How to: Setting up your PC for triple-screen gaming

In this new age of VR and crazy-wide curved single screens, Ben Mansill is going triple screening.

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How to: Setting up your PC for triple-screen gaming

I’ve wanted a triple screen gaming rig for a very long time. These days I play mostly sims – flying and driving – and by all accounts this is where a triple screen rig should shine, so for no other reason the time is right to get this project going.

Now, with this being the age of VR and all, it’s fair to question the sanity of investing in an expensive triple screen rig – which includes not only the cost of the screens, but the graphics card to run it all. VR is life-changing, no doubt about it, but the current generation VR displays are too low resolution to be useful in some games. Yes, you’re really there, but if you can’t read how much fuel is left in your tank, or ammo for your guns, well, you’re dead, aren’t you? I also race in leagues with many races running an hour or more. That’s too long in hyper-intense mode for VR, especially when it gets hot and uncomfortable.

I don’t run any kind of cockpit, so the new setup will be on a desk. As such, it should also offer good wins for Windows desktop activities as well as, hopefully, many varieties of gaming in general. I’m coming from a six-year-old 30-inch Dell, which I love, and I use it with TrackIR in sims.

The primary objective is to have the triples set just right so my real life head was where it should be, looking at the right angles of things, sizes of things and a field of view in front and to the sides so it all achieves 1:1 ‘being there’ realism. This was not a quest for ‘sticking my head in a bucket of graphics’ eye candy, or having a super-wide meterage of screen spanning the desk. It’s about feeling like I’m sitting in the car I’m driving, or plane I’m flying. There’s maths and science involved in dialing all this in, and luckily others have done all the hard work so setting it up was easy and fun.

KITTING UP

Going triples is going to be expensive, but the reward is great. 

Choosing your screens

Overall what’s going to drive screen choice will be the ultimate resolution you’ll be running, the graphics card powering it all and how demanding the games you’ll be playing are – in other words, is the PC horsepower going to match the heavy demands? But put all that aside for a moment. What you want more than anything is physical size. The larger, the better. It’s not uncommon to use three TVs for this reason, plus the performance impact of three 1080 TVs is probably less than three monitors at a higher resolution.

Nevertheless, it’s crispness plus size I’m chasing, so after considering everything available settled on three 27-inch 2560 x 1440 Asus ROG PG279Q screens. There were several factors driving this choice. First, these monitors have a very slim bezel, and that’s  important. I wanted a decent vertical resolution – 1080 or 1200 just doesn’t cut it anymore, not by a long shot. Similarly, 2560 horizontally is a lot more useful than 1920. But this would mean a total resolution of 7680 x 1440, which is going to stress any graphics card. That brings us to a huge aspect in favour of these Asus PG279Q’s – they are G-Sync capable. I would be running an Nvidia card so this became a critical factor to help achieve smooth gaming if I found myself playing games that no amount of tweaking could get close to being decently playable without G-Sync.

The Asus PG279Qs also have a very high 144Hz refresh rate, and I knew that even at 7680 x 1440, in many games I would be well over 60fps so I wanted to see that graphics headroom translate to smooth and high frames.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Asus PG279Q is an IPS panel. That allowed them to be used as side screens without losing out on colour richness and accuracy because of the viewing angle. This was probably the biggest surprise discovery of the whole project for me. I had considered using cheaper TN panels on the side but TN looks terrible unless you’re perfectly front-on. On the side I would have lost a lot of richness and contrast, and the colours – to my centred eye – would have been very different on the side, compared to the centre.

While some other monitors checked some boxes, only the Asus PG279Q ticked them all.

Graphics power

I’m fortunate, in that the main games I play and the driving motivator for going triples aren’t particularly GPU demanding. For me that’s primarily Assetto Corsa, which is more CPU-reliant than GPU, and War Thunder, which has a ridiculously well-coded engine that looks a treat but can run well on almost anything. But a gaming rig needs to be versatile, and even though there’s always the fallback option of running a particularly demanding game on just the centre screen, you still want the power to go for triple screen gaming whenever possible.

SLI is tempting, and may be the go later on, but so few games support SLI at launch, and many never do. So, for this stage of the experiment at least, that meant an Nvidia 1080 Ti. A key factor at play here is the 11GB of video RAM the 1080 Ti carries. At the 7680 x 1440 resolution I’d be running I don’t want stutters because there’s not enough memory for textures.

GETTING IT DONE

One does not simply plonk three screens on one’s desk and be done with it. 

Field of view

It’s common to run a high FOV in games, and that’s especially true of racing sims on a single screen. We do that to give ourselves a greater field of view to aid situational awareness, with the downside that what you see is a distortion of what reality should be (sometimes dramatically if running extreme FOV in the order of 50-60 degrees or more). With the immense peripheral real estate triple screens offer we can bring the FOV back to what’s realistic. More than any other factor, a correct FOV centres you properly in the vehicle and gives us the ‘really there’ immersion we’re chasing. Calculating it is easy, and is part of the edracing calculator linked below, so moving on for now.

Image credit: Zeospantera

Eyeball to screen distance

Apart from the screen’s physical size, this is the only measurement you’ll need to know to input into the calculator I’ll get to in a moment. As with FOV, we need to know this to help get your virtual position in the vehicle exactly right. With the centre monitor positioned where you want it, sit back as you would when gaming and measure the distance from eyeballs to the screen in a straight, level line.

Now, I’ve seen triple screen setups – and single screen rigs too – where the monitor/s are pushed back far away from where the gamer would sit. That’s crazy. Don’t do that. It defeats the whole purpose of getting maximum immersion! Have them as close as possible to you. The calculator we’ll be using will allow angle and FOV adjustments so your view is spot on. I have the centre screen just touching where I have my Clubsport wheel base – as close as can be.

Side screen angles

This is super important, and you’ll need maths. But luckily the internet has that sorted. Now, you can’t simply chuck the side screens up and set them at whatever angle takes your fancy. Because the goal is to replicate a true 1:1 position of where your head in the vehicle really would be, the side screen angles are critical to accurately achieving this, and it’s directly related to your FOV (see above).

Head to www.edracing.com/edr/FOV.php. This app was developed for iRacing, but is game-agnostic and it gives us exactly what we need so this is what we’re using. Simply input your viewing distance and centre monitor width and it generates the proper FOV and side screen angle. In my case it was a game FOV of 32 degrees and a screen side angle of 47.5 degrees. Without moving the centre screen (otherwise it will throw off your viewing distance numbers), find your old school protractor or borrow your kid’s one, and put it to good use for the first time in its life. Once in your game, set the FOV to whatever the calculator told you to, and you’re almost there.

Side screen overlap

You can effectively reduce the amount of visible bezel by overlapping the centre screen over the side screens, as shown in the illustration.

Image credit: Mark Williams

The trick is to sit back in your normal gaming position and move the edge of the side screens behind the centre screen bit by bit until you can’t see the side screen’s bezels anymore. Now, only the centre screen bezel is visible, with the side screen bezels obscured. Always re-check your screen angles after doing this. Alternatively you could do the same but have the side screens overlap in front of the centre screen. Because the side screens are at an angle you can achieve a tiny bit less visible bezel overall thanks to how the side screen bezels present at an angle. There’s no set school of thought on whether the centre screen should be in front, or behind. I prefer the centre to be ahead of the sides, because that makes it the closest screen and I like that. Perusing photos of various triple screen rigs on line, you’ll see that both ways are commonly used.

Bezel compensation

Whether or not you have placed your side screens so that they overlap the centre, there’s still going to be some bezel showing, that’s just unavoidable. Even if it’s just a few mm you still need to compensate for the bezel. If you don’t the PC will draw the scene as if there were no bezel present at all, so as the centre image ends on the edges, and the side screens resume drawing the scene, the bezel area represents a gap that shouldn’t be present in the scene. That gap can be a real killer. If you’re in a cockpit game the struts and dash will be visibly unaligned, in a FPS the building edge will jump as it crosses to the side screens resulting in a nasty looking lightning bolt effect. You don’t want that! It looks crappy and can impact your immersion, and to a degree, your effectiveness in the game as things aren’t where they should be.

Fortunately it can be fixed. Unfortunately it may not be straightforward. The simplest method is to use the included bezel compensation tool present in both the AMD and Nvidia control panels. 

In practice it’s simple. A sample image (Nvidia shown) is overlaid and you just keep adding in compensation for left and right until they are aligned. That will do it for Windows desktop general use, and in theory you’re set for in-game use as well. What is happening as you make these adjustments, and then locking them in, is that Windows is resizing its overall resolution and producing a custom res that becomes Windows default. In my case, it changed the resolution from 7680 x 1440 to 7738 x 1440. Once this is done go in-game, and in graphics options you should see that new resolution in the list of what’s available – select it, and you’re good to go. If it doesn’t appear – and it doesn’t always as some games would only list the original native screen resolution – your only option is to hack. Find the .ini or .cgf or whatever your game has for settings (assuming it’s available), and manually change the resolution to your new one. 

Ideally the game itself supports bezel compensation. Assetto Corsa and iRacing both do, but this is relatively rare. If your game does support bezel compensation then use it. It’s far more accurate to use an in-game tool to position things just right.

Seat height

This is the last thing to do, and in some ways the most important. You absolutely must be seated so your eyes are pointing at the centre of the screen. Any higher or lower and the perspective is thrown off and you’ll see that easily in the form of the side screens showing things at different angles relative to the center screen. Take your virtual car out, stop it in the middle of a track where there are side rails running alongside the track. If you are too high or too low in the seat the rails won’t run in a clean, straight line across all three screens. Even a couple of cm height change makes it or breaks it. Of course, it’s a lot easier to change your seat height than find three equally sized things to raise the monitors with. On my desk the side screens sit precariously close to the edge so I don’t want to risk putting them on something potentially unstable. A VESA arm mounting rig is another option, it offers the most flexibility but is also another $200 - $300 towards the project.

Was it worth it?

There’s a reason why this setup is so popular with racing sims, and little else. 

Basically... gosh yes. I have wanted a triple screen rig as long as I can remember and it did not disappoint. The big victory is Assetto Corsa, as well as other driving games. Having experimented with other game types I think it’s safe to say that unless you’re pretty hardcore into driving games then triples are hard to justify. There are too many compromises. Here’s what I found.

Driving

Absolutely incredible. There’s a lovely increase in the sense of speed that comes from having stuff whizz by on the side screens in your peripheral vision – yet because triples allow a much lower FOV, you actually feel like you’re moving more slowly when looking at the center screen, which in turn improves your accuracy. This is because a higher FOV causes a false sense of high speed because the perspective is warped. With triples, if you got the calculations right, you’re seated in the right spot with everything the right size so it becomes driving a car, and with all the experience you have at that helping you intuitively, versus controlling something not quite right in a narrow window in front of you.

To be able to look into a turn is critical for good racing. I always relied upon TrackIR, and I’m very used to it, but it’s just nicer and more natural to be seated in a virtual cockpit that surrounds you. A big win for triples over TrackIR is when other cars are alongside. With TrackIR you’d look to the side and momentarily lose track of where you’re pointing, potentially dangerously. Triples let you take it all in via your peripheral vision. So you’re safer on track and can make riskier passing moves stick.

Flying

This was a mixed bag. For starters you absolutely must use TrackIR when flying – triples or not. Don’t argue. Everyone who plays flight sims knows this to be true. But… while the expanded side view added some nice peripheral candy, the truth is that in a flight sim you are moving your head constantly as you eyeball a bogie within a very narrow cone of view, and I found the lack of vertical screen height relative to the huge horizontal area an impediment. I could easily look to the side, but looking up – which is so common in a dogfight – was constricting by comparison. Honestly, it was better using my 30-inch Dell because I could see in equal amounts vertically as well as horizontally and it’s all about having a single point of focus in flying that you constantly stayed glued to via TrackIR – there’s nothing to be gained from having expanded side vision because with TrackIR you look there anyway, and unlike driving games, huge objects (other cars) just aren’t there, instead there are just tiny dots (other planes or targets) so the extra side view offers no gain.

For  starters  you absolutely must use TrackIR when flying – triples or not. Don’t argue.

FPS

First person gaming worked beautifully. In anything but the paciest online shooter, the ability to take in a wider surrounding was magical. The feeling of being there was more powerful than with single screen gaming. But apart from sightseeing there’s no practical gameplay advantage. When the shooting starts you’re hyper-focused on a small central area and your peripheral vision ceases to be – so no gain there. But for standing atop a hill in Fallout 4 taking it all in, or surveying a new valley in Far Cry Primal, or getting cranky at your slow team mate alongside you as you slog through a forest in Arma III it’s magic.

But, to be expected, FPS games typically demand more of the GPU, so in most games I tested it was necessary to lower the graphics detail a bit to achieve a playable frame rate.

Conclusion

If your objective is a totally immersive experience and you aren’t bothered by the current low HMD resolution, VR is better. But for me, for some games at least, VR res is too low to read critically important on screen info. Sim racing competitively – especially on a hot summer night like the ones we suffered through earlier this year – also means sweating inside a VR HMD that you can’t take a break from because the race is underway. I’m serious, it’s a big factor!

If you only seek the massive width then some crazy aspect ratio single screens are on the horizon that might offer an alternative. Samsung, among others, has a display coming using a new 3840 x 1200 panel. It’s curved, too, so you’re looking at two-thirds the width of a typical triple rig and no bezels. But the 1800R curve won’t be enough give you the precise 1:1 position in the cockpit that’s so important and can only be achieved with properly positioned triples. 

Yes, life is full of compromises and difficult decisions. Triple screen gaming imposes many of these, but ultimately I just wish I’d done this years ago. I come home from work, look at those three beauties on my desk and it makes me want to game. It’s a very exciting thing to have and it takes gaming to a new level. 

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