Experimental, Inconsistent, and Sometimes Magical

Two heads may indeed be better than one. A project that neither HTC nor Valve could bring to fruition alone has found life through an intense cooperative venture, and the result is the Vive. The virtual-reality headset marks a new direction both for the successful phone company and the leader in the PC gaming sphere, and sets the two companies in opposition to the significant financial muscle of the Facebook-funded Oculus.

An accelerated design and development cycle for the Vive has led to a fascinating-but-flawed final product, and one that distinguishes itself in important ways from the Rift. The focus on room-scale virtual experiences allows for novel and compelling software, and many users will appreciate the availability of a full VR package right out of the gate, rather than the competition’s plan to roll out sensors and motion controllers as a peripheral later. That opening advantage comes with a hefty price tag, but for anyone who can’t wait to witness the full magic of moving and interacting in a virtual world, it’s a compelling choice.

The developers working on software for the Vive have established the hardware’s potential as a game-changing piece of technology, even if some of that potential has yet to be fulfilled. Many of the Vive’s most impressive software is work-in-progress, with demos, betas, and first episodes of larger games dominating the initial slate of offerings. These games and apps exhibit little uniformity even in standardizing what buttons should do what, often leading to a confusing and haphazard sense of discovery. 

Nonetheless, discovery and experimentation is core to the Vive’s success. Even when the tech or games falter, there’s an undeniable magic here. More than once, I felt like I was interacting with a new medium for entertainment, art, and education. In its finest moments, the Vive makes me feel like I’m personally interacting with objects and completing actions in a different world. If that’s not proof that virtual reality has finally arrived, I don’t know what is.

The Hardware

Vive System Requirements

Graphics Card:
Nvidia GeForce GTX 970/AMD Radeon R9 290 equivalent or better

Processor:
Intel Core i5-4590/AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better

Memory:
4GB+ RAM

Output:
HDMI 1.4, DisplayPort 1.2 or newer

Inputs:
1x USB 2.0 or better port

Operating system:
Windows 7 SP1 or newer

The HTC Vive comes in a standalone package that includes almost everything you need to play, move, and interact in its virtual worlds. I stress the “almost,” because the very nature of the product demands a significant space to function. That means that you’re either looking at setting up a dedicated VR room in your home, or you’re willing to move a lot of furniture around before every play session. Either way, plan on a designated empty space of at least 6.5-by-5 feet, not including whatever desks or tables support your monitor or TV and gaming rig. For those with an abundance of space, the sensor technology can move out to more than 16 feet diagonally. Generally speaking, a larger space is going to provide better play experiences, but even testing in a space closer to those minimum values, I had a fun time. Users with children or pets should consider setting up an enclosed space with a door for safety, and anyone living in smaller spaces may be out of luck.  

The Vive’s big distinguishing feature is the freedom to move within the confines of your pre-designated space, and use the controllers to directly manipulate virtual objects you encounter there. This is accomplished via the connection between the headset, controllers, and two base station sensors that must be mounted high on opposite corners of the play space. The base stations are mostly unobtrusive, with a slick black face and cube shape that is reminiscent of surround speakers. The included mounts allow placement by users willing to do some drilling, but high-set bookshelves or tripods (sold separately) are another option. Each base station uses its own power supply, so expect to run some wires to nearby outlets in each case. 

I had to do some significant positional tweaking to get the base stations to recognize one another at first, but once the mounting was complete and the connection was established, the hard part of setup was over. Our play space had no other connected entertainment, but some users have noted that the base stations have the potential to interfere with other IR-based signals, which is something to be aware of if you plan to pair your VR space with a room that uses IR-based monitors and receiver remotes. 

Connecting the headset and controllers is relatively straightforward, though tedious due to the many required connections. Between charge cables, link box power lines, and the expected array of HDMI and USB plugs, using the Vive requires a lot of wires cluttering your space. 

The headset is a slick piece of tech, with a simple black aesthetic that newcomers might have a hard time distinguishing from the Rift. In fact, few core technical features set the two apart. Like the Rift, the combined eye resolution of 2,160x1,200, 90Hz refresh rate, and 110-degree field of view offer an impressive display, even if there is still some minor blurring. That resolution issue is the biggest reason I expect a Vive retrofit within a few years. 

Three Velcro straps are easily adjustable for head size, and after inviting over a dozen adult volunteers to try it out, none complained that they couldn’t find an appropriate fit. If you wear glasses, the Vive can work with smaller frames, but a couple of my volunteers complained that it wouldn’t accommodate what they wore. The center of gravity is pulled in front, close to the eyes, which is more important than you might at first think, as many applications involve rapid head turns. In those moments, I rarely felt the headset pull away or shift on my face. 

The headset is either on or off – it doesn’t sit comfortably when propped up on your head between sessions. Thankfully, the front-facing pass-through camera gives you a room view without having to lift the lenses to your forehead. The headset hugs your eyes tightly, but isn’t inherently uncomfortable. You rarely spy the outside world (which is nice), but the close fit and minimal venting cause heat to build up. 

The headset’s biggest problem is the connected 3-in-1 cables, which extend from the back and drop down to the floor behind you before running to your PC. HTC has done an impressive balancing job, so these wires don’t feel like they pull your head backward, but there’s no solving for the additional weight. The even bigger issue is tangled cords; many Vive applications involve constant walking and rotations, and the cords at my feet regularly got in the way, breaking immersion in the virtual world. I even pulled the cables unplugged a few times with bad steps, resulting in crashed apps. Until a wireless solution can be concocted, this is a big problem.

The built-in microphone is functional, but offers poor quality. I applaud the decision to include a standard 1/8-inch headphone jack on the headset, which allows users to incorporate their preferred headphones. I encountered no problems when connecting several different options, from simple earbuds to larger, over-ear models. 

The oddly shaped wand controllers are responsive and ergonomic. Our units held charge for several hours, and recharged quickly using the included micro-USB cords. The controllers exhibit good connection to the base stations, though over many hours of play, the connection dropped out or fluttered a few times. The trackpad, trigger, and grip buttons are all responsive. Motion tracking is superlative, with almost no detectible lag as you move the controllers. 

The Vive is undoubtedly the best option currently on the market for experiencing full-room virtual reality, and everything comes packed together in one well-organized package. But that package comes with a serious price tag. Not only is the Vive $200 more expensive than the competition at a hefty $799.99, but the PC hardware requirements are also significant. As such, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the total Vive price tag topping $2,000 for some users without a high-end rig already in place. 

The Experience

With your base stations synced, your controllers charged, the furniture cleared away (and wires strewn about the floor), you’re ready to don the Vive. But you’re probably worried about your friends’ and family’s safety as they walk blindly into the virtual world. Steam and HTC have implemented a number of features to alleviate the concern, and it all works well. 

Matt Miller’s Top 10 Vive Experiences

1. Tilt Brush
2. The Lab
3. Audioshield
4. Vanishing Realms
5. Fantastic Contraption
6. Job Simulator
7. Budget Cuts Demo
8. Space Pirate Trainer VR
9. Final Approach
10. theBlu

By setting the controllers on the floor (to set the location of the floor in games) and then walking the controller around a circuit of the dedicated open floor space, you establish the chaperone bounds. Like any good chaperone, this system is in place to keep people from getting carried away, but without limiting too much of the fun. No matter the application, if your body (as measured by the headset’s position) or either of the controllers get too close to a wall, a blue grid appears in your field of view warning you of the boundary. If that’s not enough, you can also set additional options using the pass-through camera on the front of the unit, so that when the chaperone appears you also see an overlay of the real world. In short, I never found myself swinging an arm into a table or running into a wall.

With safety options set, I dug into the many experimental applications and games available through Steam. Valve has done a good job of including a brief but entertaining intro to interacting in virtual space, and after that you can freely move between applications, using either your standard desktop Steam application, or a virtual menu from within the headset. Starting and moving between applications is where I encountered the most problems, including several crashes that required restarting Steam. Sometimes applications would fail to start, and then inexplicably boot up on a second try. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing around in a pre-release sandbox of experiences, rather than a fully cooked retail front to the Vive software library. 

One of the most polished experiences is also the best single piece of software to illustrate the Vive’s potential: The Lab. This is a collection of minigames and interactions that are each delightful in their own way, from a simple arcade bullet-hell shooter in which your hand/controller is the ship, to a bow-and-arrow defense game that sees you shooting down innocuous stick-figure raiders as they assault your castle. Another sequence shows off the potential for visiting real-world locations through visits to mountain vistas and underground lava tubes, and another demonstrates VR’s educational applications by examining a human skeletal system from any angle – including inside the body. Within The Lab, it’s only a matter of seconds before most users “get it” and understand why folks are making such a fuss about VR’s potential.

Many of the additional games currently available in Steam are experimental and brief, but not lacking in merit. The Space Pirate Trainer VR beta reveals the thrill of shooting guns in virtual reality. An early prologue to Irrational Exuberance finds you exploring outer space, crushing asteroids between your hands.  And the engrossing Budget Cuts demo makes me hunger for a full game; you are a spy moving through a robot-infested office building, opening safes, climbing through crawlspaces, and flinging throwing knives with abandon. Like so much of the Vive catalog, these are unfinished products, but they do wonders in selling the future. 

These early experiences reveal one of Valve’s biggest challenges: inconsistency. Rather than standardize what buttons do what, Valve has given game developers a broad latitude. Though it may encourage creative use of the headset and controllers, I felt a little lost moving between applications when each one uses different interaction models for simple things like confirmation/cancel buttons. 

Other VR projects in Steam offer relatively complete (if brief) encounters in the virtual landscape. Job Simu la tor is as amusing as you may have heard, guiding you through a robot’s vision of human careers like office worker and cook. It captures the magic of picking up and moving things within a virtual space. Another game called Final Approach offers an overhead view of an airport; I hovered, godlike, over the many converging planes and helicopters, guiding them with my hands onto the paths that led to safe landing. I was appropriately awed by the magic of theBlu, in which I was a mostly passive observer of undersea life as whales passed and anemones reacted to the brush of a hand. And an onstage encounter with La Peri placed me in the center of a breathtaking ballet performance in which I selected the conclusion, revealing VR’s potential for presenting dance and theater in a new way.

The combination of 360-degree view and the ability to interact with my hands makes all the difference in these adventures. Even when the Vive feels less consumer-ready than the Rift, these enchanting interactions may be enough to lure many users away – at least until the Rift releases its own Touch interface in several months. 

Several games available at launch provide the potent sense of immersion and presence that is so frequently touted by VR’s evangelists. The early access fantasy RPG, Vanishing Realms, is a classic dungeon crawl complete with combat, puzzles, and loot. Looking around inside the fantasy landscape is like seeing a childhood fantasy come to life. The Gallery – Episode 1: Call of the Starseed is a mouthful of a name, but the sense that you’re exploring a windswept coastline of shipwrecks in search of your missing sister brings a new dynamic to the adventure game formula. The glee ful Fantastic Contraption challenges your engineering skills, giving you tools to craft a locomotive and the freedom to make the most complicated mix of wheels and frames that you can imagine. Moving and touching in these games is engaging and addictive – it’s hard to get over the sense that you’re walking around a space in which there’s no separation between you and the fictional world.  These first-person journeys are the most likely place that some users might encounter nausea or discomfort from movement, but it wasn’t a problem I personally encountered during play. 

Audioshield is a fascinating experiment weaving music games into the VR landscape. Wielding colored blue and red shields on each arm, the beats of a song fly in from varied trajectories, and score is calculated by how many beats you block with the correctly colored shield. Suggested songs explore an eclectic mix of electronica and a few outlying classical or pop tunes, but you can import your own music as well, or stream any music from Soundcloud. Without acknowledging the absent license, it’s about as close as you can imagine to being inside that Tron game you’ve imagined since 1982. It also reveals that Vive is primed to appeal to a broad array of game genres. 

Oddly, my favorite VR experience with the Vive wasn’t a game. It was Tilt Brush, Google’s take on MS Paint reimagined for a virtual age. With one controller as a brush and the other as a palette, you’re set loose to create. Swipes of your hand paint stripes in 3D space and bring fire, smoke, and other effects into being. Afterward, you walk around your creation, and realize this is as much statue as it is a painting. A showcase allows users to load up art installations created by other artists, and even watch a time-lapsed version of those pieces as they come to life one virtual stroke at a time. It’s remarkable, and I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say this is a new art medium. 

Conclusion

The Vive feels like it could use a few more months in the oven, but I can understand the desire to hit the market in-time with its major competitor. As it is, potential buyers should enter with an expectation of some challenges, both in setup and actual use. Game crashes are uncommon, but not rare. Controls and usage are inconsistent from one app to another. Many apps feel more like experiments than finished products. 

Nonetheless, after spending many hours exploring both the Rift and the Vive, I’m forced to acknowledge that as of launch, the Vive does more to sell me on the potential of this new medium. Again and again, I found myself amazed by the deeply immersive and varied adventures I found there, and the option to touch and move freely is a big deal. 

The virtual-reality marketplace is likely to look very different by the end of this year. Oculus has promised its Touch controllers by then, which should offer many of the deeper VR interactions that so appealed to me with the Vive. Simultaneously, I have no doubt that Valve and HTC are going to be hard at work to iron out the kinks in its presentation and tech with the Vive – I fully expect a smoother experience after a few more firmware updates. 

The Final Grade: C+

In its current state, the Vive has numerous stumbling blocks and a spotty library of applications. But don’t let my final assessment come across with too much pessimism. This is certainly a passing grade, and all my intuition suggests that with some consistent work, this student has the potential for real brilliance. Excellent motion tracking, flexible controllers, and the most novel experiences I’ve encountered in VR await for Vive users, but some rough spots in setup and execution, along with a currently limited library of apps and games, hold it back from greatness.