I spent about 4 hours messing around with the VFX-1 last night. This isn’t going to be a review as I can’t say I’ve formed much of an opinion yet due it not proving to be the easiest bit of kit to set up. This post is more of a catalogue of my misadventures in getting it working. There aren’t going to be any photo’s or anything yet. My games room currently looks like a bomb has hit it with game boxes and PC parts all over the place.
The first problem with running one of these is that it comes with a separate ISA card which you connect to your video card’s VESA connector. The video is passed through to the ISA card via this cable and then on to the headset from the back of ISA card. The problem with this interface is that it can only cope with 256 colours and is picky on which video cards it will work with. My Voodoo 3 isn’t supposed to be one of them but I found a list of working cards in a 15 year old FAQ. I was originally going to buy a Trio64 but the guy I bought the card from threw in an ATI Mach 64 card. The cable supplied to connect the cards is ridiculously short. It wouldn’t be a problem if the connector wasn’t right at the far end of a fairly long ISA card. I just about got it to reach by moving everything around to get the two cards in adjacent slots but it’s still a stretch.
Everything’s connected up so I turn on my PC, swap the graphics to PCI instead of AGP in the BIOS and when it reboots I have nothing on my screen. The PC is booting up OK but I can’t see anything. I mess around with the graphics card trying different slots etc, I drag out another old PC or two to test the card but I’m getting nowhere and start to think the card must be faulty. After turning the place upside down looking for another PCI graphics card (and not finding one), I figure I could try connecting it up my Voodoo 3 to see what happens. The supplied cable is too short to reach between the ISA and AGP slots but I figure a floppy cable ought to work.
I connect the cards with a floppy cable, set up the VFX-1 software and try again. The good news at this point is that my VFX-1 is clearly working as the software picks it up and the screens light up. I’m not getting a picture though so it clearly won’t work with the Voodoo 3. I’m thinking that maybe the Mach 64 might not work with a monitor but may still connect up with the VFX-1. I set all that up again and actually get a picture on the headset now I have the software installed. I should be set to go here but the resolution isn’t fantastic on these things so reading text in a dos prompt is a non starter. It still isn’t a workable solution and I need to get my monitor working
As a last resort, I swap from my CRT to LCD monitor and as soon as I do that I’m getting a picture. If a 1995 video card wasn’t going to work with a monitor, it surely should have been the other way around. Having wasted an hour or two on that, I then proceed to try setting up the headset.
The headset has adjustments for each eye. It’s possible to slide each eye piece left and right with the aim of centering the view on your iris. Each eye piece has to be focused individually. This sounds simple enough but whatever I did, I couldn’t get it so that I had one single image in front of me. It just looked like two overlapping images and I had to close an eye to be able to make any sense of it. I spent ages messing around with different helmet and eye positions, then out of the blue while running the Magic Carpet intro it slides into one image. It’s like looking at one of those 3D images that suddenly clicks into place. I never could do those things which might explain why I had so much trouble with this. It turns out that the key for me is to have some sort of moving landscape on the screen, at which point my eyes focus and it looks like the one screen floating in front of me.
I’d like to say that was the last of my problems but trying to get head tracking to work in games proved just as tricky. I’d start them up but they wouldn’t detect the headset. The VFX-1 uses a TSR and I eventually learn that this doesn’t like being loaded into memory before the mouse driver. I only found this out relatively late last night and support in games was still temperamental. I expect a lot of driver tweaking is going to be in order. I’ve got stacks of versions of the VFX-1 software. The fact that the relevant sites see fit to store all these versions is probably telling me something.
The final thing I wanted to get working was Stereo-3D. This is only supported in a few games but true 3D is one of the main appeals of a VR headset. I tried this with numerous games unsuccessfully. Magic Carpet and Descent just give me two side by side images. System Shock goes dark and I can only see the cursor. Darker is all flickery like it’s alternating frames shutterglasses style. I’ve not had chance to search the web for help on this yet, so I hope I’ll be able to get it working with some tweaking. It may only be a driver issue but I’m suspicious that I may end up needing to swap graphics card. There are plenty of supported cards on Ebay at £1-2 so I’ll pick one up if I can’t get it working tonight.
All this struggling with the technology has meant I’ve not actually tried to play a game for more than a minute or two. I can say that the low resolution is a serious problem if you want to read text. I can just about make it out most of the time but it’s not great. The help screen at the start of System Shock is a mass of gibberish. The in game graphics don’t look bad at all though. The colours are good, possibly not as bright as I’d like but there are some little adjustment screws for each screen if I feel the need to tweak that. I’m impressed with the field of view which is far larger than I was expecting. I tried a pair of Vuzix VR920’s some years back and the screen size on the VFX-1 is considerably bigger. From the little I saw, it was extremely immersive flying around in Magic Carpet and the game looked great even in 2D. If I can only get it running in 3D, I’m going to seriously enjoy playing that one in VR.
The weight on my head isn’t too bad all things considered although you certainly won’t forget you are wearing it. I still feel kind of like I’m still wearing it hours later so it leaves its mark. It’s as much the snug fit as the actual weight. I like the ability to be able to flip the front up and down and it’s pretty much required if you have to stop and read text off your screen. The built in headphones are great and provide a real seal on outside sound. A volume control would have been nice but I can sort something out by rerouting the sound through my other PC. It all looks promising so far. I wish it had a higher resolution but I was aware of that limitation and from what I’ve seen I don’t regret spending the money. Even when it’s not working, it’s a cool looking bit of kit and worth having around for decorative value. I’ve set all of tonight aside and should be able to put it through its paces properly when I get in from work.