Oculus VR Sim Racing Is Truly Immersive, But It Has Its Downsides
Virtual reality driving simulators are the future, for better or worse.
I have spent many years slowly and painfully building my sim racing setup. Every so often, I could budget for the piece of hardware I really wanted, whether it was my Fanatec CSW V2.5 wheel base and GT3R wheel, my Clubsport pedals, or a Thrustmaster shifter. Finally, I have acquired one of the last pieces to my sim puzzle: an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality (VR) headset. After a month of using it constantly, my thoughts are mixed.
It’s important to start with some learnings from the first few days I had my VR headset. The first lesson was that my computer could not support the performance I needed at all. Granted, my rig was a mild build with a lower-end AMD Ryzen 5 central processing unit (CPU) and an Nvidia RTX 2060 Ultra graphics card, a setup that could easily handle 60 frames per second on the 1440p monitor I had run for so long.
But VR is a different animal. It is several orders of magnitude more resource-intensive than even the largest 4K displays. More importantly, there is almost no tolerance for inconsistent frame rates in the VR environment. That is not for the good of the hardware or software, it is actually because a lower-than-ideal frame rate will cause motion sickness with rapidity that necessitates a bucket beside the sim rig.
If you’re lucky like me and a low frame rate doesn’t cause motion sickness, it still is a source of great frustration when trying to get immersed into the incredibly accurate racing environments within VR. So I had no choice but to spend big money and upgrade, to the tune of about $2,000. I switched out my basic RTX 2060 for an incredibly powerful Nvidia RTX 3080, and I swapped my Ryzen 5 for a Ryzen 7. To support the increased power demands, I also upgraded the power supply.
With some more tweaking and research, I finally got my racing games to run smoothly in VR. Incredibly, the RTX 3080 is a top 10 graphics card by performance benchmarking and it struggles to run high settings in VR. All of my games, except for the hilariously basic iRacing, required low graphical settings. I compensated for this by setting my headset to max resolution within the Oculus settings and doing 150 percent supersampling across every game. Supersampling is a method of removing jagged edges on in-game objects by calculating for more pixels than your true resolution. Hence, mine is calculated at 150 percent of my display resolution.
It took me another week after my costly upgrade to finally be able to race in peace. Even after all that time and expense, the payoff was still worth it. Virtual reality sim racing is the only option for maximum immersion.
Okay, sure, you can get a similar level of situational awareness and be less fatigued with an ultra-wide curved monitor. But what you cannot get is true depth perception, complete disassociation with reality, and the ability to practice with eye and head movements that mimic exactly what happens in real life. The VR environment is so utterly immersive that I often forgot that a real world existed as I marveled at the fanatical detail of the cockpits in my favorite simulators. I even bumped my head on my real-life steering wheel trying to peer at the interesting switches and gauges.
As a result of the changes, nearly everything about my driving improved. My lap times immediately became more consistent, and my fun factor increased enough that I could stay in the sim for 90-minute endurance races, a drastic difference from when I would get bored after 20 minutes of racing on my screen. I’ve noticed by average lap time variation over a race distance used to be around a quarter of a second either way, per lap. Now I’m usually within a tenth of a second of my previous lap time, if not less. The benefits of VR are almost too strong to ignore, especially at the $300 price point of the Quest 2.
I say almost with some emphasis, however. There are still the obvious downsides of fatigue over long sessions, with the headset never quite disappearing on my head. My mind translates it like I’m wearing a helmet so it works for me, but it isn’t going to work for some folks.
There is also the issue of needing a setup good enough to warrant a VR headset. It wasn’t just the $2,300 I spent to upgrade my PC and get the Quest 2, but it is also having my $1,200 Fanatec wheel setup, $360 pedals, $150 shifter, my basic $200 wheel stand, and the space to keep all of this hardware. It would not be worth going VR without serious sim hardware to match it. Folks on $250 Logitech G920s or low-end Thrustmaster wheel setups would be wiser to invest in a better wheel and pedal setup before getting a VR headset, in my opinion.
There is also the limited field of view in the Quest 2. Head movements are smoothly tracked so it isn’t a huge problem, but it does feel like I’m wearing goggles rather than truly using my entire field of vision.
But the most unexpected and disappointing downside has been the feeling that my brain chemistry was somehow re-arranged after the first few weeks of use. There are a lot of side effects that I don’t think are talked about. Until I got used to the VR experience of total immersion, I would get out of the headset feeling like real life was uncannily smooth and like my hands felt more like the floating joysticks in the headset rather than my real hands.
I wish I were joking when I said this, but I damn near dreamed in VR for the first week I used it. I would close my eyes and see the Oculus home menu where users can point and summon things. The latency of computers and displays mixed with true-to-life scaling and distance is incredibly disorienting after the fact, especially to new users like me. There is also the roll of the dice of motion sickness; some people cannot avoid some form of it.
Normal screens like on my smartphone and laptop would feel strange after VR. A month later, most of those strange side-effects are gone but they are worth noting.
This feeds into my biggest gripe with VR: I feel that this is going to be the downfall of humanity. I hate that using this Meta-controlled bit of hardware that is surely mining every bit of my data and plotting how to get me into the metaverse. For the record, I will never in my fucking life take a meeting in VR. The technology is still in its early days and it is so impressive that I fear what will happen when more resolution and more peripheral vision is added.
Perhaps the movie Wall-E will become reality. It is that scary. I love using the headset for sim racing so much that I can look past it, but I would strongly recommend limiting use. The Quest 2 comes armed with a full suite of apps and functions that allow you to use it like a head-mounted smart phone. I almost want to implore all of you to just stick to the screens, or just go read a book. It can be easy to get suckered into using it a lot and it feels naughty, almost unhealthy to me. Sim racing gives me my one and only purpose to use it, and I want to be disciplined and keep it that way.
Regardless of the health and safety concerns, VR is going to be the future of sim racing. Once headsets get smaller, lighter, and more advanced, they will be hard to ignore. There is still a massive financial and equipment curve to surmount, but if you’re on the fence, I say give it a shot. Most won’t regret it. Even with my doom and gloom, I can’t go back to a normal screen for sim racing.
That is, unless our technocrat overlords foist upon us the full feature set of the headset. Until that day, catch me doing my best Hans-Joachim Stuck impression in a Porsche 962. Happy sim racing.
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