As the proud and excited owner of a shiny new Valve Index kit to go with my almost-new all-AMD rig, I thought I’d outline the journey to getting it all working, exclusively on Linux.
Now bear in mind that I’m not amazingly Linux-savvy. I’ve been using it since the early 2000’s, sure, and full time, exclusively, since 2013, but I’m not very interested in learning the guts of this stuff. I’m extremely technical as a network nerd, but my O/S is just a tool to let me run cool things. I want to be a “normal” consumer of that O/S and if things don’t work out of the box, I take a dim view of it and I don’t have a lot of patience for terminal hacks or “compiling my own kernel”.
Why is that important? Because when it comes to the Valve Index on Linux, absolutely nothing works out of the box... and yet it’s still (mostly) a success story. Here are some of the hoops I had to jump through to get this stuff working (again, mostly).
- Distribution: Mint 19.3
- Desktop Environment: Cinnamon
- RAM: 32GB
- CPU Model: AMD 3900X
- GPU Model: AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT
You can also see my specs in my profile or by clicking “View PC info” under my avatar in any of my comments, but I’ve listed them here so that this article notes them statically as those during my experience with the Index.
Edit: I'm also using Kernel 5.7.8 from Mainline here, which is important given the hardware I'm using. Also, the OIBAF PPA puts me on Mesa 20.2 at the time of writing.
It’s so pretty! The presentation and unboxing experience is very Apple-like or Google Pixel-like in that it tries to get your buy in just from opening the box! There’s a real wow-factor at play here. It’s a HUGE box, bigger than it needs to be probably, but the presentation is great.
(The HMD visor is so shiny and new that you can see me taking the photo in the third shot!)
There’s not many pictures from here on out, because trying to capture a VR experience with a screenshot (or even a video) is like trying to taste food with your nose pinched.
So, let’s get started!
The “Getting Started” card is pretty basic actually. In summary:
- Basestations are plugged into a power outlet, front and back of room - check
- Headset (HMD) is plugged into Displayport and USB3, and powered - check
- Controllers are on - check
- Enabled the Steam beta - check
- SteamVR is downloaded - check
Let’s do this! In Steam, I change my “games” filter to “games and tools”, then run SteamVR. Nothing happens. But wait! I see a light from the HMD. Putting it on, I can see a basic, default, VR environment - a grid on the floor, with mountains in the distance, stars overhead and a moon hanging directly above me. Head tracking is fine, and everything is nice and clear, but I can’t actually do anything and I certainly haven’t defined my “play area”, so I’m reluctant to actually launch a VR game at this point, for fear of walking into a table, wall, or through the french windows while they’re closed!
Taking the HMD off, I can see that I have a bunch of errors on my Steam client about how “SteamVR failed to initialize”. Okay then.
The errors must have taken a few seconds to pop up, or they did so as a result of my putting the HMD on. Hmmm.
So… to Google!
Well, it looks like SteamVR also has a beta branch, which you activate like any game. Go to SteamVR, right click and choose Properties, then hit the Betas tab:
Which to choose though? Well, I’m on Linux, so the answer is pretty obvious! The “temp” worries me, but it’s the only Linux entry, so I choose it anyway. It downloads, I run SteamVR again, it asks for my sudo password (surprising!), and off we go.
Now, I get a pop up on the desktop screen asking me to step through a set up process, including defining my play area. Basically, you stand in the centre of your “space”, point your controller at the screen and pull the trigger, then lay both controllers on the ground, then finally you move the controller around the edges of your space, holding down the trigger, to form a virtual box. This box must be at least 1.5m wide and about 2m in length, otherwise the program complains that it’s too small. I had to rejig my room a bit to accommodate that! I think there’s supposed to be a way around that minimum size, but this version of SteamVR literally won’t you press the “next” button unless you hit the minimum, so that’s what I did.
Having done so, I could put on the HMD and I was back at the default landscape. But now there’s an option in the bottom bar called “SteamVR Home”. I click on it with my emulated laser-pointer controller and finally got my first taste of how absolutely incredible VR can be when it’s “done right”.
SteamVR Home is like BigPicture mode, but for VR. It emulates a room which has a balcony space outside overlooking a distant mountain range. Butterflies flutter by, and you can customise the room and the balcony/garden area in a variety of ways. You also have an “avatar” and can invite friends to your room for chat, or as a party set up for games.
I customised my avatar, drew weird shapes with my painting tool, threw the Portal companion cube around a bit, watching it bounce around. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that Steam Home seems to have a problem saving environments, which is a shame. Frankly, until that’s fixed, there’s literally no point in using Home at all. Later on, I’ll end up disabling it completely, which is pretty disappointing.
But I’m here for now, so I tried to launch a game. Any game. But no dice. I could “view details” of games, but there was no launch button. So what’s going on?
Taking off the headset, I see more errors on the desktop. Sheesh. This looks serious.
So… to Google!
Looked like I already had a lot of these installed, but as the error notes, it’s the 32-bit versions I need. So after a bit of searching on the web and via Synaptic, I get this to go away with a series of apt commands. In summary:
sudo apt install libva-x11-2:i386 libva2:i386 libgdk-pixbuf2.0-0:i386 libxtst6:i386 libgtk2.0-0:i386 libbz2-1.0:i386 libvdpau1:i386
And for good measure, I also do:
sudo apt install libvulkan1:i386 mesa-vulkan-drivers:i386 vulkan-utils:i386
After all that, I’m not getting any errors anymore, which is great. And I have a “Launch game” option in SteamVR Home now! Which does… nothing. At all.
So… (surprise!) to Google!
I’m going to quickly summarise about an hour of frustrating googling/launching/killing/launching/googling here, but ultimately, I resorted to the tried and tested “have you tried switching it off and back on again” method of nerd troubleshooting.
And it almost, kind of, worked.
I start Moss from inside SteamVR Home, and my launch button now fades the Home environment away, and I’m now in the default environment, with a floating banner that says “Up Next: Moss”.
However, after a disappointing couple of minutes, it’s clearly not doing anything.
So… (you know the drill by now) to Google!
Okay, so it looks like the main issue is that a lot of the games I’m trying to launch are Windows only and perhaps they have to be launched directly from Steam? It looks like SteamVR on Linux doesn’t know how to handle Proton titles from “within” the SteamVR environment.
So, I fire up SteamVR, leaving it in the default environment (not SteamVR Home), then I hit the “play” button on Moss on my desktop.
It works! Almost. No sound! But the game launched and it’s my first “real” VR gaming experience. I don’t spend long with Moss though, as it’s clear that it’s a narrative-driven experience and I don’t want to ruin it by playing without sound.
So why are my Index speakers not working?
So… to Google!
Well, this was over an hour of trying various things - mainly running
tail -f /var/log/kern.log
... and then unplugging the USB3 connector and plugging it back in, and watching the output in the terminal. It’s definitely recognising all the devices - the HMD, the twin cameras on the HMD, the microphone, the speakers… but for some reason that's not translating to an actual device in my sound control panel.
Long (really, really long, another hour or two maybe) story short - it looks like my multi-monitor set up was interfering here. I noticed that the speakers’ description is “HDMI / DP 5”, which is the same port number my second screen uses. When I unplugged my second monitor, the Index speakers appeared in my sound’s control panel. I have sound!
Perhaps this issue is related to https://github.com/ValveSoftware/SteamVR-for-Linux/issues/348
Who knows? Who cares! They work!
Kind of… they’re actually crackling and hissing on certain channels. I notice this in Moss when certain music plays, on the sound effect when you push/pull objects, and most annoying of all, when the narrator speaks.
So… to Google!
Okay, quicker fix for this one. A weird fix, but it works. All you have to do after starting SteamVR, is start the PulseAudio Volume Control (I had to install it first, of course, it’s rarely included by default, at least on Ubuntu derivatives). And, that’s it. That’s all you do. You go from hissing/crackling sound to crystal clear sound on your Index… by opening that app. I have no words.
Later on, I’ll discover that by changing my primary, now singular monitor from HDMI to DisplayPort, I seem to get pretty consistent, crystal-clear sound without resorting to opening the Pulse Audio volume control. But for now, I’m just delighted it works.
It’s time to go big. It’s time to try Half Life Alyx.
Or not. Starting the game fails almost immediately with a vriniterror_init_interfacenotfound error. You know what that means? Yep.
So… to Google!
At this point, I’ve probably had the VR set up for around 10 hours, most of which is actually with the HMD sat on my desk as I troubleshoot what the bloody hell is wrong with it. So I’m properly gutted that one of the biggest reasons I bought a VR kit, Half-Life Alyx, doesn’t even start.
After googling for about 20 minutes, all I’ve really found is a Steam Forums post noting that they had to update SteamVR before Alyx would launch. My SteamVR is already up to date though, albeit I’m still on the Linux_Temp build.
I’m desperate though. I can force an update if I change beta tabs! I switch back to SteamVR_beta, wait for the 500Mb download to complete, restart my PC to give it a clean slate, enter my sudo password again (yeah, that’s still weird) and finally start Alyx.
Indeed, not only does Alyx now work, but my SteamVR “settings” app works too. In fact, so does the desktop reprojection option! So does “reset seating/standing position”! In fact, everything seems to be working now (except the volume slider for some reason)!
I’ve now spent around 20 hours in VR, which is a crucial tipping point for me - it took me around 10 hours of soul-destroying googling to get this far. I can’t stress enough the weird dichotomy of running VR on Linux. On one hand, I paid £900 for the full kit, only to spend over a full working day wrestling with awful, incomprehensible issues for which I had little to no context.
On the other hand, now that it’s largely up and running, it’s easily the best money I’ve spent in a long time, because when you use a high quality HMD on a powerful PC and run “built-for-VR” games and software… it’s mind blowing. Truly, literally, game changing.
It’s not perfect, by a long way. The whole “getting started” experience is, as you can see, appalling. Especially on Linux. And even then there’s stuff that just doesn’t work, either well, or at all:
- The cameras don’t work, as they’re tied to a D3D11 interface which fails on start up. Ironically, you can run guvcview and play about with them there - they’re just standard v4l2 cameras after all! Hopefully they get this fixed soon, but they'd have to rewrite that D3D11 dependency, so I don't expect that to happen quickly.
- The volume slider on the “Dashboard” does nothing. You have to modify the volume setting on your desktop.
- You can’t turn off the basestations yet, so make sure you can reach a plug/switch for them.
- Steam Home doesn’t save any settings/changes you make within it, rendering it largely useless.
- You can’t launch games from Steam Home, because it doesn’t seem to understand Proton.
- Two of “The Lab” experiences crash out - “Robot Repair” and “Secret Lab”. They just fail, no idea why. All the others work though. This is also common on Windows, but none of the Windows fixes seem to work on Linux.
- I can’t use my second monitor any more. This is probably my biggest gripe right now.
- The Index head phones crackle until you launch pavucontrol (although this appears to be fixed by not using any HDMI on my system at all).
- Finally, when you run SteamVR, the sound device appears in your sound panel, but it doesn’t switch to that output. Pulseaudio does has an option to auto-switch to “newly detected devices”, but something about the way that SteamVR creates the output channel seems to bypass this. After starting SteamVR, you have to switch the sound output manually.
But in the grand scheme of things, I’m finally really pleased with the overall result. In fact, there’s only one thing that still annoys me (other than losing my multi-monitor set up), and it’s the noise the basestations make when they’re on. It’s a high pitch, and apparently not everyone can hear it, but I appear to be one of the “lucky” few who not only hears it, but can easily hear it from about 3m away. For me it’s not subtle and only starting a game would distract you from the noise they make. So, basestations definitely off while not in use, sadly, which is a bit of a pain given the lack of remote power options on Linux. I have to literally unplug them.
Do I have any regrets? None at all now that I’m “here”. But good god, Valve have a long, long road before this stuff is mainstream. I’m thinking years, given their rate of progress so far. The out of box experience is just simply diabolically poor.
Is this the future of gaming? Yes and no. Yes, once you’ve experienced VR first hand, you’ll realise how fundamentally important and immersive it is. But no, not at this price, and certainly not with this level of hassle from a technical perspective. Also, arguably headsets need to get lighter, and potentially lose the wires too, which is still the biggest restriction/annoyance you’ll face in VR.
The jury is still out on whether VR could be good in an FPS environment too. Apparently Killing Floor 2 has VR support? I’ll maybe give that a shot. Or Dying Light, perhaps? I haven’t tried anything in VR that features traditional movement yet - it’s all jump-based movement, which isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But I suspect that traditional movement might cause motion sickness, so we’ll see.
But other games work amazingly well in VR. Moss, for example, is just spellbinding. And Elite Dangerous feels like a completely different game in VR.
I just can’t stress it enough, the difference VR makes. You know when you start an FPS game it’s stuck on 1024x768, 70 FOV and with motion blur? Then you figure out how to get 1920x1080, 100 FOV with no motion blur and you’ve gone from a game you literally can’t play to a really beautiful, engaging experience?
Imagine that, but multiplied by a hundred. The idea of playing “flat” Elite Dangerous is now utterly laughable. Like, why would you restrict yourself so needlessly?? I’m being facetious to hammer home the point, because it’s hard to put into words otherwise. It’s THAT spectacular a jump.
To sum up, if you:
- Have the money
- Have the PC
- Have the technical skill
- Have the patience
...then VR is a fantastic experience when it’s all working. But you have to have all four, I think, before it’s a sure fire recommendation.
Here's the games I've tried that work near-enough perfectly:
- Half-life: Alyx
- Beat Saber
- Smashbox Arena
- The Lab (although noting that two experiments crash)
- Elite Dangerous
- Space Pirate Trainer
- Superhot VR
- Waltz of the Wizard
- Sheaf - Together EP
And a couple of games that don't work:
- Project Cars 2 doesn't recognise the HMD at all.
- Overload doesn't recognise the HMD at all.