Both on a technical and conceptual level, the HTC Vive is by far and away the most compelling vision for the future of virtual reality. That’s not to diminish what Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have and will achieve, but to say that this nascent technology still has a long way to go before it can realise the mental image we all have in our minds.
From tablet computers to voice-based interactions with our computers, Star Trek: The Next Generation has had a lasting effect on the direction that technology has taken in the last few decades. For VR, it’s the holo deck, being transported to another world in which we can walk around and freely interact with objects in the world. It’s impossible for me to see that particular vision becoming real, but the HTC Vive comes closest to doing so.
Here’s our analysis of how it does so and how it differs from the other first generation hardware.
The Head Mounted Display
The HMD is at the heart of all three interpretations of VR, with all three using a very similar form basis for their tech. There’s a 2160×1200 pixel screen with a 90Hz refresh rate that’s divided to present 1080×1200 to each eye. The split image passes through a pair of fresnel lenses that distort and shift the image in order to trick your eyes into believing the world stretches off into the distance. These lenses can be shifted back and forth to suit your vision and let you find the point at which the image is in focus.
We don’t have an Oculus Rift for a direct comparison, but other reviews note that the screen is fractionally closer in the Vive, allowing it to give you a slightly wider field of view at the cost of making each individual pixel more easily visible. This comes into play for games with small text or things off in the distance – Elite: Dangerous and Project CARS both suffer. Additionally, it’s hard to escape how easily the screens’ light can flare and bloom as it passes through the lenses, especially when dealing with contrasting light and dark.
The key component to the HMD, though, is how it tracks and translates your movements into the software. With a variety of accelerometers, gyroscopes and optical sensors that track the position of the two Lighthouse base stations, it’s incredibly accurate.
It’s those sensors which give the HMD its unusual dimpled appearance, and makes this the bulkiest of the three competing headsets. This is strapped to your face in a rather ungainly fashion, with foam padding around your eyes – albeit with plenty of room for glasses wearers – as the headset rests on your cheekbones and bridge of your nose, forming a complete seal without any light leakage. Strapping something to your face can feel quite disconcerting initially, but it fades into irrelevance quite quickly.
However, while the PSVR has a plastic halo around your head that hangs the HMD in front of your eyes and the Oculus Rift has flexible rubber straps, the Vive still uses a slightly stretchy fabric harness, which simply feels more appropriate for the developer kits than the final release version. The straps do the job, of course, but need to be adjusted in length specifically for your head, to avoid the HMD being loose as you move around, particularly when looking down at the floor.
There’s a trio of very long cables bonded together that extend from the top of the HMD, down your back and to a little box for video, USB, and power – a fourth much shorter cable from the HMD lets you plug in headphones of your choice. They’re more than long enough for you to wander around the play area, but can get coiled and tangled, which could potentially be a tripping hazard. Having said that, I was always more than aware of if the cable had started to snake around one of my legs, and it’s easy enough to step over or spin on the spot to avoid them.
Finally, a camera mounted in the front can map an image of the outside world – styled as a blue heat map of sorts – onto your view, letting you break out of VR without removing the headset. However, the option isn’t enabled by default, and can then only be activated from the system’s VR Steam menu with a double tap of a controller button. It’s not there immediately, in other words, but it’s useful to let you perform simple tasks, like reaching out to pick up some headphones, even if it is weird to see your blue shimmering arm as a flat video. Having two cameras in future could enable more ingrained augmented reality options for developers, as well.
Every VR system needs a controller, and the Vive’s are a solid starting point. Fairly svelte with a dimpled hoop of sensors at the top, they’re tracked in the same way as the headset is and are just as accurate.
The controls are minimal, with a menu button and a system button on opposite sides of a clickable touchpad that has haptic feedback built into it, grip buttons on either side let you pinch in, and there’s an analogue trigger underneath with a solid second stage click at the end of its travel.
Currently, interactions in game tend to be fairly simple, focussing on swipes and clicks of the touchpad and pulling the trigger for most inputs that aren’t motion based, but there’s the potential for more interesting uses as developers flex their muscles. Even so, they’re a simple and intuitive gateway into the world, letting you reach out interact with the games with barely a second thought.
These two base stations are part of what makes Vive so unique – at least until Oculus’ solution with a second camera ships – but also what makes Vive such an imposing system to contemplate setting up in your house. Sat at either corner of your play area, they flood the room with invisible laser beams and these mean that you can move fully in 3D space without fear of losing motion tracking. Where Oculus and PS VR can only work within the cone of vision of their cameras, and are susceptible to losing track if you turn around, this system works from all angles.
However, because of that, they have to become semi-permanent fixtures; if they move them, you need to recalibrate the system all over again. They also need to be placed fairly high up and angled downward, even with their wide arcs of coverage. The suggestion is to have them 2m off the ground, and the Vive also comes with a pair of wall mounting brackets and screws, but in practice, light stands and camera stands work just as well, and you can always secure it on a bookshelf. My unopened box set of Lost and a bit of duct tape came in hand here, and I actually found the system to be very forgiving in this regard.
But they make a noise. There’s a high pitched whine whenever they’re plugged into the power, that you can only get rid of by turning them off when you’re done playing. It’s not annoying when in a VR world or with game noise, but it is off putting after you’re done playing.
Set Up & Software
The real first step is getting a hold of a Vive and having a computer powerful enough to run it. The Vive itself will set you back £750 with shipping, but even once the next generation of GPUs have arrived from NVidia and AMD, a capable computer will easily eclipse £500. For the purposes of this review, NVidia loaned us a 17″ MSI GT72 Dominator Pro with a desktop class 980 built in.
Truth be told, physically setting the system up isn’t all that hard, just a bit of a pain to figure out for the first time and time consuming thereafter, thanks in part to the mess of cables and power supplies needed. You do have to put a bit of thought into where it will go and how permanent a fixture it’s going to be, much more than with competing VR systems, but it’s only difficult if you find yourself deciding to drill holes in walls for the Lighthouse base stations.
At its smallest, you can play with standing room mode, letting you sit or stand and, as long as you’ve got space to swing your arms around you, you’ll have a reasonably enjoyable experience. The Vive is best in room scale and you need at least 2m x 1.5m to play in that mode, though it automatically fits as large a rectangle play area as possible within whatever space you mark out during the set up process. That’s another reason why permanence needs to be considered, if you wish to avoid tracing the boundaries each time you play.
After downloading and installing the basic software, HTC effectively hands over to Valve and SteamVR. Valve’s instructions are friendly and easy to follow, first pointing to your computer screen, then calibrating where the floor is and finally drawing out the boundaries of your free space for the play area. It’s only now that you put the headset on and you can dive into Valve’s initial tutorial, which borrows the theme of the Portal universe to teach you the basics of the controllers and how to interact with the world. It’s quite excellently done with a nice degree of initial spectacle that eases you into the system and clearly teaches you where the limits of your play area are.
This is the Chaperone system, fading a customisable mesh wall into view when you start to get too close to your furniture, so that you don’t injure yourself while playing. You can fudge the lines of how big your play area is during set up, and can reach through the chaperone wall to the other side, but you obviously need to be careful of then potentially smacking your hand into a bookcase if you’re too enthusiastic. Essentially, it’s a clever and well implemented warning system.
As you load up SteamVR, it drops you into a huge void to start, with mountain ranges off in the distance, but your real hub is Steam’s repurposed Big Picture mode. Using a controller as a laser pointer, it lets you browse your library, load up and switch games without taking your headset off. At the same time, you or someone else can load games from the computer itself, which makes demoing the system for others a fair bit easier. The same can be said of being able to mirror the in game view to the computer screen, which helps to make things a sight more communal if others are in the room and let me guide people through what I wanted to show them. Watching is obviously no substitute for putting the headset on and diving in, though.
However, one major failing is just how often the software became unresponsive within Windows. I only saw a single hard crash from a game, but lost count of how often I wanted to finish playing, went to do so via the computer screen and found that SteamVR could only be shut down forcefully via the Task Manager. Alongside occasionally needing to reboot the headset if it didn’t work right away, it’s one of a number of minor bumps in the system that makes it less friendly to consumers than it should be. As soon as something doesn’t “just work” 99% of the time, there are issues that need to be addressed.
Of course, all of this is just a mere gateway to the games themselves. With a large variety of games already on the system, we’ll be covering these in separate articles.
This is still just the first generation of the technology, and in a lot of places, it shows. The Vive (and VR in general) cries out for computers and GPUs that are still 3-5 years away, to allow for the use of 4K screens and diminish the visibility of pixels, but even than that, there’s points of fit and finish in both hardware and software that can detract from the overall product. The headset feels like a rounded off prototype, as opposed to a consumer product, while the Lighthouse’s whine is ringing in my ears as I write this… let me just go and turn those off now.
Having said that, on day one, stepping into a game on HTC Vive is by far and away the most complete and comprehensive VR system of the three main competitors. It can do everything that the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR can, but goes further than they do. The two VR controllers let you reach out and interact with the world around you, the Lighthouse base stations and room scale VR let you walk around and explore, and through these two key innovations, we’re given the most compelling path for the future of VR to follow.
The barrier for entry is very, very high right now, but the Vive in particular makes me excited to see what’s next.
Our thanks again to Nvidia for loaning us a VR capable laptop for the purposes of this review.