The First Must-Have VR App: Virtual Desktop

VR, be it Vive, be it Oculus Rift or something else, is currently primarily discussed in terms of games, but given that what we’re fundamentally talking about is a new paradigm for computer displays, that’s hardly the be all and end all of it. There may well be various applications of VR in other fields – medical, scientific, tourism, military, porn, to name but a few – but general desktop computing is something that pretty much all of us have in common.

A question which has occurred to me since almost the earliest days of this stuff has been “can I use VR goggles instead of a monitor?” Less physical space but more virtual space, and the possibility of doing Minority Report-y things with the operating system. Virtual Desktop is the first attempt at meaningfully answering that question, and it’s about as essential a VR application as there is right now – but it also demonstrates why the technology just isn’t quite there yet.

‘Virtual Desktop’ is the kind of name that sounds like it’s been around for donkey’s years, attached to VPN software or things which turn Windows into a horrific spinny cube that you use for ten minutes then give up on. But in this case it’s definitely the right name for the right application.

Simply put, it renders your entire Windows desktop, and anything you run on it, within your Vive or Oculus headset (I’ve only tried it in the former so far). It recreates your screen or screens as a giant display, optionally curved like a high-end monitor, and scaleable to various sizes and ‘distances.’ In theory it’s best used with multiple monitors, so you end up with a full wrap-around effect and can neatly swoosh off windows and applications into the furthest edges, then swivel in your chair to go look at them. Your room becomes your PC, basically.

Watch a movie in VLC and you get to watch that movie as if on a cinema screen, or on a large curved monitor if you so wish. Or gun up Netflix or YouTube in your browser for the same effect. Play a game and, in theory, it’s the same: ultro-size, wraparound, beats having a heavy chunk of LCD sat atop your desk. Steam already provides its own support for playing trad. games this way, but right now “>it’s fairly flaky and lacks any customisation options.

In Virtual Desktop, you get to resize the screen, play with curved options and even handle stereoscopic options for games which have them. I tried the latter with Rise of the Tomb Raider, and it was a pretty sweet middleground between flat gaming and VR gaming.

However, as with Stream Desktop Theatre, performance issues are a real problem. The Vive has a refresh rate of 90 Hz and thus is best suited to games which can play at 90 frames per second, but in most cases needs them to do so at its 2160 x 1200 total resolution. That’s a fairly big ask of the minimum Vive spec – a GTX 970 (which I happen to have), and as such most Vive-specific games I’ve played are heavily optimised and avoided top-end whizzbang.

Something like Tomb Raider doesn’t do that, and so I have to drop both graphical quality and resolution relatively in order to stop the image in the headset from flickering badly. It’s fine in the mirrored window on the desktop, so I’m not entirely sure what’s going on – but in any case, dropping settings sorts the problem out. 2D games are just fine.

Factor in the Vive’s existent image quality problems – a 720p-esque appearance (despite how much more it has to render) and a visible screendoor effect, and of course the fact that you can’t see your controls, and most recent AAA games I’ve tried just lose too much sheen and fluidity to want to play them this way instead of back on my 1440p monitor. 2D games are another matter entirely: I played a whole bunch of Day Of The Tentacle Remastered in Virtual Desktop and it was just wonderful.

The main use has been movie-watching, though. I don’t get to go to the cinema much because my weekends and evenings are generally given over to a toddler, but I miss it dearly. So I’ve been playing catch-up with the Vive and Virtual Desktop (and sometimes with a video-specific app named Whirligig, but while it has a few more display options it lacks Virtual Desktop’s ease of use. To use Virtual Desktop is to use my PC as I normally would, so long as my fingers are atop the right keys, whereas Whirlig requires either a gamepad or specific keyboard shortcuts. A newer version does support the Vive motion controllers, so I’ll keep on checking it out though).

Granted, the screendoor effect and discomfort of velcro straps and heavy trailing cables means it’s not exactly like going to my local Picturehouse, and nor can I do it in company as I did my trips to the pictures of yore, but the magnitude, the cinematic element, is there. I rewatched a 3D version of Mad Max Fury: Road and it was spectacular: almost more so than in the cinema. I don’t generally give a stuff about 3D, but somehow it seems more effective in VR.

Even TV, especially the new breed of consciously cinematic TV like Better Call Saul and Daredevil, looks brilliant: the home cinema of my dreams, apart from the fact I don’t feel entirely comfortable and if my partner comes into my room to talk to me there’s a whole lot more kerfuffle than just hitting Pause would entail.

It also supports 360 videos, though does this through its own player rather than on the desktop. 360 videos are pretty neat if you can find a high quality one, especially if it’s also a 3D 360 video, though it’s the wild west out there and there’s a surfeit of bad rubbish. (And yes, Certain Types Of Relaxation Video are available and surprisingly numerous already and yes, the effect is… notable. I have no doubt that the porn industry will make hay with VR. But I do not wish to get into such things on our nice, clean family website about murder simulators).

The Vive’s longer-term applications as video device are certain, at least from my point of view, even if my own jury remains very much out on the games. Clearly, it’s anti-social, but we all have different situations and for some of us that just isn’t an issue. My partner, for instance, doesn’t generally want to watch anything that doesn’t involve either murders in Scandinavia or Europeans talking about feelings. I like those things too, but at the end of a long day I also am guiltily partial to cheesy bilge like The Flash, and it’s great to disappear off to cinema-land and watch it on my own ticket.

But the elephant in the room is whether Virtual Desktop can really be a virtual desktop. It’s great for watching, yes, but for what we might nebulously call ‘computing’, sadly not. The Vive – and, I’m comfortable guessing, the Oculus Rift – doesn’t do peripheral vision very well. As such, anything you’re not looking directly at becomes blurry.

When we’re talking about text, and often very small text, that bluriness becomes actively uncomfortable, even disorientating. It is great to sweep my head rather than merely my hand over to a document 45 degrees to my left or a YouTube video on my far right, but it’s not practical for anything we might call work – or for simple web browsing. Not enough of the image is sharp at any one time. The exception, to some extent, is photo work – be that browsing an archive or even doing some editing if you can whack your application’s UI scaling up enough.

The concentric rings carved into the Vive’s lenses (I heard this was something to do with preventing motion sickness, but I might be entirely wrong) also refract brighter colours, so I end up with glare and light bleed around the edges of my vision if something I’m looking at has a white background. i.e. most of the internet. Then there’s the screendoor or mosquito net effect too, but really that’s the least of the visual issues.

Dropping Windows’ resolution and text size makes things more readable in some respects, as does fiddling with Virtual Desktop’s robust scaling options, but it’s hard to find a true sweet spot between sharpness and size. All told, while an impressive effect and a very stable, thoughtful piece of software, it’s just too uncomfortable to be more than a front-end for loading up video files or games, and being truly usable will require a far higher resolution headset. At this point, I’d genuinely be interested in a super-high res headset purely for desktop use, video and 2D games, knowing full well I won’t be able to play anything 3D but at least being able to do those former things with excellent image quality.

YMMV though, I’m a glasses wearer with fairly shonky eyes, and 20:20 sorts might do better. All I can do is speak from experience. I still think that, if you’ve got a VR headset, Virtual Desktop is a must-have application – primarily for video-watching but also because, so far at least, it’s a better option for playing non-VR games in the goggles than Steam’s own is, but partly because screw it, if you’ve dropped than many bones on the hardware, you might as well spend another £11.

It’s launched in really good shape with plenty of options and no doubt more to come. Whenever I fire up the Vive, the first thing I do is almost always to fire up Virtual Desktop next. Despite readability issues, it’s navigable enough to find the game, site or video I want, and as such acts a superior, if squintier, hub to Valve’s own SteamVR frontend. I wouldn’t go without it, in other words; the shortcomings are because of the hardware, not of this well-thought-out software. If you have invested in VR, get this before you buy another game, basically.

From this site

42 Comments

  1. GenialityOfEvil says:

    They should have designed them to be modular so that you could swap out various components as the technology improved.
    They’ve already started dodging questions over how they’re going to iterate on the devices and whether they can navigate the PR problems of either sticking with these somewhat lacklustre devices or screwing over anyone who just bought one by releasing a 4k version 2 years later.
    If we were able to just swap out the components like a PC, they wouldn’t have to worry about it and consumers could be more confident that the technology will reach its potential.

    • gunny1993 says:

      I don’t think a very relevant suggestion, the rate of technological progress in the monitor pannel industry is pretty low compared gpu/cpus

      Making them upgradable would just drastically increase costs in the short run with no gains in the long run

      • GenialityOfEvil says:

        But the screens they’re using aren’t like monitors. That’s the point, VR isn’t like a rectangular display that’s the same across its entire surface, so there’s no equivalency when talking about technological advances. I’m not talking about using OLED displays or higher pixel density, I’m talking about the advances they make to overcome the problems that are exclusive to VR headsets like the screendoor effect (which could be alleviated with higher pixel density but is more likely to be a lens issue) and blurring.

        • BrickedKeyboard says:

          The reason upgrades don’t make any sense is that after even a couple years of reasonably consistent use, you would expect some pretty heavy wear to a typical headset. If you haven’t noticed, anything you wear or touch consistently in the computing world tends to wear out far faster than things you don’t touch. Keyboards and mice and headphones tend to last a fraction of the time the main CPU unit lasts for me. (well, ship of Thebes style, I generally have to replace mechanical hard drives and psus but generally what sends computers to the scrap heap is simply they are too slow compared to newer ones)

          So if you buy one of these, you need to have the kind of income where $600-$800 + a new GPU for a toy you play with sporadically is not a big deal to you. Plenty of people do have that kind of income, and as long as enough headsets get sold, eventually the cost will come down to just a little more than the cost of the manufacturing, or probably about $200-$300.

          Although, I suspect once there are $200 headsets, there will be higher end models – like the aformentioned 4k models – that are much better than the plebian $200 models.

      • manny says:

        plus ebay

    • Xzi says:

      I think everybody investing in a VR headset knows there will be newer generations coming. For PC gamers, it’s kind of a given that hardware will improve, software optimization will occur, and eventually we’ll have to buy new components.

    • LewdPenguin says:

      This wave of VR will either die like before, or there will be new versions of all headsets in 2 years time, one or the other. I think many of the people buying in now understand this, but of course there are going to be a few that expect their first-gen stuff to be supported/relevant for longer that complain when it isn’t. If we ever get to a 3rd generation of headsets then maybe they will actually be good enough to have a lifespan of more than a couple of years, but like anything new the first couple of gens are likely to see relatively rapid innovation/improvement that genuinely results in significant differences between devices.

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      Constant upgrades and yearly iterations has worked for a couple of decades for phones, and kept working for overpriced smartphones for another decade. As long as VR survives its infancy I think we’ll see a lot of diversification in pricing, features and performance even without discrete component swapping.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      I’m not clear how releasing a higher-res version in two years “screwing over” anyone.

  2. Halk says:

    Tried this out with my DK2 and loved it! Sold said DK2 on eBay with perfect timing to receive my wave-one Vive on the 5th. I still don’t have a shipping confirmation :(.

    • zarniwoop says:

      As someone with almost no money, and no real interest in upgrading my already very old computer in the next year or so, but who is very interested in VR, is it worth picking up a DK2 on ebay?

      • Premium User Badge

        Eleven says:

        Probably not. Oculus aren’t guaranteeing that they will keep updating the drivers for the DK2, so it could become unsupported at some point in the future.

        • zarniwoop says:

          Yeah that is a worry, and it’s not exactly cheap on ebay either.

          Oh well, back to the good old days of hanging out at friends’ houses to play with the cool new toy.

    • Premium User Badge

      Eleven says:

      I have been using Virtual Desktop on my DK2 for months now while it was in beta, and it’s still my most used app.

      Alec didn’t even mention that it now has the Milkdrop music visualiser built in (hidden in the environment menu) so you can listen to your music in 360 degrees of psychedelia :D

    • Henke says:

      I also tried it a bit on the DK2. It’s impressive how natural it feels, but I never used it for more than 5-10 minutes at a time. The resolution is just too blurry, so e.g. reading text on a website might be a hassle. It’s a neat concept, but honestly, after the wow-factor wears off it’s no replacement for a good regular monitor.

  3. pH101 says:

    It does sound not bad for cinema viewing. For desktop – I picked up a flatscreen for 21″ for £60 on ebay, added to an older but large CRT and existing 21″ flatscreen, this is a cheaper and higher res way for a big desktop for computing and is highly recommended. Couldn’t imagine going back to a one monitor set up for work now.

  4. a very affectionate parrot says:

    Has anyone with a lazy eye used one of these VR headsets?
    I’d imagine it has some problems, I have a very slight lazy eye and it makes 3D movies unwatchable at the cinema. Granted the only 3D film I’ve seen was the new star wars but I had to focus really hard to stop things from doubling.

    • Glubber says:

      I have amblyopia but don’t have ny VR yet. Have you heard about Vivid Vision (formerly Diplopia)? It actually uses VR to help correct lazy eye. It’s still in development, but here in Cali there’s a few vision centers that are using it for vision therapy. I definitely plan on looking into it.

  5. bovine3dom says:

    “Concentric rings stop motion sickness” is indeed total bollocks. It’s a fresnel lens. The concentric rings are the magic that makes the lenses much lighter and thinner than the equivalent ‘normal’ lens: link to 2.bp.blogspot.com

  6. syllopsium says:

    Films, or 3D films? I can see the point of 3D films. I already have five monitors on my desk (they’re mostly quite old, two are CRT), and a CRT projector in my lounge, so I’m not fussed by this at first glance.

  7. Spuzzell says:

    The first VR headset that can do a passable imitation of an IMAX screen for watching films will get all my money.

    I do want one to play Star Citizen, but films and productivity seem to me to be at least as likely to be the killer reasons to buy into VR as games.

    Oh, and The Flash is awful and you should be ashamed.

  8. simulant says:

    “I don’t get to go to the cinema much because my weekends and evenings are generally given over to a toddler,”

    I also suffer from this affliction but fail to see how isolating myself in VR goggles is going to do anything but exacerbate the problem or possibly get my kid hurt or killed. (You know this is going to happen to someone, eventually…. Don’t want to be that guy.)

    • BarneyL says:

      I suspect it’s more a matter of control over time. I too have the same affliction. Our local cinema runs films in roughly 6:30-9:00 (i.e. before her bed time) and 9:00-11:30 (i.e. after my bed time) slots. There’s also travel time to add in and time wasted watching Kevin Bacon trying to sell me a phone.
      At home I can skip straight to the film or could even watch it split over two nights.

    • Premium User Badge

      Eleven says:

      Dude, there are low blows, and then there’s accusing a parent of neglecting their children.

  9. PanFaceSpoonFeet says:

    I’m still waiting for the fleshlight peripheral to accompany “Harry Styles 1D 3D Rampage” on PS4.

  10. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I had the same idea just today starring at my limited laptop desktop or even the multiple monitors of my desktop PC. No more using several costly displays only one seemless 360° desktop, no need to buy additional displays with pesky cables.

    • Pulstar says:

      So you want to wear a VR headset for hours on end? Good for you.. and your spine!

  11. Stone_Crow says:

    Yes it works fine assuming you can touch type, since you cannot see your keyboard, don’t need to interact with anyone in the real world walkng into the room, can find your cup of tea on your desk (or render if virtually), and don’t need to answer the phone or anything as you’d have to take your headset earphones out to do that. Yes, virtual desktop is clearly the future when sitting in front of an actual desktop.. oh wait, no it’s not, I have an actual desktop. Jesus… the only thing more depressing and idiotic than this is the fact that highest VR app rating on steam briefly last week was fucking IKEA. I look forward to ‘VR Post Office Queue Ultra” and “HD Waiting for the cash machine”.

    “Tomorrorw’s World” told me in the 1980’s VR would blow my mind and now it’s here it’s here they’ve virtualised the fucking monitors you were sitting in front off anyway. Wankers.

    • yusefsmith says:

      “Jesus… the only thing more depressing and idiotic than this is the fact that highest VR app rating on steam briefly last week was fucking IKEA.”

      Pack it in, boys. VR is officially dead.

      • LewdPenguin says:

        Not dead just yet, but that guy raises a bunch of extremely valid points regarding the use of VR in ‘productivity’ situations. Whilst I’m certain there are niches in which VR can excel not only in customer demo roles but also the actual creative/development process itself, they are just that, niches. Much like the realm of gaming the digital workplace has grown up based around some core concepts of display design and personal interaction, for VR to become any kind of notable presence requires not just a massive step-change in software and workflow design but also culturally. Overall the effort involved in making that happen combined with all the negative aspects leaves VR as another tool useful at times to a very few people in the workplace and utterly irrelevant to vast majority.
        This iteration of VR won’t live or die on the back of workplace adoption, but on whether there are enough compelling games available soon enough to drive mass adoption, coupled with rapidly falling costs to bring it into the realm of “just another peripheral” for a wider market. Jury is still very much out on the first happening and the second is a fair way off too I’d wager.

        • kalzekdor says:

          VR is probably going to be relegated primarily to entertainment uses. I do, however, have somewhat reserved hopes about Augmented Reality, such as HoloLens, in productivity scenarios.

          Even if done perfectly, VR still cuts you off from everything else you need to interact with, which may be fine if you’re playing a game or watching a movie, but if you’re just trying to get shit done, it’s a major headache.

  12. OmNomNom says:

    So immersive it’s like I’m actually there using my PC

    • SomeDuder says:

      Yea, but now you can pay €800,- to use the PC that’s right in front of you! Revolutionary technology.

      Yes, sarcasm aside, it’ll be a good long while before I find myself owning one of these things. They all lack the resolution that current displays have no problems with, they are too damn unwieldy (Watching some demos where people wave and walk around like drunks, stepping on the headset’s cable kept me wondering whether this is a repeat of the infamous Wiimote thrown through the TV, where your overpriced headset is thrown to the floor instead since you stood on the cable) and they are insanely, terribly expensive for the quality on offer.

      But that’s all fine, I don’t mind reading about people defending their terrible purchases in order to feel good about “””””investing”””””” in the future (I tried more quotes, but I reached my quote quota)

  13. racccoon says:

    Are all all of you completely insane!!
    or possibly so dumb and stupid, why wouldn’t want to use your vision in manor its not supposed to be used! locking your vision to one focus point for hours, & hours, Honestly you got to be complete idiots to go with this VR system. You do know you are just test dummies of unknown visionary problems of your future eye sight. Good luck with that.
    Its bad enough that we have done so much damage to the earth! we now have shifted the earths axis!
    Please just don’t be as stupid with your eye sight! as you won’t be able to witness the sight of the end of the earth as we know it.

    • Premium User Badge

      kfix says:

      I can’t wait to see how the ARG you have been running for a while now turns out.

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        Its bad enough that we have done so much damage to the earth! we now have shifted the earths axis!

        I’ve got to admit, I didn’t see this one coming.

        (and I haven’t even tried a VR headset yet)

        • Premium User Badge

          kfix says:

          we now have shifted the earths axis!

          I was surprised to learn that this is not only not completely wrong but is probably the least, er, idiosyncratic part of that comment.

  14. Clavus says:

    The Vive – and, I’m comfortable guessing, the Oculus Rift – doesn’t do peripheral vision very well. As such, anything you’re not looking directly at becomes blurry.

    I have both headsets, and the Rift does actually have noticeably less blur around the edges compared to the Vive. Different lenses I figure. The trade-off seems to be a slightly more obvious ‘lens flare’ in high contrast scenes, but nothing that pulls you out of the game.

  15. judy20 says:

    I just, got. funded $6864 working off my notebook this-month,, and if you think that’s cool, my ex-wife has twin toddlers and made over 7985 bucks her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less …K0007

    SEE M0RE —> http://www.CashPay60.com

  16. DanMan says:

    The name is stupid though, for the reasons outlined in the text. We already had virtual desktops: link to en.wikipedia.org He should have called his program “VR Desktop”, because that’s what it is. A virtual reality-based desktop.