Why VirtualLink might be the next big thing for VR headsets

It's nice to see some of the biggest companies in the world work together to bring forth an improved product, and in this case, involving tech giants AMD, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Oculus, and Valve, it has to do with improving VR. This consortium, known as VirtualLink, has created a new open standard for connecting the next generation of VR headsets.

Let's take a look at what exactly VirtualLink is and what it might do to shake up the VR industry once its 1.0 specification is released.

Instead of creating an entirely new physical connector for next-gen VR headsets, VirtualLink uses the USB-C form. This Alternate Mode has been designed from the start specifically for VR, with a high bandwidth video connection utilizing four lanes of DisplayPort High Bit Rate 3 (HBR3). Each lane offers about 8.1 Gbps bandwidth, so you're looking at altogether about 32.4 Gbps bandwidth, enough for 4K resolution at a 120Hz refresh rate. As a comparison, the HDMI connection used with the current Oculus Rift can deliver data at a rate of about 10.2 Gbps.

This apparently can also be scaled up in the future, likely resolving the need to create something new again for the following generation. The cable can also relay data at up to 10 Gbps through a USB 3.1 data channel — perfect for any information coming from headset sensors or cameras — and it can likewise power the headset at up to 27 watts. Remember, this is all contained in a single USB-C cable, which should open up a lot more PCs to VR.

PC-based VR, as it stands now, takes up a lot of real estate on your PC. Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) and the HTC Vive are the lesser offenders, taking up just one HDMI and one USB-A port. However, the Oculus Rift, with its wired external sensors, uses up to five USB-A ports (with a four-sensor setup) and an HDMI port. Considering a lot of new laptops no longer include HDMI or even USB-A, VR experiences are often relegated to the realm of expensive gaming laptops or big desktop gaming rigs.

PCs, especially laptops, have taken a turn toward becoming more mobile, which is why we see a lot of the larger ports disappearing. Even on a full-sized gaming rig, finding enough ports for the Oculus Rift and its sensors can be a pain, often involving the purchase of a separate USB hub just to avoid bandwidth issues.

There's also a push to turn VR and mixed reality (MR) into platforms that can coexist with standard (what is colloquially known as "pancake") monitors and workspaces. Lugging around a thick gaming laptop or desktop PC on a business trip so you can pop on a head-mounted display (HMD) to see some schematics won't do, which is why a single USB-C port makes a lot of sense. Just don't be surprised if we have another small icon to look out for next to USB-C ports.

Microsoft's 2018 Mixed Reality plans show progress toward immersive digital future

So what does this all mean? In a future where VR headsets are used almost as commonly as a pancake monitor that's already installed on a desk, being able to sit down at just about any PC and plug in a single VR cable will no doubt play a big part in popularity and usage.

What about wireless VR?

There are likely some scratching their heads and asking whether or not next-gen VR is becoming, after all, wireless. Like current-gen PC-based VR systems, the wireless aspect came quite a while after release, and it came from third-party manufacturers like TPCast. There is the forthcoming Vive wireless adapter, but again it was unveiled alongside the HTC Vive Pro, about two years after the original Vive's release.

VirtualLink seems to be aimed more at easing a larger population into VR, whether they're using a desktop PC or slim, portable laptop. It soon won't matter as much how many ports your PC has, and it will be a much quicker setup for times when you need to handle a quick task in a virtual 3D environment.

The desire for wireless VR isn't going to go away — having no cables at all between PC and headset really is the best — and there will no doubt be solutions created for the person who wants an untethered, premium PC-based experience.

Everything you need to know about wireless VR

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Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt brings to Windows Central more than eight years of experience writing about laptops, PCs, accessories, games, and beyond. If it runs Windows or in some way complements the hardware, there’s a good chance he knows about it, has written about it, or is already busy testing it.