I’ve spent the last few weeks putting HTC’s Vive virtual reality kit through its paces. This premium VR system device is a collaboration between Taiwanese cell phone manufacturer HTC and the renowned PC games hub, Steam.
Whilst nobody is going to publicly confirm it, it is likely that the Vive and HTC’s collaboration with Valve came about as direct result of Oculus’ purchase by Facebook. Previously happy bedfellows, Oculus and Valve had been patting themselves on the back for years, Valve supplying much of its know how to the Rift project. After the Facebook deal Valve took their expertise to HTC, who had been working on their own VR project.
The result was the HTC Vive, the world’s first SteamVR device.
And I’ll tell you right now, it’s bloody good.
Unlike the seated experience of Oculus Rift, Vive allows players to move about in a virtual reality environment. It’s this “room-scale” VR and the motion controllers that actually have a presence in the games that give the Vive the edge over its competition. Not only does the consumer version of Vive offer players more functionality over the Rift, but it has also beaten the VR trailblazer to retail.
Every VR demo I’ve experienced in the past has had me either standing or sitting there, fidgeting with a controller whilst my head spins with the visual feast surrounding me. All my experiences with VR be it on Rift or PlayStation VR have been great. They’ve all given me exactly the technology I’ve longed to play since the first, brief, appearance of Commodore Amiga-based VR arcade machines back in the early nineties.
But none of them could prepare me for the sense of presence offered by the Vive.
It’s ironic that of all the virtual reality kit that I’ve briefly tried out over the past few years: Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR, the one that I’m most impressed with I knew nothing about prior to its quiet launch back in April 2016.
HTC’s Vive is VR’s best kept secret. Beating Facebook’s Oculus Rift to retail and in functionality, the Vive offers well-heeled PC enthusiasts a glimpse into the future and the opportunity to step into and feel part of another world.
The Vive was officially released to consumers in early April. With units shipping directly from HTC in Taiwan, up until very recently, orders have taken a month to arrive. To make up for the wait, orders placed on the HTC web site included a software bundle featuring Google’s Tilt Brush, Job Simulator and Fantastic Contraption – all great showcases of the Vive’s features.
First, though, let’s take a look at the kit.
As you would expect with an extremely expensive piece of kit like the HTC Vive, it comes in a box befitting its price tag.
The Vive consists of three main elements that all come together to create the most immersive VR experience available today.
The Vive offers users what is called room-scale VR. Unlike the usual sitting down gamepad-twiddling. The Vive allows players to move about in VR space, up to a maximum size of 4.5m x 4.5m. The minimum space required for the room-scale VR is 2m x 1.5m, so most people should have the space. If not, Vive can be used sitting down with most software.
Room-scale VR is achieved by mounting two infra-red emitting Lighthouse base stations in each corner of the play space. Positioning and screwing these to the wall using the included mounts is probably the most complex part of the whole set-up. Both the VR headset and the two Vive controllers have a number of sensors all over them, enabling them to be tracked, with incredible accuracy, in the VR space.
The Vive’s head mounted display (HMD) is probably the most cumbersome of all the VR devices that I’ve tried. It has two 1080 x 1200 screens, one for each eye, covered with quite a bulbous bit of plastic. It doesn’t weigh a lot, but it certainly takes a while to work out how to properly fit it on your head.
Once you get the hang of it, you realise that you don’t need the headset pressing hard into your face and you almost forget that it is there. HTC, like Oculus have chosen to use concentric-ringed Fresnel lenses in their headsets. This makes the lenses thinner, allowing your eyes to sit closer to the screen, increasing your peripheral vision. There’s also probably a weight advantage as well. The downside is that the rings are sometimes visible when in use.
Back to those 1080 x 1200 screens. Whilst that is a fair few pixels, your eyes are only a centimeter or so from the displays, so the pixels are very much in view, if you focus on them. They can be distracting, especially when looking at distant object, which can seem blurry. This is often referred to as a screen-door effect (SDE) – because that is exactly what it looks like.
Like the rings from the Fresnel lenses, the SDE is an unfortunate and unavoidable artifact stemming from technology that is only just maturing. Higher resolution displays would counter most of the SDE, but we just don’t have the power to push that many pixels at the required 90hz. In order to provide a comfortable VR experience a low latency display at 90 fps has to be maintained – hence the vigorous hardware requirements.
The final components required for the Vive VR experience are the Vive motion controllers. Each Vive controller has twenty sensors which, with the aid of the Lighthouse base stations, are tracked 1:1 within the VR environment. The controllers, once switched on can be “seen” through the VR headset with such accuracy that you can easily reach out a grab them.
As you move the motion controllers in front of you the same movement is replicated with the 3D modeled versions within the VR environment- right down to the virtual triggers depressing. The various buttons and triggers make the Vive controllers an extension of your hands allowing full interaction with objects in VR. As well as the trigger, the controllers also have two grip buttons on the handle and a circular touchpad for directional input, among other things. There’s also a system and menu button.
The Vive kit comes with some earbud headphones. Whilst these do the trick, I’d strongly recommend swapping them out for a proper set of cans as sound is as much a part of the VR experience as anything else. No need to worry about a mic, as the headset has a built-in microphone.
With the Lighthouse base stations mounted and powered using the included cables, it’s just a case of powering up the small hub box, plugging it into a spare HDMI socket on your graphics card, connecting the USB cable to you PC and plugging the headset into the hub. You are then all good to go.
HTC’s Vive is powered by SteamVR, a special add-on for Valve’s Steam service that includes the drivers for the device. Once the software is installed, the Base Stations detect your headset and the motion controllers.
A short set-up process calibrates your equipment and determines your play space. You can choose from a seated arrangement or the room-scale VR experience.
The room-scale VR with its accurate tracking of both your head and hands, using the Vive Motion Controllers, puts users within the VR environment instead of simply being surrounded by a 360-degree image. This allows you to walk around in your virtual world. You can crouch down, look up, look sideway and behind you- it is exactly as if you are actually there.
The Vive combines the normal VR offered by the Oculus Rift and, soon, PlayStation VR, with the interactive experience of a Nintendo Wii or Xbox Kinect, placing you right inside the game with full 360-degree movement within your play space. The controllers actually exist in the VR environment and allow players to interact accordingly, further increasing the immersion.
In order to stop you from falling over objects or slamming your face into your wall, the Vive uses a Chaperone system that brings up a visible grid within the VR environment if you get near the limit of your play area. You can tone it down a bit, or switch it off entirely – which I wouldn’t recommend. The headset also has a camera on the front that can be switched on to see an overlaid view of your actual room, good for locating controllers that have not been switched on.
With the device set up and switched on, it’s time to put the head set on. After a brief tutorial based on valves popular Portal games, you are left in the hub area. Pressing the menu button brings up the SteamVR menu where you will find all your Steam games listed.
There are two front-ends, so to speak. The first is a customisable environment (you can even have a bonafide Holodeck background, complete with door) where you can interact with that very familiar-looking SteamVR interface. From here you can access all your steam content, which can be played in VR natively- if it is a VR game, or in the SteamVR Theatre. I never got this to work properly – possibly due to my triple-monitor set-up.
The other front end is the Vive room, which at this time it’s a choice between a floating platform high above the clouds or a dojo-like room. In here you can position three-dimensional short-cuts to your favourite games.
Before I go any further, if you are expecting some AAA gaming experience of the traditional blockbuster variety, I think you are a few years early. This may be the second coming of VR, but it is still in it’s infancy. Low-res screens in the headsets and lack of grunt even in top-PC’s means that we are going to get showcases, tech demos, indie-style games and other VR “experiences”.
But that’s OK as we are talking about a huge paradigm shift, one akin to switching from radio to TV. There is a shit-load of difference between playing a game and being in a game. And it’s going to be a while before we can see through the spectacle of it all in order to realise that the VR games right now are all a bit rubbish. Remember how awesome tennis, squash and squash practice was on those old B&W TV games back in the 70s?
But VR is a different platform than PC gaming. An HTC Vive equipped PC is an entirely different gaming experience than a PC hooked up to a monitor, or multiple monitors. The two are really incomparable. Also, though, things that work very well in a PC game do not always work very well in VR.
A first-person shooter like Doom is likely to leave all but the most cast-iron stomached players spewing onto the carpet with VR-induced motion-sickness. Interestingly, it is experiences that would appear mundane on a monitor that give users the best VR experiences.
At the moment it is still early days with regards to Vive software. A number of existing games have been retro-fit for VR, notably Frontier’s Elite Dangerous space sim and Project CARS, the excellent racing game. Both offer an incredible Vive experience.
Considering we are only a few months into this VR revolution, Valve’s Steam Store is already stocked with some jaw-dropping VR experiences.
TheBlu, a ten-dollar game downloadable from the Steam store give players the opportunity to experience a whale encounter, up close, from the deck of a sunken ship. It also places you at the deepest depth of the ocean as the midnight zone is slowingly lit up by amazing iridescent creatures that you can actually reach out and touch. You can also stand amongst a coral reef and watch as thousands of fish dart by. It’s amazingly real and will leave your heart beating hard.
Valve’s showcase application, The Lab, is another great introduction to VR. Via a number of mini-experiences, players are given the chance to explore virtual real-world locations, dismantle robots partake in a bit of archery.
But it’s Google’s Tilt Brush that wowed me the most. Making full use of the Vive’s motion controllers and room-scale VR, Tilt Brush is a 3D painting program that enables you to create incredible art that you can walk around and inside of. You can even paint with neon light and stars.
Using the HTC Vive is one of them most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. For the last few weeks it’s been transporting me to wondrous places that have had me swinging from trees, flying in spaceships, landing aeroplanes and shooting zombies.
The downside to this incredible experience is the cost. Not only are you going to have to own a meaty PC powerhouse (the minimum recommended GPU is a Geforce GTX 970), but the actual cost of the kit, factoring in shipping and the usual Australasian rip-off mark-up is not going to leave you with much change from AU$1450.
The Vive is a full-on Oculus killer with its room-scale VR and motion controller. But it’s not all roses. As well as being the most uncomfortable VR head mounted display that I’ve tried so far, for such an expensive piece of kit, it’s not particularly well made. The HMD feels cheap and the plastic lenses are asking to get scratched. The review HMD’s lenses also seemed loose, calling up the interpapillary distance display if I moved my head too quickly.
My review of the Vive also only lasted a couple of weeks before one of the base stations packed up. Unfortunately, this fault, one of the IR LED emitters seems to be a commonly reported fault.
Checking Reddit, it seems that HTC’s global support is somewhat lacking, their processes unable to really handle a non-cell phone multi-part (and very expensive) system like the Vive. Thankfully, Shane the Gamer’s Australian HQ is only a stones threw from the Sydney HTC repair agent, Fonebiz who, along with the local HTC folks, were able to get the faulty equipment swapped out very quickly.
There’s no doubt in my mind that VR has now arrived. The Vive, like the Rift and the upcoming PlayStationVR are going to change interactive experiences forever. It’s not perfect, but it works.
Today’s VR experiences with the Vive are amazing and it’s only going to get better. If you’ve got the wallet and PC capable of running it, I 100% recommend the HTC Vive. This is the virtual reality that we have been waiting for.
Come back soon for a look at my top ten Vive games!