While it’s all too easy to lose ourselves in the countless VR worlds at our fingertips, sometimes we just need to access the desktop and get things done in Windows. Thanks to a few innovative apps, this is possible without removing your headset.

With the beta launch of Oculus Rift Core 2.0, which introduces ‘Dash’, a new universal menu with a new way to access your Windows desktop, it’s time to take a fresh look at the current virtual desktop solutions available for Vive and Rift.

As explained in our hands-on with Rift Core 2.0, the original Rift menu system has been completely overhauled, resulting in a more capable interface with powerful functionality. Oculus Home has become a customisable living space with obvious similarities to SteamVR Home, and will eventually support social interaction. Oculus Dash is a replacement for the old Universal Menu, but feels considerably more integrated, as it is no longer a separate blank space, but rather a three-dimensional, transparent overlay that can run inside any Oculus app.

Oculus Desktop (built into ‘Dash’)

Supported Platforms: Oculus (Rift – in beta via ‘Public Test Channel‘)

Part of the new Dash interface is Oculus Desktop, which allows direct access to your Windows Desktop. Unlike SteamVR’s Desktop shortcut, which still feels like an afterthought (it continues to exhibit poor performance and is confused by my secondary display connections that aren’t even enabled), Oculus Desktop feels pretty seamless, with crisp image quality and smooth performance. The most impressive feature is the ability to grab any window or app on the main desktop view and pull it into the virtual space, repositioning and resizing it as you see fit. This was a key feature of the now-defunct Envelop, but Oculus Desktop does it even better, as in their own words, they’ve “built true virtual displays at the hardware level” meaning that performance is maintained even when surrounded by desktop apps. YouTube 60fps videos, for example, play flawlessly in these virtual displays, as do non-VR PC games.

Accessing the Dash while in Oculus Home makes it appear as if Dash is part of the Home space, but this is not the case—Dash can be brought up anywhere, while using any VR app (although developers need to make some tweaks to allow it to pop up inside of their app, rather than taking users to a blank room).

Image courtesy Oculus

If you start repositioning desktop windows in interesting ways while Home is active, it can appear similar to Microsoft’s ‘Cliff House’ for Windows Mixed Reality, whose apps lock to the virtual environment—Microsoft’s solution is positioned as a place to get work done, allowing apps to float in completely different areas of the virtual environment, but this is limited to ‘Universal Windows Platform’ apps. Oculus Desktop is potentially more powerful, as it supports the repositioning of any desktop PC app, but it doesn’t allow apps to lock to the environment, instead always appearing relative to the user’s central position.

In theory, independent virtual displays is a neat idea, but in practice it can be awkward at times. Oculus’ implementation, while slick, isn’t fundamentally more intuitive than what we’ve seen before, and I still find myself stumbling over simple tasks. This is partly because moving windows independently in space while still seeing them in the main desktop display is confusing, partly because it’s a beta and certain things don’t work quite right (the ‘show hidden icons’ of the system tray didn’t seem to function, certain dialog boxes are problematic, mouse support isn’t the best, etc.), and partly because we’re still limited by first-generation headset resolution. Oculus Desktop produces the clearest image I’ve seen from a virtual desktop solution, but it is still not practical as a monitor replacement, requiring excessively large virtual windows to comfortably read text, or to effectively use creative apps that require high precision input

Virtual Desktop

Supported Platforms: Steam (Vive, Rift, Windows VR), Oculus (Rift)

Experimenting with desktop interaction since 2014, Virtual Desktop has established itself as one of the leading apps in this category. Today, it is a polished product, offering smooth performance, excellent image quality and some useful extra features. As a means of using your PC desktop inside of a VR headset, it is lightweight and straightforward, simply representing your monitor resolution (or multiple monitors if you have them) in a floating frame. It offers voice activation for certain commands, and support for multiple 3D video formats. Unlike Oculus Desktop or Bigscreen, it also features an effective 360 degree photo and 360/180/90 degree video viewer (which also supports YouTube 360 video URLs).

Image courtesy Virtual Desktop

As you’d hope from a paid app, it continues to be well-supported by the developer, and has received several useful updates over the past year. Its motion control support includes an alternative ‘touch screen’ style intended to be less tiring and more precise compared to the common ‘laser pointer’ mode. It includes an HDR-optimised cinema room for watching movies, and has seen various video improvements, including a software decoding fallback, playback speed settings, and more accurate fisheye projection. It can also function as an excellent replacement for the standard SteamVR desktop mode, adding a new shortcut to the SteamVR launcher.

A recent update to Virtual Desktop adds support for Cylindrical Timewarp Layers, a feature which improves screen clarity for Rift users, meaning visual fidelity should be about on-par with what you’d get in Oculus Dash.

Continued on Page 2: BigscreenWindows Cliff House »

Newsletter graphic

This article may contain affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and buy a product we may receive a small commission which helps support the publication. More information.

The trial version of Microsoft’s Monster Truck Madness probably had something to do with it. And certainly the original Super Mario Kart and Gran Turismo. A car nut from an early age, Dominic was always drawn to racing games above all other genres. Now a seasoned driving simulation enthusiast, and former editor of Sim Racer magazine, Dominic has followed virtual reality developments with keen interest, as cockpit-based simulation is a perfect match for the technology. Conditions could hardly be more ideal, a scientist once said. Writing about simulators lead him to Road to VR, whose broad coverage of the industry revealed the bigger picture and limitless potential of the medium. Passionate about technology and a lifelong PC gamer, Dominic suffers from the ‘tweak for days’ PC gaming condition, where he plays the same section over and over at every possible combination of visual settings to find the right balance between fidelity and performance. Based within The Fens of Lincolnshire (it’s very flat), Dominic can sometimes be found marvelling at the real world’s ‘draw distance’, wishing virtual technologies would catch up.
  • DiGiCT Ltd

    It is still too early for those kind of applications.
    It requires much better resolution in VR as most thing you do on a computer will not look better in this way.
    For example 3d design and photoshop will not work, also large excel files are terrible to look at in VR.
    Watching movies and games is fine but also lacking quality unless you make it huge screen.

    All our design we do on 4k screens and each design computer uses 3 of them.
    Then next to that there is no way to use wacom equipment in VR.
    Is an disinformation showing pictures like PS and 3d max, its realy not how it is,
    The truth is that it is very limited and it will take years before we reach that kind of quality in VR.

    • Perhaps but it’s great for playing games, watching films and general Desktop usage.

    • OgreTactics

      It’s not too early, it’s necessary. It will work great for media/game/3D playback at first, but it’ll be complete when Virtual Headsets are advanced (high-resolution) enough so that we can READ clearly and without eyestrain well and long enough to actually work in VR.

    • Current HMD’s dont have the resolution for fully replacing our desktop monitors, but I really like using Tridef to play Diablo 3 on a massive 90fps low persistence virtual 3D monitor. All the spell effects, debris, corpses, etc. flying around looks awesome :)

      • CazCore

        what software do you use to play D3?

        • idwfrin

          “I really like using Tridef to play Diablo 3” they use the software Tridef

        • Oh I use Tridef and Virtual Desktop. Super late reply I know haha XD

      • Adrian Meredith

        ooh I never thought of that! might give it a go

    • Get Schwifty!

      I agree completely. These applications are useful only for general non-detailed use. It’s bad enough trying to read text with today’s headsets with games designed for VR, but it’s nigh pointless for true desktop work. Should work be done now on the apps? Sure why not, but there will be little adoption except in special cases though until the resolution goes waaay up. These being useful enough to effectively displace monitors is more than a few years away. I’ve tried a couple non-VR games this way, and was not impressed in the least. Video where resolution doesn’t matter all that much is about the only real application to me so far.

      Now what _could_ change the situation until much higher res HMDs are available would be a new VR-friendly built in desktop as part of the O/S. Again, I can’t see doing real document processing on for instance, but for general browsing, email etc. with a full 360 degree surrounding desktop I could see some use for.

  • LegoKnockingShop

    Good article Dominic, nice one.

  • DiGiCT Ltd

    Update to this article : there is a new HMD for this purpose, which would look better and solve some of those issues.
    Beware I would not recommended it for gaming though !


    It is a 4k HMD so it has already higher resolution and 110 degree FOV

    Although some people still have issues with it as it seems not fully polished but on the other hand it is a 4k screen.

    It sells for only around 1500 rmb, and I only can recommended it for playing around and hoping they solve the minor issues it still has.

    • VR Zone BKK

      In addition to this, the PIMAXVR HMD is Steam VR capable and the higher resolution seems not to be a major issue if you own a powerfull rig (meant powerfull GC).

      For the Vive 1080p res, there are seperate middle applications that can already tweak Super Sampling in games with no customized settings which works just fine and improves the quality res greatly.

      • DiGiCT Ltd

        I’m using a 1070 gtx OC version and it does indeed improve quality.
        But ti does not improve the screenres trought the lenses.

        You cant compare it like that IMO as what it does is render the image in higher res and then downscale it to the res your hmd has.

        Thats way different as having a higher res screen.

        What you mention is indeed making more smooth looking graphics but it does not solve the issues when you are working with static desktop software like.e.g. excel or PDF, those static object with data if you focus on it you will see the pixels getting anoying your vision.
        This issue does not happen with objects in motion, at least less.

        • VR Zone BKK

          Yes I do concur, only the screen res will improve the visual quality of the letters thus we need small pixels size indeed.

          I was looking at some gaming reviews last week of the PIMAX and for the €300.- price tag, I will probably give it a try. I also own a descent rig, 1080oc / 5960x I’m pretty sure I can obtain something pretty cool out of it, with virtual desktop as well.

          But I’m more concerned about the treadmills yet, I could noticed that Virtuix Omni price increased to 1k and now are only available for b2b. Sadly no news from Cyberith, their virtualizer price ended at 1.5k last time I see some news about it. I can’t wait…

          • DiGiCT Ltd

            Well upping the price certainly has to do with trying to sell to business for arcade places.
            Although the omni has one bad issue, it needs their expensive shoes on it and you dont want to wear shoes many other wear already ;-)
            I see more furure in larger scale tracking via more lighthouses in a huge area.
            I did some dev play around with the RIP motion with let you hop to move, for me personally its the best system for unlimited “walk” in VR.
            I choose not to do too much of those kind of game designs yet.
            Our 2 titles in development are using room scale but also can do standing.
            I always been a huge FPS fan though, played since the 1st doom.
            The problem is realy locomotion, even when the game itself is awesome it still does not feel right in VR, no matter what they say.
            Threadmill for sure is nice but it comes with other issues like kneeling and prone for sure. which kinda makes the game useless if you would like to snipe in an army game.

  • SlowBro

    A good use case for this is for road warriors. A bigger laptop display on an airplane, in the hotel, at the coffee shop. (Though you’ll certainly look strange.) Attach a small camera to the top of the laptop screen to display the keyboard, which for many would be essential. A pair of cameras on the outside of the goggles adds real world objects into the VR display (augmented reality) so you’re not totally closed in when working; you can see when someone approaches to talk. If you want :-)

  • Nathan Williams

    Envelop is defunct. https://www.geekwire.com/2017/envelop-vr-ceo-bob-berry-discusses-venture-backed-vr-startup-shut-way-early/

    I don’t find VR a particularly comfortable environment to spend time in, and text is way too grainy for browsing and productivity purposes. The only reason I really want a desktop is so I don’t have to fiddle with taking my headset off to check something, and I don’t see a lot of value in a utility I have to run as a separate, exclusive application. This ought to be built into the VR overlay environment to begin with.

  • Thanks for the updated article. This is what interests me the most.

    A couple of things I would like to know.

    1. If I have an internal 3D Blu Ray player, do any of these apps play back 3D movies just like you would get at a 3D IMAX cinema for example?

    2. What is the text clarity difference between Rift/Vive/Pimax 8K/Samsung Odyssey. Is it enough of a difference to be a definitive purchase if productivity is your main goal?

    3. Is it possible for any of the 3D software packages out there (e.g. Blender) to integrate into a virtual desktop and allow the model view to be visible outside the app window as a full size 3D model that you can walk around and inspect. One that would auto update as you make changes in the app window. Is this something that a virtual desktop could extract (e.g. mesh data) and display? I know we used to be able to reverse engineer games and view the 3D model data outside the game while the game was running so there have been hacks in the past that do something similar.


  • NooYawker

    I like the way oculus dash has apps set up. Pointing and double clicking on app on a virtual desktop is a bit sketchy.
    This is why AR will be huge when it hits the market, you can do everything you see above and not be cut out of your environment.

  • Diego Lopez

    OVRDrop deserves aspot. multi overlay is on beta atm

  • Edward Morgan

    I think the first VR app I bought was actually VR Toolbox, largely on the grounds that it let me break windows out as independent objects instead of just being your desktop inside a headset.

    Now that I have Oculus Desktop, I use VR Toolbox a lot less. Which is really a bit of a compliment to Oculus, as it isn’t simply convenience moving me towards their offering. They’ve done good work.

  • Bigscreen is more a social VR app than a virtual desktop one… anyway, nice comparison

  • Pedro Esperanca

    Do any of these Desktops support eye tracking ?

    Can imagine that with eye tracking I could have screens for full 360 around me and not have to move my neck more than 30 degrees. Also would allow hands to stay on mouse and keyboard.

    If anyone is looking for a dev to join a team doing anything like this I’d love to help!