Workstations and GPUs for VR
16 March 2017
From mobile to desktop workstations, professional to consumer GPUs, Greg Corke gives a back to basics guide to buying hardware for Virtual Reality
Professional Virtual Reality (VR) applications demand powerful workstation hardware. While the CPU and memory requirements for the HTC Vive are relatively low (3.30GHz Intel Core i5 4590 and 4GB+ RAM) the same can’t be said of the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU).
VR demands around eight times more graphics processing power than is needed to view the same workfl ow on a single FHD (1,920 x 1,080) monitor. This is down to the resolution of the Head Mounted Display (HMD) (1,080 x 1,200 per eye) and the high frame rates needed for a comfortable VR experience.
With most desktop 3D applications you should get a perfectly smooth experience zooming in and out of models at 20-30 Frames Per Second (FPS). However, with VR the GPU must be able to sustain a minimum of 90 FPS (for each eye).
Importantly, if frame rates drop below this magic number, the display can flicker or jump about, which ruins the experience and can make you feel sick.
To make things easier for those buying professional VR workstation hardware, GPU and workstation manufacturers brand their kit ‘VR Ready’.
This ‘stamp of approval’ might work well in the VR games market, as games contain fixed datasets. However, just because a GPU or workstation is labelled ‘VR Ready’ it does not necessarily mean it will work with all professional VR applications.
Performance is both application and model-dependent and is influenced by the size of the dataset, the complexity of the geometry (number of triangles), how well the geometry has been optimised, as well as lighting, textures and the level of Anti-Aliasing (a process which removes the jagged, stepped effect of diagonal lines, which is important for aesthetics).
The most important thing to understand about VR is that if you don’t correctly match your GPU to your VR workflows, you will simply not be able to use your workstation for VR. This is different to 3D applications on a desktop display, where slow frame rates might just be a bit annoying as it takes a little longer to position your model on screen. The only way to know for sure that a workstation is powerful enough is to test it with your workflows.
Pro versus consumer
One of the questions we often get asked about professional VR is do I really need a professional GPU? The answer depends entirely on your workflow.
If you also plan to use your workstation to run 3D CAD or design visualisation software on a desktop monitor, there is a strong argument for a professional GPU — think optimised drivers, certifi cation, support and access to pro only features such as SolidWorks RealView. In addition, some pro VR applications only work with pro GPUs or need more GPU memory than is available on a consumer GPU.
On the flip side, if you only intend using your workstation for VR with a game engine VR application, such as Unity or Unreal, then you may be just as well served with a consumer GPU.
‘VR Ready’ workstations come in all shapes and sizes. All the major vendors — Dell, Fujitsu, HP and Lenovo — off er ‘VR Ready’ workstations in traditional desktop tower form factors. These can be single CPU or dual CPU machines.
While a CPU with a high frequency (GHz) is of primary importance, one with more cores can significantly cut data import times in VR applications like Autodesk VRED or PiXYZ Review.
Dell also off ers a ‘VR Ready’ All-In-One workstation and there are several Small Form Factor (SFF) workstations from specialist manufacturers. If you intend taking VR to client offices, the boardroom or home, having a smaller chassis can be a big benefit.
Recommended ‘VR Ready’ models
Armari Magnetar V25, BOXX APEXX 2 & APEXX 4, Dell Precision 5810 & 5720 (AIO), Fujitsu Celsius M740 (pictured), HP Z240 & Z840, Lenovo ThinkStation P410 & P510, Scan 3XS Classic 3D & Scan 3XS Ultimate 3D and Workstation Specialists WS-X1100S.
VR Ready’ mobile workstations have the huge benefit of being portable so you can take VR wherever you want. Until recently there were very few ‘VR Ready’ mobile workstations.
This was because the only GPUs capable of delivering a smooth VR experience were rated at 150W and most mobile workstations could only handle 100W because of thermal limits within the chassis.
This all changed with the introduction of the Nvidia Quadro P4000, Quadro P5000 and AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100. As we go to press all the major manufacturers are in the process of launching 17-inch ‘VR Ready’ mobile workstations based on these new power effi cient GPUs.
Recommended ‘VR Ready’ models
Dell Precision 7720 (pictured), Lenovo ThinkPad P71, GoBOXX MXL VR and MSI WT73 VR *HP and Fujitsu yet to announce ‘VR Ready’ mobile workstations.
Pro Graphics Processing Units (GPUs)
Nvidia has three ‘VR Ready’ professional GPUs based on its current ‘Pascal’ architecture, catering to entry-level and high-end workfl ows. AMD has one ‘VR Ready’ professional GPU based on its current ‘Polaris’ architecture, the entry-level Radeon Pro WX 7100. AMD will add more powerful models later this year based on its forthcoming ‘Vega’ architecture.
Some VR applications can make use of two GPUs, where each GPU renders its own eye. We expect to see the number of compatible applications grow in 2017. With two entry-level ‘VR Ready’ GPUs costing signifi cantly less than one high-end ‘VR Ready’ GPU (and, on paper, delivering better performance), we expect to see more interest in multi GPU technology moving forward. However, as GPU memory is really important in some VR workfl ows, single high-end cards with larger memory footprints and memory bandwidth will still play a very important role.
Recommended ‘VR Ready’ models
(Entry-level) AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100 (8GB GDDR5) (pictured above) or Nvidia Quadro P4000 (8GB GDDR5) (Mid-range) Nvidia Quadro P5000 (16GB GDDR5X), (High-end) Nvidia Quadro P6000 (24GB GDDR5X) (pictured below) or 2 x Nvidia Quadro P6000.
Upgrading your workstation’s GPU
Most modern 3D CAD workstations should satisfy the minimum CPU, memory and USB requirements for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, which is roughly an Intel Core i5-4590 (3.3GHz, Haswell), 8GB RAM and USB 3.0. Where they will likely fall short is in the performance of the GPU.
In many cases, all you need to do to turn your CAD workstation into one capable of running VR is a simple graphics card upgrade. However, before you go out and buy a more powerful GPU, you need to check your machine is compatible.
There are two main things to consider
1) Whether your machine can physically accommodate the GPU (VR Ready GPUs are full length and some are dual height so take up two PCIe slots on the motherboard).
2) Whether your workstation’s Power Supply Unit (PSU) has enough power. GPUs for 3D CAD usually draw around 50-75W, whereas professional ‘VR Ready’ GPUs need anywhere from 100W to 250W. They also need to be hooked up to the PSU directly with an auxiliary power connector (6-pin or 8-pin).
Once you’ve checked with your workstation manufacturer, it’s usually very easy to upgrade your GPU. Simply switch off the machine, take off the side panel, replace the GPU, connect up to power, install the latest graphics driver and away you go.
This article is part of a DEVELOP3D Special Report into Virtual Reality (VR) for design, engineering and manufacturing, which takes an in-depth look at the latest developments in software and hardware and what you need to get up and running.
Everything is for a reason How McLaren Automotive unleashes VR to create faster cars with more attention to detail
Quick guide: VR enabled applications A list of what’s out there now or coming soon
Virtual Reality challenges & future Six industry thought leader’s views on the future of VR
HTC Vive: Getting up and running Our experience of working with HTC Vive and how to avoid common mistakes
The future of immersive engineering Virtual Reality (VR) is the current hot topic, but Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) is on its way. We take a look at where things are heading
Game on Amalgam creates game controllers for Holovis
VRED Pro 2017 & VR The latest release adds greater support for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift tools
Virtalis VR4CAD Offering expertise in VR at a much more affordable level
ESI Group IC.IDO 11 ESI’s IC.ID0 is one of the most advanced Digital Mock Up tools available. With its addition of Vive support, we take a look at what the system is capable of and how it can benefit engineering
Gravity Sketch Beta An interesting take on Modelling in Virtual Reality
Google Tiltbrush A system for VR creativity that’s both cheap and capable
Oculus Medium A good contender for design experimentation
Amari Magnetar V25 This stylish workstation has been specifically designed for VR. But despite its slimsline chassis, you can still cram in incredible processing power
Nvidia Quadro P2000/P4000 Nvidia is changing the landscape of professional 3D graphics with a new family of Pascal Quadro GPUs, including a single slot ‘VR Ready’ card.
Benchmarking pro GPUs for VR
Currently, there are no benchmarks focused on professional VR applications, so in order to gauge the relative performance of ‘VR Ready’ GPUs, one must either fall back on a consumer benchmark, or use a desktop benchmark for reference.
At DEVELOP3D we currently assess VR performance in three ways. 1) With the games-focused VR Mark 2) Measuring desktop frame rates in Autodesk VRED Professional (a design viz application that also has a VR capability) 3) Using a binary testing process (i.e. it either works or it doesn’t) in a variety of professional VR applications and workflows (click here to read more about our experiences).