Well, the Oculus Rift was the best VR headset you could buy for about a week.
The HTC Vive virtual reality headset drops today at a $799 price point just a week after Facebook’s Oculus released its highly-anticipated Rift headset. In comparison, the Vive has kind of flown under the radar outside of developer and VR junkie circles during the past couple years. There have been no South Park episodes, nowhere near the quantity of think pieces and quite a bit less anticipation among the smartphone using populace who couldn’t distinguish a Gear VR from a HoloLens.
I’ve had a chance to show the Vive consumer version to my VR virgin friends and responses have rarely deviated from them saying the Vive is the coolest piece of technology they’ve ever seen.
The consumer Vive may hold that crown for me as well. It certainly bests the Rift in terms of immersion and is already developing an ecosystem that looks as though it is going to attract non-gamers particularly well in the coming months. It’s a bit less-refined and intuitive in terms of its feature set, but it nails so many of the futuristic pursuits it reaches beyond reality to find.
Finding physical space for your virtual reality
The setup of this system is a bit of a doozy.
With the Vive, physical space is a pretty precious commodity. The system’s room-scale tracking, which sees you as you move through space, requires a decent amount of room that you may have to get creative to find.
I set up my Vive space in my cramped little college apartment, and in order to achieve even the minimum space allotment I ended up having to shift my bed on its side up against the wall. Not really all that effortless in my case, but I suppose if you live in a 4-bedroom house in Waco you won’t have this problem.
Mounting the two Lighthouse sensors (which track your headset and controllers) in opposite corners of the room was mostly painless. The lighthouse infrared sensors don’t need to connect to each other or the PC so that made things much easier.
Once you have a nice space cleared and have your sensors set up, you then need to craft the boundaries of your play space. The way you do so is immeasurably custom and quite cool. You really just walk around the outside corners of your space, controllers in hand, mapping the wall while accounting for any irregularities.
From there, the Vive employs what’s called the chaperone system to remind you of the physical borders of your measured space if you’re ever about to put your controller through a wall while in VR. It does so through a couple of ways. First, a physical grid that pops up clearly showing your boundaries, and second, if you have the Vive’s head-mounted camera enabled, a 360-degree 2D image of the objects in your immediate vicinity pops up.
This was incredibly useful for finding a chair or grabbing a water bottle after long sessions with the headset without taking it off. The way this feature allows you to interact with real reality turned out to be pretty effective and ensured that you were never fully blind to your surroundings. When Oculus Touch launches in the second half or this year, this feature is going to be sorely missing.
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HTC is generally known for it’s pretty sharp design chops, but I will say here that I still generally prefer the design of the Rift headset over the Vive. It’s the little things like the Rift’s more rigid spring-loaded straps that distinguish the very much refined feel of Oculus’s offering from the considerably less sleek Vive.
Looks are hardly everything. It’s a solid fact that you’re going to look like a moron while you’re wearing one of these regardless, and there are certain other hardware items that shine brightly on the Vive.
The motion-tracked controllers that ship with the Vive really are something special. They are a bit oddly shaped. They feel a bit like Wiimotes with little shot glass cup holders built into the top, which as I write this I realize I should definitely try out. They feel very solid in your hand though, and while I do in many ways prefer the ergonomics of the Oculus Touch, the button layout on these controllers is pretty top-notch.
One interesting thing I noticed from trying out the various launch titles is how effectively game developers are aligning their designs of in-game tools to the real-world form factors of the controllers. What results is a level of immersion that makes you believe you might actually be picking up a gun when you grab the controllers off your desk while inside the environment.
I found myself missing the Rift’s integrated headphones. The Vive allows you to easily use whatever headphones you have at your disposal but I generally found that having another cord in the way was annoying and most of my headphones are quite heavy so I ended up just using the included earbuds, which performed fine.
Speaking of cords, the Vive is still a tethered experience. On the Rift it’s annoying, but on the Vive it’s pretty restricting at times. The difference comes with how much you’re moving and spinning around, tangling the cord and tightening your leash without even knowing it in the meantime. There’s not much that can be done about this at the moment, high frame rates necessitate the tethered computing power, but I question whether the thick flat cord was the best choice here.
The Vive also does manage to do a much better job at blocking out light by enclosing the nose gap much more effectively than the Rift, it’s really surprising how much this helps in terms of achieving immersion while playing different titles.
This is, again, a product that you’ll need a fairly souped-up PC to run. Even the recommended specs can leave you scrambling at times. I tested the Vive on an Alienware X51 gaming PC with an Nvidia GTX 970 graphics card and I was fairly disappointed with the performance of the Vive on what is otherwise a $1200 gaming rig. Every so often frame rates would tank and I’d have to toss the headset aside or face several minutes of dizziness. It’s important to remember that even if your PC meets the recommended specs, you’re likely still going to see performance issues when the going gets tough.
The Vive is the product of a partnership between HTC and Valve, the company that makes the Steam game store. The Vive’s interface feels a bit rushed at times and it’s obvious that the headset takes some design inspiration where it shouldn’t have, namely from Steam’s aggressively shitty desktop interface.
When it comes to something as simple as choosing a title to start, there’s generally way too much interaction required. There’s this really unclear relationship between Vive Home, which is this super minimalist holodeck-style side-scrolling interface, and the in-headset version of Steam which you summon with a dedicated button on each of the controllers.
While the Vive offers a great deal in terms of discovering and downloading VR content from within the headset, this is largely an unnecessary evolution as most games and apps still require a decent chunk of time to download given the large file sizes.
The quality of the launch titles is another point. I got a chance to play about half of the roughly 70 launch titles that will be live on Steam today. The launch titles are certainly diverse but I struggled to find a standout experience. Indeed, the titles that ship with the Vive: Fantastic Contraption, Job Simulator and Tilt Brush are fairly representative of the type of content that succeeds on the platform. That being, short, bite-sized adventures that utilize full motion-tracked body movement. Other favorites of mine were ModBox and Space Pirates Trainer. The Vive is not merely a room-scale gaming headset, a number of titles made use of a separate gamepad or keyboard/mouse for gameplay.
There are some other cool features I’m waiting to try. Phone services which allows you to connect your phone via Bluetooth to the Vive to check notification in-headset wasn’t available at the time of the review but certainly sounds promising.
Magical room-scale tracking. Surprisingly useful camera. Quality optics. Top-notch motion-tracked controllers.
Bulky headset design. Large amount of floor space needed. General UI bugginess. Thick cord that easily tangles. No blockbuster launch titles.
If there were a word I’d use to describe this piece of hardware, it would be ambitious. It tries so many damn things, and it gets most of the things so right, though not every feature is a home run. $799 is a lot of cash, but it really feels worth it here. The experience is in a lot of ways so much richer than any other headsets out there, including the Rift. Because of this, it may be a bit easier to point out flaws when they come up, if only because there’s just so much going on with this crazy piece of tech.