The Reality of Making VR Work in a Small London Flat

By Julian Benson on at

I don’t have a large flat. It’s not tiny, but after trying out the HTC Vive for the past week, it’s evidently a lot smaller that Valve intended for its virtual reality headset.

The Vive headset is currently the only one that lets you play in full-body VR. Instead of sitting in front of your computer only able to look around you, with the Vive you can fit a pair of sensors to your walls and walk around a virtual space by physically walking around the room. It’s a little like having your own personal holodeck. Though with less chance of a Mongol horde escaping from the game and taking control of your flat.

Except, for the Vive to work it needs a lot of space: 2m x 1.5m. That doesn’t seem like that much, but look at your living room: just how easy is it to completely clear that much of an area?

Here’s my living room:

And here’s what I had to do to make my living room “HTC Vive ready”:

Yup, taking inspiration from the Lego movie, I made a double decker sofa. After I took this photo I also had to roll up the carpet and hide that in my flatmate’s bedroom and put the coffee table in the kitchen.

Even after all that, I still only just had enough room to use the Vive. It took three attempts of walking round the room with one of the Vive controllers, marking out the edges of the space, to convince the software that, yes, my living room was large enough.

Separate to the physical space it needs is the amount of equipment you’ll have to set up in your living room. First are the two sensors you need to hang from the walls — happily, my landlord has a lot of picture hangers around the flat so I didn’t need to put in any new nails or, like I’ve seen some people do, tape them to the wall:

The sensors need to be on opposite walls and be high enough to look down on the complete 2m x 1.5m space. They also each need a plug socket nearby.

You’ll also need to bring in a computer powerful enough to run the headset and a game at the same time. Acer leant me a G6 Predator which ran the thing nicely, but that too needed to be plugged in and took up a chunk of space at the side of the room. I also had to bring in a set of speakers and a monitor for the G6 because the HDMI port was being used by the Vive, those both needed plugs and space. And, of course, there was the Vive itself, which needed a plug, too.

I know I’m labouring the point but I want to emphasise how much running the Vive dominated my living room. I had to unplug consoles, aerials, televisions, phone chargers, stack my sofas, fill the kitchen with my coffee table, clear the floor and, once it was set up, it was too much of a pain to take it all down each evening. So, for the week, that’s the state my living room was in.

(At this point I should say that I have the most understanding flatmates in the world. Thank you so much for not spitting in my tea.)

I’m not too sure how Valve is expecting the Vive to be used in people's homes. Considering how much equipment and set-up I had to do to make my living room appropriate, I wouldn’t consider taking the Vive out for a quick two-hour play and then stashing it back in a corner somewhere. If I wanted to use the Vive I’d have to commit to the whole day just for the amount of work it takes to set the thing up. Does Valve expect people to have a separate VR room? That would be the easiest way to make it a pick up and play peripheral, but... who has an extra room in an urban flat?

The alternative would be a halfway point: leaving the sensors handing on the walls and the controllers and headset stashed in a box in the living room somewhere. Though you’d still have to bring through the PC, monitor, and speakers and wire those all up before you could play, plus move all the furniture and mark out the space again.

It’s just not very practical for people who live in small flats.

Thing is, once I’d got it all set up, it was totally worth it.

I’ve played with the Oculus a lot over the past two years but I’d only tried the Vive once before. I like the Oculus, a lot, but the the seated experience just isn’t a patch on full room VR.

The first game I played was Audioshield. It’s a game in which you block incoming coloured orbs in time with the soundtrack. Your left hand is a blue shield, your right is a red shield, and you have to hit the orbs with the same coloured shield.

With the faster songs I found myself sliding and jumping about my living room to block all the incoming orbs. It was so easy to get lost in the game, playing track after track and building up quite a sweat. I hadn’t expected full-body VR to be quite so active.

A great feature of Audioshield is that it will generate a level from any song you give it, matching the orbs to the beat of the track— I highly recommend Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’. The plus of this, besides just being fun, is that it makes the game a great VR icebreaker. Over the weekend I had a steady stream of people coming through my flat and trying out the headset. Being able to get them to pick any song they wanted, something they were already familiar with, and then loading it into the game gave them a hook and eased them into the new experience. Because Audioshield is essentially a dance game, if you’ve got a song you know well playing in your ears it’s easier to get over the initial awkwardness of the experience.

In fact, I was surprised by how quickly people forgot where they were. When I first started playing with the Vive I used it with headphones — there’s a little headphone jack on the back of the headset that you can use to plug in some earbuds. The pair I had completely cancelled out the sound of the room. So, with the headset over my eyes, the headphones over my ears, and the controllers in my hands I was senseless to the room around me. I could still balance because the VR space matched the contours of the room but if anyone else was in the room I couldn’t see or hear them.

When it came to demoing the Vive it was a bizarrely lonely experience. I’d set someone up with the headset and headphones, tell them how to play, and watch their excitement at the virtual world. They’d quickly forget I was there and get lost in the game. When the headphones were plugged in I couldn’t hear anything of the game, either. I could watch what they were up to on the monitor but that’s a little dull. I tended to do the washing up or clean the kitchen while someone played through tracks on Audioshield.

None of the games I played over the week acknowledged the other people in the room. They were great, engrossing experiences for the person wearing the headset, but everyone else was locked out.

After a couple of days I stopped using the headphones and switched to speakers instead. They were loud enough for the person playing to hear the game but it immediately made it a social experience. The player would talk with people in the room while they played.

If you’re playing on your own, I recommend headphones all the way. When it comes to multiple people, unless it’s a horror game, I’d say use speakers.

Another game that saw a lot of play over the week was Space Pirate Trainer. It’s a shooter that sees you stood on the dock of a futuristic space station fighting off waves of incoming drones with your two pistols.

The Vive’s controllers feel like gun grips already, so to look down at your hands and see pistols feels natural. What works particularly well is that to dodge the drones’ fire, you have to physically dodge in the room. When people played they’d drop to their knees, roll onto their back, leap from one side of the playspace to the other, hold out both their arms and shoot in different directions. To play it felt like you were in The Matrix or Equilibrium.

It was also the game that saw the most bystanders mistakenly punched by a player who was blind to the real world.

The final game I can recommend is Cloudlands: VR Golf. It’s just crazy golf VR (which is good thing in and of itself) but the key feature is that you can do multiplayer with the one headset. Up to four players can take part and share the headset between them. This does mean a lot of taking the thing off and putting it back on, but after a couple of days with the Vive you can do this easily.

Playing a VR game with other people, instead of just sitting out and waiting your turn, is much more engaging for the room and more VR games need to support it. (This is a key part of PlayStation VR's philosophy, incidentally.) It also makes a thin game feel more substantial because you don’t mind playing the same levels over and over when you’re competing with your friends for the lowest score.

Substance is a real issue with the games available at the moment. Space Pirate Trainer and Audioshield got the most play because they were the only things that felt like complete games. A huge amount of what is on offer on the Vive is just a demo. Selfie Tennis, for instance, was funny for about a minute but I turned it off after 10 because there’s just nothing to it. You spawn into a tennis court and can bat the ball over the net before knocking it back across. There could be a good game there eventually – I’d love a good tennis game in VR – but, right now, it’s nothing worth buying.

It’s difficult to know how substantial a game is before you play it. Most Vive games are selling for between £10 and £20 at the moment, which is a lot of money to spend on something that might turn out to be only 10 minutes of game. This is a real problem and it’s one that will only hit early adopters in the wallet.

One concern people had coming to try out the Vive was whether it would make them ill or give them a headache. Keza has already spent an entire day in VR and reports that it ended in horrible pain. That wasn’t my experience of it at all. Over the weekend I had 15 people come through and play: only one of them got a headache and it was from a very specific action. When my friend Lauren tried out Hover Junkers, a game where you shoot with one hand and drive a hovercraft with the other, the experience of moving herself in space with a controller – not by walking around the room – gave her a headache. This bodes well for the developers who are making use of the Vive’s full room VR but does mean there’s work to be done when it comes to moving around a space larger than 1.5m x 2m.

After a week with the Vive, I’m properly enamoured with the tech, despite having to double-stack my sofas. But the next time I have access to the headset, I hope there are more complete games to play. And that I live in a much larger flat.

Acer kindly loaned me the computer I used to run the Vive, an Acer G6 Predator.