New Hardware & VR Audio….Are we there yet?

Tis the season for some of us to start thinking about upgrading our workstations. Those of us W-9 freelance types have till December 31st to get in that 2016 write-off & / or counter our earnings with business spend.


Luckily, both Microsoft & Apple have made it very easy to part with our hard earned cash by introducing the Surface Studio & the new Macbook Pro. If you’re like me and you do (or plan to) make the majority of your earnings doing VR audio, would either of these machines be worthy of their 4-figure investment?


First of all, can either of these machines run VR? The answer is unfortunately, for the most part, no. You can run mobile VR on both, but as implied by the definition, you’d eventually be publishing to a mobile device. It’s the computing equivalent of shake weights vs. the heavy lifting required to run a Vive or Oculus.


In addition to processing power, the video card is what makes or breaks VR compatibility. After all, running duel 4k display monitors at 90+ fps requires some real horse power and neither the Surface Studio nor the Macbook Pro have it.


Surface Studio runs on a GeForce 980m, a really good mobile video card, but not good enough for VR power-towers. Mac is running on the AMD Radeon Pro 450 or 460, again great for gaming, but not quite there yet for VR.


Bummer? Well maybe, but not really in today’s workflow. Most interactive audio folks have two machines, so an all-in-one solution isn’t really in the cards yet. There are some exceptions.


I know of some teams who are running a decked out version of Nuendo or Adobe suite with all the VST plug-ins you could ask for on the same giant Ed 209 looking box  that houses their blinged out Titan X graphics card, but they’re the exception to the rule. Besides, since both Digital Audio Workstations & VR displays are CPU hogs, putting all that computing on one machine has diminishing returns.


It seems counterintuitive but in some ways it’s better to have two $2500 boxes than one $5k box that runs everything at once. It’s also a way to separate church and state or in this case, the creative and technical. Interactive audio folks I know are comfortable letting their right brain create on a Mac & their left brain implement on a PC.


So, what about Microsoft’s pitch to the creative audience? I watched their 10/26 keynote again & I love their message. I love that this is hardware for the future generation of creators. I love that they’re pushing 3D for everyone and I love the potential of the Surface dial, or any non-keyboard / mouse interface for that matter. Microsoft is well on their way to an all-in one solution and with their (albeit confusing) enterance into the VR headset world, they are poised to get there first.


For audio however, it will still be a bit. To make full use of their surface dial, Microsoft needs a 2nd party developer (like Apple has Logic or Roli) to work exclusively in the hardware & make it sing (pun intended). Their keynote mentioned a composer who works exclusively on Surface using the stylus pen and a music teacher who DJs on the weekend but I only saw examples of visual applications that showcased their dial / studio.


Apple on the other hand had me opening my wallet when they showed that DJ set using the touch bar as a filter sweep, x-fade and a number of other assignable parameter controls. Corny, maybe, but it was an interesting baby step for Apple since everyone thought they would ‘me-too’ Microsoft by introducing full touch. I can say that it might be a smarter move to for Apple to do one thing well rather than mimic something that they don’t have a comprehensive plan for.


A touch bar that works 90% of the time is better than a touch screen that responds 70% of the time. While Microsoft has some very deliberate intentions for its touch screen models across Windows 10 development, it makes sense for Apple to distance themselves from that path for now instead of jumping on the bandwagon.


Back to VR development, Palmer Lucky had some not-so-nice things to say about Apple & running (or rather not running) VR from a Mac. The fact is that Apple is such a bespoke ecosystem that it makes sense for them to wait and introduce their own AR / VR device, one that’s designed from the ground up within the Apple environment. Besides, those that want to run a Vive on a Macbook seem pretty niche compared to those who want to say, make a dope beat in Garage Band.


If PC is the way to go to run VR, how can we, a-hem, scratch the surface (get it?) and get a machine powerful enough, yet elegant enough to not want to hide it under the desk next to the literal trash can? There are new middle-school solutions out there that offer customizable yet compact / sexy chassis. PCs from companies like Falcon Northwest can run the pixles out of some VR & yet fit in your carry-on for a client flight in a pinch.


How about PC laptop solutions? Well, there are some, but besides being 13 pounds and as big as many current desktops, most of them are geared toward the hardcore gamer. If you’re concerned with aesthetics, you may not want a neon pink dragon laser sketched onto your laptop cover that makes you seem like you just stole it from the props department of the live action remake of Akira.


Sometime down the road, this will all be moot & we’ll be running audio applications seamlessly in VR using a server hub interface that looks like a glass salad bowl & opens and closes the data pipeline depending on the usage we pay for per household. Until then though, we’re still confined to keyboards, screens and mice with occasional toe-dips into the pool of alternative user interfaces.


For me, I’m already running my audio software and hardware though an iMac so odds are I’ll plunk down for a mid-level 15” Macbook Pro. It just makes sense for me to make a redundant workspace, especially if I get more away gigs. After that I will probably invest in a custom Falcon Northwest Tiki with an NVidia 1080 video card, or the price equivalent of what’s available when I can afford (or justify) it.


That being said, if I were still working at Microsoft, I would be tempted to use that employee discount for a Surface Studio, or at least fight hard to convince my team to spend some of the fiscal budget on one for my office. ?

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