Tom Goddard November 20, 2018
Here are some notes from trying to use Vive, Vive Pro, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Odyssey virtual reality headsets on laptop computers running Windows 10. I describe VR on Mac laptops using external GPUs on another page.
We are interested in having a portable virtual reality setup for demonstrating molecular visualization to researchers at UC San Francisco and at meetings. Tom Skillman from Benaroya Research Institute and Immersive Science has used since early 2018 an Asus ROG Strix GL702 laptop (model GL702VS-DS74) with GTX 1070 graphics and a Samsung Odyssey headset and found it effective for demonstrations of ConfocalVR to researchers at their labs and offices.
Laptop VR is noisy, lower power, and more expensive than desktop VR systems. While it is possible to have a portable VR system, the laptop computer will be poorly suited for general travel since battery life is poor even when not using graphics intensive applications.
Using a laptop for VR at a fixed location is another possible scenario. The laptop can be used for portable computing, or for use at home and office, and the laptop can be plugged into an external GPU for use with VR at a fixed location.
The Samsung Odyssey headset and other Windows Mixed Reality headsets require no base stations, doing headset and hand-controller tracking using cameras mounted on the headset. The Samsung Odyssey also requires no separate power adapter. It connects to the laptop with one HDMI and one USB connector.
Vive, Vive Pro, and Oculus Rift have both external base stations. Vive also requires external power adpaters for the headset and base stations. The extra components and power adapters reduce portability.
A drawbacks of using the Samsung Odyssey is that Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) is cumbersome to use with SteamVR. The WMR runtime window blocks use of the laptop screen while the VR headset is being used for unknown reasons -- requires pressing Win-Y to switch back to normal laptop use when the VR headset is not completely taken off the head (resting it on the forehead activates the sensor telling WMR the headset is still in use). WMR also seems to run ChimeraX VR slower causing some flicker that is not observed with Vive and Oculus headsets, likely due to better SteamVR integration of Vive (where SteamVR is the native SDK) and Oculus.
The Samsung Odyssey also has less stable tracking than Vive and Oculus although it is usable. Tracking requires the hand controllers are in view of the two wide-angle cameras on the front of the Samsung Odyssey headset. So moving the controllers far to the side or the back lose tracking. This is rarely a problem, except that the controllers sometimes fly like ghosts once tracking is lost which is visually distracting.
The hand-controllers on the Samsung Odyssey use batteries rapidly, lasting about a week or two of light use, two AA per hand. They have no USB port for charging rechargables as do the Vive, and don't last nearly as long as Oculus Touch hand controllers.
The cord tethering the Samsung Odyssey is shorter than both Oculus and Vive (I think 3 meters versus 4 meters) and this requires special care when connected to a laptop since the laptop could be pulled off a table if the VR user moves quickly.
The Samsung Odyssey has 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye, the same as Vive Pro, and better than Vive and Oculus Rift (1080 x 1200). The quality seems worse than Vive Pro in use, possibly because the sweet spot for aligning eyes to the lenses is smaller, and misalignment causes poor focus.
Our science VR applications we use (ChimeraX, ConfocalVR, Nanome) use SteamVR because it allows using VR headsets from all vendors. Developing this software for only one headset using the Windows Mixed Reality SDK or Oculus SDK reduces the user base for the software.
I've used an MSI GS65 Stealth THIN-068 laptop with all of the above mentioned VR headsets. This is a video gaming laptop but light-weight using a GTX 1070 MaxQ graphics processor. The MaxQ designation means it uses lower clock speeds than a regular desktop GTX 1070 to reduce thermal load and power requirements. Benchmarks done by others suggest that reduces performance by about 20-25%. The model we use cost $3000.
This is a normal size and weight laptop. Other high-end video gaming laptops weigh as much as 10 lbs and are thicker than 1".
This laptop has worked well with Vive, Vive Pro, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Odyssey headsets. We have used mostly the Samsung headset for about 30 hours of use and have not encountered any significant problems.
Some significant drawbacks relative to a desktop VR computer are
We tested the MSI laptop attached to an external GPU (eGPU), a Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box (550 Watts) enclosure with a Radeon AMD Vega 56 GPU. The laptop connects to the eGPU by a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 connection.
This configuration ran our Vive Pro headset without problems. It would make more sense to use this configuration with a Windows laptop with only Intel graphics for long battery life and better portability, relying on the GPU for VR use. We tested with the MSI laptop because we did not have an Intel-only laptop.
One difficulty was specifing which GPU to use when starting VR. An external display was connected to the eGPU and it was made the primary display in order to start our ChimeraX VR app using the eGPU instead of the laptop Nvidia GPU. The normal menu when right clicking an application icon "Open with GPU" only offered Intel and Nvidia GPUs and not the external AMD GPU. Discussion online indicates that that Windows 10 menu can only list one lower power and one high power GPU. I did not find any alternative way to launch a VR application using the eGPU.
We tried an Alienware 17 R5 laptop with GTX 1080 GPU. This is a monster 10 pound, 1.2 inch thick machine, costing $3700.
This machine worked without problems with Vive, Vive Pro and Oculus Rift headsets.
Our main intent was to use this machine with the Samsung Odyssey headset. It did not work with that headset. Taking off the headset while in the Cliff House windows mixed reality starting room caused both the Nvidia and Intel graphics drivers to crash and be disabled by Windows 10 within about 1 minute. The screen would flash and system log messages indicated the drivers were being restarted about 10 times before Windows gives up and falls back on the Microsoft GDI driver that cannot do VR. Using 3 different Nvidia drivers from June, July and August of 2018 made no difference. Using the ChimeraX VR app worked as long as we never took the headset off while in the Cliff House. These completely reproducible crashes appear to be a graphics driver bug, but also are likely related to the Intel / Nvidia GPU switching technology in the laptop. The same headset using a desktop GTX 1080 system never crashed.
We returned this machine. Dell Alienware technical support was useless saying it was Samsung's problem since it was their VR headset. They refused to recognize that the relevant factors were Nvidia drivers, Windows Mixed Reality runtime, MSI dual graphics integration.