Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Pimax 5K+ Impressions – The First of the Second Generation of VR

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 2, 2019

In case you haven’t figured it out, I am a Virtual Reality enthusiast. I’ve been looking forward to the coming of consumer-level Virtual Reality since the early 90s. I expected it a lot sooner than it got here, to be honest, but I’m glad it’s here now. I love that I get to work with it as part of my day job. Anyway, I have been willing to sink a bit of cash into it this hobby… to the extent that I pre-ordered a Pimax 5K+. Offering about the highest resolution out there and 170+ degrees of field-of-view, it seemed like a game-changer for PC-based VR.

My headset arrived a few weeks ago. Due to crazy work hours, I haven’t had as much time to play with it as I’d like, but I thought I’d share my impressions so far. The company and the PiTool software are still kind of young, so there’s plenty of room for both to grow. In fact, that’s probably the first alarm bell you should be hearing: There’s always a chance that one big disruption could cause the company and all its support of this product to disappear tomorrow. It’s no longer a “boutique” product, IMO, and has been growing to meet demand. My pre-order took months to arrive, but I understand that lately people have been getting their orders within 3-4 weeks. So… it’s improving.

Since it arrived, there have been a ton of announcements of new and impressive VR headsets for 2019. I’m going to state for the record that I’m calling this the second generation of VR hardware. Yes, annoyed pundits have their own list of demands for second-generation hardware, a bunch of revolutionary changes, but I call tough toenails. It is what it is, and the latest stuff coming out is definitely pretty exciting. I count the new Pimax headsets to be the first of this new generation. For the next couple of years, you’ll be able to treat yourself to much higher resolution, bigger field of view, inside-out tracking without the need of external sensors, untethered (or standalone) use, lighter weights, foveated rendering with eye-tracking, and improved frame rates for cleaner tracking. The problem is… I don’t know of any system coming out that will give you all of the above (or even a significant subset of the above), at least not at a consumer price-point.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to describe a VR experience. You can’t even show videos, really, that capture the experience properly. All I can do is offer comparisons and hope that it works.

Construction / Appearance: Construction feels a little more rugged than the Oculus Rift, but not as solid as the Vive / Vive Pro. It’s lightweight, though, in spite of its wide size and beefy lenses – less than the original Vive, I think. Anyway, I dig the LED Cylon-looking thing across the front. Maybe it makes me look less dorky or less like a hammerhead shark when I’m wearing it, but honestly, I don’t care. While it looks weird, it works. All is good.

Fit / Comfort: The strap that comes with the Pimax 5K+ is… well, functional. Kinda like the strap that shipped with the original Vive. I ordered some 3D-printed adapters for less than $10 that allowed me to hook up my Vive Deluxe Audio Strap to my Pimax, and it worked GREAT. I mean, really…. it feels like it belongs there. Pimax is coming out with their own version of the DAS for the Pimax, but I have a tough time imagining that it’ll be any better than this. I keep saying the Deluxe Audio Strap is a “must buy” for the original Vive, and it holds true here, too. With the strap, the Pimax is plenty comfy.

Some caveats, however: If you wear glasses in VR, you’ll need some thicker padding and adjustments to make it work right. Also, it seems to me that you really need to dial in your inter-pupillary distance (IPD) pretty closely… it’s not as tolerant as most headsets to being off by a couple of millimeters. If you don’t do this, you’ll probably see double and feel some eye strain after a while.

I’ve played for up to 90 minutes at a time with no significant feeling of eye strain or discomfort.

Setup: Getting things working with my computer is always a little bit of a chore, requiring software installation, reboots, etc. However, once it was set up, everything worked and kept working. Sometimes VR is finicky. The Pimax (currently) requires Lighthouse base stations (for position tracking) and controllers only available from HTC, which is great for an upgrade from the Vive, but not so great for new owners. However, Pimax is supposed to have both available really soon now, if they aren’t already.

Image Quality: Okay, here’s the biggest part – how are the visuals? In a word, fantastic. But you probably want more. Compared to the early 1st generation headsets, they are amazing. Compared to, say, the Vive Pro (which I have available for comparison), I think they aren’t quite as good. The LED display isn’t quite as bright and vivid, and the vertical resolution is about 10% smaller (1440 instead of the Vive Pro’s 1600). The horizontal resolution for the nearest 110 degrees (the standard FOV of headsets today, including the Vive Pro) is as good or better. The images do seem a little bit sharper than on the Vive Pro, and the screen door effect is hardly noticeable for me.

Of course, the selling point of the Pimax 5K+ is the wide field-of-view (FOV). It does not disappoint. The software allows three display modes: Small, Normal, and Large. Small FOV is about the usual 110 degrees that other headsets offer. If your game is having a really tough time running at higher resolutions at a decent frame rate, try this. “Normal” offers about 150 degrees of horizontal FOV, and it’s fantastic. “Large” opens up an extra 10 degrees on either side, giving you 170 degrees of horizontal FOV (they advertise 200 degrees “diagonal” FOV, which is a bizarre way to measure it that only marketing schmucks could come up with). Honestly, the difference between “Normal” and “Large” is hardly noticeable, and that last sliver is a little distorted by the lenses anyway. It’s really just good for catching stuff in the extremes of your peripheral vision. However, I didn’t notice a big difference in frame-rate for the large FOV, either, running on an RTX 2080Ti. So… YMMV. I may switch to “Large” mode in the future, but right now I’m extremely happy with Normal mode.

Normal Mode captures most of what your eyes see. You no longer feel like you are wearing blinders.  It’s more like ski goggles than scuba goggles. This makes it much easier to “check six” in a flight simulator, or to catch a glimpse of bad guys attacking you from the sides in a shooter. Some people say they can’t go back after experiencing the wider FOV for a while. I don’t have that problem, but it really is nice.  The higher resolution and sharp image quality make it easier to read the instrument panel in a flight sim, or to spot the details in Skyrim VR. And again, the peripheral vision or the ability to glance behind without having to turn almost all the way around is a really big deal in some games.

Looking at hard numbers: The original Vive and Oculus Rift offer 1080 x 1200 resolution per eye. The Vive Pro offers 1440 x 1600 resolution per eye… about a 75% improvement in resolution. The Pimax 5K+ has up to 2560 x 1440 resolution per eye – 184% better resolution than the original Rift and Vive, and about 60% larger than the Vive Pro… but it’s also spread out over a 55% wider field of view.

Software / Tuning: The Pimax 5K+ is compatible with SteamVR. I haven’t found anything that doesn’t work yet. However, you do need to run support software called “PiTool”. There are a lot of things to tweak here, in addition to the options inside SteamVR, in order to get the performance optimal for your tastes. Tweaking stuff in PiTool requires a restart of SteamVR for many of the changes to take effect. One of the most annoying issues is that a lot of older VR programs require the “Compatible with Parallel Projection” option to be activated.  This forces a slower rendering system to avoid seeing double, and it’s a significant hit to performance. Unity games and the newest Unreal games don’t require this option (and, happily, neither does DCS). Sadly, IL-2 Sturmovik requires this option, and I can’t get a solid 90 fps anymore in this game. Still, I’m generally ranging near 80, so it’s not terrible.

Other options include changing the field of view, modifying the brightness of the display, enabling their own version of Motion Smoothing (“Smart Smoothing,” which I don’t like as much as the one for the Vive), allowing “hidden areas” to be left unrendered (which can sometimes be noticed in the periphery of your version, but increases performance), changing the frame rate target (to sacrifice max FPS for a smoother frame rate… very important) and a bit more.  One size might not fit all games — particularly with Smart Smoothing and parallel projection compatibility. However, I like that they enable so many options to try and get the optimum performance / quality balance.

Overall: The VR landscape is about to get a bit more complicated, but as of right now, I’d say the Pimax is an excellent upgrade to the original Vive, if you have a machine beefy enough to keep up. You can keep your Lighthouse sensors and your controllers, and even keep your Deluxe Audio Strap if you have one. Put the original Vive in a box to remember it fondly, and rock on to the new, higher-resolution, wide-FOV new world. I consider it an upgrade over the Vive Pro, but not nearly as significant. The positives and negatives in the differences in visual quality probably balance each other out. The Pro has a wireless adapter allowing untethered gaming, but the wide FOV of the Pimax is a huge improvement.

If you do not already own the Vive “Lighthouse” base stations and controllers, it is a far more expensive system (even before you consider the costs of the PC). Pretty much the cost of a Vive Pro.

Is  the high resolution and wide FOV a game-changer? Not exactly, but for some games it really makes a tremendous difference (especially flight sims). I think foveated rendering doesn’t make much sense until you go outside the 110 degree FOV window. It’s a big enough deal that my next VR upgrade a few years down the road will have to offer a similarly wide FOV. Nothing announced so far is giving me any semblance of buyer’s remorse. If I didn’t already own the Pimax, I might be looking very closely at the upcoming HP Reverb or the Vive Cosmos. Then, I still might choose the Pimax. 🙂  I think it probably represents the hardware limits of graphics cards for the next few years, and unless you really MUST have an untethered experience or the absolute bare minimum of Screen Door Effect, I think this headset looks like something that will grow with me for several years.

 


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