A couple of weeks into simming with VR

Dec 05, 2017 | by Sérgio Costa
Virtual Reality has arrived for some time. As usual, I arrived (kinda) late to the party but I wanted to share how my last couple of weeks in VR have been.

DCS Huey - Virtual Reality (VR)

I’m a skeptic guy. When it comes to spending a lot of money on something, I’m even more skeptic. I’ve been extra-skeptic with VR until I tried a very bad demo a couple of years (or so) ago.

You see, I don’t see 3D when I watch 3D movies. That’s right: I see it all flat – and funny because of the distortion caused by the technology. There’s nothing coming out the movie screen, nothing jumping around me. Just some old-plain, fuzzy 2D images.

As such, I thought VR would not work for me either. I’ve seen everyone talk about it, read a lot of articles and have noticed people getting marveled at it. For sure, it would not work for me.

Until, like I said, I tried it. It was a really bad demo with an Oculus Rift developer kit. An awful low-quality 3D world demo where you had no control. But I had depth perception! 3D worked for me! I was IN that world!

Shortly after that, I started seeing people talk about VR in DCS and FlyInside was a thing. It was now possible to use it in FSX and P3D (and, now, also in X-Plane). How good could it be – skeptic guy here, remember?

Everyone said it was great. Amazing. The next big thing. A game-changer.

Then, Joe Hudson and Bel Geode got their Oculus Rifts. And, they too, said the same. I was sold.

I made it my goal to update my PC this year to something that could be used for VR (even if it was just for minimums) and, eventually next year, get either an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive.

I went for the Vive.

The kit

HTC Vive

Let me start by saying that I am, in no way, affiliated to Vive or advertising for the company. I made a personal, informed choice while purchasing this product and I'm talking about it because, well... I have it!

The Vive is comprised of the headset (the main unit), a link-box, earbuds, two controllers and two small boxes called base stations or lighthouses. The lighthouses are used to track the position of the headset and the controls in the real world, transposing it to the virtual world.

It’s a much more expensive kit than the Rift (it costs twice as much) but I wanted something that would allow me to not only be used in sims but also as a tool for my daughter to properly experience VR.

VR or, better yet, AR (Augmented Reality) is the future of computing and the future of interfacing computers and machines so I thought that she could use the head start, in the best way I could possibly allow to.

Bear in mind that both the Rift and the Vive to their thing in a sim – which is our target for this article. I’m just mentioning my personal reasons for getting the Vive.

The quality is very good, and setup was reasonably uneventful (all the hiccups I had were user-induced – meaning I can’t follow simple instructions sometimes).

The headset is comfortable and stays in place. It has 2 cables coming out of it: a big one which holds 3 cables inside it (for power, USB and image -- HDMI) and a smaller one to connect your headset to.

The power, USB and HDMI cables all connect to the link-box. From there, you connect to your computer.

The audio cable allows for both headphones and microphone (in the single plug). If your headset supports it, you’re home free!

What is it

So, what’s all this VR thing? What magic does it do? What should I expect from it?

Well, first of all, expect to be marveled. And then, maybe a bit frustrated. I’ll leave the frustrations for later. Right now, VR will pull you in, make your jaw drop and feel like you’re in another world.

Get into DCS, boot up your favorite helicopter and find yourself inside the cockpit. And I mean INSIDE. Look: no videos out there will be able to show you the feeling you’ll have. No screenshots, no description, nothing. You. Will. Have. To see it.

Imagine you are in your car on a sunny day and you look around. The knobs, the steering wheel, all those bits and parts that are lit up but the sun and cast shadow? Those switches that you see pointed towards your direction? Now imagine taking a photo of it and looking at it. Can you imagine the difference? You are looking at a 2D representation of something real, right? Except you KNOW it’s not real because a lot is off. It's a bi-dimensional representation and there's no way to escape that.

VR does the opposite. It tricks your brain well into believing you are inside that world and everything looks more real.

This happens a lot because you now start to have depth perception -- you will have the ability to judge distances better. This means that you will have a much better understanding of your position in the virtual world, which will allow you to place your aircraft better.

But that also means you need to learn this new skill of understanding this new world and that will take you some time. You need to teach your brain to recognize all the behaviors and locations and how everything should be in this new world, under this whole new perspective that, despite being so normal for us in the real life, will need you to adapt in the virtual world.

Another amazing (and obvious) feature is the ability to look around smoothly and with an unprecedent level of control. Even with the latest head-tracking hardware and software, interferences could get in the way and, very often, you’d have to tweak something in either the receptor, or the light in your room, your headset, whatever. Head movement with these pieces of harware is also not very realistic. It does its job very well but it’s not the real thing.

Also, if you any have experience with something like the TrackIR or TrackHat, you know that when you move your head you need to move your eyeballs. On some maneuvers, such as hovering, you better pause it or, at least, have a big nullzone so that your small head movements don’t ruin your view at the horizon.

That doesn’t happen with VR. When you move your head, the “monitor” moves with you just like in real life your eyes continue to see everything in front of them.

Suddenly, this is no longer an issue. At all!

Another great thing is that you are now much aware of small movements. This happens because you have better depth perception, like I mentioned but also because your head now moves more realistically in the virtual space.

Any tiny movement from the helicopter is now picked up by your eyes sooner so you can react sooner as well. I came to realize that I was actually moving my cyclic much less than I used to in order to maintain a hover in the DCS Huey.

This happens because I know realize the helicopter is moving very, very slowly and correct it before it becomes a bigger issue. Thus, everything kind of occurs slower as well. Is as if I now have more time to control the helicopter.

And what it’s not

Well… It’s not perfect. And it can be frustrating. I told you I’d get to this part.

First of all, you need a good machine. You need a good CPU (i5, minimum), some nice RAM (I would say, at least 16GB) and a great graphics card. Do go with the almighty nVidia GTX 1070/1080 or equivalent. I use the 1060 and, despite being “OK” for VR, it doesn’t quite cut it on some titles.

I can get away with it in FSX but it’s unplayable in X-Plane 11 where my frame rate goes all the way down to 16.

In DCS, It’s OK but I dread using it on a mission with lots of stuff going on. As it is right now, in the simpler missions such as Free Flight and whatnot I can get away with it, but the frame rate is not that good and, if I exaggerate, I will get a bit sick from the motion.

You see, in order for you to prevent motion sickness (don’t forget your body is not doing all that stuff our eyes are seeing and, as such, our inner ear goes nuts and our stomach will try to run away – fast – we need to have a steady 90 frames per second.

Ninety FPS, in a 1060, in DCS (or X-Plane)? It’s a no-go. You WILL need, at least, a 1070. If you can go for it, the 1080. But you should be fine with a 1070 or similar.

Another thing you will notice is the low resolution. Folks, this is a new technology and it puts a heck of a strain on our cards. Again, it’s not perfect. It has some flaws and the resolution is one of them.

But, that being said, it’s pretty much flyable. It’s good. It’s a game-changer (it really, really is). And you’ll want to check it out.

Everything I learned so far

After getting the kit and using it for a couple of weeks, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

It's not what I though it was

I thought VR was completely broken, flawed and that I would have a hard time using it. My computer DOES have a hard time processing it (I need a better graphics card), but not me. I have a blast using it.

It’s not perfect either

I’ve said that, already haven’t I? Well, it’s true and you need to understand that: you will not have a perfect experience. But it’s a great experience, it’s what we’ve got right now, and I still find it amazing. Is it a US$699 experience? Perhaps not. But I'm happy with it.

You can always go with the cheaper Rift. And by "cheaper" I mean it costs less, not that it's worse.

No video on YouTube, no screenshot, no description will cut it

It just won’t. Nothing you’ll see or hear will make justice to experiencing the thing by yourself. Don’t even try to. Nevermind those weirdly looking, distorted videos on YouTube or anything me or anyone else can say.

Nothing will even come close to it unless you experience it, first hand. Period.

You don’t need it, but you should, at least, try it

Some say it’s a novelty. Other call it a game-changer. For me, it’s an experience all of us, simmers, should be able to go through at least once so that we get to know the technology and get to see a glimpse of the future.

I don’t regret the day I purchased the kit and I use it for stuff other than simming. But I also now spend a whole more time in DCS now – especially since it’s the sim that gives me the best experience in VR.

You can get motion sickness, even by being sitting on your desk

It will happen to you as it has happened to everyone else. Even if you pull 90+ FPS, if you start pulling some hard maneuvers, your brain will go crazy and you’ll feel sick.

Do small, calm sessions at first. Take off, hover, fly slowly and don’t gain or lose altitude too fast.

I did that, and I felt that weird sensation that we do when we step on the accelerator when our car is starting to descend after a climb. Remember that one? Yeah, I felt it while standing still at my office chair. It was weird.

You can wear glasses with it

I wear glasses and this was one of the things that worried me prior to getting the Vive. I don't really remember how I did it with the Oculus Rift but I can easily wear my glasses with the Vive. Granted, I use a low-profile frame so, it's not intrusive. But I can see a lot of different models out there being used quite easily and comfortably.

Technology will evolve (as usual)

We’re still at the beginning. New kits will come out, graphic cards will become more powerful and software development will run side-by-side with the progression of hardware. It was like that when the first 3D cards came out and it will be like that once again.

VR is just starting and, despite being a great thing right now, it will become even better and greater.

Sérgio Costa

About Sérgio Costa

Sérgio has been a flight simulation enthusiast for nearly 25 years. His passion with helicopters developed during MSFS 2000 when he discovered the complexity of these aircraft and the challenge it was to control them. Since then he has been primarily a helicopter flight simmer, trying his best not to crash and kill all his virtual passengers. Sérgio is HeliSimmer.com's editor and writer and one of the Three Grumpy Simmers, a YouTube series and Podcast produced together with YouTubers Bel Geode and NovaWing24, obviously dedicated to flight simulation.