I've played a lot of VR games over the past week, but the best thing I've done in virtual reality wasn't a game at all. It was just my computer desktop, blown up into immersive 3D. On March 31 the 1.0 version of Virtual Desktop launched on Steam. Created by a developer named Guy Godin, Virtual Desktop has been around in various pre-release forms for a little while now, but this marked its official commercial release. I hadn't had a chance to try it back when I had an Oculus DK2 headset, though I'd seen people talking about how cool the idea was. Now that the retail Oculus Rift is available to the public (well, sort of), I'd been curious whether the finished app was as good as I'd heard it might be.
Turns out: Yep, it's good. Virtual Desktop, which currently costs $US14.99 ($20), is really neat. There's definitely some room for improvement, but the app is already impressive enough to get me thinking of VR in a new light.
Here's a demo video that does a pretty good job of showing how it works:
It works equally well with the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, though so far I've only tested it with the Rift. You can launch it from directly within Steam, though my Steam copy came with a code I could redeem on the Oculus Store, which lets me access it from within Oculus Home. It was the first time I've done that with a Steam game, and it worked OK: The app got hung up the first couple of times I ran it from within Oculus Home, but ever since then it's been smooth sailing.
Virtual Desktop actually reminds me of Oculus Home, which is a standalone operating system Oculus made for the Rift. It turns your PC monitor into a massive, adjustable floating screen and puts you in an immersive virtual space right in front of it. The difference between the two is that with Virtual Desktop, there aren't any restrictions on what you can do with it. Anything you'd do on your PC, you can now do in VR.
I worked from inside Virtual Desktop for a couple of hours yesterday and was shocked by how easy it was. The screen curves around your field of vision, which greatly helps with readability of text — the Oculus Rift's headset still has a "screen door" effect that's really best thought of as a "magazine effect" — it feels like everything you're looking at is printed on slightly gauzy magazine paper. The big, curved virtual desktop helped me easily read on-screen text, and before long I was chatting in work Slack, tweeting and otherwise doing regular internet stuff.
Since installing it yesterday, other things I've done:
- Played a bunch of PC games on an IMAX-sized screen. Some games ran great, and it was a trip playing Stardew Valley and Just Cause 3 on a monitor THAT big. The Division's frame-rate took a pretty major hit, so I didn't have as much fun with that one. I'll probably stick to a normal monitor for most games, but I can imagine that in the future, people will be able to have a big-screen gaming experience without owning a big screen.
- Watched various movies and TV shows. I found that movies made more sense than TV shows; I watched Inside Out and it felt like seeing it in less-sharp IMAX. Watching episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Orphan Black was a little more awkward, and I found myself zooming away from the screen to make it less massive.
- Checked out some porn, because hey, why not! This isn't really "VR porn", it was just regular-arse internet porn running on an absolutely ginormous virtual screen. I've never seen porn on an IMAX-sized screen before, so I guess that was novel? Jury's still out until more bona-fide VR porn hits. I was guessing some of you might be interested, though, so I figured I'd at least see how it was. You're welcome.
- Listened to some music while watching the in-app visualiser — if you used WinAmp back in the early 2000s, picture that, only in VR. It was cool but I think there might be something off with my settings, because a lot of the time it felt like I was zoomed too close to the pretty colours and shapes. This kind of shit is going to be a wild way to listen to music, though. It's like being on drugs with no actual drugs required.
- Generally pondered a future where we all work this way, and everyone's workspace is digitally projected. I'd imagine it will be something more in the augmented reality vein, as opposed to a full VR headset, but the possibilities for working in a fully moldable 3D space are really interesting.
Virtual Desktop is still lacking a couple of features that could elevate it further: In particular, you're restricted to the number of monitors you physically have hooked up to your PC, so you can't just magically conjure the 5-monitor setup of your dreams. Hopefully that's coming in a future update. And while the Rift's resolution is actually pretty workable, this whole thing will be much more exciting when VR technology is able to display extremely crisp, high-res images.
All the same, Virtual Desktop is much cooler than I was expecting it to be, and in a lot of ways feels indicative of the sort of "killer app" that could really sell people on VR — more so than most of the video games I've played, in fact. If you have (or are waiting for) a Vive or a Rift, I definitely recommend checking it out.