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​VR beyond your budget? Microsoft-Intel pact aims to help

Project Evo is designed to bring virtual reality and its cousin, mixed reality, to midrange PCs.

Intel's Alloy headset, unveiled earlier this year, aims to offer VR without ungainly cables hooked up to a PC.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Ever eager to keep you buying PCs, Microsoft and Intel are cooperating to bring virtual reality to the masses.

Today's more advanced virtual reality setups, like Facebook's Oculus Rift and HTC's Vive, require a high-powered PC with enough graphics horsepower to generate a convincing artificial 3D game for you to play or world to explore. There's progress to pare back the hardware requirements, but Microsoft and Intel are going farther with a project called Evo.

Project Evo's goal is to bring VR and related immersive technology to midrange laptops with the workable but unspectacular graphics performance of built-in Intel graphics. It's geared to handle VR and related augmented reality and mixed reality technology that blends computer-generated imagery with the real world.

Years of shrinking PC sales have punished Intel and Microsoft as we all chose to spend our money on tablets and phones powered by Google and Apple software. With Evo, though, the Wintel allies have a chance to reclaim some of the tech excitement the mobile revolution has stolen away.

Indeed, it's no coincidence the companies chose the Project Evo name: Evolution is famously unforgiving for entities that can't keep up with competitive challenges.

The project is "a deep collaboration with Microsoft to further push the boundaries of personal computing," Navin Shenoy, general manager of Intel's PC group, said in a statement. Microsoft and Intel will cooperate to ensure VR and mixed reality can fully exploit the power of Intel's sixth-generation "Skylake" Core processors and newer seventh-generation "Kaby Lake" models and their built-in graphics hardware.

It's also designed to improve other areas where mobile devices could struggle to keep up, like artificial intelligence and very detailed big-screen 4K graphics. Evo-class PCs will need at least 8GB of memory, USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI 1.4 graphics port and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connections.

With Evo, Microsoft clearly hopes to extend to the VR realm some of the clout it earned with app developers supporting its Windows software. Attracting software titles is key to commercial success.

"We've unified the platform," said Alex Kipman, the Microsoft fellow who's led development of the company's HoloLens device for mixed reality. As evidence, he pointed to partnerships with Dell, Acer, Asus and China's 3Glasses that should bear fruit in 2017.

Intel and Microsoft announced the project at Microsoft's WinHEC conference in China, where the company details how its software will get along with new hardware initiatives.

HTC's Vive, Sony's PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift all are already on the market, though, and use different software foundations. That's a pain for developers, many of whom have chosen programming tools from Unity Technologies that make it easier to span many devices.

And when it comes to low-cost VR, cheaper PCs still can't match the prices of phone-based headsets like Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Daydream View. Intel and Microsoft have their work cut out for them.