There’s just no way to look cool wearing a virtual reality backpack PC. I’m going to get that out of the way right now. Even wearing a VR headset by itself is an inherently uncool look, as perfectly captured by this tumblr blog (which I’ve been fortunate enough to never appear on, although I’ve spotted a few CNET colleagues).
While not exactly fashion-forward, the MSI VR One does set out to solve a very legitimate problem with current-gen VR, by moving the big, powerful computer needed to run it from the desktop to your back. The specific problem it solves it that, while VR is an incredibly cool, transformative experience, it requires the user to be tethered to a PC by an umbilical cable, which inevitably gets tangled underfoot and restricts movement.
Some would argue that there are bigger issues with VR, such as the very expensive headsets, the even more expensive computers needed to run them; the lack of mainstream software and games; and even the very complex hardware and software setup process required to get started. But trust me, the unforgiving headset cable is one of the most immersion-breaking things about current-gen VR.
A desktop for your back
Think of the MSI VR One as a battery-powered desktop with shoulder straps. It’s not the only product like this — we’ve seen prototypes from Dell, HP and others, but it’s the first one actually shipping to consumers. It starts at $2,000, and jumps to $2,300 for a higher-end configuration closer to the one we tested, with a better Nvidia 1070 graphics card. (That converts to £1,600/£1,850 or AU$2,600/AU$3,000, although MSI’s international configurations, prices and availability for gaming PCs vary widely.) Both 256GB and 512GB storage options are available, but note that our slightly older demo unit had only a 128GB solid state hard drive.
Inside the surprisingly light plastic chassis of the VR One is an Intel Core i7 CPU, a close to top-end Nvidia GeForce 1070 graphics card and a pair of detachable batteries. They’re not yet available to buy, but MSI plans to sell additional batteries and a battery charging dock, which would allow you to swap in fresh batteries as you play.
The entire slab-like PC case screws into a small plastic backpack frame that attaches to the lucky player with two shoulder straps and a single around-the-waist belt strap. It weighs around 7.3 pounds (3.3kg), which is lighter than I expected.
Instead of connecting it to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, as one would with a standard VR-ready desktop, you power the VR One up, slip it on like a backpack, and connect an HTC Vive headset directly to it. One of the more clever features is a smart set of ports and connections along the top edge, including the specific USB, HDMI and power ports the Vive needs.
If you’re familiar with how the HTC Vive works, you’ll know it takes its trio of USB/HDMI/power cables, routes them through a powered breakout box, and then into a desktop or laptop PC. MSI instead includes a custom USB/HDMI/power cable — much shorter than the official one — which allows you to plug the headset directly into the backpack PC, without using the breakout box or its AC adapter. It’s a clever pack-in that also keeps the long Vive cable from dangling while in use.
With a little help from your friends
One of things I always say about trying out virtual reality is that you really need a VR concierge (or maybe a VR caddy) to help out. Someone to get the headset properly attached, to fix any PC-related issues while you’re strapped in and can’t access your desktop or keyboard and mouse, and most importantly, to keep an eye on the cables connected to the PC and make sure you don’t get tangled up.
While the VR One gets rid of the headset-to-PC cable snarl, it’s still pretty awkward to suit up without a little help. The custom Vive cable included in the box is very short, deliberately so, and it’s hard to hold the headset, slip on the backpack, and then put the headset on and adjust the velcro straps without a helping hand. Even after that, you have to put on headphones and plug them into the rear-facing headphone jack (one of the worst parts of the Vive headset design), and pick up the Vive controllers, assuming they’re not already dangling from your wrists on their wrist straps. Taking the whole thing off is equally awkward, as you can imagine.
One you’re properly strapped in, navigating games via Steam and launching them is something that can be done from inside the VR environment, although unlike desktop or laptop PC gaming, there’s no external display to let others see what’s happening in the game. (While the system is sitting on a desk, you can use the secondary mini-DisplayPort jack to output to a monitor, but that needs to be disconnected before donning it like a backpack.)