The Lawnmower Man is in your head now
March 14, 2017 3:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious about VR gaming headsets (for Mac or Windows). Have you tried 'em? Which one do I want? Lots more questions inside!

I'm pretty technically savvy, but I don't spend a lot of time keeping up with the latest hardware. When it comes to VR, I know almost nothing. Maybe you can help me out?

1. Do games have to be written to support a specific VR device, or are they interoperable? (Bonus nerd question: if they're interoperable, what's the name of the API or standard?)

2. Do I need a fancy video card, or do VR headsets have built-in GPUs? Like, what sort of signal does a VR device receive from a PC (raw DirectX/OpenGL streams, or prerendered video [via HDMI?], or...) Basically, I'm looking for a nutshell explanation of how these things work on a technical level.

3. Does VR support seem likely to become a standard-ish feature in games and game engines, or is it destined to remain a boutique thing? (It may be too early to say.) I don't get into too many mega-budget AAA games – so if I can expect to see VR support in smaller, more off-the-beaten-path games, that'd be a huge selling point for me.

4. Is there a specific model you suggest looking at? (I know the Vive is luxe, but it has a price tag to match.) What features should I be comparing? Or do they all have pretty much the same capabilities?

5. What's the feasibility of retrofitting older games for VR support? Is this a thing that people are doing? I'm guessing that the video would have to be non-stereoscopic or pseudo-stereoscopic in many cases, but just having support for mouselook would be cool (and seems like it should be possible via some kind of generic middleware).

6. Bonus question: what's a game that (a) is super fun in VR, or (b) does interesting or innovative things with it?

Thanks!
posted by escape from the potato planet to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
AFAIK there's really only two PC headsets on the market, the Vive, and the Oculus Rift. I don't believe either one supports MacOS. There's also PlayStation VR (which needs a PS4), and a somewhat larger variety of headsets with lenses and sensors but hold a smartphone which they use for the screen and to run all the software.

Do games have to be written to support a specific VR device, or are they interoperable? (Bonus nerd question: if they're interoperable, what's the name of the API or standard?)

Each device has its own SDK, but there's middleware that supports many systems (unity, unreal engine, etc).

Do I need a fancy video card, or do VR headsets have built-in GPUs? Like, what sort of signal does a VR device receive from a PC (raw DirectX/OpenGL streams, or prerendered video [via HDMI?], or...) Basically, I'm looking for a nutshell explanation of how these things work on a technical level.

You need a fancy video card. The PC receives (via usb) accelerometer and camera data to do head tracking/positioning, and then renders the video, distorting it to match the distortion of the lenses inside the headset. It sends the video to the headset via HDMI.

Does VR support seem likely to become a standard-ish feature in games and game engines, or is it destined to remain a boutique thing? (It may be too early to say.) I don't get into too many mega-budget AAA games – so if I can expect to see VR support in smaller, more off-the-beaten-path games, that'd be a huge selling point for me.

It's becoming a fairly common feature for game engines. It is definitely too early to say how widespread it will be in games, but I'm pretty sure it's never going to be universal. There's a whole ton of games that are just never going to be a good fit for VR. Currently, there's a lot more indie VR games than AAA. VR is new and the market is still small and AAA games take a lot of time and money to make. And because they're so expensive, AAA studios are pretty risk averse, which means that they can't really afford to explore a new medium and figure out what works and what doesn't.

Is there a specific model you suggest looking at? (I know the Vive is luxe, but it has a price tag to match.) What features should I be comparing? Or do they all have pretty much the same capabilities?

Since there's only a few options out there, there's a lot of reviews comparing them. (e.g.) The Vive is "room scale" which means it can track you as you get up and walk around, while the PSVR and Oculus Rift both need you to stand in front of a camera and kind of look sort of in the right direction. They also all have different controllers.

What's the feasibility of retrofitting older games for VR support? Is this a thing that people are doing? I'm guessing that the video would have to be non-stereoscopic or pseudo-stereoscopic in many cases, but just having support for mouselook would be cool (and seems like it should be possible via some kind of generic middleware).

My sense is that this isn't practically feasible. There's a ton of stuff you need to be aware of when designing a VR game to avoid "discomfort" (i.e., nausea), and a bunch of that is not really related to rendering, but is about motion and game play in general. So while it might be technically straightforward to render Doom stereoscopically to a headset, without some substantial changes to the game design it would be pretty unpleasant to actually play.

Bonus question: what's a game that (a) is super fun in VR, or (b) does interesting or innovative things with it?

Job Simulator is goofy and fun. Thumper is super-intense, and dope as fuck.
posted by aubilenon at 4:18 PM on March 14


[I'm a vaguely-interested technical sort of person who has messed around with a Vive a bit. This is based on my experience and just what I've read around the web.]

1. Yes and no. Many headsets work with a common API like SteamVR/OpenVR, and any program written for those can work with a range of equipment. Some programs are written for specific headsets, though.

2. Yes, you need a fancy GPU. The headsets connect via HDMI. The video card renders the view for each eye and sends it all to the headset as video. [Alternatively, some headsets just use a smartphone as the display and the GPU in one -- these are less powerful, though.]

3. A bit too early to say. There's plenty of hype and interest, but nothing has blown up in a mass-market sort of way. But VR support is built in to major game engines now (like Unity and Unreal Engine), and there are lots of indy games popping up in the space (e.g, on Steam).

4. If you want to jump in right now, I'd suggest the Vive. It does "room-scale" VR well (meaning you can physically move around in a small-room-sized box), which enables lots of interesting experiences. Oculus is catching up by adding hand controllers. You may want to wait for "gen 2" of the main players to see what comes out. Not sure when that might be, but no doubt people are hard at work on these things.

5. It can and has been done for a lot of games. But it will probably make you very ill to play them. If the viewpoint of the headset moves without a corresponding physical movement in your head, nausea sets in very quickly. Older games were not made with this in mind. You can stick VR on a first-person shooter -- and you can even make it stereoscopic -- but almost no one will be able to play it comfortably. The closest you can get is to "project" an existing game on a huge virtual screen that you can see in the VR space, same as you can do with movies.

6. I haven't played an extensive selection, but I enjoyed Space Pirate Trainer. I also thought that walking around on the surface of Mars and getting a close-up view of the Curiosity rover (it's bigger than I thought!) in Destinations was pretty great. There are tons of things out there now, though, so hop around in the Steam Store or on Youtube to get a sense of it.
posted by whatnotever at 4:24 PM on March 14


Oculus just dropped their price, and fixed some issues so now with the addition of a 3rd camera room scale works better.
posted by Sophont at 6:59 PM on March 14


Other people have covered the technical side pretty well, but as someone who has used most of what's out there, I'd say you either want a Vive or a second generation Oculus. If price is an issue, see if you can find a second-hand one. Quite a few people jumped in initially and already got bored, or found they get too nauseous to play regularly, so you might be able to buy something lightly used.

You would probably find a first generation Oculus pretty mindblowing if you haven't used VR before, and if you really can't afford to pay more, then go for it. But Vive and room scale Oculus are another thing entirely. (Make sure you have the space for it, though - if you can't clear at least 2.5 x 1.5 metres and put the lighthouses at the corners of that space on walls or tripods, you won't be able to make the most of the room scale experience and you might as well settle for an older Oculus.
posted by lollusc at 7:35 PM on March 14


If you've got a newish Samsung phone (Samsung Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6 edge+, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge), you can get the Samsung Gear VR for relatively cheap. I got the headset for free when I bought my S7 Edge; you just snap the phone in the headset and viola! Its pretty cool, but not super sharp and crisp - some of the 3-D stuff is a little blurry. It takes a while to get the hang of it. I bought a wireless controller for games, but its still a novelty to me. Its a little heavy on my face, still feels awkward with my glasses, so I just enjoy watching the Cirque de Soleil and Jurassic Park shorts. So far I've enjoyed those, watching Netflix, and the travel video/photos where you are standing in the middle of Abu Simbel and other places I'll never visit in my life and you can look all around as if you were there. If I could play WoW with it, I would definitely use it a lot more. I keep saying I'm going to play some games with it, but haven't yet.
posted by NoraCharles at 9:14 PM on March 14


4. Is there a specific model you suggest looking at? (I know the Vive is luxe, but it has a price tag to match.) What features should I be comparing? Or do they all have pretty much the same capabilities?

The 10,000 foot view is that Oculus is cheaper, slightly more comfortable, and has a lot of exclusive titles (though Vive can play these exclusives through a hack called Revive), whereas Vive offers an unmatched "room scale" experience, some impressive exclusives of its own (including forthcoming Valve titles), and the benefit of frequent Steam sales. Controllers are more or less a draw, though Vive has a new generation of peripherals coming down the pike.

To me, the most important question is which type of ecosystem you'd rather support. Oculus is owned by Facebook, which is clearly pushing for a walled-garden, console-esque market divided by exclusivity deals which they can monopolize and profit from. Valve is far more open and interoperable, treating the HMD as a peripheral rather than a platform and not playing Facebook's creepy advertising games. (It also helps that Gabe Newell isn't a fundraiser for the alt right.)

5. What's the feasibility of retrofitting older games for VR support? Is this a thing that people are doing? I'm guessing that the video would have to be non-stereoscopic or pseudo-stereoscopic in many cases, but just having support for mouselook would be cool (and seems like it should be possible via some kind of generic middleware).

There are a few attempts at middleware VR emulators floating around out there, like VorpX and Vireio Perception, but results are hit-and-miss depending on the game. There are custom mods for more popular games, like Vivecraft (for Minecraft) and Grand Theft Auto VR. Apart from that, you have to depend on developers to add VR support themselves, which many are doing or plan to do (some examples include Superhot, Obduction, Adr1ft, Ethan Carter, etc.)

Also note that there are several ways to play any flatscreen game in a VR "theater" mode which delivers an IMAX-like experience, albeit with lower resolution.

6. Bonus question: what's a game that (a) is super fun in VR, or (b) does interesting or innovative things with it?

Google Earth for the Vive -- which includes the new photorealistic urban 3D imagery -- is absolutely breathtaking. Their free 3D paint program TiltBrush is also very cool, and gets frequent feature updates.

Valve's The Lab offers a diverse collection of fun experimental VR minigames, as well as probably the best graphics available on the system.

Social VR has had the most replay value for me -- Rec Room is free, super fun and has some brilliant social mechanics. Altspace VR is more of your traditional "virtual world" software with multiple themed worlds and frequent scheduled public events. Bigscreen VR lets you host something like "virtual LAN parties" in attractive shared spaces -- a home theater to watch a movie, a living room to watch sports, a campfire to swap YouTube videos and Tumblr posts, etc. SportsBar VR offers virtual pool, skiball, darts, etc.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:56 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]


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