Hands-On: ‘Envelop VR’ And How It Differs From ‘Virtual Desktop’ and ‘BigScreen’

by Ian Hamilton • July 7th, 2016

Since late last year I’ve been hearing about Envelop VR and its plan for a Windows “VR shell”. It would allow you to operate all the apps on your PC from within VR. Software like Virtual Desktop, BigScreen and even the SteamVR interface itself, mirrors what’s shown on the display outside of VR. Understanding exactly how Envelop VR (which closed a $5.5 million funding round at the start of the year) differs from those other solutions has been difficult…until now.

Virtual Desktop and BigScreen are very closely tied to your physical display(s) right now. You should be able to buy dummy plugs, aka “headless ghosts“, that fit into your computer to trick it into seeing additional displays. This gives you extra screens in VR to size and arrange in the space around you. Envelop, though, breaks each individual window on the screen into something that can be individually sized and placed within your virtual environment.

I got the recently launched beta installed on my PC and gave it a try. The difference between Envelop and the other apps was apparent within seconds. There was one monitor attached to my machine that really only fits one or two windows at a time before becoming overcrowded, but in VR I saw these windows floating in spots to my left and right. In Virtual Desktop and BigScreen I could’ve only resized or moved the whole monitor, but in Envelop I can put a couple individual windows to my sides to focus on a single window directly in front of me.

It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do with Envelop, but with its recent funding the startup should have the cash to do a lot more. Chrome displays a black screen by default in the current beta, for example. It can be fixed pretty easily and bugs like that are to be expected with a testing release, but the Web browser is one of the most important apps to adapt to VR as it’s where many people do a bulk of their multitasking. Envelop and other apps not only need to really solidly manage a bunch of Windows apps at the same time, they also need to handle lots of Web browsing windows too.

We’ll be watching Envelop closely as the software improves, along with Virtual Desktop and BigScreen. These apps all offer functionality either missing, or vastly improved, upon the default features of Oculus and SteamVR. As these apps evolve it’s likely that great features in one of them, like BigScreen‘s multiplayer functionality or Envelop‘s individual windows, will eventually come to the others. It’s just a question of priorities. More companies are going to be getting into the VR market over the next few years too and they’ll all likely need software like Envelop, Virtual Desktop and BigScreen to make future headsets more useful.

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