It’s been a little over a week since BaseLAN 29.5 concluded and I’ve had some time to reflect on what went down. I was planning to write a general summary of what was demoed and how it all went down, and while I am going to do that, the real highlight is the graphics card that ZOTAC loaned us. That thing is a workhorse.
If you’ve been to BaseLAN in the last few years, read my column regularly, or simply paid attention to our webpage of the last year, you likely already know that AYBOnline has been promoting VR ever since the days of the Oculus Rift DK1. We’ve showcased both dev kits over the years, along with various different demos that highlighted the latest advancements in the technology. Now that the kits are available, we ordered one of each (and some accessories—keep an eye on the page for details in the future) to showcase our events. Sadly, our Oculus Rift has not yet shipped, but our HTC Vive was here in time for the event.
BaseLAN 29.5 attendees were able to test their skills in Space Pirate Trainer to compete for a 24” 1080p 144Hz Asus LCD display on Saturday, but the Vive demo was running all weekend. In addition to playing Space Pirate Trainer all day long on Saturday (the competition started at 1:30 and ended at 10pm), there were dozens of people that played other games throughout the weekend, including The Brookhaven Experiment, Job Simulator, Budget Cuts, Tilt Brush and Audioshield.
On Friday the demos opened up before the doors were even opened to attendees at 3pm. Some of the staff members had a go before we started letting people into the building. There was a short lull while people were setting up their computers, but by 4pm we had a steady stream of people lining up to try room-scale VR. We also had a projector set up to show what the players were seeing. The projector was an important part of getting people’s attention.
The first day was mostly shooters. Many, many people wanted to try Space Pirate Trainer, especially after I gave a demonstration of the game and clocked a score of 10500—everyone was determined to beat me. The Brookhaven Experiment was also a popular option, especially after trying Space Pirate Trainer. Job Simulator was the next most requested game, I believe partially because Job Sim has had a log of media attention of the last year, so people seem to be most familiar with this game.
The Vive ran for several hours before we experienced any issues, but eventually the graphics card needed a short break. One of the attendees started to get dizzy after just a minute of two, which is completely uncharacteristic of the Vive experience. I popped the headset on, and sure enough the game was dropping well below 90 FPS and relying heavily on Interleaved Reprojection.
Interleaved Reprojection is SteamVR’s way of handing low frame rates. If the FPS dips below 90, it is instantly dropped to 45 and then double buffered. SteamVR then looks at the last fully rendered frame, recalculates that data and then adds the current head position to the frame. The result is smooth for most games, but the drones in SPT move too fast for this to work well. The droids look like double vision, which can be very disorienting.
The GTX 980 Ti has more than enough power to never have to rely on Interleaved Reprojection, but only when the card is running efficiently. Our demo system sits in a slightly modified Cooler Master LANBOX case, which is not well known for its airflow capability. We found that the GPU was ramping up well into the 70-degree mark, which was causing performance to drop significantly. The ZOTAC GTX 980 Ti AMP! Extreme features three fans that blow air across the card’s heat sink, but that design relies heavily on case airflow.
The solution to the issue was twofold, yet simple. We took the lid off the case to allow for ambient air from the room to be more readily sucked in from the GPU fans. It also allowed the heat to dissipate upwards into the room naturally, rather than rely on one exhaust fan that also happens to be cooling the CPU radiator.
The second factor was a custom fan profile. Normally you wouldn’t want to run the fans on a card like this at 100-percent full time because they make a heck of a racket, but in our case, the fan noise was not audible over the speakers from the VR rig and the general noise in the building from all the computers and people. Once we had the fan profile set to max, we found that the card handled the job valiantly.
The VR rig kept running into the wee hours of the night. Sometime around 2 or 3 AM, I fired up Audioshield for a few rounds of my own. I declared to the crowd waiting for a turn, “I’ve been running this thing for nearly 12 hours, I’m going to be selfish and take a turn myself.” The plan was to simply play one song to get other people’s attention and show them what the game is about. After my first song, I found a crowd of people around me and they were all clapping a cheering. Everyone wanted to see me go again, so I proceeded to play two more high-intensity songs. By the time I was done the third song, I was out of breath and sweating buckets. I passed the torch on to Quinn, another BaseLAN staff member because others still wanted to play, but I needed to sleep. I’m told they kept it going until well after 5 AM.
Space Pirate Tournament
The following day, I returned around noon, but before I was back, the staff had started up the VR system again. It was going strong from 9 AM onward. The Space Pirate Trainer tournament started at 1:30 PM and ran for the majority of Saturday, with over 30 participants trying their luck. The highest score all day was 13,600, which was impressive, but it wasn’t enough to unlock my special bonus prize. I was going to personally offer a copy of SPT (or a game of their choice for the equivalent or lower price if they weren’t going to be buying a Vive anytime soon) to the first person to crack the benchmark score that I had set of 19,600 points. Thankfully for my wallet, not one did.
Throughout the tournament, we had to reboot the computer several times because of reprojection. Even with the fan profile set to 100-percent, there’s something about that game that brings GPUs to their knees after a period of time. Thankfully, heat wasn’t the issue, so simply rebooting the PC got us up and running again. This seemed to be needed every hour and half to two hours of constantly playing the same game.
The tournament concluded around 10:30 PM, at which point we gave the PC a 20-minute break before getting back into open demos for everyone. Just before 11 PM, people started playing Audioshield again, which continued well into the night. I left the venue at 4 AM and it was still going strong.
I was back by 10AM the next morning to get the VR system going again for the final day of BaseLAN. The system didn’t get as much use on the last day, mostly because there were far fewer people, but it was still going strong for the majority of the day. For the last day, I finally set up the racing wheel that we had hauled to the event. We played Project Cars in VR for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon.
Short Time, Many Hours
We’ve only had our Vive for a few weeks, and for most of that time it has actually been in the box, but I still think our kit has seen more use than the majority of the Vive’s out there. By my estimation, the Vive was running for somewhere around 40 hours out of a 65-hour period. If you ask me that’s saying a lot about the quality of the parts used in the Vive, and a testament to the power of the GTX 980 Ti. I can’t wait to see how the GTX 1080 handles the job this fall.
By the way, in case you were wondering how we managed to keep the controllers going for so long: We had two sets of controllers. They last about six to eight hours on a charge. We just alternated them every time the PC was rebooted.
Kevin Carbotte is Senior Editor, Hardware for AYBOnline.com. He knows a little about a lot, and a lot about a little. The opinions in his columns are his and his alone, but you are free to have them.