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Could Project Shield plus Oculus Rift equal gaming heaven?

Nvidia’s big reveal at CES this year was the Tegra 4 platform, as well as the first piece of hardware to run it. While Project Shield looks exciting, rather than plugging it into a television to get the full effect of the console, what if you could connect it to the Oculus Rift gaming headset?

From the HDMI port on the back of the Shield unit to the converter for Oculus Rift and then straight into your eyeballs – you couldn’t possibly go wrong with a combination like that. After all, Project Shield promises access to the best of gaming on the Google Play Store as well as the Steam Store and other PC titles, thanks to Nvidia’s new streaming tech.

We also know that Valve has been working with Oculus Rift for some time in order to get their games ready to be enjoyed on the VR headset, and the Oculus team themselves have been working on their own libraries for most of the popular gaming languages. On paper, it seems like this could be a really great combination.

The Oculus Rift experience is demanding to say the least. In order to maintain the illusion that you are fully immersed in the world you are playing in, the hardware pushing pixels to your eyeballs can’t dip below 60 frames per second (fps). In the demo we partook of during CES, we found the experience really jarring when the frames started to drop. Imagine that sensation you feel when you are listening to a song and halfway through the audio stops for no reason. Dropping frames while wearing Rift produces that sensation, but for your eyes instead of your ears. When your whole world goes black for no reason, you want that to stop pretty quickly.

So if this was to work, Project Shield would need to be powerful enough to drive the Rift at 60 fps consistently both through native gameplay and while streaming gameplay from your PC.

What we’ve seen and heard about Project Shield so far is impressive for a mobile console, but how does that stack up against discrete graphics on a PC? The quad-core-with-a-companion-core architecture of the Tegra 4 is impressive, though for now there’s been little mention of the clock speed for this version of the chipset. Surrounding this CPU is 72 “cores,” though that word doesn’t mean quite the same thing as the GPU cores you’d find in a regular PC graphics card. The reality is that the cores in the Tegra 4 GPU are stream processors that perform smaller, simpler operations for the GPU. That’s more than enough power, right?

In order to accomplish what we want to achieve here, this chipset would need to output 1280 x 800 split into a pair of 640 x 800 screens, both of which run at 60 fps even when under stress. We know the hardware can output video at a much higher resolution than this, given the ability to display 4K content at 24 fps, so it seems like the Tegra 4 platform would be able to handle this fairly well.

Hardware is not enough, though, as you’d need Android game developers to support the hardware. The amount of work that has gone into things like the Unity demo for Rift so far demonstrates a totally different approach to gameplay. Designing a game in 3D requires the game to be rendered completely, instead of just what the user can see when looking straight ahead. If you look up at a tree when wearing Rift and you see 2D branches in a crosshatch pattern because that’s all you need to get away with a 3D-looking tree on a flat screen, Rift users will notice immediately.

In order for game developers on Android to support the Rift, the games themselves would need a lot of changes to look nice on the headset. It’s certainly possible that a high volume of users will encourage developers to enhance their apps, but at least in the beginning the number of users who own both Project Shield and Oculus Rift will be a small demographic.

In the end, this isn’t as much of a pipe dream as it seems, but there are a number of challenges that could make the reality of this happening fairly slim. Perhaps if Nvidia and Oculus were to collaborate directly, this could become a reality, and in a more swift time frame. In the meantime, you can sit at your desk with your eyes closed and imagine your friends and family never seeing you again without a Rift on your face and a controller in your hands.

For more on Project Shield, have a look at our for and against opinion pieces.