Share Getting a Microsoft Surface Book to work with SteamVR

Yes! I finally got my hands an HTC* Vive VR system. And then came the bad news. I don’t have a PC that meets the minimum requirements. My best system, a Microsoft* Surface Book Core i7 with NVIDIA* GPU in the keyboard dock, does not qualify.  So before I got totally bummed I thought to myself, “there’s a difference between supported minimum specifications vs what might actually work.” So I gave it a try.

Much to my delight, it works!  VR lives and breathes on my Surface Book and I can use many of the VR apps designed for Vive including TiltBrush*. For me the experience is amazing, especially compared to looking at a shiny new Vive and imagining VR. But clearly, the Surface Book is not a high end VR system. While it can get you started and be used for basic VR apps, any games that have a fully immersive 3D environment, the Surface Book just can’t handle it. So before you go on and try this yourself, have the proper expectations.

Here are steps, should you want to do this yourself, but again I highly recommend this only be done as a stop gap solution.  The most interesting apps and the real value of VR are shorted the right experience on a Surface Book.

If you have a Surface Book Core i7 with the NVIDIA GPU in the base, here’s what to do.

  1. Watch the Vive set up video but ignore Vive Setup software
  2. Upgrade your NVIDIA graphic drivers
  3. Setup Your Room base stations
  4. Install and Use Steam VR
  5. Plug in your Vive to the Surface Book
  6. Run Room Setup

You can skip the Vive setup: First thing you will notice with your Vive is that you are directed to the Vive setup site to download a setup application at https://www.htcvive.com/us/setup/.   I found this setup application would not connect to the Vive servers from my Surface Book. After some Google searching I found this is a common issue. A majority of posts suggest going directly to Steam*.  I do however recommend watching the Vive set up video linked from the setup page on the HTCVive.com site.  Understanding how to set up the base stations is a key part or the experience, and the video does a good job at that.

Upgrade Graphic Drivers: Next you’ll want to upgrade your NVIDIA graphic drivers.  The GPU that ships in the base keyboard of the Surface Book i7 is a specialized GPU.  It is simply categorized as GeForce GPU.  You can upgrade the drivers two ways. If you have the default NVIDIA control panel and driver, you can launch the NVIDIA control panel.  In the Help Menu you should find an upgrade option.  If you do not see an upgrade option there, you may already have an upgraded control panel and drivers. Alternatively go to Device Manager and update the drivers from there.

Position Base Stations / Light Boxes: Before you try out your headset it is important your base stations are set up. For a Surface Book I suggest you create a space with the boxes separated by 10 feet, in the corners of your space.  Your sitting area doesn’t need to be in the center. It can be to one side. It will work as long as the base stations can see the headset at all times. Mount the base stations high and pointed to the center of the room.  I put one on a tripod at 5 feet high and the other on a Vive box over a dresser about 6 feet up. Think of these like spot lights. If your headset is ever in shadow from both of these then the VR experience will go grey.  As this is a get up and running post, I’m disclosing my “awesome” set up here;  a tripod and a box. This is to show you, this works without getting out the drill and stud finder.

Install Steam: Next thing is to install Steam on your Surface Book. Reminder if you don’t know your user name, your user ID is not your email address. If you can’t recall your login or password, I suggest doing a password reset from the Steam website. In that process, you will be told your user name.  Install Steam if you don’t already have it. Before going any further try and launch Steam.  Be sure you are on a network that allows for Steam to communicate to servers. Some enterprise networks and firewalls will block Steam. If Steam launches you are in the clear.  Shut down Steam and plug in the Vive system. You’ll have a single USB and a mini display to connect to your Surface Book / Doc. Be sure to have a mini display port to HDMI adaptor. I used a Mac Mini-Display to DVI adaptor plus a DVI to HDMI adaptor. As you test be sure to check audio to see if it runs over HDMI or the audio out. Make sure all the power is plugged in,  Surface Book (or Dock) and HTC Vive.  It is best to restart your Steam Services which loads on boot with the hardware connected. Next boot the system with them connected.

Reboot and Launch Steam:  You’ll notice as your system boots your HTC is being used like a second monitor and should have a second desktop.  Your display settings should NOT be set to Mirror. To change hold the Window key plus P and select Extend. Later SteamVR will change this, but for now Extend is the mode to start.

With your system booted Launch steam. Steam will find the hardware and do an update adding SteamVR.

With the hardware plugged in and Steam launched, you should see a VR Icon in the upper right set of icons.  If not it should show momentarily. If you recently purchased a Vive VR headset you likely have a redemption code allowing you to install SteamVR apps.  When in Steam, Go to the Library Tab.  Click the Add Application on the bottom left and put in your code.  This will install key libraries and applications needed to get started with SteamVR including TiltBrush.

Launch Steam VR.  While in steam select the SteamVR icon in the upper right set of icons, and select Launch SteamVR.  If you still don’t see a VR Icon.  Steam is not seeing your VR hardware.  Check cable connections and try a reboot.

When selecting the VR icon, select Start SteamVR.  A VR Window will pop up showing you icons for the headset, each controller and the number of base stations plugged in.

The base stations and the headset should be green. If the headset is flashing green then it is not visible to one of the base stations. Put the two controllers and the headset in the middle of the space where both base stations can see it.

Run Room Set up.  In the SteamVR Control Panel you see a Room Setup Up option from the Menu Application and follow the instructions.   Do not put on the headset. Follow the instructions on your Surface Book first. These instructions will walk you setting up your VR space.  At the right time, the system will ask you to put on the headset.

Suggested Apps:  You should be all set up and ready to play with VR. Run the SteamVR Tutorial. It should be a fair experience. Hint: If the room breakdown in the tutorial seems to go in slow motion, you should reboot and start fresh.  Fantastic Contraption also works fairly well. I’ve run that a few times without any issue.   But the best experience is with TiltBrush. I can run with good performance seemingly regardless of how long my system has been running.   However you will not be able to run fully immersive experiences like “The Lab”.  Your Surface Book hits a limit there.

For tips and techniques on painting in Tilt Brush read my latest blog on my experiences for painting in VR.

My first TiltBrush Sketch

Volumentric sketching – explained in my post on using TiltBrush

Hopefully this was helpful.  Your Surface Book is clearly not on the most rocking system to run VR, however for some applications like TiltBrush it’s a good experience and your Surface Book can get you started with VR… that is until you get access to a higher performance.  Trust me, you’re going to want to do that 10 minutes into this.

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