It's big. It's crazy. It's expensive. It's painfully complicated. But, if you invest the time and effort, it's also extraordinarily fun.
I'm talking about the HP Omen X Compact Desktop, which I'm using to greatly enhance my virtual reality experience, by physically attaching this full gaming PC to my back, plugging in a headset, and diving into the universe of amazing worlds available in VR.
The big difference is that I'm untethered from a desk-bound laptop or desktop, and free to wander as far as the floorspace of my test area allows. This isn't the first or only way to cut the cables on PC-based virtual reality, but it's certainly the most full-featured and flexible solution I've tried so far.
This entire rig, which includes the computer, a desktop dock, and a backpack rig with batteries, is $2,999 -- a huge amount, but anyone looking for a budget VR experience is probably going to go for a PlayStation VR or Google Daydream anyway. It breaks down to $2,499 for the PC itself, which has an Intel Core i7-7820HK CPU, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card, plus its desktop dock; and $499 for the backpack, which includes the backpack frame and straps, four rechargeable batteries and a battery charging dock. In the UK, the package is £2,999 and in Australia, the system is not yet available, but you can sign up to "register interest" in future updates.
The Omen X desktop itself lives up to its "Compact Desktop" name -- it's less than three inches thick and weighs around 5.5 pounds. It'll remind you of a slim living room game console, like the Xbox One S.
And yes, you still have to add your own VR headset. The HTC Vive and Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality headsets are officially supported (HP's version is $449 for the headset plus two hand controllers). Using an Oculus Rift would be tough, as it requires the base stations to be tethered to the PC via USB cables.
This isn't the first or only way to cut the VR cable. We've previously tested the MSI VR One backpack, which is conceptually similar, but not as advanced, and several wireless transmitter solutions, such as the TPCast, are slowly coming to market.
If you have the floorspace to take advantage of it, this is a very different experience than traditional PC VR, where you're always moving around gingerly, afraid of getting tangled up in the cables, or even pulling the desktop or laptop off the desk.
Yes, you're lugging about 10 pounds of gear around (that's the combined weight of the PC itself, the backpack and two batteries), and the batteries only last an hour or so. But the padded straps help it from feeling too heavy, and there's an extra set of batteries that you can keep on the charging dock and hot-swap as needed.
It's rare that I have so many volunteers to help try out some new technology, but there was a steady stream of people lined up to give untethered VR a try. Everyone was impressed, including VR veterans, who are usually pretty jaded about things like this. Most said they thought that wearing the backpack didn't feel overly cumbersome, but also that there was still an understandable natural inclination to move slowly and carefully, to avoid crashing into walls and furniture. You can see more of their comments in our video.
I used the Omen X in exploration games, like the puzzle-solving The Talos Principle, as well as action games like Gorn, a gladiator combat simulator. We used HP's own Windows Mixed Reality headset for these tests, but the system also works with the HTC Vive. The software available in the Windows Mixed Reality platform is limited, to say the least, but includes a few popular VR games like Space Pirate Trainer and Form.
There's a new workaround to play Steam VR games on the HP headset, although it's not 100% reliable yet. It involves launching a helper app within Steam to allow HP's mixed reality headset access to the much larger Steam VR game library. When it works, it's very useful, and frankly the only way the Windows Mixed Reality platform makes any sense right now.
The biggest issue we ran into is that the entire setup is just so complex and early in its lifecycle that I spent as much time troubleshooting as I did playing.
Just going from desktop to backpack is complex, and involves swapping out the longer cable connecting your VR headset and the PC for an (included) shorter one, popping the Omen X out of its dock, sliding it onto the backpack frame and connecting the two wearable batteries via a pair of screw-in cables. If using a Windows Mixed Reality headset, you also have to plug a mini-DVI connector of some kind into the Omen X, so the system correctly sees the VR headset as a secondary display. HP included a mini-DVI dummy dongle for my review unit, but you'll have to find your own.
Getting the backpack on, along with the headset and a pair of headphones, is easier with a friend to help. Solo, the process gets cumbersome.
And remember, once you disconnect the Omen X from the dock, you also lose the view from your desktop monitor, so any extra troubleshooting may require you to reverse the process and put the desktop back in its dock. That's not an idle warning, it happened to me several times.
Part of the issue is that the Windows Mixed Reality software platform is new and not fully baked yet, and the much-needed crossover with Steam is extremely buggy at this stage. And that's on top of typical VR woes like shifting boundary maps and controllers that occasionally lose sync and float away from you.
On the bright side, that's why you shouldn't worry about virtual reality being an isolating hobby. You're pretty much going to need a troubleshooting friend to hang out and act as your VR caddy anyway. And probably because I was the one acting as the troubleshooting VR helper, none of this seemed to bother my colleagues, who still lined up for a chance to try this this untethered VR experience.
We're continuing to test the HP Omen X Compact Desktop and will update with performance scores later this week.