As virtual reality (VR) headsets become mainstream, the choice to dedicate an entire room to virtual reality is becoming increasingly common. But this is new territory, and it’s easy to make critical errors that’ll mess up your experience — or worse, land you in the hospital with broken fingers!
In this guide, we’ll mainly address the tethered PC virtual reality systems: Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Both of these offer room-scale immersive experiences.
Size Is Everything
When it comes to VR, size definitely matters. You can get by with a “standing only” area as small as 1m squared (about 10.8 sq ft). But your experience won’t be great, and you’ll be ever mindful of hitting something.
SteamVR statistics from June 2016 showed that 52 percent of users have a play area at least 2.5m x 2m (about 53.8 sq ft), so this is the minimum that room-scale VR game developers typically target. The maximum recommended area for HTC Vive is 5m (about 53.8 sq ft) diagonal, though some users have pushed it further. Oculus Rift is somewhat smaller due to the camera-based tracking system it employs.
When setting up your tracking boundaries, I’d suggest allowing a 1ft buffer between your virtual boundaries and actual walls. Someone, sometime, absolutely will ignore those boundaries and wave their controllers through them. If you have a TV in the room that you can’t remove, consider an even larger buffer between that and the virtual boundaries (as Reddit user toaster_f attests to).
Understand the Tracking Systems
The tracking system is key to your VR experience — it’s how you move around and interact within your VR world — so it’s worth understanding exactly how it works. There are some small differences between the headsets.
HTC Vive: Lighthouses
The HTC Vive tracking system is called Lighthouse, and consists of two small boxes mounted in the corner of your room. These need plugged into only a wall socket for power. They communicate with your headset (and in turn, your computer) via Bluetooth. They also need line of sight to each other in order to establish synchronization timing. However, if yours are unable to have exact line of sight — perhaps you have a large beam in the middle of your room — you can use the supplied sync cable instead.
The Lighthouse tracking system works by sweeping the room with laser beams, which are then detected by optical sensors on the headset and controllers. The exact timing between the laser hitting each optical sensor enables the controllers and headset to accurately report their location.
This is considered an inside-out tracking system, because the headset uses external signals to figure out where it is. Without devolving into “which headset is best” arguments, the HTC Vive (our review) is ideally suited to all room sizes, and is the only headset capable of reliably tracking huge spaces.
Oculus Rift: Constellation
The Oculus Rift tracking system, known as Constellation, uses more traditional webcams with a wide-angle lens to watch your playspace. Its controllers and headset have an array of infrared LEDs embedded in them, which are invisible to the naked eye. However, the tracking cameras can see only infrared light.
Thus, they identify the patterns and differences between the video feed of up to four cameras in order to calculate the user’s position in 3D space. This is an outside-in system, because the cameras are watching the headset and controllers. Technically, the Oculus sensors are hackable webcams, and give a grainy but reasonable black and white image.
The basic Oculus Rift headset-only package (our review) comes with a single tracking camera, while the Touch Controllers include another. Oculus recommends placing these on either side of your desk, for use with a forward-facing VR setup. Each camera requires a USB 3.0 port.
You can purchase another camera if you wish to eliminate some of the occlusion issues. This refers to areas in which two cameras can’t see enough of the controllers to accurately track their position, thus hampering room-scale experiences. Many users, however, report a degradation in tracking quality after adding a fourth camera to their setup, so we’d recommend a maximum of three. Oculus’ Constellation tracking system is known for poorly scaling to massive rooms, but should handle small to medium play spaces just fine.
PlayStation VR (our review) uses a similar system to the Oculus Rift, but with visible, colored LEDs and a single tracking camera. PlayStation VR is only suitable for seated or standing play experiences — it will not handle movement around the room, or turning around. It’s more prone to tracking errors from sunlight and other room lighting.
The ideal sensor placement for HTC Vive is in two corners of your play area, angled downwards toward the middle. Mounting plates for your wall are provided, but if you’re unwilling to drill holes or would like your system somewhat portable, support rods combined with a moveable tripod ball head clamps work well. Lighting stands are cheaper, but prone to wobbling when you move around.
The ideal sensor placement for the Oculus Rift is debatable, but my personal preference is to place them in a similar manner to the HTC Vive: high up, angled down, and in a triangle. Oculus only supplies short desk stands for their cameras. But they can be detached and use a standard tripod thread, so again, you can use moveable ball heads and tension rods to angle them perfectly. You’ll also need one or two USB 3.0 active extension cables (I use this 3m (9.8 ft) Amazon Basics option). The additional tracking camera package includes a 5m (16.4 ft) USB 2.0 extension cable.
Reflections and Sunlight
While each tracking system is unique, they are both susceptible to reflective surfaces. The HTC Vive lasers can bounce around, and the Oculus cameras can get confused when they see the reflection of tracking LEDs. Therefore, you must remove all reflective surfaces from the VR room entirely, or cover them up. This includes picture frames, mirrors, TVs, and even shiny leather sofas. Since removing the TV or sofa might not be an option, you can cover it with a sheet.
Failure to do so won’t prevent your system from working, but it will introduce a range of tracking errors. You might encounter anything from the occasional tracking jump as the cameras get confused to controllers simply floating away. Covering up or removing reflective surfaces should always be your first remedial step when diagnosing issues.
Bright sunlight can also present issues with tracking, as it can obscure the LEDs of the Oculus Rift headset (and PS VR). Close your curtains if you’ve eliminated other causes and are still having issues. I’ve found the HTC Vive’s laser-based system is less susceptible to sunlight interference.
Headset Placement When Not in Use
The second issue presented by sunlight is that it can cause permanent damage to your headset. VR head-mounted displays contain lenses to distort and focus the image to your eye. Unfortunately, this also acts in reverse – like a magnifying glass. Even the slightest sliver of sunlight on your headset lens can burn the display. Never, ever leave your headset facing sunlight. The safest option is to place it in a drawer or cover it with a cloth when not in use. You can buy a specially-made lens cover for $25.
Turning it away from any natural light source will also work, but might encourage bad practices — such that other household members may not realize it can be a problem. Ensure everyone knows to cover the headset or just put it away in a drawer when not in use.
Fans and Lighting
While both Oculus Home and SteamVR offer virtual wall boundaries, neither have a virtual ceiling, so you will damage either your controller or lighting fixtures when you reach too high, too quickly. Take it from me: within hours of setting up the HTC Vive, we had shattered three of the bulbs on our elaborate light that dangled down.
Don’t just tell yourself you’ll remember not to reach up. When properly immersed in a VR experience, you’ll completely forget the real world. Either remove the light fixture and fan entirely, or install low profile fixtures that you absolutely cannot reach.
Here’s what happens if you don’t:
Ceiling height is obviously not something you can fix. But if you have a choice between two otherwise equally-sized rooms, pick the one with a higher ceiling.
Heating and Perspiration
Water damage from sweat can break your headset, and many users have reported problems getting support under warranty once it was discovered. To be clear, this won’t be an issue for most people. But if you live in a hot environment, are prone to sweating profusely, or plan on playing very active VR games (think RacketNX, not RecRoom), then you should absolutely consider measures to tackle that.
Air conditioning is the obvious answer (not ceiling fans, as we already mentioned). Placing a fan at the periphery is another option, and can also help to orientate yourself in VR. Reddit user giselekerozene recommended Halo skull caps to wick away moisture. Third-party covers like the VRCover Cloth may also help absorb your perspiration, preventing it from dripping into more sensitive electronics.
However, not all cases of water damage come from sweat. If your headset is cold and your environment warm, condensation may also occur. On the other extreme, when the headset warms up in a chilly environment, your lenses may fog up. Avoid extreme temperature changes on either end of the scale!
Most VR games are not incredibly active, but you will stand a lot. Just like a standing desk, you could benefit from anti-fatigue matting to reduce leg and back pain from standing on a hard surface for a long time. Standard anti-fatigue mats should suffice for smaller areas. For larger rooms, you can buy interlocking tiles for about $20 per meter squared (10.8 sq ft).
For occasional use, a rug or carpet will be fine. Using a rug or custom-sized anti-fatigue mat offers an additional benefit, however, as you’ll be able feel when the boundaries are close. My own setup has the virtual boundaries about a foot away from the walls, with the rug another foot away from the virtual boundaries. Since virtual boundaries can sometimes break your immersion, the rug lets me know when to back off before hitting the virtual wall.
Are You Planning a VR Room?
While you can use virtual reality systems sitting down or in a tiny space, you will have the best (and safest) experience with a large space to move around in.
Do you have a dedicated “holodeck” already or are you planning to build or convert one? Let us know in the comments, or even better, share some photos of your space!
If you’re not ready to invest heavily in VR, try out these iPhone VR apps for Google Cardboard.
Image Credits: Halfpoint/Shutterstock