Apple and Valve Have Worked Together for Nearly a Year to Bring VR to MacOS

SteamVR and OpenVR available in beta for MacOS 'High Sierra' this week

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Apple’s broad embrace of VR this week shows that the company has had virtual reality support on its roadmap for quite some time. During a session at WWDC, Apple and Valve confirmed they’ve been working together for nearly a year to bring SteamVR and OpenVR to MacOS.

Though you might think that porting SteamVR and OpenVR to MacOS would be relatively straightforward—given that Steam for regular desktop gaming has been on the OS since 2010. But it seems there was quite a bit of development work to be done in order to make it happen, including a few missing capabilities which Apple built into the Metal 2 rendering API, at Valve’s request, in order to make it possible to render high performance VR on MacOS.

Collaborating for VR on MacOS

To that end, the companies have been working together on the project for nearly a year, said Rav Dhiraj, a member of the GPU Software Team at Apple, who detailed Metal 2’s new VR rendering features in a session at the WWDC conference this week.

“We’ve been working really closely with Valve over the last year to align our releases and both SteamVR and OpenVR are available to download in beta form this week,” he announced on stage.

SEE ALSO
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Valve’s Nat Brown joined Dhiraj on stage to talk more about what it took to get SteamVR and OpenVR running in high performance on MacOS.

“Valve and Apple, we started working together more closely about a year ago. Our port to Metal from OpenGL didn’t cost us very much—Metal is a really cool API and it was critical for us to get VR up and performant,” Brown said.

On stage at WWDC 2017, Valve’s Nat Brown overviews the inner workings of SteamVR rendering on MacOS | Photo courtesy Apple

He also confirmed that the companies have been working together on the project for nearly a year, with one of the most significant initial asks from Valve to Apple being the implementation of direct-to-headset rendering capabilities into Metal 2.

“Our biggest request to Apple a year ago was for this direct-to-display feature because it’s critical to ensure that the VR Compositor has the fastest time-predictable path to the headset display panels,” said Brown. “We also really needed super accurate low variance VBL (vertical blank events) so that we could set the cadence of the VR presentation frame timing and predict those poses accurately.”

Apple As An Active Participant

Brown seemed to paint Apple as not only supportive of Valve’s work, but an active participant in the process of getting SteamVR and OpenVR running well on MacOS.

“We hit some speed bumps [during development] around inter-process and inter-thread synchronization. Once everything else was working really well—Metal was blazing fast, we had really tight VBL—but we still were having some synchronization problems, but Apple helped us find better ways to signal and synchronize with low scheduling variance between all the processes and threads involved.”

After digging into the technical challenges of rendering a frame onto a VR headset with low latency, and explaining how developers can install SteamVR on MacOS to begin experimenting, Brown wrapped up his segmented saying, “Thanks to everybody at Apple for making VR shine on MacOS.”

On stage at WWDC 2017, Apple’s Rav Dhiraj explains VR rendering concepts | Photo courtesy Apple

SteamVR and OpenVR for MacOS make use of the advantages of Metal 2 in the forthcoming ‘High Sierra’ version of the operating system (though will technically run on MacOS 10.11.6 or higher). Developers can download a beta version of High Sierra today through Apple’s developer portal, and then install SteamVR through the MacOS Steam client and opt into the latest beta version. MacOS High Sierra will be available as a free upgrade on any Mac which supports the current Sierra release, however only the new, top-end iMacs and MacBooks with external GPUs that meet the VR Ready spec will be able to run VR experiences at the ideal level of performance.

Watch This Space

A year’s worth of collaboration on VR between Apple and Valve calls into question Oculus’ involvement with Apple and their intentions (or lack thereof) to support MacOS. It’s possible that the groundwork laid down by Apple and Valve’s work, especially relating to the VR-specific features of Metal 2, could make Oculus’ job of porting their platform to MacOS easier. But it isn’t clear whether or not that effort has begun, nor how long it might take if and when it does start.

SEE ALSO
Oculus Mum on Rift Support for MacOS in the Wake of Apple's VR Announcements

For now, outwardly at least, it seems Valve and Apple are forming a strong relationship while Oculus has been not shown up to the veritable table. How this relationship pans out in the long run—especially with rumors of Apple developing its own VR headset—could have far reaching consequences on the future of the VR industry and its key players.

Update (7/1/17): Valve has reached out to clarify that while SteamVR for MacOS takes advantage of performance improvements via Metal 2 when running on High Sierra, it actually can work on the older MacOS 10.11.6 or higher. The article has been updated to reflect this fact.

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  • Me

    That is awesome news, whatever you think about Apple ! I can finally see a future for the Vive, with polished apps, excellent support, etc…

    I just need to start saving for an iMac Pro and call the doctor about that kidney I need to sell.

    • Adrian Meredith

      Its quite a coup, people will start developing on vive first.

  • JMB

    Have they (Apple) announced which models of its MacBook Pro lineup will support the external GPU and in turn SteamVR?

    • Me

      Everything that has a Thunderbolt 3 port I assume.

  • Get Schwifty!

    It’s very interesting to hear…. and it’s a bit strange on the surface since Apple doesn’t really care for having other stores in their ecosystem, Steam or Oculus Home for example. This kind of tells me that they realize they are behind in desktop VR by quite a margin, are putting their own efforts into mobile and see this partnership as a way to get a quick checkbox going for current desktop VR and at the same time creating a way for people to develop VR content using Mac’s which is a natural extension of their traditional role in media production. It also gives them a quick route to getting content into their own mobile VR platform if it takes shape. Cook has been very vocal about AR/MR as the natural path for the Apple platform and the technology as a whole, so in retrospect it’s really not all the surprising.

    • elev8d

      Steam has supported MacOS for a while. Valve wants their sales platform available to as many users as possible, and I’m sure VR has really boosted their game revenue, so they would be missing out big by not supporting this market.

      • Get Schwifty!

        Ah – wasn’t aware Steam was on Mac but it makes sense. I would doubt VR had had much impact though on game revenue yet, the install base is like 300K+ or so right now, less than a couple percent of all of Steam’s users.

        • elev8d

          While VR users may be a small percent of Steam’s overall users, my guess is their purchases far exceed the average user, making contribution to revenue notable. After all they had to have enough money to spend on an $800 device and have hardware to run it. My guess is this group spends more on games and has increased spending in Steam. I know I spend much more on Steam than I ever did before with the introduction of VR.

  • a247slacker

    I would have rather Valve spent that last year bring the type of games to vive that oculus is getting, that would have been time and money better spent!

    • Glasses-Wearer

      Shortsighted thinking

      • a247slacker

        so your happy with the games so far for your 800$ vive i guess that makes 1

        • NooYawker

          First time being an early adopter? Live and learn.

          • Get Schwifty!

            Ikr….

          • kill_dano

            Ah back when I was young and naive

        • elev8d

          How about two… I still have 20 VR games in Steam that I haven’t gotten to yet, and I’m enjoying all of the ones I have so far. I appreciate Steam including the Apple ecosystem and I think it will really pay off now that Apple supports external GPUs, so anyone can easily upgrade a Thunderbolt 3 laptop to a gaming computer for a few hundred bucks.

          • Sam Illingworth

            Three

        • Thetrick

          Collaboration with Apple probably pays off better than releasing unfinished games from a company that has not released a single game in a very long time.

          • Darshan

            Hmmm, sarcastic yet true point of view. Apple might have opened kitty and let the $$$$$ flow in direction of Valve. Very much possible.

    • NooYawker

      Funny thing about companies, they can actually work on more than one thing at a time. Shocking I know.

      • a247slacker

        yea they have released so many great games for my 800$ investment so far

        • NooYawker

          They’re working on three games, you think they would come out any faster if they didn’t work on getting their platform on Apple? I mean look at all the other companies pumping out AAA games right?

          • Darshan

            Valve has not made any game so far for HTC vive other than their THE LAB Experience, which is free bundled with every HTC Vive and is a small bunch of tech demos.

            Obviously most of them are very very polished like Robo Repair sequence or Galaga VR still those made me want more from Valve.

            Rather then wasting their precious time and resources on supporting imperialistic company*(Read APPLE), they better would have made best of them like Half Life 3VR, Portal 3VR or Team Fortress VR… Who would know those games which are said to be in development might be these only?????

            Can’t wait to see Valve’s full version AAA games as VIVE is their own product. Hence they know grass root level its codes and hardware with all merits and follies. who can be better than VALVE to build that much talked about KILLER APP for VIVE VR????

          • NooYawker

            They should have made HL3 rather than 100 other things they worked on. Steam link, steam box, and any game they made in the last several years.
            You may not like it, but expanding the VR base benefits all VR users. More users, more interest by large studios.

          • Ricky Marshall

            Valve has already stated that a third installment to the Half-Life series will probably never happen; VR or not. Something about wrapping up the loose ends in the story having a less desirable effect than the ‘cliffhanger’ that is the end of Half-Life 2.
            On the up-side, and to contradict your assessment, Valve *has* been working on porting Half-Life 2 to VR complete with motion tracked controllers in a room-scale setup by reviving a third-party VR add-on.
            It’s already in the Soon™ stage!

        • Graham J ⭐️

          If you bought your Vive thinking Valve was going to make a bunch of games for it, you did it wrong.

        • kill_dano

          You mean your mom’s $800 investment?

    • Graham J ⭐️

      No, it wouldn’t. Expanding the number of places SteamVR and supported devices can be used is money well spent.

    • Fam Wired

      It seems that Valve is teaming with Apple. Microsofts partner is Oculus. Windows is still the biggest gaming platform and also where Valve gets almost all the money. I don’t really get this.

      • Darshan

        None may be true. Valve could be funded well by Apple to support them.. or they might decide to bring wealthy apple owners in Vive’s direction. God only knows other than these companies.

    • Get Schwifty!

      I think the idea here is to get developers to develop content for the Mac/IOS platforms…. Vive (and hence Oculus) would indirectly benefit as well.

  • Lucidfeuer

    The only real good news, is that Apple is finally waking-up from their greasy greedy strategic non-sense. While too little too late to stop the bleeding, the fact that Apple invested a lot to have the Vive compatible with Mac and made it’s iMac RAM/CPU user upgradable show they’ve finally understood how incredibly stupid their abandon of performance users was.

    Too bad it’s not going to change the lack of software/plugin compatibility and that they actually ruined all this with Metal.

    • NooYawker

      I think it’s more Jobs is no longer there with his death grip of control. I read that Jobs didn’t want an app store for iOS, he wanted only apple made apps on the iPhone. Luckily they changed his mind.

  • Marco Andrade

    One year means they didn[t care when it was needed, that is 5 years ago. It’s just a desperate move with the good luck that unreal engine and others are “easy” to port, as they recognize. If apple cared about their customers they should have done this 3 years ago.

    • daveinpublic

      And if Microsoft cared, they would have done it when Bill Gates was a tweenager.

  • daveinpublic

    It makes sense that Apple is keeping Facebook out of the loop. They see them as Microsoft from the old days, or Android. A company comes in that has not historically been associated with operating systems, and Apple helps their systems reach dominance. First with Bill Gates seeing the future of desktop UI, then with Schmidt getting to see the future of mobile UI. Now, Facebook, no history of having an operating system, wants to put a VR home experience on Mac. I’ve seen Apple keep smaller companies at bay. They want to give Vive as much of a a headstart as possible so that they’ll be big enough to fight Facebook for them.

    • Get Schwifty!

      Hmmm of course Apple learnt of the UI including mouse from what,Xerox under their paperless office initiative, IIRC? But I see your point… not sure I agree that that Vive as a fighter to Facebook/Oculus is in mind with Apple, I think they see HTC as the more easily dominated partner…. of course the whole other question is when and if Oculus and MS partner up for Scorpio, or if MS tries to use it’s own HMD’s, etc.

  • ummm…

    i love to see valve working with everyone. Looks like Oculus has only a limited time to cash in on their walled garden before they are forced to open up.

  • Sam Illingworth

    I’m not sure what the point of this is, until Apple start offering decent gaming GPUs in their main computers. Without that gaming in general won’t take off on Mac, and Mac users like myself will continue to have to have a Windows machine for gaming on.

    • NooYawker

      If you buy a PC game from steam that also has a Mac version you get both versions free. Have you tried any of those?
      I agree btw, I love Macs but won’t buy one because I enjoy gaming so I have a PC. I refuse to have two different machines.

      • Sam Illingworth

        Yeah, I love that you get the different platform versions for free. I’d be better just streaming it from the PC though.

    • Shawn Runewell

      I agree, as someone who uses Macs but has a dedicated gaming PC, I think they should allow standard GPU card upgrades for the upcoming Mac Pro. In regards to AR/VR though, I think they aren’t too concerned with competing for the desktop market. I think they are focused on 3-5 years from now, releasing an all-in-one headset that uses their mobile tech. If you look at the iMac Pro, it will basically take about 3 years before the hardware is just average for AR/VR development. That’s enough time for Apple to get an Apple-centric development community built-up around AR/VR so their headset can hit the ground running as they unleash the iOS App Store on it.

  • psuedonymous

    Interesting that the requirements of direct HMD write and precise timing functions for VSYNC hooking are also two of the low level changes the Oculus requested (and eventually got) from Microsoft that allowed them to implement Async TimeWarp on Windows.

  • Andrew Jakobs

    And that’s why Apple should ditch Metal and just go with Vulcan which would have made it all much easier.

  • Shawn Runewell

    I’m actually excited to see what Apple does. Apple has complete control over their hardware and software and they have the ability to bridge mainstream users into the market via their app stores. I’m all for open systems and communities, which is not really Apple, but they might inject a ton of money into these areas and force the rest of the industry to increase their investments even more due to a fear of missing out.

    Competition is good and Apple is BIG competition.

  • Ricky Marshall

    Willing to bet once Apple starts marketing whichever headset they’ve pilfered from some less litigious tech firm they’ve already silenced out of court, there will be no mention of Valve’s contribution anywhere on Apple.com, even if direct-to-headset rendering remains one of the most important ingredients.

  • RockstarRepublic

    Why even bother? Apple as a company is s**t, you can’t trust them either.

  • Danny338

    Maybe with Apple supporting VR, I’ll be able to motivate myself or more accurately justify, building the hackintosh that occasionally crosses my mind. I nearly gagged at the price of their iMac Pro. For no more than what you get at that cost I can build twice the system. “iMac Pro” is a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. Apple abandoned the power users / prosumers long ago. As my current occupation does not require that I have my own high power computer, I am not much more than a hobbyist now. I really don’t do that much gaming anymore either, so maybe it will still be difficult to find my motivation for it. But I’m still watching and waiting for something interesting.