Sim racing in VR for the first time

For a long time, the triple monitor setup was the holy grail of serious sim racing fans. And with good reason. A properly set up triple monitor setup is tremendously immersive. However, it’s expensive, space-consuming, and complicated to set up.

For someone who lives in a one bedroom apartment in the NYC metro area, space and money are always at a premium. A triple monitor setup is not happening any time soon. But a VR headset has virtually no footprint, and is comparatively cheap at $400.

Two of my favorite sim racing games, Project Cars 2 and Assetto Corsa Competizione, both have VR support, and my third favorite, Dirt Rally 2.0 is supposed to be getting Oculus support this summer.

I was able to get my hands-on an Oculus Rift S to try out some these games, and race in VR for the first time. After several very enjoyable hours, here are some early impressions.

First time setup

The Oculus software is obnoxious and absurd. To properly download it for Windows 10, you need to deactivate real-time protection, cloud-delivered protection, and your firewall. Worse, it doesn’t tell you that it needs you to do this. The download just hangs part way through if you leave any of these protection options enabled.

Steam doesn’t do this. The Epic store doesn’t do this. Why does Oculus require you to do this?

However, once the Oculus software is up and running, things get a lot easier. It’ll run you through first time configuration setup, which is pretty easy. Just follow the on-screen prompts. If you own PC2 and ACC through Steam, download Steam VR and run it after you’ve configured your headset through the Oculus software.

After you launch ACC / PC2 through the Steam interface, it’ll take up residence in your Oculus library. Keep in mind that sometimes Steam asks you which mode you want to start games in, and these prompts do not appear in your headset. Pop your headset off and follow the prompts to launch the game.

Yes, it’s a bit awkward, but VR is still a youthful technology. I think setup and usability will get better as time goes on.

First impressions behind the wheel

Visuals

Screenshot from Jimmy Broadbent

I’m used to racing on a professional Dell Ultrasharp 4K monitor with 100 percent sRGB color depth connected to a GTX 1080 Ti. Most of the time, visual settings are maxed out and frame rate remains pretty high. I’m spoiled in terms of visual fidelity.

The Oculus Rift S felt like a step back in terms of sheer beauty, especially compared to 4K on ultra settings. However, my monitor’s refresh rate maxes out at 60 Hz, so the Oculus Rift S has it beat in terms of pure smoothness at 80Hz.

I experienced a little bit of pop-in, where distant objects suddenly appeared in my field of view, but I got used to it eventually, and it didn’t hinder my racing experience. It was a little off-putting, but the track was always in view.

Project Cars 2 was far more beautiful at default settings than ACC, which had some flickering issues that hindered the experience. My experience with PC2 was significantly better than with ACC, which was a shame because I like ACC’s physics engine so much more. However, ACC only recently left Early Access, the Rift S is brand new, and I spent zero time adjusting settings to improve performance. I’m sure performance will improve.

Immersion

There is something immensely satisfying about looking around the inside of a race car - your race car. Most sim racers can only dream about driving a Porsche 911 or a Lamborghini Huracan, but VR puts you directly into the driver’s seat.

You can look down and see your Nomex suit and safety harness. Glance to the sides and you can see your opponents trying to pass you. ACC and PC2 made a point of making wheels in GT3 cars immensely beautiful. For the first time, I really wanted a custom wheel that matched what I was seeing in the car.

As you turn your head, 3D sound allows you to hear the change in the directional roar of your engine. The Oculus Rift S has built in speakers, but they lack bass and oomph. If you’re used to hearing the roar of engines through a good sound setup or headset, you’ll want to invest in some decent wired in-ear monitors to get the most out of the headset.

This comes at an initial cost. Unless you are a seasoned VR user, you will get motion sick during your first hour or so of racing. For some folks, this happens when you glance in your rear and sideview mirrors. For me, it happened when the rear wheels of my car settled after I came out of a corner and the car straightened. I just held my gorge down and smashed the throttle. The feeling faded completely after about an hour. Do a few hot laps and suffer for a while. Take a break and then come back. It’s worth it.

Another tip - make sure your view is centered correctly. ACC allows you to re-center your view at any time by pressing CTRL+space bar. PC2 is a little trickier. In the VR settings, you can set it up to re-center at the beginning of every race. When you start the race, lean back in your chair and press “start” and it’ll center itself. Restart races until you get this right. An improperly centered view will feel weird and cause more motion sickness, especially in that first hour.

I do all my racing with a Thrustmaster T300RS, which is a decent mid-range force feedback racing wheel. If you’re serious about sim racing in VR or 2D, pick one up. The difference between playing on a gamepad versus a force feedback capable racing wheel is tremendous.

You get more granularity in your control and a more realistic experience. Most importantly, the force feedback isn’t just vibration - its internal belt-drive motor provides a ton of information about how your tires are gripping the road and how your car is reacting to your steering. Also, there’s something incredible about the 1:1 experience of turning your racing wheel, and seeing your avatar’s hands making the same motions in VR.

Gameplay

Once you start racing against other cars, the entire experience really shines. Glancing out your side windows to check for opponents is a joy. Being able to turn your head slightly to track the upcoming corner before you enter it makes racing easier. You can even sit up a bit if your GT3 car is a little too low to the ground and you need to see a bit more of the upcoming track. It’s so compelling to use your body the way you would in an actual car.

You get a really convincing and realistic sense of speed and depth. Distances are easier to judge, and it’s easier to do the rapid mental math in your head when braking. You know immediately when you’re going too slow or too fast coming into a corner. The Rift S makes it easier to push your limits and get close to the extreme sides of the track, which improved my turns.

Also, I was better able to protect myself from skidding out via countersteering because I could see the car starting to tilt more quickly. That additional split second of reaction time saved me a few times.

Later, in ho hum 2D, I tried the same track (Willow Springs) with the same car (the retro Nissan R32, which is a challenging beast in PC2) and screwed up constantly. I was definitely driving better with the VR headset on my head.

Note: if you choose the internal cockpit view of your car, you lose almost all of your HUD elements. This happened to me in both ACC and PC2. Some folks won’t mind this at all, but I definitely missed having the track map in the upper right hand corner of my screen. The HUD elements are still there, but you have to turn your head so far to see them that you lose your view of the road. I think the designers figured (probably correctly) that folks sim racing in VR want to maximize their immersion and floating HUD elements are counterproductive to that goal.

On the plus side, the car’s instrument panel suddenly becomes immensely useful. When playing on a normal screen, I would always use the HUD elements. But in VR, I had to use the LEDs and the RPM meter on my dashboard. This imparts a great deal of personality onto each car. The dashboard of the classic Nissan R32 from Initial D looks nothing like a Nismo’s, and each car requires an adjustment period. This might annoy some people - I loved it.

Is it worth it?

Sim racing in VR is more than just a cheap gimmick. It’s a truly immersive experience and I anticipate that it’ll only get more popular. But is it worth $400?

Before you consider an Oculus Rift S, check to see if the games you play regularly support VR. Aside from PC2 and ACC, Dirt Rally 2.0 is supposed to get VR support this summer, while the F1 series doesn’t have it and isn’t promising it. iRacing, RaceRoom Racing Experience, the original Assetto Corsa, and the original Dirt Rally have it.

Finally, make sure you have a beefy PC. I got great results with my machine, which sports an i7-8700K, a GTX 1080 Ti, and 32GB of RAM, but I was pushing up against my machine’s limits. Your mileage may vary based on your rig. Always buy from an authorized, credible dealer with a good return policy.

If you’re short on space and the price of a triple monitor setup is prohibited, a VR headset is absolutely worth it. It feels like a tremendous improvement over simply staring at a monitor, even a gorgeous 4K monitor.

If you’re already racing on an old school Rift, you probably don’t need to upgrade unless you really want to play another VR title that benefits from the Rift S’s integrated sensors.

If visual fidelity is your top priority, you may want to stick with monitors. A great monitor will look better than the Rift S.

The Rift S is a huge step up in immersion even if it’s a step down in terms of graphical fidelity. Also, VR games like Five Nights at Freddy’s: Help Wanted, Beat Saber, and Super Hot VR are all incredibly well done.

What do you think? Do you want a triple monitor setup or a VR headset for your sim racing? Did you find that a VR headset helped or hindered your racing? Tell us in the comments below!