When the idea of Nintendo releasing a handheld HD home console first started to surface in 2016, the potential of it supporting VR was one of the most exciting prospects. The HTC Vive required a large amount of floor space to properly utilise, and the PSVR was an expensive optional add-on which was limited in the amount of software support it saw. As such, the idea of a cheap plastic shell for the Switch that could turn it into a VR headset seemed like it would really fit a niche in the market.
The way I imagined Switch VR working was something like a Samsung Gear VR – an empty shell that you'd slot your Switch into. You'd already have two motion controllers ready to use, and you'd have no need for cables tethering you to a console. It'd be a perfect fit. But I probably should have been more prepared for Nintendo to completely buck those expectations in that unique way it consistently does.
Nintendo's answer to VR on the Switch – at least for the time being – is the Labo VR Kit. Like previous Labo sets, it's a cardboard construction kit, sold alongside software that explains step-by-step how to build creations which are then powered by the console. The VR Kit is based around a cardboard base unit, which doesn't feature any kind of head strap, and as such needs held up to your eyes by at least one of your hands. I understand the reasoning behind that bizarre decision; Nintendo wants this to be a VR solution the whole family can pass around without fuss, something social rather than the solitary experience that VR tends to be. It makes sense, but it doesn't make it a great deal of fun – and that's not how I personally want to use it.
The Switch itself isn't a terribly light device, and to hold it incredibly close to your eyes using just one hand is uncomfortable after a while. The arm positioning, the weight; it's simply not fun to have to hold that all with one hand, Additionally, needing to hold the console means you only have one hand free with which to hold a Joy-Con. While some games in the built-in software collection work fine with one upright Joy-Con, some games – like Breath of the Wild which recently got full game VR support – require both Joy-Cons (or at least both hands) to play. The only option, then, is to attach your Joy-Cons to your Switch – which, reminder, is right up in front of your eyes – and control the game with your hands either side of your face. It's uncomfortable, it's not fun, and the fact this is how we are meant to play VR experiences like Breath of the Wild honestly made me less excited for those ideas.
While it's ultimately a bit cumbersome to hold, and it certainly doesn't hold a candle to PSVR or Vive in terms of its technology, there's no denying that Labo VR is a pretty cheap and easy way to experiment with virtual reality. It's also a great proof of concept that Nintendo really could step in and fill a gap in the VR market. Still, I wanted more. I wanted a version I could wear strapped to my head. I wanted to know if that would be enough to change my feeling on the Switch's viability as a VR platform.
So, with a little help from 3D printing enthusiast Alex Blackmore, I set out to test a well-made 3D printed Labo VR headset.
So here are the 2 versions of the 3D print LABO VR, one is slide style and is fully compatible with the VR toy-cons, the other is drop in style and is designed to be more robust for normal headset use.
Slide style: https://t.co/sCoRUNpdRR
— Alex Blackmore (@LsTr0fSmG) April 24, 2019
The 3D printed Labo headset, which took around 40 hours to print and paint, is designed to perfectly fit the dimensions of existing Labo VR peripherals. The idea is that if you've already purchased the lowest entry price version of Labo VR which sells for around £30, you can swap your cardboard shell for this plastic one with minimal fuss. It also utilises the same set of lenses that come packaged with Labo VR, which ensures that games display exactly the same way they would with the cardboard headset with no variance in lens type, size, or position.
Because the headset is now being pulled onto your face by elastic, a few pieces of sturdy foam are required to soften the points of contact with the face, which are stuck along the forehead and nose sections of the plastic.
Additionally, unlike the cardboard version, this plastic headset includes a hole positioned so that you can be charging your Switch while it's in the VR headset, perfect for lengthening the amount of time you can spend immersed on a long journey.
But most importantly, the 3D printed headset actually feels quite good in use. The weight of the Switch, while heavy enough to make holding it up with one hand uncomfortable, is actually light enough to be comfortably held up by my head. I was able to wear it for a good few hours without any real discomfort, something I could not say for the cardboard version when held to my face.
It feels important to note that head tracking works just as well in this plastic shell, with the joy-cons rested on my lap during play. There's been an assumption among users on Twitter that a plastic shell would interfere with the tracking process, but that's not the case.
Now, I will admit, the software available right now doesn't actually make great use of Labo VR. Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey are my two go-to examples for software I would want my hands free to play in VR, and neither uses head tracking in an ideal manner.
The key example of this is Breath of the Wild, where moving your head doesn't cause you to look around in 3D space from your point in the game, but instead causes your view to rotate on a fixed axis around Link. It's weird and disorienting, and it makes me not want to move my head while in VR.
Still, I found a way to make it fun. I popped on my new VR headset, kept my view pointed forwards and simply used the analogue stick to move the camera, and the motion sickness issue was gone. I still got to experience the game with depth, filling up my field of view, and that experience alone was enough to justify for me owning a new plastic VR headset.
I recently had a flight for work, and I spent half that flight fantasising about exactly this scenario. Being able to strap on a large immersive screen, shut out the world, and enjoy a large-scale video game free from distractions. Ah, the dream. And this 3D printed headset lives up to that exact hope. It's a way to block out the world and immerse myself in Hyrule when out and about traveling.
While the Switch doesn't have a huge amount of longform VR content right now, this 3D-printed VR shell is proof-of-concept for something a little more durable and practical than Nintendo's cardboard offering.
Nintendo, please: issue your own plastic headset. Add VR support to a bunch of your first party titles. It doesn't even need to have proper head tracking support; just let me use it like a personal big screen when I am on a train or a long bus ride.
This no PSVR or Vive, but it is a step forward for cheap VR, and makes the Switch feel like it could completely own that niche.