I have really waited this out. Some “galaxy-sized brains” tell us for decades now that virtual reality is the next big thing. And it might as well have been.
Almost nobody (me included) cared to even try – and with good reason: There’s no way to transport the experience that virtual reality creates in an easy way. Language and “flat-screen-video” is not enough. Even any 3D video is not going to come even close to deliver.
And I knew this was the case. Apart from a 30-second rollercoaster ride years ago I never had any direct contact with virtual reality technology until late this year 2022.
I did of course read about the technology behind all this. About the rendering techniques and the display – sensor – battery – processing hardware. I had read about the requirements for many-frames-per-second to have a believable and enjoyable experience. Would the hardware not be fit for the job the papers said: You will feel sick, very fast.
So I hesitated for years to purchase anything related to this. I wanted to “wait it out” as I had calculated the average spending required for a good set of hardware and software would easily roam into 2k-5k euro territory.
This year the time had come: the prices where down significantly for all components needed. Even better: There where some new hardware releases that tried to compete with existing offerings.
Of course the obvious thing to do would have been to purchase either a Valve Index or some Oculus,eh, Meta VR headsets. But that would have easily blown any budget and actually none of these is technologically interesting in End-2022.
My list of requirements was like this:
- lightweight and comfortable to wear
- inside-out tracking (see: Pose Tracking)
- CPU+GPU inside – the headset needs to be able to work stand-alone for video playback and gameplay
- battery for at least 1-2 hour wireless play
- touch+press controllers
- capable of being used as SteamVR / PCVR headset – wireless and wired
- Pancake lenses (as in “no fresnel”)
- do-not-break-bank price
And what can I say. There was at least one VR headset released in december 2022 that fit my requirements: PicoXRs PICO 4 headset.
Pico 4 VR headset
So I went ahead and purchased one – which was delivered promptly. It came with charger, USB-C cable, two controllers and the headset itself. The case I got in addition to carry it around and safely store it when not in use.
At first I tried only applications and games that can be run directly on the headset. Of course some video streaming from YouTube and the likes. There is VR/180/360 content readily available with a huge caveat: I quickly learned that even 8K video is not enough pixels when it’s supposed to fill 360 degress around you. 8K video is rather the minimum that starts to look good.
Then there’s formats of videos. Oh god there are formats. I’d probably spend another blog article just on video formats for VR and 180 or 360 degree formats. Keep in mind that you can add 3D to the equation as well. And if you want decent picture quality you see yourself easily pushing 60 frames of 8K (or more) times 2 (eyes) through to the GPU of the little head mounted displays. The displays can do 2160×2160 per eye. So you can imagine how much video you should be pushing until the displays are at their potential. And then think: 2160 per eye is NOT yet a pixel-density that you would not be able to see pixels sometimes. I do not see a screen-door-effect and the displays are really really good. But more pixels is…well more.
Anyways: There’s plenty of storage on the device itself so on the next airplane trip I can look funny with the headset on and being immersed in a movie…
Or a remote desktop session:
After about a week of testing and playing (Red Matter 1 for example…) I was convinced that I’d like the technology and the experiences it offered.
The conclusion after the first week was as good as I could have hoped with the first 500 euro investment done: I would not get sick moving around in VR. I would enjoy the things offered. I was convinced that I was able to experience things otherwise not possible.
And I was convinced that I could not have come to any conclusion when not actually having owned such a headset and tried myself. It’s just not possible to describe to you what the feeling of being able to walk into a 3-dimensional world that gets rendered by a computer and fools your brain so well. Of course it’s NOT reality. That’s not the point. I do not feel like going to the holo-deck. But it feels like computer games become “3D touchable”. In virtual reality games there is a lot more going on than in non-VR games. And that’s the main reason that there are not more good VR games. It’s hard to build an immersive, believable game world. It’s real effort and I named Red Matter specifically because it was one of the most immersive and approachable puzzle, non-stressing games I have played.
Being convinced brought up the question: Now what?
Until this point there was no computer in our household that could even dream of powering a modern virtual reality PCVR experience. But there was one Windows PC which I could use to do the due dilligence for “what to buy” and if it at all would work as I wanted.
What did I want?
- a set-up that would allow me to play any modern PC VR game
- play the games with at least high details and with framerates and resolutions that would not make me sick
- no wired connection to the computer necessary
- ideally the computer would not even be in the same room or floor
So I had to do some testing first to figure out if the most basic requirements would work. So I purchased “Virtual Desktop” on the headset built-in store and installed the streamer app on the one Windows PC in the household that had a very old dedicated GPU.
I did the immediate extreme test. The computer connected to the wired network in the house. The headset connected to the house wifi shared with 80+ other devices. And it worked. It worked beautifully. Just out of the box with my mediocre computer I had the desktop screen of the computer floating in front of me. I was able to launch applications and I was even able to run simple 3D VR applications like Google Earth VR. I literally only had Steam and Virtual Desktop installed, clicked around and got the earth in front and below me in no time.
Apparently the headset was smart enough to connect to the 5ghz Wifi offered in addition to the crowded 2.4ghz. Latencies, bandwidth all in good shape.
To make things just a bit more forseeable I’ve dedicated a mobile access point to the headset. My usual travel access point (GLinet OPAL) apparently works quite well for this purpose.
It’s connected to the house wired network and creates an access point just for the headset. The headset then has reliable 500+ Mbit/s access to any computer in the household.
After some more playing around and simulating some edge case scenarios I came to the conclusion that his would work. I would not even have to touch a computer to do all this. It could all be done remotely over a fast-enough network connection.
After consulting with my knowledgable brother-in-law I then settled for a budget and had a computer built for the purpose of VR game streaming. After about 2k Euros and 2 weeks of waiting I received the rig and did the most reasonable thing: Put it in the server room in the house basement where it’s cool and most importantly far enough away from my ears.
So this one is closed up and sitting in the server room. The only thing other than power and ethernet that is plugged into the machine is an HDMI display emulator dongle:
The purpose of this HDMI plug without anything connected to it is to tell the graphics card that there’s display connected. It even tells the graphics card about all those funky resolutions that ghostly display can do… When there’s nothing connected to the HDMI ports the only resolutions that you can work with out-of-the-box are the default resolutions up to 1080p. This device enables you to go beyond 2160p.
I did a bit of setting-up for wake-on-lan and some additional fall-back remote desktop services in case something fails.
To wake-up the machine it’s sufficient to send the “magic packet” – either through the remote play client built-in features (Moonlight can do it…) or through the house-internal dashboard:
For VR game streaming it’s as I had tested beforehand: Steam + Virtual Desktop doing their thing. Works, as expected, very pleasently even with high/ultra details set.
The machine can also be used to play normal non-VR games. For this I am using the open source Sunshine (server) / Moonlight (client) combination with great success.
I can either just open up the Moonlight app on my iPad, iPhone, RaspberryPi or Mac computer and connect to the computer in the basement and use it with 60-120fps 1080p to 4k resolutions without even noticing that there is no computer under the desk…
Oh – I do notice that there’s no computer under the desk because of the absence of any noise while using it.
What I have found is really astonishing for me – as I was not expecting a that well integrated and working solution without having to solve problems ahead.
Virtual Reality games are just working. It’s like installing, starting, works. The biggest issue I had run into was the controllers not being correctly mapped for the game – easily solvable by remapping.
I “upped” the stakes a bit a couple of days ago when I installed OBS Studio to live stream my VR session of playing Red Matter 2 (the sequel…).
After installing OBS and setting up the “capture this screen” scene it was very nice to see that not only did OBS record the right displays (when set right) but out of the box it recorded the correct audio AND the correct microphone. Remember: I am playing in a specific room at the top floor of my house. Using the awesome tracking of the head-set for room-scale VR to the fullest.
The computer in the basement means that the only connection from headset to the computer is through Virtual Desktop – 5ghz WiFi – Ethernet – Virtual Desktop Streamer.
I did not expect a microphone to be there but it is. I did not expect the microphone to work well. But it does. I did not expect the microphone being seamlessly forwarded to the computer in the basement and then OBS effortlessly picking it up correctly as a separate microphone for the twitch streaming. I was astounded. It-just-worked.
adding an (usb) gamepad
After a bit of fooling around, especially with standard PC games I found that some games make me miss a game pad. It was out of the question to connect a gamepad directly to the computer the games ran on – that one was in the basement and no USB cable long enough.
I remembered playing with USB-over-IP in recent years just for fun but also remembered not getting it to work properly ever. After investigating any hardware options I decided to give software another look.
Apparently a company called “VirtualHere” had seen their chance since I played around the last time. They offer a server and client software that seemingly can run anywhere.
So I picked an old RaspberryPi 1 out of the drawer and flashed a fresh version of RaspberryPi OS. Booted it up and copied the one Linux ARM7 binary over that VirtualHere offers. It started without issues and further dependencies.
On the Windows Machine you also only have to run a simple application and it’ll scan the network for “VirtualHere USB hubs”.
For me it immediately showed up the RaspberryPi as an USB hub. I plugged in my old Xbox 360 wireless receiver and it showed up and connected on Windows. When I then powered up an Xbox 360 wireless controller it made the well known Windows “device plugged in” sound and I had a working gamepad ready to use in Windows – all over the network.
I cannot notice any added latency for the controller. And essentially anything I had plugged into the USB ports of the RaspberryPi could immediately be used/mounted on the computer in the basement all over the already existing network.
It cannot be overstated how little hassle this solution was over any other way I know and would have tried. The open source USB/IP project is still there and seems to work on modern Windows BUT you have to deal with driver signing and security issues yourself.
VirtualHere does cost money but it’s at least not a subscription but a perpetual license you can purchase after trying out the fully functional 1-device versions. For me it now brings working USB-over-my-existing-network to any device I want around the house. There are some other uses I will look into – like that flatbed scanner I have. That camera that can now connect anywhere via USB… so many options…
I went head-first into the virtual reality rabbit hole and it’s quite fun so far. The costs of this came down far enough and I was able to learn a lot of things I would otherwise not have been able to. Looking into the technology-side of how all this comes together and how latencies add up, build or ruin an experience is remarkable.
If you want to get a (albeit clumsy and not 3D) look of what one of the many options to do in VR is – take a look at a VR session recording from two days ago:
Bonus: The GLinet OPAL travel router does have 1 USB port. And you can run the USB VirtualHere hub software as an MIPSEL binary on there and you would not need the RaspberryPi anymore. The only thing you must figure out yourself is how to route the traffic out the right ports.