How to Play Virtual Reality Games on a Budget

It’ll come as no surprise that virtual reality costs … a lot. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s possible to get play games in a form of virtual reality without having to take out a loan. In fact, you can do it all on a smartphone, the device most of us carry around all the time anyway. And, before you say it — no, this isn’t Gear VR and it’s not the games you’re thinking.

There are some minor downsides playing VR games this way, but if you don’t want to spend a lot then it’s your best option. Here’s how you can get started:

What You Need

  • A smartphone running Android (4.0.3+), or iOS (8.0+) with at least 720p resolution.
  • A PC running Windows 7 or later.
  • A smartphone compatible VR headset.
  • Headphones
  • Optional: An external power pack
  • Optional: An Xbox One and Windows 10, and/or a PS4

Over the past 12-18 months, phone-powered virtual reality has exploded in popularity. A quick visit to Amazon will show you that there are countless headset options available to you, and they don’t all cost an obscene amount of money. Google Cardboard, for instance, only costs as much as the cost of the parts if you build it yourself, and pre-built headsets are easily available for less than £10.

Buying a cheap headset does come with some problems, though. For one thing, the more expensive headsets are a heck of a lot nicer to wear since they’re made from materials lighter, sturdier, and far more comfortable than cardboard. More expensive headsets also come with fancy bonus features like headstraps (which Google didn’t feel the need to include with Cardboard), adjustable focus and pupil distance, as well as the option to wear glasses while in use. The field of view also differs from headset to headset, and you will find that cheaper headsets do cut off a bit more of the screen than some of the more expensive options.

It is also important to remember that you need to get a headset that is the correct size for your phone. The last thing you want is to find that your phone doesn’t fit, or that parts of the screen end up being needlessly cut off.

As for the phone itself, I’d recommend at least using something with 1080p/Full HD resolution, which is what the display will be on the upcoming Oculus Rift. You could probably get away with 720p if that’s what you have at hand, just remember that the picture will be rather pixelated that close. Obviously you’ll have better picture if you have a phone with Quad HD or 4K resolution, but they’re expensive and buying one specially defeats the purpose of a budget headset.

It’s also worth investing in an external battery pack to make sure your phone doesn’t run out of juice mid-game. Don’t attach it to your headset, though, since that would add a heck of a lot of unnecessary weight. Instead make sure you have a long enough USB cable so that it can be stored in your back pocket or something.

To top it off, you should get yourself a pair of headphones. It doesn’t really matter what, but if you want proper immersion you need something to pump the game’s audio into your ears.

The software

The all important part of throwing together a budget VR rig is the software. This involves downloading a mobile app onto your phone and using it to connect to a server on your PC. This connection allows you to stream games to your phone in side-by-side 3D, even if the game doesn’t officially support that feature. There is one app I can recommend to get this done: KinoConsole.

There are quite a few apps out there that work with VR, but KinoConsole is probably the best of the lot. For starters it’s available multi-platform, and can be downloaded on Android, and iOS devices. This means that the majority of people can get in on the action, regardless of what system their phone runs on.

Linking your phone up to your PC is done via the local wireless network, and in my time using it I had no issues regarding lag or latency. Setting up takes virtually no time at all, and it even manages to include a form of headtracking by mapping your phone’s gyro data to your mouse.

What this means is that your head movements will register in-game as if they are coming from your mouse. This is a fairly big deal, since it means that you can move your head to control what’s going on without extra software, even if the game doesn’t have any formal VR features. For instance I had Kino streaming Dishonored over to my phone, and I was able to control Corvo’s direction simply by moving my head around. Similarly, while playing Elite Dangerous turning my head let me nosy around my cockpit mid-flight.

It’s not automatic, though, and you do have to go into the server’s VR menu to set things up like so.

KinoConsole also send the game’s audio over to your phone (with the option of muting it on your PC in the process), so you don’t have to worry about an extra wire getting in your way. You can also connect controllers to your phone, and use the touchscreen for rudimentary control if you want to.

KinoConsole is free to download, but you can opt to pay £4 for the premium version. That’s probably a sound investment, since the premium version lets you stream games in higher resolution, 60FPS, as well as having stereo audio and no ads.

Android users wanting something they can fiddle around with a bit more can also try Trinus VR. It’s not available on other platforms, and it doesn’t appear to have headtracking implementation in old games (as far as I can see anyway), but it does let you go into the settings to play around with things in ways that KinoConsole does not. Trinus also has the option of letting you connect your phone to the PC via micro USB, in case wireless gameplay isn’t your thing.

*There is a KinoConsole app for Windows Phone, but I wouldn’t recommend that you use it. It has no dedicated settings menu, which means that there is no option to toggle VR settings from within the phone. That means that if you want to experience VR games on a phone running Windows you have to ensure that it’s in side-by-side 3D on your PC first. There also isn’t any headtracking, which is disappointing.

It’s Not Just For PC Games

This method also means that it’s possible to play Xbox One and PS4 games on your makeshift headset by streaming the game content over to your PC. Playing your consoles in this way does cause serious lag and frame-rate issues, but it’s just about possible to play comfortably. All you have to do is get KinoConsole running on your computer, and open up the relevant window with the game stream. Just remember that there is no headtracking here, and all you’re getting is the game beamed into a headset.

It’s worth mentioning that the PC/PS4 remote play system that’s currently available is unofficial, and still in Alpha. That means you’re more than likely going to end up with bugs and glitches as you try and play. But if it does work then you won’t have any issues streaming to your phone in 3D. It’s just worth remembering that unlike the Xbox One, this client it isn’t a perfect system and you are taking a risk when you pay for it.

The Downsides

As much as we’d all hate to admit it, there’s a reason why dedicated VR headsets are going to cost what they do. Going the cheap option comes with a bunch of drawbacks that some people will be more than happy to pay extra to get rid of. The main one is all the stuff about headset comfort I talked about before, but there are a couple more to keep in mind.

For starters, your smartphone isn’t really designed to be used in virtual reality, and that comes with a few pitfalls. One problem that some people may have is that having your eyes so close to your screen does mean that the image looks somewhat pixellated, even if you have a Full HD display like I have.

The other serious issue is that nothing has been done to deal with issues like headaches, nausea, and all those other things Oculus and HTC/Valve say they’ve dealt with. The first headset I tried was a bog-standard Google Cardboard, and my head was a mess after a few hours of on and off use testing and getting it all set up. Think the kind of headache you get from seeing a badly converted 3D film, but a hundred times worse. I have no doubt that I might be in a minority here (3D films give me a headache and I’m incredibly prone to motion sickness), but it’s an important problem to bear in mind.

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.

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