The Budget VR
After the announcement of the Oculus’s release date, I really got to thinking about VR. I assumed that the Oculus device would be big bucks, and I knew I didn’t have the machine specs to drive it anyway so my options at this point would be pretty limited. Like pretty much anything tech, there’s going to be items representing the high end, and there’ll be items representing cheap knock-offs that are designed to trick uneducated grandparents into buying them for their grand-kids at Christmas. Still, even if the kids end up getting an “ePad” under the tree next year, the ePad should be able to do something, right? Without the cash or the rig to run the Oculus, I figured that I’d have to start at the bottom, but not so much at the bottom that I’d be soured on the entire concept. I just needed to get a VR device that did something, even if it didn’t do everything that the Oculus did, or the way that the Oculus does it.
I’ve already written about the path I took to my budget VR solution, and yesterday my package was delivered. Behold! The [Insert Whatever Name You Want Here Because It Doesn’t Actually Have an Official Brand] VR Box! It looks like what we’ve come to expect from a VR headset: oblong in shape, it has three straps with a plastic stability panel at the back to wrap around your head to keep the padded visor squished against your face. Unlike the Oculus, though, it has a tray that slides out from the side and into which you squeeze your cellphone. Slide the tray back into the visor, and you’re in business.
Stand Alone Complex
When I took the headset out of the box, my daughter was in the kitchen with me and because she’s My Daughter she was excited to try it out as well. I downloaded a Google Cardboard app from the Play store — a roller-coaster simulator — and slid the phone into the tray.
I have to say, the effect was pretty decent. The graphics themselves weren’t stellar, and I didn’t get motion sick or feel freaked out by the sensation of being on a roller-coaster, but I could look around, up, and down thanks to gyroscope tracking, and there was at least some sense of 3D. I also downloaded a “tour of the solar system” which took full advantage of the motion sensors to let me examine Our Celestial Neighborhood as if I were Unicron pondering which planet to eat next. Because these are smartphone apps, neither was going to provide Crysis (or whatever the benchmark is for 2016) level visuals, so the expectations were tempered from the get go, and it was pretty acceptable based on what it was.
The downside to the slide-in tray design is that I have no control over the phone itself. Some of these cut-rate visors come with a Bluetooth remote that allows you to control a pointer on the screen, but this version doesn’t. The roller-coaster and solar system apps allowed me to use the motion of my head to move the pointer to the desired menu items where pausing on an option for a few seconds made the selection, and while the official Google Cardboard app had a ribbon menu that allowed me to select an option by moving my head, I couldn’t pause on it to make a selection. Bad form, Goog! Several Google Cardboard models features a button that can make selections, and I found it weird that this upscale molded plastic job doesn’t feature something similar.
Of course, the real reason I bought the thing was to try using Trinus, the client-server setup that allows us to stream PC visuals to the phone.
My first stop was — of course — Elite Dangerous, because it has Oculus and stereoscopic support right out the box. Trinus is very picky about how the apps it streams are played. In order to get the app to work with the game, I had to reduce the resolution of the game and run it windowed. That right there threw some of the visuals out of whack, so the stereoscopic view made the text very hard to read when coupled with the “barrel view” that I was receiving on the phone. Trinus also has a setting called Fake3D which supposedly turns a non-stereoscopic app into a dual-paneled VR marvel and is supposed to be used with apps that don’t have their own 3D mode. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get either the natural or Fake 3D modes to work with any kind of reliability. In the end, I had to play Elite Dangerous in an acceptable-aspect window and use Trinus’ lens calibration features to get the screen to flatten out and cover the viewport. At that point, things worked pretty well, except the head tracking was set incorrectly and was giving me a minor head wobble when I moved. Setting up gyroscopic tracking is a whole other can of worms I didn’t want to get into until I got the visuals working, but it seems fairly robust if you’re willing to jump through a lot of open source hoops and run some additional ancillary software. Visually, things were a bit darker than normal for a space sim, and this caused me to almost smash into another ship on my way into a station because he blended in with the background. I am certain that I could get this to work with the proper (read: a lot more) time to dedicate to A) learning the jargon being thrown around on forums regarding VR setups, and B) some tweaking of the game itself.
Next, I tried Mechwarrior Online, which doesn’t have native 3D quite yet. The option is there, but disabled and currently unsupported (or so I read). This would be a great game to use with VR, and after some lens calibration, I got it working quite nicely, although again, not with actual 3D. Some of the finer aspects of the screen were a bit fuzzy, but this is streaming visuals to a cell phone over WiFi so I can’t really complain. There was some conflict between the number keys used to fire weapons and the calibration options of the head tracking which made every shot fired kick me to the right or the left, but nothing that a serious investigative session couldn’t fix.
For $30 and about two hours of just playing around mostly to get the visuals acceptable enough to be able to read text, use menus, and not make myself vomit, I feel that the No-Name Brand VR Box 2.0 was a worthwhile investment. I don’t see myself using the VR Box for Cardboard smartphone apps, partly because they suck, and partly because I don’t have a way of controlling the phone while it’s installed in the visor. I could use it as a cool way to view photos taken using the camera’s funky 360 degree image feature, but that’s really only cool once before it becomes a PITA to take pictures that way.
I still want to work on mastering the Trinus application because I think I’m missing some key understanding of how to configure it to work best with applications. A game like Distance would be amazing with this setup, and I still want to try other apps like Guild Wars 2 and maybe some Call of Duty: Black Ops III streaming from the Xbox One. The caveat is that none of the apps I used were displaying in what I’d be comfortable calling 3D. At best, I felt like I was viewing a movie screen from about 2/3 of the way up the theater, which was pretty cool in it’s own right, but there has to be something I’m not understanding about VR and Trinus that I need to grasp in order to get the stereoscopic view working.
The biggest problem with VR is going to be brand independent, though: accessing physical controls. If playing with a joystick or a gamepad (or the custom controllers that work with the Oculus and Vive), then the controls are always going to be centralized and within reach. When you have to resort to using the keyboard, however, you’re going to have a very bad time. I had to place my fingers on WASD and my other hand on the mouse with the understanding that I could not move my hands away from those positions, but in MWO, for example, I also needed to recenter my torso (C and F keys), target an enemy (R), and fire weapons (1,2,3, etc). At one point I had to power up my ‘mech (P), and once I moved my left hand, I was totally discombobulated to the point where I had to peek out from under the visor to see where my fingers needed to be. Going forward, my plan is to fall back to the Razor Nostromo for my key clicking, because it presents a limited set of keys in a specific and easy-to-reach configuration.
The VR Box 2.0 can be a bit unwieldy on the face. When I needed to look out from underneath, I couldn’t rest it on my head like a pair of sunglasses because it’s too heavy to stay put. The foam is comfy, but after a while you understand that it’s not really foam, but rather some kind of plastic material that feels funny when you eventually peel it from your face. One of the best features that I didn’t expect from a cut-rate visor was that the lenses adjust independent of one another, so you can change the focal and interpupilary distance of each lens for the best focus and convergence. The 2.0 version of the VR Box has a cool feature that I’m not sure I’ll ever get to use: the front panel slides open to let you use your phone’s camera (assuming the phone’s camera is situated at one end of the phone’s body and it’s inserted into the visor properly) for augmented reality applications. Bring on Pokemon GO!
If you have an Android or iPhone (there are some limited stereoscopic apps for WinPho, but not official Cardboard because of Google’s political stance on Windows Phone), $30 for the VR Box 2.0 is a fair price for a nice distraction. Coupled with the Trinus, you might have some luck streaming PC games direct to your face for a while, but it won’t be a go-to setup for hardcore gaming even though Trinus performed like a champ in terms of framerate and even acceptable visuals. I managed to play with the setup for about two hours, but not two consecutive hours because I started to get a headache from having two lenses magnifying the LED screen so close to my face. I don’t know if watching a full length movie is a good idea with this thing on, or playing a marathon of World of Warcraft, but if you want to try out pseudo-3D, or to get the feeling that you’re playing on a 90″ TV, then this is a pretty good way to try out VR on a budget.