PC VR Gaming on the “cheap”!

The wife brought back an Oculus Go a few weeks back, so she could figure out how it works (read: to give me to tinker with and figure out, along with a Gear 360 camera) for her work to use. I’d been on the fence about VR gaming for a while – whilst I could certainly see the appeal, I wasn’t quite ready to splash a few hundred on either a HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or Windows Mixed Reality headset. What I did have was a Galaxy S9+, and a PC capable of VR.

Playing around what little I could with the Oculus Go (I wasn’t going to splash out on games, especially not when the unit would be going in a couple of weeks), I was curious as to whether or not this could actually work in combination with the PC. A little searching later and I found out about Riftcat’s VRidge. Before I could test it, I had to say goodbye to the Go. However I was still curious, though not curious enough to spend nearly £200 on something that may not work (and if my first foray into VR went well, would be replaced with a beefier unit.) I recalled Samsung working with Oculus to produce a headset, the Gear VR, which required a Samsung mobile in order to operate – well that’s half the of the setup I already have. It was already a lot more palatable, with a retail price of around £120, but I still wasn’t quite ready to splash out just yet. At least, until I saw the BT Shop had a deal on it – £49.99. Now willing to take the plunge, I placed an order and received the unit the next day.

I continued searching online for a way of connecting the Gear VR to the PC, when I stumbled upon this reddit post in the VRidge subreddit. Intrigued, I decided I’d give Air Light VR (ALVR) a go. Connections would be as such – Gigabit connection from the PC to the network, and the phone connected over the 5GHz WiFi.

Installation was simple, I used the installer rather than the zip file and didn’t have to register the ALVR driver in Steam.

With everything installed, I was ready for the first test. I started the ALVR server on the PC, SteamVR started up, and I connected from the headset. Results were immediate, I found myself in the space of SteamVR’s Home application. Fantastic, but we’re still not yet gaming. Now to see what titles I had which are VR compatible. It turned out to be quite a few, but I knew not all would work, due to room tracking.

Whilst the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift can make use of external sensors to provide room tracking and 6 degrees of freedom (think waving the sensor behind you), the Gear VR and Oculus Go have no such function. They’re also restricted to a single Gear VR/Oculus Go controller. I needed a game I could remain seated, and wouldn’t need multiple controllers or 6DoF. That restricted me to a handful of games in my Library, of which the two most likely candidates would be Euro Truck Simulator, or Elite Dangerous. A toss of a coin later, and Elite Dangerous was chosen (reports of it being a double headed coin are greatly exaggerated.)

There I was, sitting in the cockpit of my newbie ship, in a training mission. I looked to the left, the navigation panel activated. Taking the ship to the surface, I began the launch sequence, and soon enough I was on my way out of the station. All good so far, but something didn’t quite feel right. Text for the most part was clear enough to read, but it felt strained.

Speaking to a work colleague the next day, I found out why. It seems a lot of VR users have issues with the particular colour scheme used in Elite Dangerous – that bright orange just doesn’t help. I was pointed towards EDProfiler by Dr. Kaii, with the suggestion of using a green HUD scheme. A quick install and configuration later, and I was ready for round two.

A change of colour made the world of difference.

It’s hard to record exactly how the VR displays – there’s recording utilities which take the output of SteamVR and try to emulate it. Fortunately, the Gear VR and Oculus Go come with a sharing option – you can take screenshots, videos, and even go live, sharing what the device is processing. The video is at the end of this post, although I will state with one caveat – it seems that recording causes the display quality to massively degrade. Every test I’ve done without recording, I haven’t noticed artifacts. As soon as recording begins, there’s blurriness in the displays, pixellation across the screen, and the experience itself degrades (which can be seen pretty easily in the video.) Without recording, everything is smooth, and I have noticed no issues at all.

All in all, I’m actually quite impressed with the experience. Will I invest in further VR gear? Most likely, though I think I’ll wait for the ValveVR systems (including Pimax) to be released. The HTC Vive follows the same format, and the lighthouse beacons and controllers should be compatible between them.

Would I recommend it? You know, yeah I would, on the proviso that you have the kit (phone and PC) lying around already – there’s a reason this post is titled “cheap” rather than cheap. The PC is still undoubtedly doing the heavy lifting here, and the Gear VR requires specific models of Samsung mobiles. Both of these can be costly if you don’t already have them.

Do I think it beats a PC based VR system? Looking at it from a costs perspective, definitely. But from as a full featured system? It still lacks room tracking and 6DoF, so I don’t expect to be playing more involved games with it any time soon.

[Youtube] Playing Elite Dangerous with a Gear VR