Sim Racing in VR Part 1 (Primer)

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I’m not sure I actually enjoy sim racing yet. I’ve used sims such as iRacing to learn a new track in the past but never jumped in the competitive ‘deep end’ of the sim so to speak. I’ve always been more drawn to the fps and arcade style genres. Games where you function at 100 percent intensity. Perhaps that is where a distinction could be drawn as iRacing isn’t meant to be a game.

Unlike the Gran Turismo’s and Forza’s of the world, iRacing is a much harsher and less forgiving environment with a steep learning curve where new users often describe the cars as ‘ice skating’ around the tracks. For those of us that grew up gaming, this detracts from the fun factor quite a bit as you have to dial things back in order to lap successfully in this sim. (Maybe an arcade mode where the physics are more forgiving should be an option.) But as of now, you dial back the aggression, learn to complete a lap slowly without hitting anything and then slowly ramp up and drop time. Then iRacing becomes enjoyable although I still can’t say fun.

With the race season effectively in a holding pattern however, sim racing is what we have at the moment and where the ‘races’ are taking place. So I dusted off my old rig and set up shop in my upstairs loft to start getting my ass virtually kicked on a weekly basis.

Original Setup

I started with an old gaming pc I built years ago with an AMD Phenom 2 chipset and Radeon RX 480 video card that handles the sim well at mid graphics settings on a single screen. It also performs well with the original HTC Vive VR headset.

As for input devices, I use a Fanatec XBox One/PC CSL Steering wheel and Fanatec Clubsport Pedals V2. Both items are discontinued (in favor of newer models) but have been super reliable over 4-5 years of sporadic use.

My original Fanatec sim racing rig is still working flawlessly. Xbox/PC CSL steering wheel with force feedback, clubsport pedals V2 and shifter. The seat on the other hand is horrendously uncomfortable hence the pillow.
Updating the VR

When I started racing in the sim during this weird 2020 season, I quickly realized if I was going to race I wanted it to be more immersive. After the first race I realized why I wasn’t racing in VR. The old headset is nice for other games but the resolution is not up to the task in iRacing. The VR immersion aspect is great but the low resolution makes anything not directly in front of the path of travel either blurry or pixelated.

Luckily, I can justify some upgrades with the money saved not racing. (I would much rather go racing but I’m running with whatever positives I can take these days) There are a few main players in the recreational VR market and after some extensive ‘research’ (a.k.a. analysis paralysis) I settled on the HTC Vive Pro. Each of the current gen headsets have their pro’s and cons. The Valve Index was my other choice and was on an 8 week back order, making the Vive Pro purchase super easy.

HTC Vive Pro

With almost double the resolution of the first gen Vive, the Vive Pro was a game changer in iRacing. Objects in the distance now look crisp and cars in the rearview look like cars instead of 8-bit blobs. The built in speakers and mic also make this the most comfortable headset I’ve tried to date.

Now I can’t say I was completely blown away with the new headset but the VR is finally at a point where I easily prefer it over a 3 screen setup. And I’m also excited for the next gen headsets with even higher resolutions.

The Vive Pro is quite a step up from the original HTC Vive. Not only is the resolution greatly improved but the built in speakers and microphone as well as the easy adjustment makes it the most comfortable headset I’ve tried to date.
Bottleneck

Running the new headset, the old gaming rig quickly became a bottleneck. I would notice dropped frames when cornering which would become quite distracting while racing. Seeing as a lot of the rigs components are 5 years old, I used the, ‘I’m saving money not racing’ logic again. I was going to build another pc when I was pleasantly surprised at how ‘inexpensive’ a turn-key gaming pc is. Focusing on getting the best video card I landed on a machine built by ABS with a GeForce 2080ti card and a liquid cooled Intel i7 processor at a relatively inexpensive price point in the max detail 120 fps universe.

VR Pro’s and Con’s

So here we are with my current sim racing setup. The PC should be more than capable of handling that next generation of VR headsets while allowing me to pretend to race until the real tracks open back up. The old Fanatec wheels and pedals still work great and I actually spent a little less money compared to a 3 screen setup.

Pro’s:

  • Head motion relates to screen view yielding a greater level of immersion. Can now look through the turns.
  • 2nd gen headsets sharpen view significantly for a better than ‘good enough’ view. Still not as crisp as a monitor but it’s a significant jump in that direction.
  • Vive pro integrated speakers and mic make for a super simple setup.
  • Takes up less room than a 1 or 3 screen system.

Con’s:

  • Running high graphic detail in VR requires a high end gaming pc.
  • FOV (Field of View or peripheral vision) is limited in most VR headsets. However, I did find a company manufacturing high res wide FOV headsets. More on PimaxVR in a future post.

After upgrading the VR I wouldn’t go back to sim racing on a flat screen. Although there are a couple areas of improvement where I think VR will become the ideal for sim racing. Those issues should be addressed in the 3rd gen headsets we are likely to see in late 2020 and 2021.

As of now I’m working my way up the sim racing ranks in a few private leagues as well as public races. Sometimes the realism amazes me. Like when my fanatec steering wheel came off my rig mount during a race last week. Forcing me to retire due to a mechanical failure just like in real life. I was annoyed at first but found myself laughing in the end realizing I had officially replicated the 944spec experience.

By Chris Simmons

Chris Simmons is a race car driver, instructor, business owner and all around gearhead. His passion for motorsport started in the drifting community over 10 years ago and progressed into wheel to wheel racing of all kinds. When off track Chris can be found training and working on a myriad of projects. After a hiatus from writing, he is back to share his passion, knowledge and experience in regard to motorsports on and off the track.

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