HTC Vive Review

The dream is simple: the Holodeck.

The idea, most clearly delivered to nerds by the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation, pictured an alternate reality inside a box - where a fururistic device projected a life-like world that you could move around in and interact with using all of your senses. It was a very grounded idea that manipulated the actual reality around the user rather than tapping directly into the brain like the ideas of other science fiction authors, and it allowed for the Star Trek universe's denizens to experience an alternate life without crazy William Gibson-esque neural implants and the like.

That's the dream many of today's entertainment creators are now saying could be possible, or at least something pretty close to it, in their life times. First, though: traditional virtual reality must be tackled.

The Oculus Rift may have been the first big name in the most recent wave of consumer-level virtual reality devices, with a perfectly usable headset design, face-mounted screen that delivered a slightly different picture to each eye in order to the user depth perception that is only possible with having more than one "viewpoint" into the world, and a tracking system for movement that was close enough to being latency-free that it could really fool your mind into thinking, even for just a little bit, that you were in the world being pictured inside the headset.

Then Facebook bought Oculus. That was strike one for some. John Carmack, technical genius behind nearly every good thing id Software ever did, officially joined the team after years of casually working with them. OK, for some that was a big relief and point of excitement. Then after years of working on Oculus technology and releasing two development kits to developers, the first shipment of the Oculus Rift was sent out to consumers. And while it was good, there were issues. The software would always run on your PC and could be tracking your activities both inside and outside the Rift. Game developers making software for the Rift were being told they were stuck with Oculus Rift exclusivity (because yes, other companies were making VR devices). And finally and probably most importantly, the headset was not designed for you to really move around much in it. The player had to use control methods that were developed for non-VR solutions, and to this day, Oculus Rift's tracking of the player's movement is minimal. Some asked: After Facebook bought this technology for two billion dollars and John Effing Carmack got on board, this is the best they could do?

I don't have an answer for you on this one, guys. I haven't even used an Oculus Rift. All I know is that phone-maker HTC's partnership with Valve Software has been quite the fruitful one, and within a couple of months of the Rift's release, the HTC Vive was released. It's generally superior hardware at an even more premium price, but I believe that the opportunities opened up with the ability to move around in a VR space and use extremely accurate motion controllers easily makes up for the added cost.

The Price

HTC Vive hardware
The fact is that you can do virtual reality in 2016 in one of two ways: pretty good, or quite cheap. To go cheap you can strap your phone into some Google Cardboard (or go with a more proper face-mounted headset for less than $100 - often far less if you go with cheap Chinese alternatives) and get something akin to VR going, but I think you'll find it to be a disappointment for the most part. There may even be a couple of ways to hook up something cheap to get existing games working in a sort-of VR on your PC, but those aren't going to work well either. To get the best VR has to offer in 2016, that means the HTC Vive at this point. Its MSRP is $800, which is enough right there to turn off most people immediately. Then, beyond that, just hooking it up to a gaming PC you built back in 2012 probably isn't going to work well either, as VR has some pretty high base requirements - especially for the GPU.

It's pretty simple why, when you think about it. The screen on the Vive is 2160x1200, which is roughly an extra 25% more pixels on top of a standard 1080p screen resolution. The creators have also targeted 90 frames per second (which can be converted to 11.1 milliseconds per frame) as the speed at which most people's brains can process the incoming information from the headset into your eyes without a sluggish, slow feeling that can lead to nausea or headaches. (Do note that mileage differs; some people with different conditions or high sensitivity to this can still have trouble after using properly-set-up VR for even just a few minutes.)

So you're asking your PC to deliver more pixels than 1080p, and to do it 50% faster than what most monitors can even show - that means you need something powerful. The general minimum requirement for the first generation of Vive games is a GeForce GTX 970 or 1060, or one of the new Radeon RX480 cards, but one of the higher-end Radeons from a prior generation may do you just fine. Keep this in mind when budgeting out the Vive.

Space

The HTC Vive requires space to move around in, as well as some ingenuity in putting up its two "lighthouse" base stations (which track movements of the headset and controllers - you can read more on this tech from Gizmodo writer Sean Buckley) to surround the play area you have set and make sure that everything can be bathed in invisible light by at least one of your lighthouse units at any one time. If you've got a small apartment, it's possible that VR time means temporarily moving furniture out of the way. If you've got kids or pets, you might need to cordon off the area. You'll certainly need to clean your floor, because once you get immersed in a VR game, you won't realize you're about to trip over something in the way until it's too late.

Steam VR with Chaperone grid in the background
Luckily, HTC offers multiple ways to set up a space. You can set it up without room-scale movement if you want (although games that require this will complain and may wind up being unusable), and yes, there are many VR games that support or even require a classic console gamepad - this kind of turns the Vive into a Rift. But making use of room-scale VR is the Vive's unique draw right now, and the Vive comes with a very easy to use utility, developed by Valve Software, to set up your play space as such that when you're in a game, it also will put up a grid depicting those borders on-screen. This way, you'll know in any VR game where your physical boundaries are in the real world. They call it the Chaperone, and it's configurable in a lot of ways I haven't explored as I'm pretty happy with the default setup.

First-Time Use

I first experienced the Vive at a friend's house and the sensation of movement and tracking is amazing. The motion controllers that ship with the system look a tad strange at first as they have this donut shape at the top you don't really touch, but it turns out that the little dimples on these things (and the headset) are there to help light sent from the lighthouse devices determine where everything is in your space. And when my friend had me put on the headset and then held out the controllers for me to take, I couldn't see my hands or the real world around me, yet I knew exactly where they were and didn't fumble for them. The distance and depth perception granted by the display was enough - I confidently grabbed them and got started. It helps that the digital representation of the controllers is basically identical to how they look in the real world - although in-game they have an added battery meter and indicator for which hand the system thinks you have each controller in.

Rec Room VR
Sure, I did quickly notice the screen is not quite as high-resolution as I had wanted, as I have been spoiled on playing games on a 2560x1440 monitor, but honestly, once you get using it, the fact that you can see shimmers, aliasing, and subpixels kind of melts away. And the lenses that focus your eyes onto the screen that's only an inch from your eyes does have these concentric circles etched into them, creating something we call a screen-door effect that can cause some light shimmering and can sometimes get fogged up by oils from your face (putting on the headset itself can have skin touching lenses, I believe, if you're not careful) or from fogging up with a warm human face being so close to an otherwise smooth surface. These are small considerations, though, and while I'm not exactly sure what the need for the lenses really is, I'm going to assume that the system is better with them rather than without them.

Then there's the tether. The Vive hooks up to the PC through a small "link box" which sends HDMI and USB down to your PC, and pulls power from a small AC adapter. Your headset then tethers to the linkbox with a 3-in-1 cable that's durable and quite long, but also thick. The cable can coil up or snake around behind you, causing an unintended and surprising obstacle. It also means you can't just spin in place repeatedly in one direction, as you'll wrap yourself up and start pulling on cable in a way that you really, really do not want. And for those wondering why we have no wireless - sure, you could power the headset with a battery strapped to a belt, but the problem is the video signal - consumer-ready versions of wireless technology with the bandwidth required to properly send a low-latency high-res video signal just aren't here yet. Multiple companies are working on this now.

Wipeout-style Racing game Redout
supports VR.
The cable is frustrating sometimes, but it's a necessary evil. It doesn't kill the experience for me, any more than sometimes having to adjust the headset, clean the lens, or troubleshoot a misbehaving lighthouse does. It's the first generation. As someone on Reddit's active /r/Vive subreddit pointed out, the first mobile telephones were barely smaller than a suitcase. That's where we're at in the life of virtual reality, right now.



Games

Let's face it - the biggest thing the Vive does is gaming. Sure, there are apps available today for making music or painting and modelling a 3D piece of art, and VR will soon start getting used heavily in businesses like real estate, architecture, and even video conferencing, but the biggest focus right now is gaming. And while I won't say that the game selection is slim pickings, it should be pointed out that anyone expecting a huge new library of games with production values like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto to suddenly open up are going to be pretty sorely disappointed. And do note, also, that you can't just plug in an HTC Vive and play every game you already own in stunning VR. Right now, the game has to support VR, and very few games that weren't built around a VR headset support the technology in any way. Will that change? Well, Sony has the PlayStation VR headset coming out next month, so it's very possible some developers may wind up porting some of their big-budget PS VR games over to the PC - but there aren't really any solid plans available right now.

Space Pirate Trainer
So, that leaves a lot of independent and smaller games. Yes, some of them are vaguely reminiscent of mobile games, and many are created using the venerable but also seemingly low-rent Unity engine, but that doesn't mean they aren't fun. Some are repetitive and some are derivative, but as developers figure out new ways to use the Vive's motion controllers, we'll see more games innovating with new things to do.

Just like with any gaming platform, some games on the Vive are good, and some are not. The best games make solid use of the motion controllers and make you forget you're even holding them. Games like Raw Data, Space Pirate Trainer, and HoloBall layer on a solid science fiction vibe that helps to suspend disbelief and keep you thinking about what's happening in the game rather than the fact that you're wearing a goofy headset. (By the way, just so you know - everyone looks like a dork when using VR. Except for maybe this young lady.)

Other games are more about an experience. Valve's The Lab offers a variety of smaller experiences, some of which show off the graphical fidelity available with the Vive's headset, while others get you used to a teleport-based movement system (more on that later) and introduce rules that really get you working with the motion controllers themselves. Titles like Universe Sandbox and theBlu are more an experience to behold than a game to complete, but the unique perspective and controls add something new and novel. Sports-based games like Thrill of the Fight and the one of two very good ping-pong simulators will get you moving, and yes, you can get a real workout on a Vive. Rhythm games like Audioshield have you enjoying your existing music, or new stuff curated by the game's developer, in a way you probably never imagined.

Project CARS
Note that not all of the above games I mentioned necessarily have my seal of approval. A few of them are just not very good. Most do, however. And I want to point out that new VR games are getting released every week, and usually they're under $30 - many are $15 or less.

Options and Usability

The Vive includes SteamVR software that links into Steam and integrates with the headset, so launching Vive games generally works best right from steam. You aren't locked into the Steam platform, however - you can run anything you want alongside SteamVR. The headset's options give you easy options for troubleshooting lighthouses, setting up audio to mirror out to your speakers, and even check your system's performance in real-time to find out whether it's meeting the 90fps that is recommended for using the Vive headset.

Raw Data
One of the things I enjoy the most about the Vive is sharing it with others, and so far, the creators have done a great job enabling that. Whenever a VR game is started, a window will appear on your desktop showing an interpretation of the current view inside the headset (usually a re-formed version of what one eye sees, without trying to reproduce the stereoscopic display). Sound can be mirrored to go out to a set of speakers, too, allowing spectators to fully enjoy what you're doing along with you, but also allowing you to add some punch to the experience through a subwoofer.

The controllers are nice and sensitive and allow for a lot of options, as each one has the previously-mentioned full motion tracking, a pressure-sensitive trigger, and Steam-Controller-style trackpad that doubles as kind of D-pad. Swipes and clicks are recognized separately on the trackpads, and in supported games, if you look down at them you'll see the point light up where you're touching the trackpads. Finally, each controller also has an In-game Menu button and a slightly-recessed System Menu button. Pressing the System Menu button will pause your current game and bring up a very easily-navigable Steam Big Picture interface, allowing you to jump from one VR game to the next without taking off the headset. But if you do want to quickly check back in on the real world, you can usually just slide the headset up and while you may have to awkwardly scrunch up your face to raise your brow in order to keep the headset from falling back down over your eyes, it's not a big deal. The headset does also have a female 1/8" audio jack for plugging in headphones, and this is all automatically converted out from the digital audio signal you can have sent to the headset over the headset's HDMI or USB ports. The headset comes with a half-decent pair of earbuds or you can plug in your own headphones into the jack. If you'd rather, you can always use a different audio device entirely, like a wireless headset with a USB-based receiver.

Bigscreen allows several people with Vive headsets to
connect through the internet to watch or play things together.
Removable face cushions also allow larger and smaller faces to be comfortable inside the headset, but more importantly, they also let you swap out a sweaty cushion with one that's dry. (Just so you know, you'll probably sweat more than you'd expect while using the headset, and these foam pads can get damp fast.) With that said, you may still want to get some extra face cushions if you're having people over to play - although admittedly, HTC charges a mint for them. Cheaper third party alternatives are available on eBay.

Sitting Down

Any game where your character sits down in a cockpit or seat tends to work very well with a VR headset, and often these are the closest things you'll get to a traditional big-budget game working in VR. That's mostly because these games still work exactly as intended for a larger non-VR audience, and you're usually using some kind of unique control method (stick, wheel, gamepad) in both scenarios. With VR, you're just strapping on the headset to get the fully immersive view and motion tracking. Driving simulators like Project CARS and Assetto Corsa already support VR headsets (the Vive and the Oculus, respectively, although I believe there are ways to get both games working on both headsets). Racing sim king iRacing is adding functionality soon, too. On top of that, space combat games like Elite: Dangerous and House of the Dying Sun also support the Vive and work nicely with the system also. These games don't take advantage of everything the Vive has to offer, but because their production values are so high with their larger audience, they can still deliver a very thrilling and unique experience for the VR gamer.

Standing Up

Room-scale movement is a critical part of the HTC Vive experience. While the headset doesn't know what's happening with your entire body, it can infer some things based on where the headset is - whether you're bending forward, leaning to the side, crouching, or even laying on the ground - and yes, that's a real thing you may do in military simulation Onward, where firing a weapon from the prone position is a very viable and common thing to do.

Onward
With this said, free-roaming environments are a big challenge with the Vive, because you can't just pick a direction and physically walk 50 feet with the Vive. So how do you do that in-game? Many games have developed a teleport-based feature that allows you to quickly point a controller at a space on the ground, press and release a button, and your character will instantly teleport there. In sci-fi-type games like Raw Data, this can be built into the lore or story for that game. But in others, it just doesn't make sense. Multiple developers are coming up with solutions, often using the trackpad to actually have the character do large movements like running across a field, but we'll see what other teams make in the coming future.

The Future

VR is most certainly going to change in the coming years, and the Vive is almost undoubtedly going to be an obsolete platform in probably 3 years - maybe even less. Even if the games still work then, there are some technological drawbacks that are already on the path to being solved. Wires going off to the PC, screens strapped to your face with visible pixels, and complex lighthouse-based setups are all things that are already being worked on and will probably be a thing of the past in the next five years. Additionally, the exclusivity that Facebook and Oculus have insisted on with some Oculus developers is driving a wedge into the community, preventing things like a single, open SDK or standard from developing. If we had that, developers could focus entirely on the games and not on which hardware to support; I hope that at some point Valve and Oculus can come together and allow all games to run on all headsets - controls and other physical limitations notwithstanding.

Elite: Dangerous
For many, there's nowhere near enough certainty in Vive having a future to justify plunking down $800 - and then possibly another few hundred (or more!) on a PC upgrade to drive the thing. What I'd say to those people is this: If what you've seen isn't enough to get you excited, then chances are you're probably best off not buying into it right now. If you're skeptical, stay that way and a future generation of the technology that comes along may grab your attention. But if the video you've seen of the games being played, or a live experience with someone else's setup actually looks interesting to you and you have the disposable income to get going with it, then you might as well jump in now. Sure, it's expensive, but it's a new way to play games. (It's not the new way to play games, but it's just another way to experience interactive entertainment you probably haven't really done before.)

Doubts and Challenges

We've already laid out a bunch of downsides to the Vive, but frankly, with such new tech, there's only going to be more to mention. For one, the new control scheme with used by the Vive's tracked controllers is clearly the best way seen yet in a consumer device to get players immersed into VR, but these controllers don't lend themselves well to converting over from more traditional mouse-and-keyboard or gamepad control schemes. These roadblocks alone will certainly stop at least some developers from adding VR support to games that'd otherwise seem perfectly suited for the tech. Sure, those studios could just only support a basic gamepad, but for some it will feel like doing that misses the point of VR - I suspect many game developers will see too much compromise and won't jump in. Plus, let's face the fact that game development is a business, and we've only just heard word as of this writing that 150,000 Vives have been sold. Compared to the tens-of-millions install bases on Steam, Xbox One or PS4, that's just too small a userbase for many people to justify writing a bunch of complex code for, and then those studios will also have to convince those people to buy their game after spending many hours adding in new features just for that audience.

Audioshield
In the meantime, the games that are being made and released weekly for the Vive are sometimes just plain bad, and you may have to wait a few weeks at a time for just one game with an interesting and unique way to play to be released. Solid games are made often and real gems do come out here and there, but one thing I will say is it seems that for now, new development's not stopping. Military sims like Onward (from a one-person development team!) and racing games like Redout are showing new promise just in the last few weeks, and I believe that will only continue throughout 2016. After that? Yeah, I don't know, and I'm not sure any of us really can. Advances in converting room-scale movement technology into open-world movement and proper physics-based handling of handheld objects will be a big part of moving the medium forward, I believe, and the Vive is capable of handling that - it's just up to software developers to write it.

A New World Worth Jumping Into

The HTC Vive is a fantastic piece of hardware with a few technical drawbacks (I've also heard their hardware support can be a real challenge to deal with if something breaks) and plenty of things that put both the future of this platform and of VR gaming itself in jeopardy, but at the moment, I'm still recommending the Vive to anyone who made it to the bottom of this article without scoffing at everything I've laid out so far. The experience is altogether different than in traditional games, and much of that has to do with having the full package of room-scale movement, motion controls, and full head tracking all at the same time - that's the formula that makes VR different enough from just having a headset on that makes the Vive the absolute best way to experience VR in your own home right now. I'm sure that will change, and new platforms will come to dethrone the Vive. You might think that after having spent $800 on this platform, I'd want to delay that. Instead, I'd rather hasten it. Let's keep marching forward to bring VR to the masses and push people directly into their gaming experiences.

The ideas behind VR and rudimentary implementations of it have been around for decades, but I believe this is the first system to truly realize some of those early dreams. Next stop: fully wireless play. After that, integration of the industry so that big-name publishers are all players. After that, well, I'm not sure, but the Holodeck will be our eventual goal.

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