Plug-and-play is a term often used to refer to something you can simply install by plugging it into one of the ports on your personal computer (usually USB), where it automatically sets itself up and it just works, right out of the box, without any fuss or futzing about. (I am old enough to remember the pre-USB days. Hell, I still remember in my high school days having to stick stacks of 80-character punchcards into card readers to submit programs! Yes, Auntie Ryan is as old as dirt, sweetheart!)
Over two days this week, I set up two new pieces of hardware in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries: a brand new desktop personal computer with a high-end graphics card, and a new virtual reality headset tethered to it.*
Yes, I finally cut my very last tie to Facebook/Meta, gleefully packing up my old Oculus Rift headset, and uninstalling all traces of the Oculus software from my former PC before it goes on to its next owner! I doubt anyone will want the now-antiquated Rift, but at least my old PC should gladden the heart of whoever receives it!
And it struck me (as I was relaxing on the sofa today after a busy, sweaty, sweary Thursday and Friday) that over the past six years, I have set up no less than four different models of virtual reality headset:
- An original Oculus Rift, bought in January 2017 (followed by a second Rift for my work computer later that same year);
- An Oculus Quest (first edition), eagerly purchased as soon as they came on the market in May 2019;
- A Valve Index headset, with Knuckles hand controllers, bought in August 2020 to replace my home Oculus Rift, in response to Meta imposing a requirement to set up a Facebook account to use its VR hardware; and
- An HTC Vive Pro 2 headset, bought last month to replace my work Oculus Rift.
Of these, only the Quest was a wireless VR headset; the Oculus Rift, Valve Index, and HTC Vive Pro 2 are all what are collectively termed PCVR, that is, virtual reality headsets that require a cable to a high-end gaming computer in order to work. Of course, even the Quest could be turned into a PCVR headset with the addition of a cable and some extra software, something I eagerly tested out myself as soon as I could! However, the primary purpose of the Oculus Quest, both version 1 and version 2, was as a standalone device to be sold at a cheaper price, to entice more of the general public to dip their toe into VR waters, and get them hooked! (I have been reliably informed that Meta sells the Quest itself at a loss, in order to recoup that loss and earn the real profits through the sale of games and apps via the Oculus Store.)
However, PCVR is—still, six years after the first consumer models arrived on the marketplace—an absolute pain in the ass to get set up! Allow me to recount my experience of installing, configuring, and troubleshooting my PCVR setup this week.
In the box which contained my HTC Vive Pro 2 office kit, was a large paper document listing the dozens of cables and other parts, with a website address from which I could download a setup program, which was supposed to install all the software I needed, and walk me step-by-step through the setup of my VR headset and controllers. Despite install attempt after attempt, the setup program kept hanging at the 5/6th point, leaving me to attempt to piece everything together on my own.
I landed up spending over an hour in text chat with a support person on the Vive customer support portal, who talked me through a complete reinstall of all the software components (I never did get the step-by-step walk-through of device setup that I was expecting, which was disappointing).
I was supremely grateful for the friendly, reassuring and professional tech support person I was chatting with, however, and I commend Vive for making it quite easy to reach out for immediate help when I got stuck (quite unlike my previous horror-show of tech support when my Valve Index headset at home broke earlier this year). Don’t get me wrong; I still love my Valve Index, but my customer support experience in March 2022 was so horrible that I would hesitate to purchase another VR headset from Valve in future. Valve could learn a lot from Vive!
Finally, I left work on Thursday evening with a fully working system after a full day of frustration, fussing and futzing! On Friday I returned to face a brand new set of challenges: installing various social VR platforms, and getting them to work properly with my new Vive Pro 2 setup. By the end of Friday, I finally had set up working access to VRChat, Neos, and Sansar, and in each I had my fair share of bugs and problems (partly because I was so unused to the Vive wand hand controllers, which take some getting used to). It was frustrating and exhausting.
Which brings me the point of this editorial rant: why, six years into the age of consumer virtual reality, is it still such a daunting task to set up a tethered virtual reality headset? How is it that you basically need the knowledge and expertise akin to someone at NASA Mission Control in to put a PCVR system together and get it working right the first time? It’s akin to asking people who want to drive to buy the car frame from one manufacturer, the interior seats and steering wheel from a second company, and the engine and transmission from yet another firm, and then giving them a set of IKEA instructions and a hex wrench and telling them, good luck, buddy!
I mean, if even I, with all my previous virtual reality and computer assembly experiences over the decades (and an undergraduate degree in computer science, to boot!) had trouble pulling everything together, what does that say about the average, non-technical consumer that just wants everything to work? Virtual reality in general, and PCVR is particular, is still way too far away from plug-and-play consumer friendliness, and the VR industry needs to address that hurdle before it can see more widespread adoption. If you want to throw money at a problem, throw some at this!!!
The one thing that the Quest still has going for it, despite its association with Meta’s sketchy embrace of surveillance capitalism, is this: out of all the VR setup experiences I have had to date, it was easily the closest to plug-and-play! (All I needed was a cellphone.)
Unfortunately, the closest possible competition to the Meta Quest in the wireless headset marketplace is being put out by Pico, which was recently bought out by TikTok’s owner ByteDance, which has similar, if not worse, consumer privacy issues. (I’m personally holding out for the innovative open-source LYNX VR/AR wireless headset project out of France. I just hope they don’t get crushed by the bigger players!)
Don’t get me wrong; I know that Steam, Vive, and Valve also collect customer data. It’s just a question of how much data, and how much you trust the companies collecting it. That why I have zero trust in Meta, and it’s also why so many people are watching carefully to see how and when Apple enters the VR/AR marketplace. (Apple is not perfect, but at least I trust them with my privacy. They also have a reputation for creating beautifully-designed, plug-and-play, consumer-friendly devices!)
Things are, as always, going to be interesting to watch over the next couple of years!
*For those of you who are interested in the specifications of my new work setup, here they are: a Dell Optiplex 7000, running Windows 10, with an Intel Core i7-12700 CPU with 32GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 GPU, and an HTC Vive Pro 2 office kit (VR headset, 2 base stations, and Vive wand hand controllers).