Let’s get this straight: If it’s unconventional, weird, untested and surely not enterprise ready in the near future then I am interested in it! A while ago I used an Android tablet as my main work platform and even though it worked, the negatives outwitted the positive. I know it’s doable, I’ve done it and I can see myself doing it again in certain circumstances. But since I truly am on the path towards becoming a internet enabled masochist I decided to go one step further and take my brain and eyes for a more unconventional spin: Attempt to do some remote work using Virtual Reality!

cardboard_hereNow I know how this sounds but bear with me! At heart, the concept of virtual workspaces sounds like a great solution to allot of on-the-go work, office space and expensive 30” inch monitors that people like me love to stack! Let’s be honest, even a huge laptop cannot be a true replacement for that sweet multiple display-based work station you grind away at work/home! We love our multiple monitors and there’s no shame in it. And this is were I think VR truly has the chance to shine! Where ever you go, where ever you sit, as long as you have a VR Head Mounted Display and a device that can connect to the internet you can, technically speaking, have 20 monitors surround you and work in any environments with no visual distractions! The downside? There’s no way to test this theory for now, at least no with more than 1 monitor but hey, I’ll work with what I have.

vr_cameraThe tools of the trade?

  • Android Smartphone
  • A google cardboard case
  • A ubuntu server (I’m using a @digitalocean droplet for this one)
  • A VR-enabled VNC app

or

  • Any VNC app with Native SideBySide for Android.
  • A Logitech K480 bluetooth keyboard
  • A Microsoft Designer Mouse

The smarthphone I’m using is Nexus 4 with Android 5.0.1 and an Asus Zenfon Go with 5.1.1. The N4 is the main display since it’s the only one of the two phones with a 1080 resolution. I could go about with Zenfon and it’s 1 extra inch but the fact that it lacks a gyroscope leaves the experience lacking. My home router (a TP-Link WR740N) seems to hate VNC so much that it crashes every time I setup a connection to a server on the same network so I had to go for a remote solution to test things out. As such I relied on good-ol’-same-ol’ digital ocean for this experiment. Now for the actual remote app, we can use two different approaches:

vr_remote_vnc_freeThe easiest way is by using a great app by Chai Software. In short it uses the Cardboard SDK to create two side-by-side images of a VNC connection to a remote host, together with a virtual pointer (in the middle of the screen) which you can use to toggle between canvases, toggle a magnifying glass or return home. It’s VR enabled only when a connection is established so it does require you to take out your phone quite allot between dropped connections or having to switch servers. But the app works great especially considering that it allows you to activate the phone camera to get a view of your surroundings, recenter the screen and the magnifying glass is a godsend when using a low-res geometry desktop. It’s stable, it’s free and the ads are so unobtrusive (they never appear when connected) that I decided to drop some support for the pro version (no ads). Did I mention it’s also open source under the GPL license?

native_sbs_androidThe hard way is by using Native SBS for Android. It requires a rooted, supported phone with android 4.4, 5.0 or 6.0 (nothing in between from my tests). What the APP does is it injects itself into the kernel and provides, as it name implies, a side-by-side rendering of your Android OS on your phone. Changes by this app can be applied for only one session (instead of permanently) but it requires allot of fiddling. The advantage of this approach is that you can use any app with your cardboard HMD. On the not-so-bright-side it doesn’t use the phone’s gyroscope so a full VR experience can only be gained from VR enabled apps. If you only plan on staring directly at the monitor with a VNC app then this is the way to go (nothing beats VNC Viewer by RealVNC on the android department).

Native SBS for Android won’t appear on the playstore if you search for it. It’s only available for people on the SBS G+ community who applied to be a tester (link here). Approval can take a while but if you are interested in this and want to help out Fredrik Markström (the creator) please do so. Just be sure to read the FAQ first and avoid pilling up new “DOWNLOAD LINK DOESn”T WORK!!!1!” posts!

Tetris in VR via XTERM

Tetris in VR via XTERM

I spent the better part of yesterday toying with several stuff on my remote server. In the screenshot above I’m playing petris, a ascii based terminal powered tetris game. Part of this blog post has also been written while under eye strain and remote-ness and I plan on trying out some remote-vr work in the upcoming days. VR in itself is fascinating and the idea of being able to work from outside an office has always intrigued me (again, see my Android Table experiment). But I’m not sure how doable this is right now. Toying around with it in the house is fun but I need some actual field work. So I plan on gathering data from “the field” in March. My plan is to grab some co-workers, offer them ungodly amounts of beer and take the cardboard, my two phones, the bluetooth mouse, keyboard and try to setup a wordpress installation, post an article and setup a HTML5 game while working from a pub in Iasi city. And I plan to record data such as:

  • Time spent with the HMD on (minimum, max and average)
  • Effects on performing tasks under such circumstances (eye strain, nausea, neck aches, etc)
  • Time it takes to complete the aforementioned tasks in VR vs sitting at a regular desk
  • Consistency of remote VR work while under average WIFI connection and 3G
  • People’s reaction to the endeavour

Hopefully I’ll get some interesting results from this. It will probably happen sometimes after the 15th of March (I need my paycheck to afford the beer that I can exchange for other people to take notes)

P.s. Links to the apps described

If you have any questions about this experiment post a comment bellow or reach out to me on twitter.

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2 thoughts on “VNC VR – a volatile solution or a virtually amazing revolution?

  1. It’s a fantastic idea if you could pull it off at the scale of multi-screen immersion. The big challenge for someone like me is using multiple peripherals (Keyboard, wacom tablet, mouse) without being able to see them in your peripheral vision.

    • Peripherals are a big problem when it comes to VR space. You could get away with a virtual keyboard that shows you what you pressed but not sure how useful that would be without additional tracking objects to show were you limbs are!

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