Virtual Reality is finally ready for prime time! 2018 will see an explosion of VR Ready PCs, Virtual Reality Headsets, and VR Apps begin to saturate the market. Unfortunately, if you want to experience VR on a Mac today, your options are fairly limited. Until the iMac Pro, hacking together a VR-capable Mac rig required connecting an eGPU and compatible high-end graphics card, installing a dicey EFI Booter, user-recoded beta graphics card drivers, and several “ify” tweaks to your Windows 10 Device Manager in Apple Boot Camp to resolve the dreaded Error 12. Today, the iMac Pro offers a MUCH less complicated solution that will only become easier with each successive High Sierra update.
What Is Needed For VR On An iMac Pro?
To create a high-end Virtual Reality experience with an iMac Pro, you need:
1. Apple iMac Pro
There are several paths to achieving a high-end Virtual Reality experience on a Mac. At present, the easiest and most reliable Mac-based VR system is built upon the Apple iMac Pro. We have also set up an excellent Virtual Reality system using the 2017 15″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. However, that laptop does not possess an internal graphics card strong enough to power a high-end VR headset and will always require an eGPU. And, while the iMac Pro requires an eGPU to power the VR headset today, its internal AMD Radeon Vega 56 or 64 is more than powerful enough to power Virtual Reality headsets and will not require an eGPU once Apple releases updated AMD graphics card drivers (which are rumored to be arriving with the next OS X High Sierra release). Therefore, if a simple but high-end Virtual Reality experience on a Mac is your goal, choose the Apple iMac Pro.
2. eGPU (External Graphics Processing Unit) With Thunderbolt 3
The Apple iMac Pro’s internal GPU, the AMD Radeon Vega 56 or 64, is more than powerful enough to run any current model Virtual Reality headset. Unfortunately, Apple and/or AMD have yet to provide us with OS X or Boot Camp GPU drivers that allow this to happen (although, such drivers are said to be forthcoming). Therefore, for the time being, a Thunderbolt 3 capable eGPU (External Graphics Processing Unit) must be attached to the iMac Pro to achieve a high-end Virtual Reality experience. For compatibility and ease of use, we have chosen the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box with a Radeon RX-580 8GB GPU. We chose this eGPU because we are familiar with the quality of Sonnet products and because this is the exact same kit that Apple offers to Virtual Reality developers for VR app and content creation. However, if you are not buying the eGPU/Graphics Card bundle above, we recommend the Sonnet 550 Breakaway Box (as opposed to the 350 included in the bundle) and that you fill it with a Radeon Vega 56 graphics card … more power than you need, and significantly more money, but even more future-proof.
3. Virtual Reality Headset With Controllers
Virtual Reality Headsets are just starting to become popular and several excellent models have recently come to market. While the HTC Vive is by far the most popular at present, we chose the new Samsung HMD Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality Headset with 2 Wireless Controllers for our high-end iMac Pro Virtual Reality System. Although the Vive worked well and has, by far, the most available stable software via SteamVR, the Samsung HMD has higher resolution, sporting dual 3.5″ AMOLED (1440×1600) displays that provide for an absolutely gorgeous image. The advanced display also serves to greatly reduce the “screen door effect” common to all other VR headsets currently available. Also, the Samsung HMD has built in motion tracking sensors, precluding the need to screw hardwired cube sensors onto your walls as is required by the Vive. Finally, while maintaining a solid feel, the HMD is significantly lighter than the HTC Vive, thereby lending itself to longer periods of use without inflicting the dreaded purple forehead badge of VR courage. In short, the Samsung HMD Odyssey is the best Virtual Reality Headset currently available.
4. Apple Boot Camp Running Windows 10
Here comes the part we all hate … having to install Apple Boot Camp and running Windows 10. Yes, we know it is horrible. However, until Apple or AMD release updated OS X High Sierra drivers for the Vega 56 and 64 GPUs, this is the only way to get a high-end VR experience on your iMac Pro today. Fortunately, Boot Camp Assistant makes this VERY easy to do … complete instructions on how to install Boot Camp and Windows 10 can be found [here]. We recommend allocating at least 200GB to the Windows partition, 250GB is ideal. If you want awesome VR on a Mac today, just grit your teeth and start installing Boot Camp …
5. Windows Mixed Reality Portal and SteamVR
The next step is to install a virtual environment … which is a bit like your Mac desktop where you install and and interact with various apps and games. At present, there are two available for the VR world and, for different reasons, you will want to install them both. First, you will install Microsoft’s own Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) Portal. It is by far the most stable and will serve as the primary means by which your Virtual Reality Headset is calibrated and controlled. This will provide you with your first taste of Virtual Reality when you appear inside your own customizable virtual house in the mountains. However, think of this location not as a virtual home, but rather as a 3 dimensional desktop where you can shop for apps, stick them on your walls, and enter and return from various other downloadable virtual environments … your base of virtual operations.
Once familiar with your Windows Mixed Reality Portal, you will install Steam and it’s corresponding SteamVR portal. SteamVR has loads of apps and games, but is still fairly buggy running in Boot Camp, whereas, the WMR Portal is quite stable but lacks the breadth of the Steam software library. You will want to explore Steam’s catalog of VR apps and games, but will use the Windows Mixed Reality Portal as your primary VR environment.
6. Virtual Reality Apps And Games
And, now you get to have some fun. There is a wide assortment of Virtual Reality apps and games available, but you might as well start at the top and get the biggest bang for your buck. The absolute best VR app to date is Google Earth VR … and it’s free. Fly around the virtual Earth and zoom down into a digitized 3 dimensional world that is truly breathtaking. Stop by your house, revisit favorite vacation locales, stroll through your college campus … it’s all there and it’s like being on the Holodeck. You will be amazed!
And, what would Virtual Reality be without an arcade style first person shooter? Space Pirate Trainer is truly the best … easy to use and provides a huge VR “WOW” factor. It’s a small build with really only one level that gets more and more difficult as you progress, but its execution is excellent and this game shows what VR can do as you dodge incoming laser fire and blast alien attackers … Space Invaders all grown up. Extremely entertaining and probably the first VR game you will show your friends.
Also, we have thoroughly enjoyed watching movies on Plex in the virtual world as you can basically expand your VR screen a large as you want it. Download the Plex Media player and place it on the wall in theater in your Windows Mixed Reality Portal home. This is the future of media consumption, a gigantic flat screen TV wherever you want it … remarkable.
I Have Everything I Need … How Do I Get Virtual Reality Running On An iMac Pro?
Ok … now you know what you need to have an awesome VR experience on an iMac Pro. It’s time to plug in your computer, plug in your eGPU, plug in your VR Headset, install Boot Camp and Windows 10, install the Windows Mixed Reality Portal and SteamVR, and download Google Earth VR, Space Pirate Trainer, and Plex. Here are some tips and tricks to getting it all up and running on your iMac Pro:
* NOTE: As of this writing, Windows 10 in Boot Camp does not recognize the Apple Magic Keyboard, the Apple Magic Mouse 2, or the Magic Trackpad 2 wirelessly. Therefore, to be able to interact with Windows 10, you need to plug USB to lightning cables from your iMac Pro into your keyboard and trackpad or use hardwired substitutes. I am sure that this issue will eventually be remedied with a driver update, but that is where we are today …
1. POWER DOWN: everything … you must start this process with both your computer and the eGPU powered down or the iMac Pro will get confused.
2. PLUG IN: a) your eGPU into a Thunderbolt 3 port on your iMac Pro, b) your VR Headset’s USB cable into an USB port on your iMac Pro, and c) your VR Headset’s HDMI cable into an HDMI port on your eGPU.
3. POWER UP: first your eGPU, and then your iMac Pro.
4. LOAD BOOT CAMP AND WINDOWS 10: a) while powering up the iMac Pro, hold the [option] key, b) enter EFI password (assuming you assigned one), c) choose the Windows partition, d) enter your Windows 10 password.
5. INSTALL WINDOWS MIXED REALITY PORTAL: this is very easy and a complete guide can be found [here].
6. INSTALL STEAM, STEAMVR, AND WINDOWS MIXED REALITY FOR STEAMVR: a) install Steam in Windows 10 and create an account [here], b) download SteamVR from the Steam Store [here], and c) download Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR from the Steam Store [here]. These are all free apps.
7. INSTALL GOGGLE EARTH VR, SPACE PIRATE TRAINER, AND PLEX: a) download Google Earth VR from the Steam Store [here], b) download Space Pirate Trainer from the Microsoft Store [here], and c) download Plex Media Player from the Microsoft Store [here]
That’s it!!! You are now ready to enjoy high-end Virtual Reality on your iMac Pro. Venture on!
What Does The Future Hold For VR On An iMac Pro?
Now that you have experienced Virtual Reality on your iMac Pro, what do you think? Granted, it is not quite plug-n-play … yet. However, putting together a working high-end VR system on your Mac is MUCH easier than it was a few months ago … and, much more stable. Also, the ease of use will continue to increase as Apple releases OS X updates implementing drivers that preclude the need for the eGPU middle-man altogether. Here is what we expect to see for Virtual Reality on a Mac in the very near future:
1. NO EGPU: The Radeon Vega 56 and 64 GPUs in current iMac Pros are more than powerful enough to enjoy Virtual Reality to its fullest. Apple and/or AMD should be releasing updated drivers shortly that allow users to simply plug an HDMI dongle into a Thunderbolt 3 port on their iMac Pro and obviate the need for an external Graphics Processing Unit. We have tried this one and, while it will output a 4k feed to a TV, it doesn’t work with VR Headsets yet. We expect High Sierra driver updates to be released within the next few months and it will make this entire process much easier and much less expensive.
2. NO BOOT CAMP: Using Boot Camp and Windows 10 to experience VR is a gigantic PITA. Although Steam for OS X works well on a Mac, SteamVR for OS X is basically unusable at this point. We need Steam to step up development on its VR for OS X platform and do away with the need for Mac users to employ Boot Camp and Windows 10 to experience Steam’s VR offerings. This will be a game changer for our community and will finally bring VR to the Mac using masses. In the mean time, see above …