My dream VR rig, realized

As my followers know, I’ve been involved with all things virtual since I became a content creator for Second Life waaaaaay back in 2003. Back then, SL seemed incredibly demanding, in terms of its hardware requirements, and I couldn’t afford an adequate SL rig until 2007 when I bought my dream machine: a Pentium quad core at 2.4 GHz with a whopping 4 gigabytes of RAM. A speed demon!

I’ve had my eye on the rise of VR hardware even as my once-enviable computer edged further into the depressing territory of obsolescence. How could I contribute to new virtual worlds without anything resembling a capable PC?

A naked processor! Gasp!

This year, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive seem to be hitting their stride. Microsoft is pushing new hardware for their “mixed reality” solutions. Console gamers are getting in on the action with PlayStation VR. Even smartphones have VR content with Google Daydream and the aging Google Cardboard. 2017 marks a major step forward in consumer adoption of virtual reality.

In this context, I realized that it’s time to step up and buy a ticket to the virtual world. So I built my dream machine.

It’s going to get really nerdy in a moment, so if you glaze over at the mention of hardware, you might want to visit my sidebar for some more engaging content where I write about penguins, breakfast sandwiches, and airplanes.

Knowing that VR is extremely demanding, I decided to get the best I could afford (which is different from the best available), that would fit into the smallest form factor possible.

  • Case: CoolerMaster Elite 130. This one’s notable for being small, but long enough to house a full-size graphics card, which is key for VR.
  • MSI B260i Pro “gaming” motherboard in a mini-ITX form factor (to fit my mini-ITX case).
  • Intel i7 7700k quad core “Kaby Lake”. My last was a quad core, but this clocks in at 4.2GHz without overclocking. Nifty.
  • Corsair “Vengeance” RAM, 16GB. I don’t know how fast. It’s supposedly quite fast.
  • MSI/nVidia GTX 1060 graphics card with 6GB on-board. Here I skimped a bit, but a 1080 seemed like overkill.
  • Samsung SSD for the system drive.

And then, of course, I bought myself an Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch controllers (described in a previous post). After recovering from utter stunned amazement at my Rift, I noticed that my little i7 was overheating badly. The Noctua “low-profile” cooler that the store expert assured me was sufficient was not. Like… close to boiling water kind of insufficient.

The best solution for a hot processor is liquid cooling. But in a mini-ITX case? It was already a tight squeeze, but I managed to mash a full-size Corsair twin-fan radiator and pump inside along with the truly bulky GTX 1060.

So now I have my dream machine — a rig that can handle pretty much anything this year’s software can throw at it. And a bit less the next year. And the next year. Until the relentless march of time turns my dream into a doorstop.

Stay frosty

Virtual reality sits out on the bleeding edge of technology — a spot its occupied for decades — always an elusive dream. Now, with the right hardware, it’s within reach.  A dream machine can take us there.


Exclusive: Secret details of the new virtual reality █████████ by ███████████

Redacted screen image

I can’t tell you how much I thrills me to report on my experiences. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, let me tell you — and I’ll tell you absolutely everything you wanted to know about this virtual reality project.

Naturally, I’ll have to be careful about what I say because I signed a non-disclosure agreement. If I reveal anything I shouldn’t, I could be in some legal hot water, but at the same time, there so much to tell, so what I’ll do is describe my experiences in full detail, then redact later.

When █████████ emailed me an invitation to try their top-secret virtual reality ███████, ██████, I was thrilled. I’d been hoping to get early access to ██████ for █████████, and was chafing at the bit to get in and see what I could create.

First impression? On login, I was greeted by █ █████ ███████, which was extremely reassuring, because it means that ██████ ███ ████████ ██ ███ ██████ ██████████. There were so many intriguing ████████ that I honestly didn’t know what to try first.

Actual screen shot of XXXXXXX without any XXX XXXXXX!

Being the methodical guy I am, I decided to work alphabetically, and clicked █████ ███ ████████. Even as I write that I know readers will question my choice, but I swear at the time I had no awareness that █ ███████ is all about ██████. I was about to discover that for myself.

I clicked █████, put on my Oculus Rift, and entered █ ████ ███ ███████ ██ █████████████ ████ ███ █ ███ ███ ██████. All I can say, without revealing too much is that my █████ immediately began to ████████ with █████. A startling reaction, you’ll agree. Suddenly, █ ████ ██ █████ emerged from █ █████ with absolutely no ████ ██ ████████. I was ██████.

Afterwards, the ██████ even tried to ███████ its ████ ██████ with several others. Even the big ones! If this were real, I’d definitely have to ███ █ ██████ with a ██████! Not to mention having a █████ on the ████ ██████ made the llama a little bit ████. But isn’t that what llamas do?

I emerged from ██████ with full knowledge that I’d seen ████ █ ████████ ██████ ███████████████ ██ █████ █ and █████ ███ ███████.  The ███ ████ ██ ████ ██ ██████ fourteen or fifteen different  ███ ████ ███ ██████ a ██████ ███████████ ████ to ██ ██ ██████ ███ wobbling underneath me like a glistening ’70s party platter of tuna aspic.

And that was my first time in ██████ ████ by ███████ ████ ██. I hope I haven’t revealed too much. And I hope I can frequently return to █████ the ████ ███ █████, but next time I’ll wear a ███ █████!


Wow. Ow! Or, “A day with Oculus Rift”

Disaster Area’s blacker-than-black stunt ship

My new Oculus Rift arrived by Canada Post on Friday afternoon. It’s elegant, packed with high-tech optics, and — like Hotblack Desiato’s stunt ship in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe — it’s so black your eyes just slide off it. Every part of the Rift VR headset, including the packaging, is elegant, solid, and so very, very black. On the top of the box is embossed the black, sideways “O” of the Oculus logo, which is somehow even blacker than the surface of the box. I knew I had something good.

Black on black. An Oculus Rift in its box.

Setting up the Rift is made easy by a setup wizard, which uses a combo of drawings and video to walk you through everything from pulling the protective film off various surfaces to positioning the motion sensors correctly. As a tech writer, I appreciate clear, concise instructions. Oculus clearly hired some talented people, because the Rift user manual is a pleasure to just look at. But enough about the instructions. Let’s get to the good stuff.

What Rift apps have I tried in my first day? Among the free apps included with it is a short, but wonderful demo called First Contact. The lights come up on the inside of an RV/mobile home that’s just packed with broken and worn out bits and pieces of computer and robotic technology. Helped by a little robot buddy, I learned how to pick up and manipulate objects.

And punch furniture.

That last one isn’t part of the simulation. Immersed as I was in a virtual space, I forgot to be cautious about reaching quickly to grab something in virtual space only to skin my knuckles on a set of very real shelves.


The feeling that you’re in a real space is overwhelming. You’re not just watching a computer simulation. You’re in it. You’re part of it. And when you remove the headset, you feel like you’re returning home after travelling somewhere.

Other VR apps I’ve tried:

  • Google Earth VR. I try to describe the feeling when confronted with the entire globe floating in front of me but I end up just sputtering things like “wow” and “that’s incredible”. Every part of the planet has been photographed, mapped, and modelled in 3D. Just reach out, move, and examine any part of it. At one point, I found myself towering over a waist-high miniature St. Paul’s Cathedral like Godzilla on a sight-seeing tour of London. Again, “wow”.
  • Facebook Spaces social VR. For something that’s supposed to represent the future of social VR, it was fun but disappointingly shallow. The environment is a 360-degree park photo (not 3D) and you’re glued to one spot. You can sketch objects in 3D, take selfies with a (shudder) selfie stick. You can call someone in Facebook Messenger — or so they say, because none of my calls went through. They’ll have to add some meaningful content and functionality here before it’s worth Facebook’s massive investment in Oculus.
  • Robo Recall from Epic Games. It’s a first-person shooter where you blow up angry robots. Simple enough. Within your limited real-world space, you can dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge projectiles, but larger movement means “teleport” point-to-point in a small space rather than moving naturally through the virtual space like a regular FPS game.
    Shooters generally stress me out, so while I’m impressed by the immersion, I had to pull off Rift abruptly to catch my breath. That’s a testament to the immersiveness of the medium, I suppose.
  • Rec Room. It’s an oddly simple app, in which you meet other people (real people), as represented by minimalist avatars, and chat with them while playing games like ping-pong, darts, frisbee, and basketball. One room lets teams fight robots in a laser tag arena. Another has people playing a game like Pictionary but in drawing in 3D. Good, relaxing fun.
  • High Fidelity. This one isn’t so much an app as it is a test platform for VR technology, and it’s something I hope to engage with more in the coming weeks. Philip Rosedale, once founder and spiky-haired front man for Second Life, brings us project for building a VR simulator engine. High Fidelity isn’t the end product, but a framework on which virtual worlds can be built. It’s fascinating to see it evolve slowly, but a bit frustrating that the UI for their test “sandbox” is so poorly implemented. Everyone should keep their eye on High Fidelity, because I have a feeling that it’s going to form the underpinnings of a lot of VR spaces.
  • Linden Lab’s Sansar. Just kidding. Sansar, the long-promised virtual world from the makers of Second Life, is still MIA. I hope they decide to open it to the public soon, but for now it’s still in a closed beta.

Some people sneer at the thought of a social virtual reality, skeptical that the technology is anything but isolating. Over a decade and a half of Second Life users will disagree, however. Virtual reality has been around for a long time. Though it has traditionally been accessed without the immersive headset, as in ActiveWorlds, There, and Second Life, these virtual worlds thrive on social interaction.

As a passer-by said in Rec Room said last night, this app wouldn’t be even slightly interesting if you couldn’t chat with real people in it. He’s right. The best, most engaging content for VR headsets won’t be solo experiences — they’ll be social.

In 2003, Philip Rosedale once commented that sex was the secret sauce that makes a virtual world work. He was wrong about that. It’s bigger and more significant than that. Virtual worlds are about real people. Social contact is the secret sauce. It’s what makes the experience significant. The shooting, flying, dodging, teleporting, and 3D painting might be just secondary gimmicks.

Alright, they’re fun gimmicks. And occasionally painful gimmicks. In the course of one astonishing day with Oculus Rift, I’ve punched or tripped over real furniture three or four times and tried to lean against a virtual wall only once. I think I’m doing well with only minor bruises. Ow.

Second Life, I demand names!

So I’m doodling away in Blender adding bits and bobs onto other bits and bobs, and before I know it, it starts to look like something. Yes… something. But what?

It glows. What is it?

I don’t know!

Instead of figuring it what it is, I want to give it a name. That’s right. I have no idea what it is or what it does, but it needs a name. Send your name ideas to me, Cubey Terra, in Second Life. My panel of judges (coincidentally all named Cubey Terra also) will review the entries and pick a winner by March 15, 2117.

The winner, if they choose to live into the 22nd century, will get a copy of the first airplane I made in Second Life*. How can you turn that down?

(*Offer only applies if both Second Life and Cubey Terra still exist one century from this date.)

Visiting InWorldz — the free virtual world based on Second Life

Cubey Terra in InWorldz on a Terra Xplorer

I’ve been in and around virtual reality for a long time now. I’ve seen world-building tools and shared worlds come and go. In the early ’90s, I played with something called Virtual Reality Studio, in which you could construct mini realities from 3D primitives, script them for interactivity, then share the world as an executable that ran on any PC.

The end of the ’90s brought ActiveWorlds and, and by the early 2000s Second Life sprang into being. Since then, SL has spun off countless replica worlds — some public, some not — among which is InWorldz. Just like SL, it supports a large number of square region simulators that are designed and built to their owners’ tastes. And just like SL, anyone can drop in and start building right away. The difference is that, unlike Second Life, InWorldz doesn’t charge you money to upload content like mesh models, images, sounds, and more. It’s all free!

Given that I’m a cheapskate, I thought I’d see if I could bring one of my Second Life creations into InWorldz. I started with something simple: my Terra Xplorer hoverpad. Even though I created the Xplorer myself, Second Life has many restrictions on what you can export for use in other worlds. It’s meant to prevent IP theft, but it’s mainly just a pain in the ass, to be honest.

Cubey Terra in InWorldz on a Terra Xplorer
Cubey Terra arrives in InWorldz riding a Terra Xplorer hoverpad

For example, today I discovered that some of my scripts and most of my textures couldn’t export from SL — mysterious reasons. What arrived in InWorldz was scriptless, untextured models. That meant hours of work copying and adapting my scripts to InWorldz, re-creating textures, and sometimes even rebuilding from scratch, as I did with the Xplorer’s heads-up display (HUD).

So three hours later, I produced a working replica of my Terra Xplorer hoverpad in another virtual world. Done.

Now what? InWorldz seems to have play money like Second Life, but I don’t know if it can be exchanged for US dollar credit as SL users can do on Given that I’m not especially interested in earning a new kind of play money, I started giving away Xplorer copies for free.

So that’s today’s experiment. If you log into InWorldz, send Cubey Terra a message and I’ll make sure you get an Xplorer.