Will Virtual Reality Damage the Earth?


Recently, Venturebeat interviewed Jason Paul, the general manager of Nvidia’s gaming, and VR business. During the interview, Paul noted that current consumer PCs often aren’t powerful enough to run VR, and less than 25 million PCs will be able to run VR the “right way” in 2016. How much more powerful do they need to be? 7 times.

Virtual Boy Headset
The original VirtualBoy Headset from 20+ years ago – are the new ones greener?

Widespread VR adoption means that consumers must purchase much faster and more powerful “gamer” class computers – and these computers will be energy hogs, consuming the power of 3 refrigerators. If, as some have predicted, VR becomes widespread in the next 10 years, the energy consumption of households will go up dramatically, This rise is unlikely to be offset by increases in chip speed or efficiency – “Moore’s Law” is starting to fail. This means that chip circuit size and density can’t be reduced to save power. You’ll probably need in the range of 750watts for high-end VR in the home, much worse than current “multimedia” PCs used to surf the web.

VR joins a larger trend of online “bloatware” moving tech use in a less “green” direction. Complex web pages overrun with video and animation already reduce slow the web and waste energy. The size of web pages has ballooned to a Hummer-sized 2.3 megabytes, up from 0.7 megs in 2010. Currently, the energy consumption of consumer PCs and the Web hovers around 10 percent of the world’s electricity, but a VR-laden future world like Ready Player One would raise this number significantly. If the web is bloatware, VR will be a Titanosaur.

Gaming PC power consumption

Source: Xbit http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cases/display/system-wattage.html

The game industry, which will have a major role in virtual reality, is not known for efficiency or environmental awareness. The cultural zeitgeist glorifies Hummer computers over Prius rigs, and game design has emphasized ever more elaborate 3D and animation without regard for power consumption. If graphic design has ignored the energy consequences of bad web design, the game industry celebrates its defiance of sustainable norms.

Also, the very concept of games – enter an alternate world – implies a rejection of the real world as inferior. So, we can’t expect much concern here as VR expands into the home.

Unless consumer virtual reality offsets its energy use via energy savings in the physical world (e.g. virtual shopping instead of trips to the store), it will damage the Earth.

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