I need the next Mac Pro to handle VR.
Knowing that Apple has been actively soliciting feedback from current Mac Pro owners for what they would do with the next version is exciting. Not only is it great to see Apple be a little more transparent about what comes next, but it's clear Apple wants the Mac Pro to not only stick around but be the best for its users.
I wasn't able to update to the cylindrical Mac Pro because it didn't fit my needs, but Apple has a real opportunity to change that with this next refresh. Top of mind for me? Make it the best VR desktop you can buy today.
Want to know why Macs aren't the best gaming machines on the planet? Heat. Apple displays are second to none, its trackpads are leaps and bounds above everything else, and Metal makes it possible to squeeze every ounce of performance out of the hardware in ways Windows isn't able to do.
In the end, it all comes down to the GPU. It doesn't matter if we're talking about MacBooks, iMacs, or the Mac Pro; Apple routinely sacrifices raw GPU power for smaller, thinner, quieter, more visually appealing hardware. Powerful GPUs generate heat, and dealing with heat means some combination of noise and size tradeoff needs to be made. Or, As Apple's Craig Federighi put it:
Being able to put larger single GPUs required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate.
VR in its current form requires a single powerful GPU to drive the experiences so many enjoy right now with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The two-GPU architecture simply isn't an option for VR owners right now. In order to move forward, Apple needs to ditch its beautiful little cylinder and try something with a little less individual focus. And that's exactly where Apple's Phil Schiller says the future is headed.
With regards to the Mac Pro, we are in the process of what we call "completely rethinking the Mac Pro". We're working on it. We have a team working hard on it right now, and we want to architect it so that we can keep it fresh with regular improvements, and we're committed to making it our highest-end, high-throughput desktop system, designed for our demanding pro customers.
As part of doing a new Mac Pro — it is, by definition, a modular system — we will be doing a pro display as well. Now you won't see any of those products this year; we're in the process of that. We think it's really important to create something great for our pro customers who want a Mac Pro modular system, and that'll take longer than this year to do.
There are a lot of very exciting details in that quote, especially for people eager to enjoy the current VR experiences on a Mac. It potentially addresses the biggest barrier to entry right now — the ability to add the GPU that best suits your needs. It's not clear yet whether the high-end GPU will become a "module" you can buy and add to your Mac, or the casing to the computer will return to being big enough that you can simply add a card when you need it; regardless, the big important flashing detail there is that Apple is cognizant of the need for high-end hardware that can be easily added to your Mac Pro — the single largest barrier to entry when it comes to VR. From Federighi:
Those can be in VR, those can be in certain kinds of high end cinema production tasks where most of the software out there that's been written to target those doesn't know how to balance itself well across multiple GPUs, but can scale across a single large GPU.
Would a VR-Ready Mac Pro be the default or an upgrade? That's not an easy question to answer, but weirdly it's something Oculus is well suited to help us figure out. Apple doesn't currently use NVIDIA GPUs in any of its computers, instead choosing to partner with AMD when not relying on integrated Intel GPUs. AMD's partnership with Oculus for the last year focused on approaching VR consumers eager to save money, which resulted in the first VR-Ready Windows PC shipping this year for less than $500.
If either SteamVR or Oculus moved to support MacOS, the other would quickly follow suit.
The GPU used in that inexpensive VR-Ready machine was the Radeon RX 470, the slightly more capable sibling of the Radeon RX 460 currently being used in the fully loaded 15-inch MacBooks. The cost of a VR-Ready machine has already come down considerably, and its existing cards are in line with what Apple is already using. It's not hard to imagine a line of Macs coming out in 2018 that handle VR by default, and can be upgraded with options that add more to immersion in VR.
The biggest difference between VR gaming and traditional gaming is the addressable market size. The VR industry is relatively small right now, and will still be relatively small in 2018 when Apple finally unveils this new hardware paradigm. Unlike traditional gaming, where supporting Apple users through a service like Steam isn't always worth it, VR developers will quickly flock to a new group of users if the hardware existed to support these experiences. If either SteamVR or Oculus moved to support MacOS, the other would quickly follow suit and a great wealth of content would quickly become available.
Apple may have other plans for its own Virtual and Augmented Reality experiences, but that isn't going to make the amazing options that are available right now go away. By the time Apple is ready to ship this new kind of Mac Pro, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will be well into the second year of their respective product life cycles. It'd be really cool if Year 3 for VR was the year Apple offered everyone a choice.