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Virtual Reality (VR) does more than immerse users in artificial worlds – it makes desktop monitors obsolete. From instantiating multiple virtual screens to providing artificial office environments, VR headsets pave the way to the future.
As of mid-2016, at least six different VR desktop systems compete for users’ eyeballs – but not all VR desktops are created equal. Several competing VR desktop programs offer different environments with their limitations and advantages.
What’s So Great About a VR Desktop?
In short, it’s the future of desktop computing. A casual user might not understand why someone would want a VR desktop. The advantages are many. First, a VR desktop can simulate a much larger monitor or display. So rather than spending money on a $3,000 60-inch monitor, you can buy a $600 headset and get a similarly immersive experience.
Second, a VR desktop system can artificially simulate multiple monitors. So instead of buying three different 4K 120MHz ultra-wides (why you shouldn’t buy 4K), consumers can get the same experience with just one device. Third, VR headsets take up less space and provide greater flexibility than traditional monitors. They’re not perfect by any means; there are still bugs to be swatted — but the underlying technology shows promise.
The most well-known out of the VR desktops: Virtual Desktop. It runs for $15 on Steam — pricey, but worth the money. YouTube clips show users spinning their heads around in a space-themed environment. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just backgrounds — Virtual Desktop also allows users to create their VR wallpaper or use pre-generated backgrounds. Here’s the trailer for Virtual Desktop:
As you can see from the video, Virtual Desktop offers a lot. Users can run multiple monitors, scale the size of screens, and more. Here’s another video, showing a more in-depth demonstration of the technology:
Despite its incredible potential, Virtual Desktop doesn’t appear to offer the ability to create multiple simulated monitors. While it can display monitors you already have hooked up to the same graphics card as the VR headset, it does not support the creation of virtual screens.
- HTC Vive or Oculus Rift
The most impressive VR desktop system is Envelop VR Desktop. Envelop allows users to instantiate multiple monitors within a virtualized environment. Imagine yourself floating in an infinite ocean, surrounded by monitors — that’s what you can expect from Envelop VR Desktop. Here’s a video of the experience:
What users need to know: Envelop offers a fundamentally different experience compared to other VR desktop systems. Instead of mirroring displays already hooked up to a PC, Envelop artificially instantiates displays that do not physically exist, allowing for headless (or monitorless) operation. To illustrate: VR systems currently require both a monitor and a VR headset. Envelop only requires the headset. Unfortunately, Envelop isn’t yet available to the public.
- Unknown, but probably Windows 8, 8.1, and 10.
3. SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode
For those already owning an HTC Vive (which offers both VR and augmented reality), the July 9 update to SteamVR’s Desktop Theater Mode brings with it complete desktop support. No longer do Vive users need to interact with both their monitor and their VR headset. The updated SteamVR client now allows the Vive to function as if it were a desktop monitor. Check out the footage of it here:
The video above isn’t the most current — it only shows theater mode and not desktop mode. But even so, you still get a sense of the software’s feel and function.
BigScreen VR Desktop creates an artificial world with monitors in it. Unlike the Virtual Desktop system, BigScreen VR aims to create a shared virtual reality desktop, in which your friends’ screens are visible. Each of the background environments appears in three dimensions. For example, if you choose the living room environment, you can look to your left or right at your friends’ monitors. BigScreen VR also costs nothing, making it the most affordable of the VR desktop platforms.
- Windows 8, 8.1, and 10
- Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Unlike the other VR desktop systems out there, Ibex will eventually work with Linux. It currently supports OS X and Windows. It also includes support for using the iPhone as a motion controller, meaning it can be utilized for mouse-like input, but in 3 dimensions. Here’s the official demonstration video:
- Windows and OS X. Linux version pending.
6. Pinch VR or PincVR
PinchVR is a successfully funded Indiegogo project, which fundraised over $100,000 for an Android or iOS-based VR system. It offers a lot that even the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive don’t offer.
Instead of creating a software portal into your desktop, the PinchVR is an all-in-one VR desktop, combining the device and software environment in a single package. The PinchVR system consists of two parts: a smartphone case which allows the user to wear their smartphone as a VR device (like Google Cardboard, which enables $30 VR systems), and two motion sensitive input devices. Here’s a video of PinchVR in action:
- Android and iOS
Problems in Virtual Paradise
While VR desktops seem like the future of computing, manufacturers and developers must overcome a few hurdles before the technology enters the mainstream.
The biggest impediment remains the limitations of the LCD screen. Immersive VR requires at least 4,000 horizontal pixels per eye. At present, most VR headsets offer between 1,000 and 2,000 horizontal pixels, which is roughly equivalent to a 2K screen. At the short distances between your eye and the VR headset’s LCD screen, typed text is readable, with some distortion.
Is anyone else loving VR desktops? Let us know in the comments.
Image Credit: Envelopr