With the Covid-19 going around I’ve been staying at home way more than before - mostly due the fact that I’m working from home. This period is a really good time to experiment with things I wouldn’t really consider before, and for me one of those things was VR. While I did end up buying a headset - an Oculus Quest (a topic for another blog post), my first foray into VR was by using my phone - so called Cardboard VR. This blog post is a short retelling about things I found out that are needed for cardboard vr, and acts as a guide for people who might want to do the same.
Unfortunately VR is still not cheap. Cardboard is the cheapest way to get started, although I have to warn - you get what you pay for (and in this case - not much for a quite a bit of money):
- A decent gaming PC. GPU wise a nVidia GTX 1060 (or its AMD equivalent) will be enough for most things (my nVidia GTX 970 does just fine). CPU wise I would recommend something recent with 6 physical cores as as a minimum. My Intel i5-4690 is often used as the “Recommended minimum” spec for VR and quite frankly it’s struggling - running at 100% utilisation quite often. Sadly there’s no real way around this. Newer GPUs are recommended because they support h265 encoding which allows to have a better quality stream with lower bandwidth requirements.
- A phone. It should be fairly recent - recent enough to have WiFi 5GHz support. Another important thing is the screen size and pixel density. I would say that you need at least 400 PPI for a decent experience. You can can check out your phone’s stats on sites like GSMArena. With low pixel density screen-door effect becomes a problem (even high-end headsets suffer from it though). You do notice it less if you’re engrossed by the experience, but it when you do notice it, it’s a bit annoying.
- Either a router that supports 5GHz networks or a WiFI card that can either create 5GHz hotspots or connect to a 5GHz hotspot on your phone. You just won’t have enough bandwidth with a 2.4GHz network.
- A Cardboard headset. Googling “Cardboard VR” on sites like Amazon will find you quite a few of them with prices starting at €5 or so. The more expensive ones even include earphones and similar accessories. The cheaper ones (that look like actual cardboard) will be light, but most likely won’t allow you to change your IPD settings which might make viewing things unconfortable. The more expensive plastic boxes are heavy, and a lot of them can be really unconfortable too. I bought this “AIZBO” headset, though they don’t sell those anymore (the thing had been sitting on my shelf for 3 years now!). It’s adjustable, but the head strap is terrible (too small) and the front is too heavy (and it rests on the nose, which is really annoying). I did find a way to fix the strap somewhat (stretch it out as much as you can and put it behind your ears), but it’s still not all that good. These days you can get even better ones. Just make sure it’s large enough for your phone. You might want to consider searching for reviews.
- A game controller or VR controller. Most VR games won’t accept keyboard input. Hell, most even won’t accept gamepad input and will require VR controllers. There used to be an attempt to create an emulator - OpenVR-InputEmulator, but it seems to be dead. With a gamepad you will be able to play some games like Skyrim VR, but sadly your options will be limited.
Note that this assumes that you have an Android phone. I don’t own an iPhone so I don’t know what’s required for it.
- Google Cardboard app
- You’ll also need the app of whatever software you decide to use for streaming. See the driver section.
In order to stream your games to your phone, you’ll need software to do the streaming. I’m aware of 3 programs that can do this -
- PhoneVR - A newer, less mature solution that also happens to be open source. I have not tried it myself, but it seems to be coming along at a decent pace.
- Trinus VR - I won’t be looking at this because it doesn’t seem to be maintained (the author went on to develop a version for Daydream VR, a now cancelled platform developed by Google as a next gen version of Cardboard VR), and it isn’t as easy to set up as the other options.
- VRidge (Riftcat) - Most expensive (although if you sign up for an account, they will keep sending you vouchers for 15-20% off until you buy it), but seems to have the best support for encoding and has an option for emulating VR controllers using a gamepad, though it’s not that great. This is probably the best option, but it seems to have a nasty habit of heating up my phone and draining the battery quickly. Has a trial that lets you play for 5 minutes, and 5 more if you sign up for an account. After time runs out you’ll need to restart your session for 10 more minutes. Personally I found this limitation a bit annoying as testing things out takes more than 10 minutes and you’ll end up restarting a lot. Installation is simple - download the program, download the app on your phone and follow the instructions.
- iVRY - The one I used. It’s cheap, maybe not as feature complete, but in my case I didn’t need the options offered by VRidge. It’s simple to set up (just install it on Steam and you’re good to go). The trial version offers unlimited play time, but after 5 minutes the image turns black&white (which is still good enough for testing and tweaking settings). Setup is simple - download it on Steam, download the app and it should work when you launch SteamVR.
Note that switching between them is easy (go into
SteamVR settings (click on the header of the app that opens when you start it) ->
Startup / Shutdown ->
Manage Add-ons), so you can easily test all of them without a major hassle.
After getting your headset and installing the software… That’s about it! Connect to the same 5GHz WiFi network, put the phone in the headset and run the app. It should connect and it should stream you the VR view. You can use your controller/gamepad to control things, but don’t expect much. You’ll probably end up running games directly on your PC instead of using the Steam Home too, because it wasn’t really designed for gamepad.
So how is it? Is it actually usable? Well, kind of. My headset had really narrov field of view and although there was a visible 3D effect, it still felt a lot like looking at a screen. Perhaps other headsets are better. That said it’s still an interesting experience if you haven’t really used VR before. The biggest issue was the issue of controllers - not having them really made the experience way worse than it could’ve been. As a DIY quick-vr system it definitely works though. If you’re bored and happen to have most of the things required (phone, PC, gamepad, recent wifi router) the only expense will be the headset which isn’t too bad. Otherwise I would recommend looking into an actual headset. I would say it’s a 5/10 kind of situation overall. It’s kind of unfortunate that this is the only real option for cheap VR, as the Windows Mixed Reality platform has seemingly died with almost noone making headsets for it (HP Reverb G2 is the only WMR headset coming out, and that one seems like it will be expensive). That said, if you can find used WMR headsets, those definitely might be worth looking into (as long as they come with controllers for them).
What about VR in general? Well, that’s a topic for another blog post…