HTC VIVE Review: The ULTIMATE VR Experience

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OK look, I like to think of myself as a straight shooter, so I’m going to be super transparent here: I am a huge cynic. Yes, being a child of the 80’s I’m not actually that old, but when it comes to tech I’m like the grumpiest of grumpy old men. I didn’t think much of smartwatches (BAH!), and still don’t many months later while OEMs STILL push them at us.

Likewise, I think there’s an optimum tablet size, and any faffing outside of this seems to me like a silly waste of time. Most apps seem faddish and absurd to me, I grumble whenever Facebook changes the UI for no apparent reason, and I do not get biometrics at all – while OEMs seem to shuffle them around on devices trying to find the best place, I’m left wondering why the hell you would want a fingerprint or iris scanner on your handset in the first place.

The list goes on; there are all kinds of comparable fads which just don’t sit right with me (HUMBUG!). Stuff people don’t want or need, new ideas which just don’t seem fully fleshed out, excessive fiddling and tampering, unbearable hubris over not-that-great features. And so on.

The reason I’m saying this is because for me Virtual Reality (VR) is NOT one of these technologies that causes my eyes to roll up in my head. I’ve been a gamer since my early teens and have long wondered about how a true VR experience might be quite liberating for gaming in all genres, so it’s pretty exciting stuff for me that we’re now at the beginning of the VR era.

I think it is the next big thing, I think it’s here to stay, even if there is a long way to go and what we’re looking at right now is tantamount to awkward, clumsy baby steps – and that’s not a criticism describing the current devices in this way. Just like baby steps for an actual infant, these first forays into VR, however flawed and stumbling, are absolutely a necessary part of the process in order to figure out what works, and as importantly, what doesn’t.

Canalys forecasts standalone smart VR headset shipments will pass 1.5 million in 2018, and grow with a CAGR of 140% to reach 9.7 million units in 2021. Oculus, HTC and Lenovo are launching new standalone headsets aimed at different market segments, which will drive rapid market growth. Standalone VR headsets are expected to help push the VR headset market to 7.6 million units in 2018, twice the shipments forecast for this year.

“Oculus Go, while a great move by Facebook to mobilize VR, will fail to get consumer attention when launched,” said Canalys Research Analyst Vincent Thielke. “The extra cost of the headset and the fact that a smartphone-based solution, such as the Gear VR, can offer a similar experience will inhibit initial consumer uptake. Also, missing the holiday season is a lost opportunity for Oculus to gain a strong base of early adopters. But there will be excitement for this new category of VR headsets, and Oculus must ensure that its next mobile VR prototype, Project Santa Cruz, succeeds in attaining a high quality level to remain relevant in VR.”

So with all that said, you can understand I was rather excited, but also quite nervous, about the prospect of testing the HTC Vive VR headset. Undoubtedly the HTC Vive has captured public attention more than any other VR headset to date, with the possible exception of the headset that really started it all; the Oculus Rift, although I’d say they’re probably on a fairly even footing in terms of prominence.

This was my first experience with proper VR too (assuming you don’t count a brief demo with Google Glass), so I was pretty keen to see what all the fuss was about. For our VR tomfoolery ASUS UK was kind enough to lend us an Asus Republic Of Gamers G20AJ gaming PC tower, a PC powerful enough to handle the HTC Vive with its Intel Core i7 processor and NVIDIA GTX970 GPU.

That is really the first thing to observe about the Vive though, you do need a pretty powerful PC to run it at even the minimum required specs. My own personal gaming PC just wasn’t up to the task, so that’s why I had to get a loan unit from Asus.

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HTC Vive Review: Hardware & Set Up

With the PC set up I took delivery of the HTC Vive review sample and was surprised by the size of the box it came in. Opening this cardboard box showed that the device was contained inside another box; this is the actual retail packaging rather than the protective one for it to be couriered inside. Thing is, the retail box isn’t much smaller, considering what I was expecting the box is MASSIVE! With the lid popped off I quickly understood why. There’s a LOT of parts and components to the HTC Vive. This was going to be fun to set up. And by fun, I mean…not.

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As well as the Vive headset itself, which comes festooned with cables and with a selection of velcro-attached pads to fit around your eyes, the package contains two box-shaped sensors (about the size of small speakers), two wireless hand-held controllers (which look like weird hollow ladle things), and multiple plugs, chargers, docks, adaptors, and cables of all kinds; microUSB, USB, HDMI, power and more.

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When you break it down it’s not so bad though, there’s a central “hub” thing which you plug power into, as well as USB and HDMI cables from the PC, then from this hub you plug in the headset’s own power, USB, and HDMI cables. The box-shaped motion sensors are positioned in the corners of the room and will help track your movement; they each have their own power cable. Meanwhile, each of the hand-held controllers has its own microUSB charger to get it juiced up. You’re going to need a lot of free power sockets, I’ll tell you that. The headset also has a 3.5mm headphone jack, as headphones aren’t integrated so you can provide your own if you wish –  a pair of standard earpods are included in the box though.

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The “quick setup” instructions claim you can get everything running in 30 minutes. I guess maybe this is possible if you are lucky, but it wasn’t my experience and, for the record, I’m not bad with PCs and built my current gaming tower myself. But this is the thing with peripherals, and the Vive, though a complicated one, is a peripheral device, effectively a second monitor – sometimes they play up. If the machine gods don’t line things up in your favour, for no apparent reason, things can just go awry. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean catastrophically; I got things working eventually, but it took a good couple of hours of faffing to get it all running properly.

Be prepared to faff.

What’s more, there’s no CD for the software install, you need to go to the Vive website and download a setup program, which will itself download and install both the HTC Vive software and Valve’s Steam platform for games if you don’t already have it. This in itself can take some time, depending on your connection speed; I found it kept dropping out the download over Wi-Fi but once I wired things up with an ethernet cable to my fibreoptic broadband it worked like a charm.

What I also found is it’s best to set the Vive up with an additonal monitor, as effectively a dual-monitor setup. The Vive likes to be plugged directly into your GPU via HDMI, but this can be troublesome for some parts of the setup process, such as configuring the “room” sensors, if you don’t have an additonal monitor set up either via another HDMI port or PC-RGB. Incidentally, this also means the Vive is great if you have an “audience” of curious friends and family members, as people viewing the monitor can see what you’re seeing inside the headset.

Calibrating the headset, controllers, and sensors to your “play area” is also a bit of a faff, but an understandably necessary one. You need to get the sensors to be able to “see” the controllers and headset so movement can be tracked accurately, and there’s also a stage involving putting the headset and controllers on a surface or the floor so that the system sets up depth properly, ie: where the floor inside virtual reality should be. You can opt for either “full room” or “seated” setups, the former being more complicated to set up, and the latter being aimed at those who, like me, are in a smaller space and sat in front of a desk.

To be completely honest my “play area” was less than ideal, with not much accessible floor space and a lot of nearby obstacles, walls and other things which I did indeed find myself banging into on a fairly regular basis during my playtesting. What’s more, these obstacles also caused actual playability issues by blocking the hand controllers from the sensors on occasion, it wasn’t at all unusual for one or the other of my virtual in-game “hands” to just freeze or float off because the sensor just lost track. You really do need a pretty clear open space to get the most out of the HTC Vive, in my view.

So to summarise all the above with regard to setting up and using the HTC Vive, I would say it is not exactly that “accessible” for a lot of gamers, and that is something a VR headset that’s going to break into the mass consumer market sorely needs. This isn’t as easy as setting up a Nintendo Wii or motion control on other major consoles. It’s quite an undertaking that hardcore gamers used to implementing complex peripheral devices or building gaming PCs from scratch will happily take in stride I am sure, but for a wider audience? I’m not convinced. It’s quite possible a lot of people lacking in technical experience may wind up very frustrated here.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s enough of a market in the PC “Master Race” consumer base for the HTC Vive to be quite a success in its own right…for HTC. But given that it’s the mass uptake of consoles by a wider audience in the last decade or so that has really pushed gaming development to new heights, I don’t see it being the device that will really push VR along the same route. Not that this is a bad thing, this arguably needs to happen – it’s part of the process that has happened before; PC hardware tends to pioneer and innovate new mediums to a modicum of success, then consoles make it accessible and really push the adoption and software development to a mass market.

HTC Vive Review: In-Game Experience, Immersion & Software

Onto the in-game experience. I downloaded a handful of titles for testing, including theBlu, Spell Fighter, Universe Sandbox, and Google’s Tiltbrush painting software, all of which I found highly enjoyable in their own way. It must be said that the immersive feeling of being “present” in VR is pretty phenomenal, and difficult to describe.

I would say what I found most enjoyable was theBlu and Universe Sandbox, simply because the graphics were so well polished and they were fairly “static” experiences where things unfolded around you. The immersion was not so easily broken in these titles as they were somewhat more abstract, but in all cases it is true that immersion suddenly dissipates, if only briefly, the moment some 3D model passes through your face and you see it for what it is.

You’re also aware of the lack of a sense of inertia in motion or touch when reaching out to an object – this isn’t a criticism, I’m not expecting the Vive to be able to give this kind of feedback. But, what I am saying is that, just as people often say that if a person goes blind they become much more aware of their other senses – which become heightened –  I think VR quickly makes you aware by stimulating certain senses at the exclusion of others, that the other important ones are not being catered to, and that stark contrast can be immersion breaking.

Regardless, standing in the middle of the cosmos or deep under the ocean was pretty damn breathtaking it must be said.

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One other point about inertia, particularly in less-static games; I had been aware from numerous reports that some people get motion sickness in VR, and I think this did affect me slightly – I had to take the headset off and have a lie down at one point. This was only really an issue in Spell Fighter which did require you to move around and act within the game world.

So far developers have essentially figured out two ways of adding movement into VR games, the first involves a “teleportation” system where you point at a location with the controller and click to move there, while the second is using the trackpad on the controller as a D-Pad to control directional movement, just as you would with a normal console controller, or with arrow keys or WASD keys on a keyboard in a first-person shooter.

The teleportation can be problematic because it isn’t too immersive and is also open to exploitation inside game worlds, even inadvertently, as you warp around all over the place often dodging baddies just by trying to position yourself. Or it can really screw you over as you teleport a bit too close to that bad guy as he makes a fatal swing.

The trackpad walking, while more immersive and less “glitchy” feeling, is where the motion sickness can occur, because your body isn’t getting the tactile and inertia feedback it expects from walking around, this messes with the brain – your body doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere but your eyes perceive that you are; if you’re prone to motion sickness this will probably mess with you.

There are basically two workarounds for this movement dilemma currently in development, the first involves a number of manufacturers working on omni-directional treadmill controllers you would need to install in your home – large, bulky, and likely expensive devices aimed to allow you to walk, run, crouch and crawl on the spot; some of these solutions look better than others – but we bet you good money none of them will be cheap!

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The second is a coding fix one developer has implemented in their own tech demo (see below video), essentially re-appropriating one of the hand-held controllers – get this, it involves sticking one controller in the waistband of your pants. By whatever scripting wizardry he’s come up with, this means that by running or walking on the spot – just like you would for the Nintendo Wii on Wii Sports – the user can replicate running and walking momentum in the game, and best of all it doesn’t mess with your brain and induce motion sickness.

If more games implement this it could be problem solved, but it would mean most Vive users would need a third controller. Perhaps later on some kind of VR Onesie could solve this problem neatly? Until this facet is tackled completely the best games and experiences on the Vive (and indeed by extension, VR generally) seem to be the static ones, as soon as you add proper movement to the mix, while there remain hurdles on how to implement it, things go a bit wonky.

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HTC Vive Review: Final Thoughts & Verdict

As a final point, I will just say that the Vive can be an uncomfortable experience in some other ways; as with wearing any type of bulky headset which fits close to the face, you may find you sweat a fair bit – I am a face sweater, I’ve had people in night clubs asking me where the pool is, so yeah, this was a bit unpleasant for me – you’ve been warned! I also found that in order to fit the Vive over my glasses I needed to remove the padding, which made it a bit uncomfortable on my face, so speccy people such as myself may encounter some difficulties.

So what’s my overall impression so far? I must say I am impressed, the HTC Vive is fun and it’s an excellent starting point for consumer VR. It’s not perfect, there is some faff and there are practical setup considerations to take into account – I don’t think I would describe it as “plug and play” and as I mentioned before, I’m not convinced that the setup faff and accessibility hurdles are going to make it all that appealing for the bulk of the mass market. What’s more, as with any tech of this kind it is only as good as the software made for it – fortunately there’s a lot of momentum and innovation amongst the scores of developers creating content for the Vive right now – things are going to get much better and probably very soon too, I reckon.

I think the future is pretty bright for the Vive, I believe we’re going to see much more interesting and immersive titles in the coming months and years, as well as refinements to the technology, whether a Vive 2 headset or third-party accessories (probably both), which will improve things even further.

However, there is one other thing which I haven’t mentioned until now, but I think it’s a pretty important one. Price.

This is another way in which I think the HTC Vive has hedged itself in as more or less the exclusive territory of hardcore PC-gamers; it costs north of £700 to begin with, and then you need a premium-spec PC to run it, probably at least £1000 if not more – there are a lot of package deals on the web with a Vive and a high-spec PC for over £2000, just to illustrate the point. Add this on top of the technical boundaries and fuss of setting up and using the HTC Vive and once again, I just don’t see it being something for everyone, rather, a select group of early-adopter, high-tech dedicates with boat-loads of cash to burn. 

The thing is, the HTC Vive, and VR generally, is very much a work-in-progress; there are some great gaming experiences to be had on the Vive, for sure, but I’m not convinced they’re going to be worth the monetary outlay and the hassle for MOST people right now.

Who knows, give things a few more years where VR is less fringe, when there are more and better games and experiences out there, perhaps when the price of producing the tech will come down, or perhaps it’ll be integrated into a more attractively priced and accessible console package.

I think the fact that Google has gone in for the mass market with a much more accessible £80 Daydream View headset, which is much more comfortable and easy to use, and only requires a smartphone to work, illustrates how much of a niche product the Vive looks like by comparison, even if it is a LOT more powerful.

Update: As of August 2017, HTC has reduced the price of the Vive headset. In the US, $200 has been knocked off the RRP so it now costs $600. Likewise in the UK it is now £600 and in mainland Europe €700. You also get a month of free access to VivePort. It’s not a temporary price cut either, HTC says it will continue into 2018.

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