faster if they had an easy way to upgrade?" McTyre replied. "Yes, I'd agree with that."
Ultimately, when speaking to the viability of the eGPU approach, Meisel said, he "would fully expect external GPUs" to be an adequate solution for Survios' VR games on Mac.