Using an Apple product beyond Apple’s intended uses is not for the faint of heart.
How was your Labor Day weekend? Did you break out the barbecue one last time? Relax with family and friends? Me? Oh, I learned an important lesson this passed Labor Day. I spent most of my weekend sitting in front of a 27-inch 5K iMac scratching my head and pulling my hair. It’s a lesson I probably should have learned some time in the past, but sometimes my stubbornness gets the better of me. What lesson did I learn? I learned that Apple’s walled garden is surrounded by a wall of thorns.
Some of you may have read some of our coverage of VR on macOS. We’ve written about Apple’s push for developers to create VR applications for macOS High Sierra by providing an eGPU developers kit so that a desktop-class GPU can be used on Macs other than a Mac Pro to test their creations. Being impatient by nature, I didn’t want to wait for the release of macOS High Sierra. Nor did I want to wait for developers to release their macOS High Sierra apps when they may have already released them on Windows. I wanted to see how my 2014 5K iMac would fair running some of the already developed VR games and experiences now running Windows 10 via Boot Camp from macOS Sierra.
The merits of trying to go beyond the wall
Why would I want to use my Apple products beyond what they’re intended for? The simple answer is for added value. If I can pay a premium for Apple’s ecosphere and be able to use their products for other non-Apple approved projects, then that elevates the value of the products in my mind.
I can already hear some of you chiding me on the hardware limitations of Mac hardware and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. The decision to use laptop-grade CPUs, memory, and storage components in iMacs and MacBooks never sat well with me, nor did the limitations placed on being able to personally upgrade components but I’ve understood why it’s done. The tolerances for power draw, the aspect of designing beautiful hardware, the ability to control the user experience are all aspects to be lauded.
Apple products are well designed and well made. Staying within the boundaries of their garden is a fantastic experience for most users and the accessibility for non-technical users is unparalleled. We pay a premium for those qualities. You can argue, for or against, if the price we pay is worth it for those qualities but that’s a matter of personal opinion.
I’m on the fence, frankly. On the one hand, I enjoy Continuity between Macs and iOS devices. I enjoy the seamless integration of my iCloud drives. I enjoy the ability to FaceTime and iMessage other Apple users. These work together so well, that whenever I use my Windows PCs or Linux server, I experience a jarring reminder of what it means to have to actively think about using my computing devices. Apple makes the device become the experience rather than the experience become the device.
On the other hand, I am annoyed at what seems like arbitrarily imposed limitations when trying to use Apple products in general (and Macs in particular) beyond what Apple intended. This is especially irksome since the premium we pay doesn’t translate into the ability to have added value with its products.
My white whale
My family loves VR. We are totally on board with the first-generation room-scale VR devices. We own both the Oculus Rift with Touch controllers and the HTC Vive. We also own two powerful Windows PCs to run those headsets so that my wife and I can game together. We know that one day, we’d want to make it a family affair but that would mean incurring the costs of not only two more VR headsets, but also the costs of two more expensive PCs to run them.
I was ruminating over these costs and as I sat at my desk, I looked at my fairly recent and top-of-the-line (at the time) 5K iMac and thought to myself that I may already have one of the needed components to complete this goal. So I set out to make it happen.
The idea was simple: I wanted to see how well I could run a non-graphically demanding VR game called Rec Room. I was to install Windows 10 on my 2014 5K iMac via Boot Camp. Since the HTC Vive can connect via mini display port to a PC, I would then simply connect the Vive to the Thunderbolt 2 port which is supposed to be able to function as mini display port as well. Once I set everything up, I was to try and see how capable the iMac was in VR for that game. Like I said. Simple.
Forget Virtual Reality. I was hit by Reality Reality.
Installing Windows via Boot Camp is a breeze. Fire up the Boot Camp assistant and away you go. It downloads all of the drivers you need during the preparation phase and in no time you have Windows running on your iMac.
The first red flag I ignored (or refused to acknowledge) came nearly immediately when I found out that although I’m running full-fledged Windows 10 on my iMac, it wasn’t really full-fledged when it came to the hardware drivers.
On a Windows PC, you can download drivers for various chipsets and components from the manufacturers website and install those drivers. Knowing that I had an AMD Radeon M295X, I went to AMD’s website and downloaded its latest drivers for its 200 series hardware running on Windows. The drivers that were installed during the Boot Camp installation were quite old and needed updating. Unfortunately, The latest drivers for 200 series GPUs do not include the AMD M295X.
I managed to find an updated but older driver for the M295X from AMD’s website and though not as new as the latest releases, it would have to do. This comes to my first point on the walled garden. The specialized hardware in Apple products severely limits a user on functionality. Since there would be so few people needing this specific hardware running under Windows, you are at the mercy of the manufacturer to provide updates. With fewer instances of usage, there are fewer updates since it is not a priority.
The first attempt
Once I installed my more up to date GPU driver, I began to ready the Mac PC with software needed to get the HTC Vive connected. I installed Steam and Steam VR. With that, I connected one USB 2 cable to the back of the iMac. I connected a thunderbolt 2 cable between the Thunderbolt 2 port on the iMac and the mini display port on the HTC Vive breakout box. I was ready to rock and roll.
I fired up Steam and Steam VR and waited for the HTC Vive to come alive. Nothing. I had an error message that claimed that the HMD (Head Mounted Display) was not connected and to check my cabling. I did. Still nothing.
I dug a little deeper and found that Windows did in fact detect the Vive as per the information provided by the Device Manager. A good sign, I thought. I could also see that the USB controller detected the USB connection to the Vive. Another good sign. I fiddled with the display properties. I changed settings from direct mode access to non-direct mode. I deleted the profile for the multi-linked display of the 5K iMac screen (the 5K iMac is actually made of of two panels that can be made to appear as a single display). I moved the display orientations from side to side to one over the other. I rebooted, replugged, and reiterated. Always nothing.
The second attempt
Perhaps my updating to the latest AMD drivers caused some sort of incompatible configuration. I foraged online for others trying to do the same setup and read about a single person being able to get this running. I removed the graphics drivers and reinstalled the original Boot Camp provided AMD drivers. I got the same error message. Again I rebooted, replugged, and reiterated. Still nothing.
There was literally no reason that I could fathom as to why the Vive would not come to life. The power LED was illuminated. The USB was detected. The display was also detected. I must have missed something I thought.
On my Windows PC, I use the HDMI connection on the back of my GPU to connect the HTC Vive as opposed to the mini display port. Perhaps this was my problem. I hopped into my car and drove off to the local electronics shop. I bought a mini display port to HDMI adapter for the iMac. Drove back home, plugged in the adapter. Plugged in the HDMI cable from the Vive to the HDMI port on the adapter. Fired up Steam VR. Nothing.
This comes to my second point regarding the walled garden. Cables and ports may or may not work as expected. Did a have the right cables? Did I need a Thunderbolt 2 cable? Or did I need a mini display port cable? Since they look identical did it matter? Did I need a mini display port to HDMI cable? Or a Thunderbolt 2 to HDMI cable as those also look identical. Again, did it even matter? All I knew for certain was that when venturing beyond the walled garden, prepare for frustration.
I suppose I should have learned by now to cut my losses but I instead decided to make one more change. I decided to try to connect my Oculus Rift to the Mac PC to see if that somehow would make a difference. To cut to the chase, it did not make a difference, but not for the same reasons.
Although I could physically connect the VR headset to the iMac without issue, the problem came when trying to install the Oculus specific software. It detected that my GPU was below the minimum specifications to adequately run VR. The irony is that I knew that already before I started off on this wild goose chase.
You can argue the point that it was Oculus and not Apple the stopped from completing the installation. However, and coming up to my third point, the fact of the matter is that Apple hardware is far too weak for the prices we pay. The usage of mobile hardware really inhibits you from getting that added value beyond the walled garden. There is no reason why a three grand iMac should not have a desktop class GPU architecture let alone the rest of the iMacs components. Although desktop class GPUs are coming, it will only be for the iMac Pro and you should read my thoughts on the AMD Vega GPU architecture.
I won’t lie and say I gave up after switching to the Oculus Rift. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say that it never manifested into anything other than disappointment.
I’m not going to say that going through this experience led me down to some dark path where I now think Apple sucks and that walled gardens are evil. In fact, as far as my work, my daily communications, my time management, and my entertainment, I simply love the ecosystem Apple has created. Having a walled garden has is merits. Usability and accessibility are greatly increased. Perhaps the walled garden is even necessary to ensure the proliferation of various technologies to get mass adoption as quickly as possible for critical mass for said technology to become successful. Perhaps this is what VR needs. I’m not certain I’m convinced on the last aspect but I can say that I’d very much prefer a walled garden that allows for added value than the walled garden that does not allow for it as we have it now. Not only is going beyond the wall frowned upon, it’s darn near hostile. Surrounded by a wall of thorns indeed.
Do you have any comments on your experiences with the Apple Ecosphere? Let us know.