As passionate and enthusiastic as I've been as a VR evangelist, I understand this first generation is meant for early adopters like myself. Even the best VR devices will have some rough edges at this stage. That goes for the HTC Vive, which in my experience is the best VR device on the market at launch, but is still far from perfect.
Valve and HTC announced the Vive at GDC 2015, and at the time I was very skeptical. HTC had been struggling financially in a competitive smart phone market and Valve had launched Steam boxes with multiple manufacturing partners a year before to a lackluster response from consumers. It was unclear how serious Valve was about their entrance into the VR space. I am delighted that my initial misgivings proved to be incorrect as Valve and HTC have launched the Vive within 15 months of their original announcement. They have also shipped multiple iterations of the development kits in that time period to make sure they were bringing what they believed to be the best possible head mounted display to market.
The Head-Mounted Display
The Vive is a solid HMD, weighing in at more than 550 grams. It boasts 32 sensors for 360 degree tracking and a 110 degree field of view. It also has a front facing camera to help detect real world objects. The two low persistence screens in the HMD have a combined 2160 X 1200 resolution that is optimized to run software at 90 Hz or better. The HMD has three cables (a USB, HDMI and power cable) that are fused together with one additional port for plugging in headphones. These cables all come out of the top of the front of the headset and go along the top of the user's head. There is a status light on the left side of the HMD to indicate whether it is properly connected and a knob on the bottom right to control the horizontal spacing of the lenses.
The HMD is counterbalanced much better than past iterations of the Vive, but the wires going along the top of the form-fitting strap remains my biggest gripe with the design of the device. The headphone dongle will frequently move around and even get stuck behind the three fused cables causing discomfort when spending prolonged periods in the Vive. Another problem I noticed was that the Vive's fused cables became twisted pretty frequently during full room experiences. This caused a considerable amount of discomfort after prolonged use and really forced me to become more mindful of where the cables are at all times.
During a few demos, I would have to take off the HMD and let the cables unwind themselves to alleviate the discomfort. This is a problem that all virtual reality tethered head mounted displays face, but Vive exacerbates the problem with the cable that goes along the top of the user's head and down the back. Constantly worrying about tripping over, unwinding, and readjusting the cables remains one of the biggest impediments to full-on immersion. During seated experiences, the user has to be mindful of which side they let the cable lay to avoid discomfort. The ergonomics of the cables in the Vive HMD are definitely among my most serious reservations.
The HTC Vive Controllers, on the other hand, are among the best input devices I've ever experienced. They use advanced sensor technology to be visible in VR. Each controller has a circular multifunction haptic touchpad, a dual-staged trigger button, two grip buttons, and two front facing buttons. HTC and Valve have packed advanced technology into a minimal design. Each controller has 24 sensors for accurate motion tracking. Being able to see your controllers in VR with very little lag or tracking error is a truly magical experience. The combination of ergonomics, haptics, and tracking technology has created a delightful user experience in the Vive.
The versatility of the Vive controllers is truly striking. Developers are given a great tool on which to build various immersive experiences. The controller easily transforms into a gun, a paint brush, a pointer or any other kind of virtual instrument that users may require for their experiences. Every button on the controller feels deliberately placed with the intent of making the best possible controller for VR. The grip buttons on either side of the controller take some getting used to at first, but I was able to pick up and play within a few minutes. The haptic touchpads which Valve debuted on the Steam controller are truly amazing in VR. Users can see where their thumbs are placed on the controllers in real time in VR with little to no lag.
These controllers have advanced human interface devices for gaming much like Nintendo's Wiimote did in the past. The haptic touchpads are truly the perfect solution for VR as they are easy to adapt to various control schemes while remaining super intuitive. I cannot praise these controllers enough as I witnessed people who had never used them pick up and play games with them within a few minutes. Valve and HTC have hit a homerun with the combination of minimal industrial design and forward-thinking technology in these controllers.
Valve and HTC have deployed some of the best sensor technology they could with their lighthouse sensors. The two sensors require a minimum of 2 meters by 1.5 meters of space for the Room-scale experience. They also need to be mounted at least 6 feet above the ground and in opposite corners from each other to achieve 360 degree tracking of the HMD and controllers. I used two lighting tripods with ball mounts to angle the sensors slightly down. The sensors communicate with each other wirelessly, but HTC has provided a sync cable in case there is any issue with wireless syncing.
Some consumers will mount the sensors on their wall, but I am currently renting and do not want to bore holes in the walls of my home office. The tripods work great, but even the slightest bump can cause the system to lose tracking. This is something that users need to be mindful of when setting up the sensors for Room-scale. The set up of the sensors took about 20 minutes and SteamVR does a great job of walking users through the set up.
Valve's Steam boasts over 100 million users on their vibrant software platform and SteamVR is a new service that works on top of the existing platform. Valve has rebuilt Steam for VR. Users can chat with friends using a software keyboard in VR or Steam voice chat. Steam notifications still pop up in VR letting you know when your friends have logged on to play a game. Navigating your library or the store is an easy as browsing the Wii home screen with a similar pointer-driven navigation. Steam VR also allows users to manipulate their audio settings as well as enable the front-facing camera. The chaperone feature is tremendously enhanced by the front-facing camera as you are able to see blue holographic representations of real world objects in addition to the virtual mesh wall that indicates your boundaries. This is a killer feature that differentiates the Vive from many of its competitors.
Once users get acclimated with navigating SteamVR, a tutorial is launched to take you through The Lab. This is Valve's first entrance into VR gaming software. I describe it as the Wii Sports of the Vive launch lineup. The pre-release demo features 8 games and demos that Valve has shown off over the last year. The full version of The Lab launches today for free alongside the Vive.
Another showpiece bit of VR software is Google's Tiltbrush. This is the VR equivalent of 1984's MacPaint. It is important to prove a device's ability to create content for any technology to escape the label of gimmicky and achieve broader market penetration. Tiltbrush is a delightful experience that I believe will be a killer launch application for the Vive.
The Brookhaven Experiment
The Brookhaven Experiment has yet to release its full version, but the demo is still one of my favorite experiences in VR. The player is standing in the center of a park in pitch black armed only with a flashlight and gun. The flashlight has a limited amount of battery power and the gun has a limited amount of bullets. This game is one part survival, one part horror, and two parts shooter. The gun mechanics are amazing in this game and truly showcases the intuitive, pick up-and-play nature of the Vive's controllers. The game is waved based, with each wave increasing the difficulty and intensity. This game makes the hairs on my arms stand straight up.
There are a number of other titles on Steam VR that Shacknews will be covering throughout the week, but these are some of the highlights. Valve also has a huge head start on their competition with SteamVR also supporting a feature for a 250 inch virtual TV on which to play all your 2D Steam games. I did experience quite a few bugs with games that run at lower than 90 frames per second, but I can confirm that Rocket League runs amazing at 90 Hz in the Vive.
Other bugs I experienced were with the controllers or HMD losing tracking from being slightly out of the field of view of the sensors. I also ran into some problems with audio cutting out. Most of these problems were mitigated by restarting SteamVR or rebooting my computer, but I did run into a problem where the sensors would lose tracking. I had to reprogram the playable area in Room-scale a few times, but the bugs were not cataclysmic or experience-breaking. We did have some demos crash, but for the most part SteamVR is running great. I look forward to seeing how the platform develops.
Viva la Vive
The HTC Vive is definitely a first generation product. It is apparent how much time was spent on making sure this product was as great as it could be, but it has its limitations. Some of them are problems all tethered VR HMDs will face, like the cable breaking immersion. Other design issues could be iterated upon in future versions in the interest of better ergonomics. I would prefer if the cables went along one of the side straps of the HMD as opposed to being on top of the user's head. The front-facing camera could definitely have a better resolution, but there is a delicate balance between the form factor and weight of the device that must be taken into consideration. First generation products are full of difficult decisions, but I am glad that the Vive went with a front facing camera as it allows users to check in on the real world with a push of a button. Many of our readers ask me if they should buy the Vive right now, and my answer will always be that it depends.
Purchasing the HTC Vive is a no-brainer if you already have a PC with the minimum specifications and have the $799 to spend. If you are more conscious of cost and are not usually an early adopter, this may be a good time to hold off on a purchase. Another crucial consideration for consumers to remember is that the most impressive Vive experiences require room-scale VR. If you don't have enough space in your home, you may be disappointed by many of the missed room-scale experiences. Right now, the HTC Vive has over 30 titles available on SteamVR that are ready to go. This is truly an exciting time in technology and HTC Vive definitely offers the best VR experience out of the box so far.
This review is based on a retail unit provided by the company. The HTC Vive is available now for $799.