Hands-On With BigScreen, The Virtual LAN Party

by Augmentl, 3rd May 2016.

LAN parties are awesome. Getting a bunch of people together with their respective PC's to revel in a shared gaming session is so fundamentally more entertaining that interacting with the same people over the internet.

But LAN parties are also a logistical pain in the ass. They require planning, cars, manageable distances between participants' houses, and enough room in the host venue to comfortably cram the required players, their rigs, and a sufficient supply of snacks.

The idea behind BigScreen, a new VR app now available as a free beta on Steam, is simple: Get a bunch of people in a virtual room, give each of them a representation of their own desktop, and let everyone in the room see it too. A virtual LAN party. And its nothing short of delightful.

Getting your own desktop into a Virtual Reality environment is not a new concept. The aptly named Virtual Desktop has been doing this since the early days of VR. But it's the addition of that social element that makes BigScreen really stand out - there is something magical about sitting in a room with other people (albeit in the form of disembodied, translucent heads) and bing able to talk to them while peeking at their virtual computer screens, as if they were in the same room.

It also helps that the creators of BigScreen went to great lengths to ensure the virtual environment where this social interaction takes place is genuinely enjoyable: an idealised version of a modernist penthouse, including an expansive balcony with a view of Los Angeles at night, polished parquet floors, and a well appointed kitchen. Spending time in the BigScreen house feels like house sitting for your rich Hollywood big shot friend.

From a technical perspective, BigScreen is implementing some pretty big ideas. The contents of each participant's virtual screen are shared via a peer-to-peer encrypted connection, meaning privacy issues (beyond willingly sharing your actual desktop screen to strangers on the internet, that is) should be less of a concern.

The peer-to-peer nature of the system does however mean that the frame rate you'll be able to perceive from any one screen other than your own will depend on the bandwidth available between you and that screen's owner. It also means there may be some inefficiencies in terms of how each screen is broadcast to the multiple spectators in the room, so it's not uncommon for someone's screen to look like a slide show.

BigScreen does however provide you with a superb virtual rendition of your own desktop screen, with flawless frame rates and relatively glorious image sharpness, thanks to a High graphics setting implementing 1.5x super sampling (if you gave the graphics grunt to support it). Videos on a big, curved VR screen look simply gorgeous, with the well lit environment also acting as a counter for the dreaded "god ray" light artefacts otherwise common to VR video players with black or dark backgrounds. Unfortunately, side-by-side 3D movies are currently unsupported.

There some other obvious missing features at this early stage in the game, namely the lack of audio capture and broadcasting to go with the screen sharing (you can see what someone is playing, but can't hear their game sounds), and the absence of any real connection between participants beyond voice communications - you can't, for instance, share a link with a fellow participant other than literally putting it on your screen and letting them type it in themselves. Motion controls are also currently unsupported.

As BigScreen matures in terms of both screen streaming performance and audio capabilities, events like shared movie nights or YouTube streaming parties will become possible. The developers are also considering options for customisation of the VR environment, and while it's not hard to imagine how they might monetise the platform in future BigScreen remains, for the time being, completely free.

BigScreen is already a great application, but it also offers a glimpse into the future of collaborative VR spaces. It's easy to imagine how, even in its current implementation, BigScreen's shared desktops could effectively be used for design reviews, presentations, collaborative application development, remote training and tutoring, and myriad other scenarios.

For now, however, BigScreen is at the very least a fantastic place to hang out.