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Week in Tech: Wearable VR, Photo-Realistic Fleeces And So Much More

Two power bricks, one laptop

With the profound logistical complexities of orchestrating the arrival of two 3D cards in the same place at roughly the same time apparently beyond me, my planned graphics-off between the latest budget video boards has been punted two weeks hence (hopefully, anyway). So, it's time for another installment of the somewhat tenuously-titled Week in Tech. This week's muses include a preposterous looking VR backpack PC from Zotac, an even more preposterous gaming laptop from Asus and the PC's journey towards rendering photo-realistic graphics in games.

First, the Zotac VR Go Backpack, then. The idea is pretty simple. Playing VR games on a PC can involve a visual cacophony of cables running between the headset and the PC. At best, you're always tethered by at least one cable. But if you wear the PC as well as the headset, suddenly things get a lot simpler. Well, theoretically. Enter the Zotac VR Go.

Spec wise, there's a proper Intel quad-core processor plus Nvidia's GTX 1070 graphics and an M.2 SSD, so it’s plausible in performance terms. As for the design, well, it does rather look like a pretty ordinary small form factor PC with some shoulder straps.

However, Zotac has been careful with the port placement and the real kicker is the removable battery pack. For now, actual battery life isn’t quoted (nor is the price). But I’d say a couple of hours would be sufficient for VR gaming.

Anyway, combined with an Oculus Rift, which gets its power via USB, the upshot ought to be a totally untethered VR experience, which is intriguing. I haven’t been anywhere near an HTC Vive, but I believe it requires a separate power supply, which obviously reduces the appeal of the VR backpack substantially. The VR Go has also been designed to work perfectly well as a desktop PC and the GTX 1070 graphics is in the MXM form factor, so there’s at least a chance of upgrading down the road.

It’s a niche product I grant - it still involves flailing around blindly in whatever space you call VR home, only now you’re not only wearing a headset but a backpack, too. Mainstream it ain’t. It’s also kind of ridiculous. But if you’re going to do some early-adopter VR, it might yet be one of the better solutions out there. It should be on sale before the end of the year.

Speaking of the ridiculous, the Zotac backpack PC has absolutely nothing on the new Asus ROG GX800VH. I spent a day mucking about with one recently and it’s surely the most preposterous laptop PC ever.

The system itself is a monumental 18-inch beast. In fact, even the 18-inch metric doesn’t really do it justice. The bezels are massive, so this thing could easily accommodate a 19-inch panel. But that’s just the beginning. Not only does it come with two enormous 330 watt power bricks, both of which must be used to achieve full performance. There’s also a meaty docking station that houses a water cooling solution for the pair of Nvidia graphics chips inside the laptop itself.

So, that’s an 18-inch LCD panel, two power bricks and an external water cooler. Total mass? About 13kg. OK, there are two Nvidia GTX 1080 GPUs and that 18-inch display is a full 4K item with IPS technology and Nvidia G-Sync support. But the CPU is a pretty ordinary Intel Core i7-6820HK quad-core effort. Oh and not only does it look utterly adolescent, the build quality of some parts of the chassis and the water cooling dock is laughable.

I’m frankly baffled as to who would buy such a beast and why. It’s not remotely portable. It looks hideous. And thanks to the vagaries of SLI, the performance isn’t even terribly reliable. I just don’t get it. And that's before you even factor in the catastrophic £5,000 price tag.

And finally...the question of photo-realistic graphics and when they’ll be achieved is something I used to ponder pretty frequently. Worse than that, I used to spend so much time looking at game engines, I’d occasionally catch myself observing the real world and - especially when the real world contained expanses of water - pondering how it compared to the latest pixel shading technology.

Anywho, I don’t know if it’s less time benchmarking pointless bits of kit or a slowing in the pace of development, but in the last few years it seems like I’ve had fewer of those ‘wow’ moments when a game really moved things on when it comes to photo-realism. In fact, I had the misfortune of putting a PC through a few runs of the latest Far Cry franchise last week. I couldn’t help but note that the shader routines for the water were clearly inferior to those of the 2004 original. Primal, indeed.

Whatever, I had one of those ‘wow’ moments the other day with Tom Clancy’s The Division. It’s probably a terrible game. I wouldn’t know, benchmarking often doesn’t involve much actual gameplay and The Division isn’t the kind of game I’d fire up just for fun. But due to a technical glitch, I found myself mucking about with settings and actually playing through a few passages, rather than merely pulling the trigger on the pre-baked benchmark.

Long story short, there were just a few elements that caught me by surprise. This is going to sound ridiculous, but my character’s fleece was utterly photo-realistic. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like it in-game.

Overall, I wouldn’t say the The Division looked all that special. But there were a few other elements that were also very impressive, even if I’d file most of them more under looking pre-rendered than necessarily photo-realistic. It’s a subtle distinction.

Whatever, I’d be interested to hear what games over the last year or three have either provided your own photo-realistic fleece moments or more generally upped the ante for overall graphical fidelity. Fire away below.

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Jeremy Laird