This is how VR should be, but cutting-edge technology comes at a price. Unless you have the room to take advantage of it, you might be better off saving for a next generation headset.
Finally: wireless, high fidelity VR is here. And it’s amazing. The HTC Vive official wireless adaptor is out now, compatible with the Vive and Vive Pro.
It doesn’t come cheap though. The official wireless adaptor is $300 for the original Vive, or $360 for the Vive Pro. For that price, you can buy an entirely new Microsoft Mixed Reality headset. But we’re living at the bleeding edge of technology here. The wireless tech used here is Intel’s WiGig / 5G. It’s ultra high bandwidth, but ultra short range.
Now I should note that this isn’t the first wireless adaptor: TPCast has been out for a while. Unfortunately, it isn’t very good. It requires its own network router, a complex set up, and is generally not recommended by anyone.
The hope is that being an official consumer oriented release by HTC themselves, the Vive Wireless Adaptor will be somewhat better in every way. And it certainly lives up the hype.
Read on to find out exactly what we thought, and at the end of this review we’re giving one away to one lucky reader.
What’s In The Box?
Inside you’ll find four main components:
- The wireless adaptor, which attaches to the rear of your Vive head strap. It attaches via a Velcro strap, so it’ll work fine with either the original fabric strap, or the more rigid Deluxe Audio Strap
- A 10,500mAh USB battery bank. You can buy another official one for $60, or third party ones to use as a backup, but they must be capable of delivering Quick Charge 3 (QC3.0) power levels.
- The WiGig PCI-E card. This will need a PCI-E slot in your computer, or you can use an M.2 riser card. Laptops are out of luck.
- The transmitter and 6 feet of coax cabling. This device looks somewhat like a webcam, and comes with a mount to sit it on top of your monitor. Like the base stations, this uses a standard tripod thread, so you can use a lighting stand or other generic mounting if you wish.
Setting Up the Vive Wireless Adaptor
Surprisingly, setting up the wireless adaptor is quite easy. Simply open up your PC, slide in the PCI-E card, then connect the transmitter. Exact positioning doesn’t seem to matter too much, as long as it’s pointing in toward your play area.
Next, remove the top panel of your Vive headset, where the cabling attaches. Carefully remove all existing cabling: you won’t need it anymore. Attach the wireless adaptor to the back of the head strap, following the guide included, and seat the new cabling into the front panel.
You can also unplug the link box HDMI cable, but leave it powered and the USB plugged in: this contains the Bluetooth chip that controls your base stations. If you unplug it, you may find they can’t wake up.
Switching to wireless has the added advantage of freeing up an HDMI port on your graphics card, so you can go back to using multiple monitors if you’d previously been forgoing that.
Finally, download and install the software and drivers required.
Using the Wireless Adaptor
The only downside to using the wireless adaptor is that there’s now an added click before entering VR. You’ll need to run the wireless connection software first, then boot up SteamVR.
Other than that, it just works (TM). Try as I might to find latency issues, visual artefacts and pixelation (above what’s normal for this generation of VR), I just couldn’t. Sure, you can induce them if you deliberately stick a large obstacle between the transmitter and your head, but through the course of normal play–including waving my arms around–they was no detraction from the visuals introduced by the wireless adaptor.
There’s one caveat to all this though: you’ll need a somewhat beefy PC. Sadly, the compression algorithms requires to handle the WiGig connection are all handled in software, and can be quite taxing on an older CPU. If your CPU struggles as is with VR, you’re going to struggle even more with wireless. For reference, I tested on an i7, paired with 16gb RAM and a GTX1080. I’ve had no issues, but I don’t supersample either.
QC3 Battery Pack
Powering an entire headset and WiGig receiver is not a particularly energy efficient task, but even so the battery will last a solid two and a half hours.
That’s longer than most people will ever spend in a single VR session. You’ll want to invest in a few spares if you’re planning a day long demo session or running an arcade, but the included pack should be sufficient for most home users.
Pushing WiGig to Its Limits
The maximum recommended play area when using the wireless adaptor is 6m x 6m, but that’s larger than the first generation Vive base stations can handle, so the best I could manage for this test was 4m x 4m. And to get even that, I had to head outside to my car park. To be clear: I did try to get larger, but it was a chilly day and rain was predicted for after dark, so there was still a little tracking interference from the sun. In a larger indoor environment, you should be able to get at least another meter or two on both sides.
The results however, were breathtaking: the sheer sense of freedom is frankly … a little terrifying. But I mean that in a good way. It takes a little while to get used to. Using VR with a tethered cable can be annoying at times, but the cable also as a literal tether tether between your virtual self and the real world. Without that, it’s all too easy to get completely immersed in the virtual world.
You may even need to retrain yourself. In RecRoom, for instance, I’m accustomed to using the snap turning mechanism, simply because my cable would get tangled otherwise. It’s quite hard to forget that habit, even though I now have the complete freedom to physically spin around as much as I like. It’s hard to forget habits that have been formed over the past few years.
Unseen Diplomacy is one of the few games that actually takes advantage of a large space, using a form of redirected walking to completely avoid the need for artificial locomotion. It requires 4m x 3.2 minimum, and this was the first time I’d actually been able to play it all the way through.
This is what room scale VR is supposed to be. This is what we were promised. It’s one of those ultimate VR wishlist boxes ticked. We’re that much closer to a holodeck, and damn if isn’t an exciting time to be alive. We’re that much closer to an in-home holodeck.
Do You Need Wireless VR?
To really feel the benefits of this wireless adaptor, I needed to head outside. Room sizes of the average British house are just not conducive to wireless VR, to be honest. The best I can get is about 3m squared. At that size, wireless VR is certainly a welcome upgrade, but I’d struggle to call it an essential.
At $300, it isn’t cheap either. That’s on top of $500 headset, or $800 if you were like me one of the early adopters; and that’s also on top of an expensive gaming PC. Wireless VR will remain in the domain of arcades, public spaces and obsessive home enthusiasts for now. But even so: I can’t emphasise how absolutely amazing this feeling is.
- Frees up an HDMI port.
- The freedom of mobile VR, at tethered PC VR quality.
- Two and a half hours battery life should last two or three VR sessions.
- Third party battery packs and replacements are available to extend the life of the product.
- No loss of graphical quality (for the original Vive anyway, we don’t have a Vive Pro to test with).
- Requires a PCI-E slot.
- It’s an expensive upgrade, on top of an already expensive headset, that requires an expensive gaming PC.
- Only works with Vive or Vive Pro.
- Takes up a good bit of CPU processing.
We should also consider the wireless upgrade in the context of the wider VR market though, which brings us neatly onto…
Oculus Quest is Coming Next Year
Announced at Oculus Connect 5 in September, Oculus formally introduced the device codenamed Santa Cruz: the Oculus Quest. It’s a $400, high powered all-in-one mobile VR device, with full positional tracking and Touch-like controllers, expected Spring 2019. Though not the same graphical quality as a high end PC VR experience, it should be capable of running some of the simpler VR games such as RecRoom or RoboRecall, and will offer significantly better graphics than their current Oculus Go mobile device. Facebook (who owns Oculus) is pitching it as the most accessible headset yet, and we’d tend to agree.
If you want a great wireless VR experience, and only have $400 to blow on VR between now and next Spring, it’s a difficult call to make.
So what are your plans? Grab the wireless adaptor now because you have the space to take advantage of it? Or wait for Oculus Quest? Let us know your thoughts.