Skip to main content

The First Must-Have VR App: Virtual Desktop

Gigantic pretend monitors for gaming and video

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.

Read this next