Got an old graphics card? That should be no problem for VR – soon

HTC Vive

Many gamers without high-end rigs were disappointed to discover the relatively chunky GPU requirements for virtual reality (VR) gaming. But, the good news is that Valve is working to try and lower that threshold considerably.

The recommended spec for a VR-ready machine is set at a GeForce GTX 970 (or R9 290 on the AMD side), as a smooth frame rate is important when it comes to not making the gamer feel ill (one of the well-documented perils of VR).

But, Valve's tech will allow cards as old as the GTX 680 to be good for gaming on the SteamVR platform (i.e. HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift).

Upload reports that Alex Vlachos, a graphics programmer at Valve, gave a talk at GDC 2016 in which he revealed that a rendering plugin for the Unity game engine is in the pipeline. And this plugin helps to more efficiently render scenes, therefore keeping frame rates up with low-power GPUs while not sacrificing anything noticeable in terms of image quality.

Well, at least that's the idea.

Seamless shortcuts

Of course, there has to be some compromise, but Valve's idea is to use something called "adaptive quality" that takes shortcuts with rendering the graphics, but not ones the gamer will likely perceive.

Adaptive quality includes measures such as dropping the detail and quality of rendering around the edges of the image, as the eyes are focused on the center and not likely to notice a slight drop in quality around the periphery. Vlachos also mentions adjusting things, like the level of MSAA.

The broad idea is to ensure there are no dropped frames or jerkiness on lower-powered hardware, while the quality can be increased back up when there are idle GPU cycles available (hence the term adaptive).

Vlachos told Upload: "I can run Aperture [a visually detailed, Valve-built VR experience] on a 680 without dropping frames at a lower quality, and, for me, that's enough of a proof of concept … Most art we're seeing in VR isn't as dense as that. So we should be pretty good to go … everything should be able to support that low-end hardware."

This is all potentially excellent news for those who have been scared off VR not just because of the cost of the headsets, but also the cost of a major GPU upgrade on top of that.

And it should help VR adoption in these crucial early days – so long as Valve can pull this little trick off as promised, mind you.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).