The virtual reality future that we’ve long been promised by poorly researched movies and television programs is finally at hand with hardware like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and Valve’s forthcoming Index headset. These VR technologies have the ability to transport users to new worlds filled with amazing experiences. Unfortunately, they are also expensive as hell.
Although it gets a little cheaper all the time, VR is a cutting edge technology and that means consumers and hobbyists end up footing much of the bill. The cheapest VR kits (outside of the very limited experiences available on mobile devices and the Switch) still cost a few hundred dollars while the most premier setups, like the coming Valve Index, can go for $1000 or more.
Like many of you, I’ve been interested in the rise of VR gaming for a while but just found it too cost prohibitive to take the dive. That is until I learned about the possibility of DIY VR. The truth is, consumer-accessible VR gaming is here, you just have to work for it a bit.
In this article I am going to explain exactly how I managed to build a VR setup at such low cost using largely thrifted parts and how you can do the same. There are two items I am going to assume you already have and did not factor them into the cost. Either you already purchased these for other reasons or you don’t have them and this whole thing will be cost prohibitive anyway. Those items are:
Literally any Android phone or iPhone that has come out in the last 5 years or so should work fine. This will act as the screen and gyroscopic sensor of your VR headset and is the biggest factor in offsetting the cost. If you are reading this, there is a very strong chance that you already have one of these ready to go.
I’m personally using the original Google Pixel which released back in 2016 and is hardly the current standard in smart phones.
This is no doubt the bottleneck for a lot of people, but you might find that the minimum requirements for SteamVR are lighter than expected. Valve recommends the following:
- Processor: Intel Core i5-4590/AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better
- Memory: 4 GB RAM
- Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970, AMD Radeon R9 290 equivalent or better
Nothing to sneeze at certainly but not exactly a behemoth of gaming PC either. In my case, I’m using an old ASUS N550JK laptop that my workplace purchased 5 years ago. The screen doesn’t work anymore so I use it as my desktop computer. Inside the computer has:
- Processor: Intel Core i7 4710HQ, 2.5 GHz
- Memory: 16 GB DDR3L SDRAM
- Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 850M
So, while it meets the processor and memory requirements well, it actually falls well below the minimum GPU requirements. I rightly hoped that the powerful processor and RAM could pick up some of the slack, at least for low-end games, and moved forward with my project.
Now let’s discuss the hardware and software I purchased specifically to build my rig.
This is the purchase that actually started me on this whole project. While browsing my local Goodwill, I found this Tzumi Dream Vision headset for $5.99 and decided “what the heck.” It’s a typical mobile VR headset where you place your phone in the front to act as a screen and then adjust goggles inside the headset to focus on the phone image.
Any mobile VR headset should technically work for this project, as the software I am using is agnostic to the actual hardware. However, you definitely want to make sure that it comes with a head strap and is comfortable to wear for longer periods than what mobile VR was intended for. This Tzumi headset ended up being a good choice as it has high quality adjustable goggles, a similar form factor to the Vive, charging cable access, comfortable cushioning throughout, and even built in earbuds that can connect to your phone.
By downloading this software onto both your phone and PC, you can trick SteamVR into thinking that your phone is a Vive headset and streaming the appropriate video onto its screen. You can do this either by streaming via WiFi or by USB tethering, which is as simple as connecting your phone’s charger to the PC and enabling it in settings. I definitely recommend doing the latter as it greatly reduces frame rate hiccups and you’re basically going to have to plug your phone in anyway if you plan on playing for more than 15 minutes at a time.
Now, I want to be clear, this is not going to look as good as a Vive or Oculus. The resolution, frame rate, and field of view are all noticeably inferior compared to a dedicated PC VR headset. That said, it’s really not that bad either. I found that it tracked my head movements flawlessly, without any noticeable drift or lag, and that I could readily get immersed in VR experiences with this setup. Most importantly, I didn’t get any motion sickness from using this, which is something I have struggled with my entire life. I still can’t ride Star Tours in Disneyland but, with this headset, I had no problem flying a space craft around.
Best of all, VRidge has a free trial available which lets you play 10 minutes of VR games at a time, allowing you to test whether this is something you want to invest in before purchasing anything. VRidge is also supposed to be compatible with standalone VR headsets like the Oculus Go and Google Daydream if you happen to have one, although I can’t personally attest to that.
With just VRidge and a mobile headset, you already have a complete setup for playing gamepad-compatible VR games like Elite Dangerous and Subnautica, all for under $25! This works especially well if you, like me, happen to have a Steam Controller, which has an internal gyroscope that allows you to add some basic motion controls to these games to improve immersion. I had a blast steering my ships in Race the Sun and Overload by turning my controller like a steering wheel or swiveling around in an office chair.
This is a perfectly fine stopping place if you have limited space available and just want to be able to put on a headset and play games by your PC. However, if you want the full room scale VR experience, there are a few more purchases to make.
Driver4VR is an in development piece of software that can be used to emulate the aspects of the Vive that VRidge alone cannot: positional tracking and true VR controllers. Like VRidge, Driver4VR has a generous free trial to let you play around and see if it will work for you before making any commitments.
In order to actually do anything with this software though, we need some accompanying hardware.
In the absence of the Vive’s base stations, some other hardware is needed to track position in order to produce room scale VR. Thankfully, there is a readily available low-cost solution: the Xbox 360's Kinect sensor. Released in the halcyon days of 2010, the Kinect may be dated technology but it still does a fantastic job of tracking body movements and sensing relative position. While those of you who had an Xbox 360 might still have a Kinect laying around, I again made a trip to my local Goodwill where I found several of the sensors right where I had picked up the headset.
Note: The Xbox One version of the Kinect does not currently seem to be compatible with Driver4VR.
As it turns out, the Kinect cannot immediately plug into a PC and needs an adapter in order to power it and give it a USB input. No luck on this component at the Goodwill but I was able to find it for cheap on eBay, with free shipping to boot.
Speaking of dated technology, it is time to reach all the way back to 2006 for our next component. I actually already had these on hand and did not buy them specifically for this project but there is a good chance that you don’t have this old controller combo laying around so I’ve included them in the cost. Once again, these were an inexpensive thrift store find and are incredibly common to find secondhand given how ubiquitous the Wii was.
The way that the Wii Remote integrates with Driver4VR to emulate the Vive controller is pretty ingenious. The Wii Remote and Nunchuck provides the software with information on the pitch and roll of the controllers in addition to button presses while the Kinect’s skeleton tracking looks for the yaw and relative position of your hands. By combining the information from these two pieces of technology, Driver4VR is able to quite accurately sense the movement of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck and emulate traditional VR controllers.
It should be possible to use two Wii Remotes without the Nunchuck attachment for even better emulation of the Vive controllers than the Nunchuck can provide but I could not get that setup to work properly in my own testing. Wii Remote compatibility in general is still a work in progress for Driver4VR so, if you have happen to have other VR controllers, like those from GearVR or Daydream, or have a pair of Nintendo Joy-Cons, then you are better off using those. Still, a Wii Remote and Nunchuck worked well enough to allow me to explore and interact with the various games in Valve’s The Lab and is by far the cheapest controller solution.
In order to use USB tethering and have room scale VR, you are going to need quite a long cable to connect your phone to your PC. In my case, I ordered the above 15 ft USB to USB-C cable from Amazon to fit my Pixel. If your phone uses the more common micro USB port, you can probably find even cheaper/longer chords easily enough. Those of you with iPhones are going to be paying a bit more for lightning cables I’m afraid.
Factoring in tax, the total of my purchases came to $74.60. Not an impulse buy for most people but still a tiny fraction of the cost of the major VR systems available.
Obviously, at a small percentage of the price, this is not going to be the best possible VR experience. This is very much a hobbyist DIY solution and should be viewed as such. The steps needed to get into a game and get everything working are a lot more cumbersome than with a Vive or Oculus. However, when it works, it works pretty well and allows you to play some very cool games that might otherwise be closed off to you. If you like tinkering and don’t mind the occasional jank, then this is a pretty solid way to go. On the other hand, if you have the money to spend and want something that just works as soon as you turn it on, you should definitely go for the premium experience of a Vive or Oculus Rift.
What I’ve described above is just one possible rig and you will likely find your own slightly different setup that works for you. There are a wide range of possible headset and controller configurations to play around with based on what you have available. If you do build your own rig, I’d love to hear about it!