Way back in 1991, I played an RPG game called Legend Quest at an arcade in Kansas City. I had long been a gamer and spent many an hour trying to own the top scores for games like Pac-Man, Asteroids, 1942, Double-Dragon, and Out-Run, but this game was very different from those.
You stood on an elevated platform with a giant helmet that contained a screen and held a single controller in your hand. I felt like a dweeb getting all of the gear on in the middle of the mall. It was the Christmas shopping season and I was a teenager in the “big” city on a trip with some friends and no parents. I was hoping to meet some girls, but wearing this get-up was absolutely ruining any chances of romance.
The game that I was playing was a fantasy adventure, not unlike some of the more modern 3D Zelda games. The graphics were atrocious by today’s standards, but they were more or less 3D and in full color, which was more than some games of the time could say. The graphics weren’t what enticed me spend every dollar I had on this thing.
This was one of the first publicly accessible Virtual Reality experiences you could have. At the time, most people had never even heard the term Virtual Reality. Wherever I looked, the view in the game followed. I could move my hand and the sword, bow, or spell I was using moved with it. The thing made me sick and gave me a massive headache, but I didn’t care. I played until I was broke and then borrowed ten bucks from my BFF and played some more. In my head, the potential for this tech was world-changing.
I followed VR like a hawk through the 90’s and 00’s. It seemed like we were on the verge of something great. The Lawnmower Man movie introduced the concept of VR to the masses and several newer versions of the machine that I had played on made tours of the malls, arcades, and amusement parks.
Then it happened. Sega announced at E3 that they were going to make a VR console attachment for home use. They even had several games ready to go. I already had a Genesis console and started saving every penny I made. Eventually they canceled the project because they couldn’t make it cheap enough or good enough.
All was not lost though. Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy in 1995. I didn’t have a Nintendo, but one of my buddies did. He bought the VB and I headed over as soon as he had it hooked up. Unfortunately, it kind of sucked (I didn’t tell him that). The graphics were only in red and black and you had to set the thing on a table and lean into it.
Through the early 2000’s several companies tried various VR headset devices like the VFX 3D but none of them stuck. They were too expensive, too heavy, too low resolution, and too hard to use for any kind of mass appeal. Then in 2012 there was a Kickstarter campaign by a little known company named Oculus. The videos they were showing off of their dev unit looked amazing.
Fast forward to the present day. I’ve had my Oculus Rift for quite a while now. I’ve got the current retail edition and have 3 sensors, the touch controllers and a Xbox remote. I’ve also got a good force feedback steering wheel and pedal set that I use for driving games. It’s all hooked up to a dedicated gaming rig running an I-7, 270 chipset, 32GB of 3000 SDRAM, 1TB M2 SSD, 10 120mm fans, 1000 watt PS, and an 8GB RX480 with Windows 10 Professional as the OS. Everything in the system is overclocked to within an inch of its life. It’s name is the Elder-Wand and you’ve seen it featured in several of my other posts.
What’s in the machine matters. If you’ve used an Oculus or Hive and come away feeling motion sick there’s a good chance it was caused by an underpowered box. To skip calling Ralph on the big white phone after a VR session, the system has to be able to play the game at 90 frames per second with no lag outs. It’s the “no lag” area where some rigs fall short. During high action scenes, systems that are on the edge of performance requirements will often drop down into the high seventies. Don’t get me wrong; if you do a barrel role in a fighter jet, you’re going to feel it, but that kind of reaction is normal and in some cases can be lessened with exposure over time.
Besides not getting sick, a beefy box will also allow you to SuperSample. SuperSampling is a technique employed to sharpen an image. A scene with a much higher resolution than the one being displayed is generated and its extra pixels are used by an algorithm to calculate smoother transitions between shapes and colors in the picture that your eyes are actually shown. The effect can be dramatic in some games and goes a long way toward making the VR world less blocky looking. SuperSampling is especially effective in VR because the screens are so close to your eyes. Many newer games have an option in their graphics menu to enable this feature (aka Pixel Density) but if not, your VR Visor (SteamVR or Oculus Home) can be used to turn it on.
Enable SuperSampling in the Oculus app:
- Close all Oculus programs on your PC
- Download the Oculus for Windows SDK from here
- Unzip the download and find the Tools folder
- Open the Oculus Debug Tool
- Adjust the Pixels Per Display Override field to your desired multiplier
- Launch the Oculus app you want to experience
- Close the Oculus Debug Tool
Enable SuperSampling in SteamVR:
There are several ways to get super sampling working in SteamVR games, you can edit some JSON files or use one of several free utilities out there. Personally, I use this tool because it allows per game profiles and access to several other hidden settings. Be aware that downloading and installing software from the Internet can always be risky and you are doing so at your own discretion.
What’s the Verdict?
Chances are that you’ve read or watched some reviews of VR that were less than flattering. All tech has its detractors and negativity sells, but don’t believe the BS. Once you get the software and hardware sorted out, today’s VR experience is flat-out amazing. The family and friends I’ve shared my setup with have been shocked. Playing Skyrim in VR feels like traveling to another place and time. Driving in Assetto Corsa with a FFB wheel is good enough to make you fear crashing. Launching out of the tube in a Valkyrie space fighter is more exciting than any movie I’ve ever watched.
Is VR perfect? Nope, but name something that is. Does it have annoyances? You bet, the cable can be a problem. The headset can get hot after wearing it for a while; so does my baseball hat. You need a lot of room (8 – 10 square feet) if you want to move around much because the physical movement of a human body takes space.
As with all new gaming platforms, there was a content problem when modern VR first got started. I say was, because we’re a couple of years in and now there are tons of games, simulators and VR worlds to visit and more are being released at a rapid pace. You can visit anywhere like you’re standing there in Google Earth VR, see the inside of the International Space Station, scuba dive, sky dive, watch movies on an 80 ft screen, see the olympics like you bought a ticket, have a chat, paint, sculpt, build, go on an epic adventure, hit the shooting range, play a real-world sport, join a firefight, fly a space fighter, drive that exotic car you’ve always wanted, and get the crap scared out of you without leaving your home. Seriously, the horror games are just freaky.
Right now most of the experiences are focused on entertainment, but I think that in the near future we’ll start to see more educational productions. The ability to teach someone about a historic battle while participating in it, or to study the pyramids while walking through them will be epic. New doctors can practice operations, pilots can learn to fly, the possibilities are endless. Already my children are using VR to learn to drive.
The cost of getting into PC VR has never been lower. You can pick up a basic kit with headset, sensors, controllers, and starter games, for around the same price as a good gaming monitor and now that bitcoin mining has dropped off, you can find VR capable graphics cards for less than $300.00. It’s still not cheap but I’ve spent more than my whole setup costs taking my family to an amusement park for a single day. #disneyisexpensive
It already lives up to what I imagined it could be like after that first expereince with the idea all those years ago. I can’t wait to see what VR evolves into in the not so distant future.