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How much does all the equipment for Virtual Reality cost?

We are all now accustomed to the computerised systems and micro-electronic that help us run our lives and make everyday tasks so much easier. Whether it’s shopping at a department store, knowing where we are in a vehicle, carrying out a range of office-based tasks or controlling stock and operations in an industrial environment, computer systems make complex operations possible. Since their inception as a serious mainstream device – the IBM Model 5150, based on a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor and used Microsoft´s MS-DOS operating system released in 1981  is generally regarded as being the first – PC’s have gained widespread adoption by all manner of industries and home use. 

Of course, this growth has been accompanied by not only a marked reduction in size, but also an increase in computing power, punctuated by Moore’s Law, which has been a yardstick for growth in the sector. Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will roughly double every two years. This observation was made by Gordon Moore, while he worked within the semi-conductor industry. Moore’s law is an analysis and forecast of a pattern that has been observed throughout history. It is not a rule of physics, but rather an empirical relationship linked to the knowledge gained through experience in manufacturing, rather than a law. Way back in 1971, the metal-oxide semi-conductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) density was based at around 10 micrometres (μm); by 2024, it is expected that MOSFET density will reach around 2 nanometres(nm) – a thousand times smaller!

Making something like a computer plainly requires the inclusion of various micro-electronic systems, including processor chips-sets, sound and video cards, RAM, solid-state memory systems, and charging circuits. However, even for a relatively small computer, the use of micro-systems isn’t onerous, there is usually plenty of room, and people don’t mind putting up with a laptop that is a little larger if they get the performance that they want. This though is not the case with certain systems, and most usually with worn devices. The need for a device to be worn or to be discrete presents a whole new issue for developers, and this is perhaps best illustrated with weight-dependent systems such as VR.

Being vastly different from most personal or business computers, a Virtual Reality headset needs to be able to excel in two fundamental areas; it needs to have performance, and it needs to be relatively lightweight to allow long-term wearing. But a VR headset is actually significantly more complex than just being a computer that is held on the head, and needs to fulfil a range of functions that would not normally be found in other, everyday systems. Generally, they include a stereoscopic head-mounted display, which generates distinct images for each of the user’s eyes, stereo sound, and head-motion-tracking sensors, which may include devices such as gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, or structured light systems. Many virtual reality headsets also include eye-tracking sensors that are built right into the hardware of the device. These sensors let the system know where the user is looking so that it can provide material in the appropriate location.

But all of these elements have to be controlled by one processor system, which will also ensure that the right content is delivered to the integral screen, so that the user can really believe that they are inhabiting the world that the software constructs. If any of these components fails to deliver, then the virtual experience will falter and will be unconvincing. Plainly, this means that the different parts need to be matched to each other and deliver a certain level of performance all of the time.

This makes the majority of systems that go into VR equipment fairly bespoke and not normally found in mainstream computing equipment. Many of these components are designed to provide the reality of the system and make the user believe that they are inhabiting a real world. The best forms of interactivity that virtual reality (VR) may provide are the feeling of being able to move from one place to another within a virtual world and the capacity to adjust the surrounding environment. After that comes the propensity to engage in artistic endeavours. Each virtual environment should strive to provide its users with an immersive environment by placing a strong emphasis on the ambiance, aspects that engage the user, and factors that are entertaining. It is important for users to get the impression that they are an integral part of the virtual environment they are now experiencing. The sensory management system is the last component to be discussed. Users of VR should be able to sense even the most minute changes in the virtual environment, such as vibrations, movements, or changes in the sense of direction. These days, this final component may also be discovered in the vast majority of the most advanced virtual reality headsets.

The need to include bespoke components on a motherboard means that the whole motherboard becomes unique, and without the potential for use outside of a VR system, and that adds a huge amount of cost not only to their development, but also their production costs. If a manufacturing facility is set up to produce millions of identical computer boards, the price per unit becomes low. If, however, a board is of relatively low usage and low manufacturing quantities, the price per unit becomes much larger, and that has to be passed on to the consumer.

The one redeeming feature is that most electronic components are fairly mainstream and cost only pence to obtain and even less to place in a manufacturing environment. Aside from highly complex processor systems, resistors, capacitors, and other major components are relatively inexpensive, and with software available to design and manufacture printed circuit boards (PCB’s), the actual fundamental electronic parts of something bespoke like a VR headset isn’t actually too expensive. Of course, all of this needs to be mounted into a polymer envelope that is both practical and stylish but, once again, 3D designs and CAD/CAM means that these can be manufactured quickly and accurately. The same goes for exterior parts such as handsets, which share many of the same components such as accelerometers and positional elements. 

Teardowns of Oculus Quest 2 equipment suggest that the components and bespoke elements amount to a value of around $200, and with a selling price (in the UK) of around £350 – and even more for the 256Gb version – it would suggest that the cost of part, and the potential market, makes its development worthwhile. And a happy VR user is a joy to behold.