HTC Vive PCVR in 2016 was an incredible experience but the limitations of a domestic playspace (3.0m x 2.2m) soon became evident with the intrusion of the chaperone if walking more than a few steps in any direction.
The chaperone intrusions broke immersion, whilst turning the chaperone off (developer option) just led to painful impacts with walls.
A number of Roomscale VR applications also had minimum space requirements larger than my playspace, which had prevented me from being able to use them.
The desire for true roomscale virtual reality led to 2 questions
1. How large a space could steamVR track?
2. How would this change the VR experience for the participants?
An opportunity came about in early 2017 to use several large spaces over 3 weeks at a huge retail store in London’s Canary Wharf district. After moving the PCVR system to the store i arranged some early morning sessions…
Space #1: The Workshop
A very easy space to setup with base stations mounts screwed straight into the walls creating 4.5m X 3m of playspace ideal for running left to right in Space Pirate Trainer’s roomscaling design.
All of the first week morning sessions were done in the workshop with 2-3 guests per session. The rubber floor was useful when someone ran head first into the wall (the Vive was fine) and then fell backwards.
Already planning for a move to the next, larger space, how to accommodate the base stations without a handy wall to screw the mounts into?
The Lighthouse Towers
Doing some rough maths I worked out I need to raise the base stations up much higher to maintain the optimum tracking angle across a larger floorspace. Also needed:-
–Small footprint to get each base station as close to the walls as possible (tripods of adequate height had too large a footprint).
–Stability to prevent tracking jitter as base stations had electric motors inside which tended to vibrate if not secure.
Finding some scrap aluminium alloy beam sections was providence, softwood blocks isolated the base station mount from the beam, holes were drilled along the beam length to secure the power cables with zip ties.
Workstation bases were borrowed from the store’s workshop which had heavy (20kg) steel baseplates with small footprints; the aluminium beams were fixed to the stands with softwood v-blocks, bundles of zip ties and gaffer tape.
The freestanding Lighthouse Towers gave a stable foundation for tracking accuracy whilst allowing the base stations right against the boundary walls to maximize tracking space. Despite being heavy they were easy to quickly move and each tower had its own 25 metre cable drum for mains electricity supply.
What about the PC?
The PC was mounted on a wheeled mechanics trolley with its own 25 metre power cable drum and fitted with a wi-fi receiver on a non conductive mast making it possible to move the PC anywhere inside each space. Intel Core i7 CPU and Nvidia GTX 1070 both overclocked to squeeze out more supersampling.
After a week of exciting morning sessions in the workshop space it was decided to move to a larger space behind the workshop which was used for bulk storage. .
Space #2 : The warehouse
We moved many boxes from the warehouse to increase the size we could expand into, but left a layer against the back for impact protection.
This gave a playspace 6 metres wide and 5 metres deep which started getting very interesting in VR with very little sign of the chaperone, the illusion maintained!
During these sessions the headset tether cable started making its unwelcome presence known leading us taking turns as a “tether assistant”, doubling up as media assistant shooting video and photos of the sessions.
Management of the tether freed the user; we quickly became adept at manoeuvring the tether as the user moved around to stop them tripping, tangling or tugging the headset.
“Abbot’s Book” was a favourite in this larger space alongside Cloudhead’s The Gallery Episode 1, Space Pirate Trainer and Valve’s The Lab.
Walking around inside The Lab was truly mind-blowing as was the sheer space of Viveport home with lots of out of bounds trespassing giving interesting views.
The third week was set to be the most exciting with a move into the largest room, a huge space used for displaying retail products on plinths.
Space #3 : The retail space
Each morning started at 5am by moving everything out of the way before quickly setting up the PCVR before guests arrived
With the space empty it was cavernous, wall mounts were used to string the sync cable between the base stations whilst the PC sat on its trolley half way along the right wall.
Having full control over lighting (pitch black) and temperature with powerful air conditioning gave a thrilling effect in games like Dreadhalls where the cold of the dungeon could be easily recreated adding another layer of immersion!
This is where things got really interesting as we reached the limits of steamVR tracking. The maximum using the link cable to sync the base stations was a vast 9 metre diagonal gap between the two base stations.
We also had problems with the tether length in more free roaming applications, having to move the wheeled PC around following the user traversing the huge space. Cable extensions worked… sometimes..but caused tracking instability.
After 3 weeks of Roomscale Plus sessions?
A number of the guests had never used VR, whilst some had limited experience. Imagine the first experience of VR being Roomscale Plus?
Watching the transformation was rewarding with people shouting, shrieking, laughing uncontrollably even crying. Brilliant to witness and also session as a user, freely roaming in VR was very liberating.
Going back to the original questions?
1. How large a space could steamVR track? A huge space as we found out setting up the retail space!
9 metres diagonal gap between the base stations = 6.36m X 6.36m = 40 square metres of tracked floorspace. It tracked the tallest guest waving their hands above their head, allowing 3 metre vertical =120 cubic metres.
Within this steamVR tracked volume we had full environmental control and empty space so no obstruction, no reflections to upset tracking, clean lines of sight and lights off for maximum immersion.
2. The VR experience was fundamentally changed by being able to move in a huge space without the chaperone intruding, or the tether interfering with the headset – thanks to the tether assistant!
Roomscale Plus gave a view of a possible future with wireless PCVR or standalone headsets allowing users to freely move within their application at a large scale.
All of the guests came away raving about their experiences and several went on to buy PCVR systems. It was great fun hosting the sessions with a carefully curated selection of content.
Several weeks of amazing experiences and memories came to a close all too soon, and it was time to return to my much smaller domestic playspace.
This however brought a crashing sense of disappointment as the freedom and scale of true roomscale VR was reduced to cautious steps and teleporting or free locomotion on the spot.
One unseen consequence of”Roomscale Plus” Virtual Reality…leaving my final thoughts on PCVR in early 2017
Thanks for reading! Rob Cole, immersivecomputing