More adventures in virtual reality

Last month I wrote about my initial foray into virtual reality … but I got distracted. Instead it turned into a crash course on hacking Android phones, and I learned more than I set out to learn about how Android and Android-based devices work. But finally I decided to get back to why I was doing all this in the first place.

My first set of virtual reality equipment consisted of my new Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 Android phone ($169), a headset to hold the phone ($25), the RiftCat software for Windows (€15), and the free VRidge software for Android. This was enough to trigger Steam VR to recognize that I had a VR-capable viewer and to run games in VR mode for me.

The one real drawback of this was that I didn’t have VR positional controllers, so I could only watch pre-programmed content (Google Earth VR‘s demo mode, or Desert Ride Coaster) or play a game that used an Xbox controller (House of the Dying Sun, a space combat sim). Still, I was able to look all around and see the virtual world around me. One nice feature of RiftCat is that I could either have the phone (in my headset) connected to the PC with a USB cable or wireless over Wi-Fi; both options worked reasonably well, though there were some times when the display became garbled and I had to wait a moment to let it catch up.

But I wanted something better, so I decided to go all in and get a dedicated VR system. HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are the two PC-based VR systems in the market these days. Both have largely similar specs and play just about all the same games, but Oculus is owned by Facebook, and Vive seems to be more flexible and better-supported. So I chose Vive, and my initial investment was the base Vive package ($500) and the Deluxe Audio Strap ($100, and strongly recommended in many reviews I read because it’s a lot more comfortable and easier to adjust).

Vive comes with two “base stations” – small cubes meant to be mounted high on the walls, diagonally across the room from each other. The base stations only need wall power (with included plugs). With these in place, and with me wearing the headset and holding the two included wireless controllers, I was amazed that I could wander around the room and it always knew exactly where I was, what direction I was facing, and how I was holding the controllers. In fact, the controllers looked identical in VR to their real-life appearance, so I could hold them up in front of my face and turn them every which way and see them as naturally as if I weren’t wearing a headset – only, in VR, my hands were (of course) invisible, so I felt like a ghost holding them.

(There’s a Vive Pro headset for $800, but it requires the controllers and base stations from the $500 set, so it’s more of an upgrade than a first purchase. And my PC’s video card is a GeForce 970, which is at the bottom of the list of “recommended” cards, so I don’t think I could take advantage of the Pro’s higher quality. Bitcoin miners are keeping the price of video cards high. I hope that stops eventually, but for now, if you’re interested in getting into VR you should know that a video card alone will run you $400-$600.)

The setup process asked me to map out the boundary of my play area by moving a controller along the perimeter of the part of the room that I could safely move around in. When I was in-game and wearing the headset, if I got too close to the boundary, it would fade into view as a faint blue grid – looking very much like something from Tron. I never had any problems going “out of bounds” or bumping into any real-life furniture.

The headset is tethered to the PC via a very long cable with USB, HDMI, and power connections. I never got tangled up in the cord, but I see people online making ceiling suspension hooks for their cables to keep them out of the way. I might try that if I didn’t have a ceiling fan in the way.

In a word or two, I’d have to say that virtual reality is game-changing. Even only having played with it for a few days, it’s amazing to put on the headset and to suddenly be somewhere else. I tried it with Google Earth VR, which lets me grab and spin the planet and zoom in to any location and put myself into Street View, which lets me look around as if I’m standing right there in real life. I tried it with Trials on Tatooine, a short technology demo from ILM which put me in the Star Wars universe for a few minutes. I tried it with Vivecraft, a Minecraft plug-in that puts me right into the blocky world, letting me climb mountains or dig down into deep caves and build from a palette that floats above my hands. And really I’d have to say that the most fun experience so far has been Beat Saber, a rhythm game that involves chopping blocks with a pair of lightsabers. Here’s an example of what it looks like that I found on YouTube:

The next Steam sale is rumored to start on June 21. At that point I’ll pick up a few more VR games. Probably Lunar Flight and Google Tilt Brush, possibly also Skyrim VR.

But wait, there’s more. Being in a VR world is a start, but the Vive doesn’t know the position of anything other than the headset and hand controllers. Would be nice to actually have all of my movements reflected in the virtual world! They sell trackers for that sort of thing, but they’re expensive and unwieldy. Turns out that a better solution is to find a Kinect camera from an Xbox 360 console (they’re no longer being made, but I got one and a power supply from eBay for about $30), set up its Windows drivers and some software like KinectToVR, and then it should be able to map any motion I make into the VR world.

I haven’t tried that yet. The one major drawback of VR for me right now is that there are so many wires, and getting it set up (and clearing all items and small animals out of the play area) takes some effort. Sadly, the virtual life still has some real-world constraints.

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