Viva La Vive

The HTC Vive virtual reality headset, reviewed

HTC Vive

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive has finally arrived. And other virtual reality headset manufacturers should take noteXavier Harding

The first thing you notice once you get acclimated to the HTC Vive virtual reality headset: first-person view video games suddenly make a lot more sense.

Many older games are side-scrollers, from the legendary Super Mario Bros. to the classic Street Fighter, offering players the double role of director and cameraman: watch the action from the sidelines and issue orders to your onscreen character. Seeing a level board from a bird’s eye view or as a fly on the wall just feels natural for many genres.

And then there are titles that take place from the first-person perspective. By mimicking your avatar’s viewpoint, gamers can feel as if they’re the hero. Though while you fully assume the role the story’s main character, the effect can be limiting. Strangers to the genre are limited by the reduced field of vision. Masters of the first-person shooter (FPS) understand, and even prefer, the effect, but are still forced to watch someone else’s natural view on an unnatural rectangle in front of them.

Early forms of such games take the shape of titles like Doom, the iconic FPS puts you in the helmet of this burly hero.

Games of the future put you in a different helmet—a virtual reality machine that fully removes your view and replaces it with your character’s

But 20 years later, games of the future put you in a different helmet—a virtual reality machine that fully removes your view and replaces it with your character’s. And if the helmet’s really good, it’ll match your character’s movements to yours. VR headsets are the missing piece of the first-person experience that many gamers didn’t know they needed. And the HTC Vive seeks to be the best of the bunch.

Three major virtual reality headsets are entering the market this year: the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, Sony's Playstation VR and the HTC Vive. It doesn't take much for someone trying VR to be impressed by Oculus, Sony and HTC's brand of the virtual world. Even donning the more affordable (and less powerful) version of these headsets, mainly Samsung's Gear VR, is enough to prove just how crazy and awesome and terrifying virtual reality can be.

But the HTC Vive isn’t the more affordable version. It’s $799 — that’s $200 more than the already-expensive Oculus Rift, and that price doesn’t include the costly, graphics-heavy gaming PC you’ll need to use it. The Taiwanese hardware-maker is working with Valve, of Steam and Half Life fame, to put the experience it’s gained in making phones toward fully maxing out the specs of its VR headset offering. So becoming that burly hero, sleek archer, tactful commander or whomever feels even more real.

Unboxing Virtual Reality

Setting up the HTC Vive will take you an afternoon, requires drilling holes, and forces you to clear space when it’s time to dive into VR. Choose your room wisely.

The Vive comes with the headset, two controllers, an adapter box, a pair of earbuds, two base stations, and all the required cables needed to start playing. The box has compartments everywhere.

To use the Vive you’ll need to have a Steam account and install the included software. Once installed, your computer will walk you through the steps of configuration. Settings everything up was simple, even if it took long. Expect to spend an afternoon on arranging use of the device.

The HTC Vive packaging contains many boxes, compartments and hidden corners packed with cables, chargers and adapters. But there are three main pieces that dictate HTC’s VR experience.

HTC Vive

HTC Vive

The Vive is relatively light when worn. But packs lots of power.Xavier Harding

The Headset

The most iconic part of HTC’s Vive is the virtual reality headset. Unlike the Playstation VR and Gear VR, HTC’s unit is all black. And compared to the Oculus, the front of the unit is dimpled—like a dark moon you’d wear on your face. The lighthouses (more on these later) track the 37 sensors contained inside the headset’s tiny craters, as well as the sensors in the two included controllers (more on these later, also).

Putting on the headset completely covers your view and only allows view of the screen inside. Pixels are still visible if you look for them, but they’re not noticeable during gameplay. The display is crisp, but few will confuse the game’s world for the actual one—graphics of games like Tiltbrush or Space Pirate Trainer give that away instantly. But simply looking around and walking through the fictional world of the game insists to your brain what you’re seeing is real. If you want a glimpse of the actual, physical world the camera on the face of the unit has you covered.

The fictional world of the game insists to your brain what you’re seeing is real

The camera planted on the device’s face acts as a way to view the real world without removing the headset. With the double tap of the button, the game around you fades slightly to the background so you can see what is going in the actual world you recently checked out of.

Wearing the headset and headphones really does cut you off that much from the real world. Including a camera to quickly see out of the darned thing. I’d sorely miss this out of Oculus’s Rift and Sony’s PS VR. Though interestingly, the cheaper Gear VR offers this as well.

HTC Vive Controllers
A touch pad is joined by trigger and side buttons on the HTC Vive controller. Small buttons above and below the touchpad are also available.Xavier Harding

The Controllers

Out of the box, the HTC Vive ships with two motion controllers (one for each hand), two micro-USB charging cables and two wall adapters. The controller design could be described as a more updated version of Nintendo’s Wii remote, with its slender body.

But instead of mimicking a TV remote, the HTC Vive controllers have an empty circle at the top and offer a trackpad instead of traditional D-pad or analog stick. I would’ve preferred an actual directional stick but the Vive’s initial tutorial shows how the pad, for example, can mimic four action buttons—with each corner acting as a different colored button. The malleability of the Vive’s controllers are part of the fun. Some games the controllers visibly change in virtual reality to be two pistols. In others a pair of hands.

Along with the trackpad you’ll find a button above and below the touch area, a trigger button on the bottom and side buttons underneath your middle finger and inner palm. The side buttons are activated by essentially squeezing your grip. The controllers share the Vive headset’s dimpled design.

The HTC Vive controllers are comfortable to hold and feel very natural to use in games like Longbow, where you’re tasked with operating a bow and arrow to protect your fort. Vibrations and sounds matching that of an actual bow weapon, combined with the ability to move around and aim simply like how you would in real life lead to such a simple game being massively fun in VR.

HTC Vive base station

Vive Base Station

The Vive's two base stations detect where the headset and controllers are in real time. Allowing the game the ability to recognize as you moveXavier Harding

The Base Stations

The HTC Vive’s included base stations are what track you as you move around. The base stations (also known as lighthouses)—instead of using sensors—use light to determine your position in the room. By sending out light multiple times a second every second, the lighthouses can determine a person’s position simply by keeping track of how long a specific dimple n the headset or controller took to get hit with light. Having walked, sat and bobbed & weaved in VR, I’d say the use of light for tracking is an effective one.

HTC requires you drill a hole in the wall to mount the two base stations on opposite corners of the room. Or you can be very liberal with the scotch tape, but the drill method is recommend. The base stations are also visible in the virtual world, just like the Vive controllers.

Using Room Scale, Chaperone Bounds & Other Features

The headset, controllers and base stations combined with you moving furniture out the way turn your living room or den into the Holodeck from Star Trek (sort of). While the lighthouses track you as you move, they're not used to automatically detect the movable space of your room or apartment.

Upon startup, users trace out free space and the process can be easily redone if your setup changes. Vive owners are given the option of playing seated experiences, similar to the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR, with a controller in their hands. Though games that support Room Scale—or the Vive’s ability to track where you walk around—offer a more immersive experience.

Playing games that support Room Scale very clearly felt like the future. Walking around a game’s world or even something as simple as leaning in to get a better look drive the effect home. Some uses of Room Scale could easily be replaced by a controller and button combination, but once you get a taste you want more. Until you’re feeling lazy and want to game while sitting down, that is. For headsets in this price range, however, it’s good to have the option.

Having mapped out clear space in your room, the Vive is helpful in offering Chaperone Bounds: blue outlines telling you when you’re about to walk into a wall or other obstruction. The chaperone can take the shape of something as simple as walls indicating borders to full on outline of furniture and other things around the room that you should watch out for. Unfortunately it doesn’t do anything to tell those with low ceilings what may be above you—like low hanging lights, for example.

The Games

But arguably, the most important part of the HTC Vive is the content library. And with the power of Room Scale, the Vive is able to play games that the Rift and PS VR simply can’t support. Unfortunately, at the moment, Vive’s software catalog is lacking.

The Vive comes with three games at launch: TiltBrush, Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator. All three represent games that do a good job of showing what the Vive is capable of, but didn't provide experiences I saw myself going back and replaying. Games like Space Pirate Shooter or Valve's The Lab are some of the most fun games I've played in Vive. But they felt more arcade-like than actual full-on games. And some apps go beyond gaming, like AltspaceVR--which allows you to meet up with friends in a virtual room to voice chat, share emoji and watch Youtube videos. Of course it only works if you and all your friends own a VR headset.

For a VR headset of this price...having the apps to go with it is important.

In a world where the Oculus Rift comes packed with EVE: Valkyrie, the Vive offered many mini games but few full ones I was interested in playing. Except Selfie Tennis, of course—the game where you're teleported back and forth to allow for playing tennis against yourself.

The Vive doesn’t even have a Netflix, Hulu, or other media streaming app to take advantage of the giant virtual screen. And in-headset web browser is available so you can at least visit your favorite sites. Watching Netflix through this interface was doable, but not ideal. GearVR users can even view March Madness on their headsets this month. For a VR headset of this price that offers features no other headset maker does, having the apps to go with it is important.

Though in time we could see the software library grow. Potential games could include not just VR titles like ones on Oculus and Playstation, but very compelling Room Scale titles as well that can’t be brought to the other headsets. And apps that let you stream video similar to ones found on the Gear VR are likely on the way in the future. Unfortunately this isn’t the case today.

The Price Tag

The worlds are virtual but the parting ways with your wallet is real. The HTC Vive will cost you $799 at the very least, another $30 for shipping costs and then also tax. In addition to the $829+ up front, you’ll need to own a pretty powerful PC.

HTC conveniently offers a section of its website for computers optimized to use with the Vive. Base specs of your rig will have to include, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290 graphics (or higher), an Intel i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 (or higher), at least 4GB of RAM, an HDMI 1.4 port or DisplayPort 1.2 port (or newer) and a free USB 2.0 port. And your computer better be running Windows 7 or newer--no love for the Mac and Linux users. We tested HTC's Vive on a Maingear's Nomad VR-ready gaming laptop. The Maingear costs $3,000+ but you can expect to spend at least $900 if you don't want to build your own.

The 800 bucks of the HTC Vive combined with the $900+ you’ll likely shell out for the computer to run it with make really good VR expensive right now. While PC gamers are used to coughing up these kinds of funds, more casual or console-focused gamers may find $1,700 to be out of their price range.

HTC Vive
Long live ViveXavier Harding

Final Word

HTC’s brand of VR does one of the best jobs of pulling you out of the actual world and into the virtual one. The ability to track movement via RoomScale and use your hands with the included controllers do a great job of convincing you that fake experiences are in fact real.

But some notable omissions bring an amazing product like the Vive back down to earth. The current games are fun and showcase the great potential of the Vive, but are brief and don’t offer much depth. Knowing games like EVE: Valkyrie are coming to Playstation VR and (included with purchase of) the Oculus Rift may not sit well with many Vive players. But game’s like The Lab and the Portal robot repair mission within loudly hint at the possibility of Portal VR’s one day on the Vive, due to Valve’s involvement. Who knows, perhaps even Half Life 3 is confirmed.

The early adopter tax is sorely felt with the HTC Vive. But even in its early iteration, the HTC Vive is very well done. To the point that you’ll not only look at every single first-person game differently, but you may never want to go back to seeing someone else’s view through a rectangle. But better than the tech that allows for VR today, is the fact that it only gets better and cheaper from here.

Pros:

RoomScale is the future. Or at least feels close to it

Great controllers

Camera on exterior to see real world

Notifications from your phone in VR are convenient

Cons:

Very expensive, overall

Not wireless

Limited game library, for now

Lacking in apps, for now.