The recently released TPCast for Oculus Rift attempts to fill a desire most owners of VR headsets discover right away: to get rid of the cord. Clearly, wireless VR headsets will be the next jump forward in the technology. Until we get there though, early adopters will have to make do by modifying their first generation goggles. That’s where the TPCast comes in. Using a variety of additional hardware, the TPCast advertises the ability fulfill that desire. When I saw this product as “coming soon”, I made a weekly pilgrimage to the TPCast website to check on the Oculus version (Vive has been available longer). As soon as it became available, I ordered one. But did it work?
The TP-Cast comes with a LOT of parts. The packaging will remind you of the first time you unboxed your Rift. But with a lot more pieces. Anyone with some history of wiring up their computers or TVs around the house shouldn’t find the physical assembly too hard. Obviously, you’ll need to detach the cord from your goggles (da-doi). You’ll have to remove the cushion in order to do it.
From there, you connect to a receiver that you’ll place on the strap spanning the top of your head. That device must stay atop your head and in view of the transmitter. The directions are not as descriptive as they need to be on this. I have half my office dedicated to VR. The diagram had me placing the transmitter on my desk, just elevated a bit. Nope. I ended up trying to mount it high up on the wall for somewhat better results.
The receiver (top of head) then gets attached to a large battery pack that you wear attached to a belt around your waist. The last major piece is a small router, specially configured to work with the TPCast. My computer didn’t seem to like being hooked up to a router AND its usual USB Wifi adapter. Internet performance became suddenly flaky whenever it was hooked up.
When I tested the unit, I found two issues: One show-stopper and one… show, uh, impeder. After you get everything assembled, charged, and situated, both on your body and in your VR space, get your software installed. You had to figure that something like this would require its own drivers or app to tell the Oculus to use it instead of the cord. The software works, but feels more like a developer’s internal testing tool rather than a commercial release. The probably translated wording and operation are clunky and lack polish. Since this software represents your only hope to fix anything that goes wrong, buyers better hope for its continued development. The software, however, isn’t one of my main issues.
Issue 1: Compression (show-impeder)
Did you think you’d get a 1:1 to conversion of the signal sent by your trusty cord over the airwaves? I did. Think again. Although the image quality itself doesn’t suffer too badly, the field of vision shrinks somewhat. Since I thought this might have been a result of something I did wrong, I looked on the Internet for a solution. Apparently, the solution is to use the cord. The TPCast website doesn’t mention this compression, nor do most reviews. Where do you notice it? I noticed black, unused pixels boxing my field of vision in from my left and right periphery. I imagine users with eyes younger than the ones in my 41 year-old head might see even more compression than that. Even though the compression was slight, the impact on the experience disoriented me.
Issue 2: Connectivity (show-stopper)
Here’s the reason I ultimately returned the product. Every few seconds, ten at the most, the system would lose connectivity. Both the goggles and touch controllers would suddenly stop responding throughout the short sessions I tested the system. I don’t mean a few dropped frames here and there. I mean, you could move your head, say 90 degrees, and it would retain the last image shown (facing front) and then pick up with your head facing all the way to your right (or left). Neither apps, games, nor the Oculus homeroom behaved any differently. (It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my system performs just fine when corded.)
I contacted support. The support staff resides in China (or at least their email address does). This makes going back and forth saying things like “change that” and “I did. It still doesn’t work” last a day between communications. There is also chat support, but I exhausted their ability to support me after a couple of iterations. Ultimately, my love of home automation came back to bite me. The final diagnosis from TPCast was that my home had too may wireless devices (about 30) and they were causing too much interference. I had the option of turning some of those pesky Echo Dots and automated light switches off whenever I wanted to us the VR system of course, but I declined. Instead I asked to return it about a week after receiving the device.
What kind of stuff did I try before giving up? At the point I used the system, I really only had two main variables. Software-wise, I could use the “change channel” option. The software doesn’t say what it’s changing it to or from or how many it has left to try though. You have no idea if you have 100 channels to use or just two. The other variable is the placement of the transmitter. It need to be high enough to “see” the head-mounted receiver at all times, no matter where you are are.
The TPCast may work great on the Vive. It may also work great on the Oculus in environments with less interference than my house. It just didn’t work very well for me. Although I could have stuck with it, ultimately I didn’t want to be an unpaid beta tester.