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Apple bringing VR, external graphics and game engines to Mac

Does Apple finally care about desktop gaming again?

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A Star Wars virtual reality demo, running on an iMac.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

Virtual Reality. Steam. Unity. Unreal. External graphics. 

They're not words you'd usually expect Apple to utter during the Mac portion of a press conference -- the company has all but ignored desktop gaming for years. But it just announced it will natively support all of those things at the 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose. 

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GIF by Morgan Little/CNET

Apple is now working with Valve to bring the Steam VR platform to its desktop computers, it announced. It showed off an official Star Wars virtual reality demo (by Lucasfilm's ILMxLab) on stage, one where a presenter used the HTC Vive headset and motion controllers to create a VR scene, manipulating TIE fighters and summoning Darth Vader.

Where did Apple get a computer powerful enough to run such a demo? (Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey famously spurned the Mac last year.) Well, it turns out the whole demo was running on a new iMac, and there'll be a couple of ways for an iMac to reach that level of potency.

For one, there's the just-announced $4,999 iMac Pro, which will be available with AMD's new Radeon Vega graphics and up to a ridiculous new 18-core CPU. There's also the just refreshed (and far less expensive) iMac -- though AMD notes that only models with the highest-end AMD Radeon Pro 580 graphics chip will be VR-ready.

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Even MacBook Pros might be able to get in on the game -- now that Apple will officially support Thunderbolt 3 external graphics. Effectively, you'll be able to plug a box with an external graphics card into your computer's USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port to add significant graphical muscle, a la the Razer Core or Alienware Graphics Amp. 

For now, Apple's offering a third-party Thunderbolt 3 enclosure with an AMD Radeon RX 580 (a VR-capable card, I might add) to developers building for Mac for $599, with consumer support for external graphics expected next spring.

In addition, Apple says it's working to bring the Unity and Unreal 3D game engines to MacOS.

Before you get too excited, do note that Apple didn't explicitly say the word "game" during this segment of the press conference. The tech might be aimed at 3D content creators instead of gamers, who need more powerful hardware and VR headsets to best develop their games, movies and other forms of media. (Those folks complained about VR support being absent from the last MacBook Pro.)

Still, Apple did introduce these things at a developer conference. Developers are the target audience. Perhaps Apple will talk about gaming a bit later on.

Update, 2:20p.m. PT: Steam VR is now available in beta for MacOS, and the external graphics box is available for developers to order as well. It's competitively priced, if you need the AMD RX580 graphics card -- if not, you can order the same Sonnet EGFX Breakaway Box 350 and Belkin USB-C to 4-port USB-A hub from third-party retailers as well. 

Follow our WWDC live blog for real-time coverage.

WWDC 2017: All the news so far