Review: MSI VR ONE Backpack PC

If you're looking to get into virtual reality but can't stand the idea of cords tying you down, you may have heard about the emerging tech niche of VR-ready backpack PCs. The MSI VR ONE is the first such system available to consumers, and comes equipped with either a GTX 1060 or 1070 graphics card and sells for $1999 or $2299 depending on your model of choice.

With no display and no keyboard, using the VR ONE is a far different experience from what you would get using a VR-ready laptop strapped to your back. In fact it's one of the strangest products we've ever tried, and it's important to know what you're getting into if you're considering picking one up for your VR needs. 

Cutting the cord

VR is slowly but surely taking over the worlds of gaming and entertainment. And while current headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are capable of some amazing things, they are also held back by technological limits that mark them clearly as first-generation devices. 

One of the biggest limitations of current VR headsets is their need for wires running from the headset to your PC. Room-scale VR is the best kind of VR, and while there are steps you can take to ensure you get the best room-scale VR experience possible, the physical tether between you and your system remains an obstacle that can be irritating at times. 

Everyone in the industry knows wireless VR is coming (and is already here, in some forms), but the big unknown is how long we'll have to wait for wireless tech that manages to deliver high resolutions and low latency in a single package. In five years we'll likely all be using wireless headsets, but even a single year is a long time to wait in the tech world. 

So it's in this strange VR Wild West when backpack PCs like the VR ONE might be a thing. At this moment if you want the same level of experience your HTC Vive offers, you want it room-scale, and you don't want to be tethered to a stationary PC, the VR One (and similar products coming soon from ZOTAC and others) is one of the very few options available to you. 

Features

We spent a few weeks testing the higher-end version of the VR ONE, which includes a GTX 1070, an Intel Core i7 6820HK, and a 512 GB SSD. It comes with Windows 10 installed and sports two removable batteries that MSI says allow for one and a half hours of non-stop VR gameplay when fully charged (which is more time than anyone is likely to spend in VR without a break). 

These batteries are a bit of an odd feature, because out of the box they are removable and hot-swappable, but you can't charge them using anything but a VR ONE. And buying the backpack doesn't give you any extra batteries or a charger (though these should be released in the coming months), so there's not really a reason to remove them (unless you want to take one out just to cut down on the weight of the backpack a bit, though then the weight won't be evenly distributed). 

With a 6th-gen Intel i7 processor and a GTX 1070, the VR ONE sports more than enough power to handle whatever VR game you want to throw at it. It can also handle regular games too, of course, and if you want to use it as a unique-looking desktop rig you'll just need to remove the backpack straps and attach a monitor, mouse, and keyboard. 

The backpack weighs in at around eight pounds, and manages to remain comfortable even with extended use thanks to the lightweight metal frame supporting the system itself and the buckles that go across your chest and waist to help distribute the weight. You won't forget you're wearing a computer on your back, but the whole thing is significantly more comfortable than what I experienced earlier this year at IDF 2016 when I had one of MSI's VR-ready Titan laptops strapped to my back to achieve a similar "cord-free" VR experience. It also does a great job of keeping your back cool, since there's a gap for air to flow through between your actual body and the chugging GPUs. 

The VR ONE charges via a standard cord you plug in on the bottom of the device, while on the top you have a selection of ports: four USB 3.0, one Thunderbolt 3, one Mini DisplayPort, one HDMI, standard headphone and microphone connections, and a port to provide AC power to your headset (so you can plug all three ends of the Vive's 3in1 cable directly into the VR ONE). 

The VR ONE doesn't have a connection for your LAN cable, but it does have Killer 1535 WLAN for wireless access and Bluetooth 4.1 support. If you really need to connect it to a wired network, well, I hear that Apple has made adapters trendy again, and a USB to ethernet dongle comes packaged with the VR ONE. 

Set-up and troubleshooting

It's tempting to think of the VR ONE as akin to a laptop due to its weight, size, and shape, but the lack of screen, keyboard, or trackpad means it's actually a lot closer to a desktop PC in terms of functionality. While the lack of these features helps keep the weight down and means the VR ONE is a lot more resilient to bumps and jostling than a typical laptop, it also means that whenever you need to do anything with the system that you can't do in a VR headset you need to plug a bunch of stuff in. 

There's no other way to say this: getting the VR ONE to work properly was an immense challenge. Some of the problems we encountered had to do with the fact that we had an early production sample without a retail box or documentation (MSI's representatives were very helpful getting us what we needed as we went along) but the larger issue with the device comes down to two key facts:

1. VR gaming isn't a bump-free experience in 2016, and some minor troubleshooting is an accepted part of the deal. 

2. Without a display, keyboard, or mouse, every bit of minor troubleshooting you need to do with the VR ONE becomes much more complicated. 

Dozens of times during our weeks with the VR ONE we turned it on, connected our Vive, connected the system to a display and plugged in a keyboard and mouse, logged in to Windows and Steam, started Steam VR, then unplugged the mouse, keyboard, and monitor, put on the headset and fastened the various straps on the VR ONE, got ready to launch a VR game...

And then something would go wrong. The headset would go black, or we could tell an error message had popped up. And so we had to take the headset and backpack off, connect the monitor again so we could see what the problem was, connect the mouse again so we could click "OKAY" or whatever we needed to do, and then reverse the whole process and hope that everything worked properly this time.

If the last few sentences have been exhausting to read, just imagine how it felt to actually do all this, over and over again. 

To connect your VR ONE to a display so you can actually see what's going on outside of VR you'll need either a Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable or you can set up one of the various methods to access your PC via Remote Desktop and control it from a second system. We went with the Mini DisplayPort method and things worked fine through repeated plugging and unplugging.

You definitely don't want to do plug your monitor in via HDMI, launch Steam VR, then remove the HDMI connection to your monitor and plug in the Vive headset HDMI. We tried this method too, and while the Steam VR interface worked fine, none of our VR games actually worked. 

In the end, using the VR ONE would be easier if it had a full-size DisplayPort or an additional HDMI port on it, but you'll be set once you get your hands on the right cord to connect to your monitor (not included with the VR ONE) or set up a Remote Desktop solution to access it. Unfortunately, the realities of virtual reality gaming in 2016 mean that you need to expect a certain amount of troubleshooting outside of the headset, and that's an uphill battle with the VR ONE.

VR gaming, cord-free

Room-scale VR games offer a wide variety of experiences and require different levels of physicality and motion. The games that benefit the most from the cord-free nature of the VR ONE are those that involve a lot of twisting and stepping around, motions that would result in tangled feet and snagged cords under normal circumstances. 

The VR ONE comes packaged with a much shorter version of the HTC Vive's 3in1 cable, which is both nice for eliminating extra cord slack hanging off your back and is also essential for the VR ONE to function properly (using your normal Vive cord will cause performance issues, as the VR ONE is designed to work without the Vive link box). Combined with a good gaming headset the whole setup really does free up your body and improve your immersion in certain games (and maybe you want to add a vibrating subwoofer vest to your chest to complete your VR insanity). 

The best game experiences I had with the VR ONE included Space Pirate Trainer and Tilt Brush, games in which freedom of movement is essential. In Space Pirate Trainer you're often ducking and dodging away from enemy lasers, and while the eight pound weight on your back doesn't allow you to be quite as agile as you would be without it, the confidence to spin and move around without worrying about stepping on a cord is great. There's no dodging needed in Tilt Brush, but you move around so much in that art game that you're constantly having to step around the cord and move it out of the way in normal circumstances, a problem the VR ONE totally solves. 

For other VR games or experiences where there isn't as much foot movement, like Serious Sam VR and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodesthe VR ONE doesn't offer much of an advantage. It also doesn't detract from these experiences though (provided the technical side of things works smoothly and as long as you don't need to sit down), so in a perfect, troubleshooting-free world you could use the VR ONE as your main system for all your VR needs.

Who is the MSI VR ONE for? 

MSI outlines some possible applications on the official VR ONE website that go beyond gaming, including "house sales" and "online shopping," but most of the non-gaming applications of VR are currently more theoretical, rather than things you can actually do. All these functions are certainly coming in the next few years, but whether they arrive in force in time to make VR backpacks a necessity before wireless VR becomes the standard will be interesting to watch. 

For gaming, as nice as it is to enjoy room-scale VR without a cord underfoot, it's hard to recommend the VR ONE for the average consumer interested in VR. Because there are so many technical challenges that come along with it the VR ONE is going to make entering the VR world even more complicated than it already is, and it's a poor fit for VR-curious newbies. If you already have a VR system but are looking for an upgrade in terms of hardware and freedom of movement then that's a different story, but you need to be prepared for the special challenges of troubleshooting a screenless backpack rig. 

After spending time with the VR ONE and considering its possible applications, it seems as though various emerging VR businesses might get the most out of what this system offers. VR arcades are currently few and far between but will likely be a lot more common in 2017, and for a place like that (with dedicated support staff to tackle any technical issues that might crop up) a half dozen resilient backpack systems might make total sense.

The portability and cord-free nature of the VR ONE also makes it a good fit for developers and publishers who want to show off their VR games on the go and at conventions. Imagining the device used this way, with an attendant controlling the system via Remote Desktop and launching games seamlessly while someone else never has to take off the backpack or headset, it's easy to see its appeal. 

As we leave the dawn of the consumer VR era and the technology sees wider adoption it's very possible that VR backpacks like the VR ONE will enjoy a brief flash of popularity and niche industry use before being replaced by fully wireless headsets. As the first such backpack system available it isn't surprising that the VR ONE faces some technical challenges, but actually using the system for games demonstrates the tremendous appeal of cord-free room-scale VR.

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