Apple Finally Joins VR Bandwagon, Offers External Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Enclosures For Developers

Apple iMac

While companies left and right have been jumping on the virtual reality bandwagon that was created in large part by the Oculus Rift, one firm has been curiously absent—Apple. That changed yesterday when Apple announced at its annual developer conference (WWDC) an external graphics enclosure that will enable developers to develop and test graphically demanding apps, including VR content.

The "External Graphics Development Kit," as it is called, can attach to any Mac with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. Support for the enclosure is added through macOS High Sierra, the latest version of Apple's operating system. It is the first time in the history of the Mac that external graphics processors have been supported.

Apple External Graphics Development Kit

"Apps that use Metal, OpenCL, and OpenGL can now take advantage of the increased performance that external graphics processors can bring. The External Graphics Development Kit includes everything you need to start optimizing advanced VR and 3D apps on external graphics processors with macOS High Sierra," Apple says.

An AMD Radeon RX 580 graphics card with 8GB of GDDR5 memory is tucked inside the enclosure. It also features a 350W power supply and comes with a Belkin USB-C to 4-port USB-A hub. As an added bonus, anyone who buys an external graphics development kit will receive a promotional code for $100 towards the purchase of an HTC Vive VR headset.

The external graphics enclosure is not yet available to consumers, at least not generally. Apple is only selling the unit to members of its Developer and Developer Enterprise programs in select territories, including the United States and several others. The cost in the U.S. is $599—a bit on the hefty side when you consider that a Radeon RX 580 and 350W PSU can be bought for less than $300 if purchased individually.

Cost aside, this is Apple's entrance into VR. In an attempt to entice developers and eventually players, Apple also announced that SteamVR is available for macOS High Sierra is beta form. Just as with Windows and Linux, SteamVR on Mac offers players the 360-degree, room-scale tracking. And on the development side, Apple is working with Epic and Unity to make Mac extensions of content built on those engine technologies as easy as possible through specialized tools.