Going from screen to VR: trading resolution for immersion
Should I get a TrackIR or VR? The question, made by someone, recently, at the Orbx forums, does not have a “one size fits all” answer. But let me say that once I tried Virtual Reality in a flight sim, there is no way I will use a monitor again.
Is Virtual Reality good for flight simulation? I would say a clear YES, but I believe other people will have different opinions (read the forums at Orbx for the whole discussion), and to a certain extent they may be right. If you do not have a powerful computer, you better stay with a flat screen with TrackIR or any similar solution available. Also, if you like to take lots of notes, read maps and do all the other things associated with planned flights, you might prefer to not use a VR headset.
On the other hand, if you fly mostly GA aircraft, and use the simulation to have the sensation of flying over a real landscape, nothing beats the experience of VR. That applies to the available flight simulations today, from Prepar3D, to X-Plane 11 or DCS, to mention the most popular and those I use regularly. The implementation of VR in Prepar3D is not the best, I must admit, and that has kept me from using it, despite the amount of money I’ve invested in Orbx sceneries. X-Plane 11’s VR is better, but you really need a powerful computer to run it. DCS is even better, but everybody is expecting that the implementation of Vulkan — both in XP and DCS — makes the simulations run faster than with OpenGL. But don’t expect miracles.
Track IR, DelanClip and others
In fact, no computer available today can run these simulations at 100fps in VR, as some seem to claim. And it will probably be a long time before any man made machine grants us that vision. Anyways, unless you’re one of those persons who are too sensitive to low frame rates, 30fps will make your experience in X-Plane 11 quite smooth. If you’ve the machine to run it, that is. But let’s get back to the question of VR.
There is, in fact, no simple answer in when it comes to choose between TrackIR or VR. If you get motion sickness, then VR is not for you. Add this to the other reasons mentioned earlier, and you might have the answer you need: TrackIR is the way to go. Believe me, TrackIR is great, I’ve used it for years, until my older son, Miguel, stole mine, to use in Elite Dangerous. I then acquired another system, DelanClip, which works similarly, and there are others, like Track Hat Clip, offering the same kind of experience. They are great… until you try a Virtual Reality headset.
So, that’s how I got into VR. From screen to TrackIR and DelanClip and finally Oculus Rift. Since I tried the Rift, there are days when I wish I would go back to the clear, detailed image I’ve on the screen, a 32 inch 2560x1440 monitor. It’s much better, so much better, that I understand if you want to keep using it. But believe me, the immersion provided by VR is mind boggling. And as I do not get motion sickness, I can fly for hours without any problem.
My first time in VR, back in the 90s
For me, the decision to stay with VR was simple, and the result of a mistake that still makes me laugh. Before I tell you the whole story, though, let me say that this VR experience wasn’t a complete surprise, it just confirmed what I know from back in the early 90s, when I tried the first Virtuality machines. I was in London with a fellow journalist covering the international launch of the Philips CD-I. As tech journalists, we knew the first Virtuality machines were at the video arcade at the Trocadero, so we made it there, to try them. I remember we taking pictures of each other as we tried the system, the sit-down version, with a joystick, and a virtual reality headset (the “Visette”) with two LCD screens, each offering a incredible resolution of 276x372… yes, a total of 552x372 pixels.
Despite the low resolution, the pioneering machines offered a view into the future, and a better solution that the 3D LCD shutter glasses pioneered by Sega in 1987 which were the rage for a while but really got nowhere. I remember testing a 3D system with glasses, during an exclusive interview I had with the then popular games creator Peter Molyneux, which I was told were part of a secret project that would be revealed with his next game… only to see the game being distributed, later, without any sign of the “revolutionary system”. The promise of 3D games that you can use without any type of glasses is long overdue, and headsets offering VR seem to be the way ahead, especially as new headsets are better and more comfortable to use.
Just place it on your aircraft seat…
So, I am not new to VR, as I tried the first VR headsets some 28 years ago, and was convinced then that VR was going to be the future. I first tried the Oculus Rift headset from my son João with DCS, and was amazed. So amazed I “stole” the headset to me and bought one for him. There is something unique about the spatial sensation of the world around you with a VR headset that you can not get from a monitor.
There is more to it, though: it tricks your senses. So much so, that once I got to try X-Plane 11, I picked the classic Cessna 172, ideal for testing purposes, and prepared everything to fly in VR. Although I was using my Thrusmaster HOTAS combo of joystick+throttle+rudder pedals, I decided to try the Oculus Touch controls, which allow you to adjust everything inside the cockpit. They work, I can say, but I prefer my Thrustmaster solution.
The funny part of the experience is that, once in the air, and having used the right hand controller to adjust the GPS on the plane’s console, a sudden gust of wind made me lose control of the Cessna. I urgently needed to grab the joystick, so I looked to my right, saw the empty seat and decided I could drop the Touch controller there… I remember seeing the virtual controller go through the seat. The rest you can imagine: the REAL controller hit the floor, with a loud sound, and I had to stop flying because I could not stop laughing.
And then I bought the Oculus Rift S
The experience revealed me one thing: when you drop your real controller on the virtual seat of an aircraft, you know you’re doomed. I can not go back to a monitor, and I gladly trade resolution for immersion. So I had to learn to get the most of the Oculus Rift. I started reading everything I could about how to get the most detailed images… and the best fps. I’ve discovered a few things, that I will share with you in other articles. So, if you want to find more about how to get the most out of your Oculus Rift, come back here.
One last note: I sold my Oculus Rift and acquired the new Oculus Rift S. I had the Rift S on loan from Oculus for one month, to write a review — as I write professionally about areas where VR is growing in importance — and found I could not go back to the original Rift, exactly because of flight simulation. For everything else, the Oculus Rift continues to be a good choice — if you find it — but the extra resolution of the Oculus Rift S makes flight simulation much better. A little more resolution and even better immersion. More about this in another article.