The future is here. It’s called the HTC Vive and it is incredible. It is the most exciting piece of tech I’ve used in a while and it’s not even close. Let’s back up a little bit though.
I’ve been a big fan of the Oculus Rift and it’s goal of bringing of VR to the masses. It was an incredible piece of tech and really provided a brand new way to play games. I ordered a DK2 and was instantly hooked. When HTC and Valve introduced the HTC Vive, I was intrigued. After reading various developers and journalists speak about how it worked and what it added, it grabbed my attention.
My first experience with the HTC Vive was at CES 2016 in the Virtuix Omni booth. It wasn’t a full fledge demo of what it was capable of, but luckily I had an appointment with HTC the next day. I could only judge the HTC Vive on the comfortability and the optics, both which were solid and an improvement over my Oculus Rift DK2.
Then came that fateful day. It was Thursday, January 7th, 1:00PM PST. I walked in not knowing anything and walked out ready to throw my money at HTC. The demos were just mind blowing and I couldn’t help but feel that was the best thing I’ve experienced in a very, very long time.
The funny thing about that week was I was ready to pre-order an Oculus Rift, but when the price was announced, I did a double take. I had my credit card in hand, the order form up, but I couldn’t go through with it. When I walked out of the HTC appointment, I was ready to order no matter what the cost was. I knew it was going to be more expensive than the Oculus Rift, but it didn’t matter to me. I had to have it.
Fast forward to February 29th and the HTC Vive pre-order price of $799 didn’t make me blink. It was amazing. Even though the Oculus Rift was $200 less, I had no hesitation in pre-ordering the Vive on that day. My order was a little later than what I wanted to because I had to take care of my newborn daughter at the time, but it was in and had an April delivery date.
April 25th, the Fed Ex person dropped off a 20lb package and I was all giddy. I had my games that I wanted to try all installed and ready to go. My living room was re-arranged so I could place the base stations at the corners and have enough space to walk around in. My main gaming computer was moved to there as well even though I had a very capable one in the living room. It just didn’t have the GPU needed to run the Vive smoothly so my main rig with an i7-6700k, 16GB of RAM, and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 that was graciously provided by NVIDIA many moons ago for review was setup temporarily to test out the HTC Vive.
Setup was pretty painless and Valve does a good job at walking you through everything that you will need to get everything setup. You can set up either a room scale or standing experience and that’s something that the Rift can’t do. The HTC Vive offers you the ability to play moving around the room, standing still, or seated for games like simulators or third person action games. When people look at the Vive, I think some folks can’t grasp the fact that they don’t need a large room to use it. If you enjoy simulations like me and want to use it for that, you don’t have to dedicate a large amount of space for it. It could just be like an Oculus Rift, with tracking and usability in a seated environment. But, I did have enough space so room scale setup it was. I drew out my play space with one of the controllers and was ready to go.
The HTV Vive head mounted display, or HMD, was put on and I was transported into a whole new world. OK, it was just a virtual waiting room where I could pull up the menu and start a game, but it was still mighty impressive.
Let’s do a quick take on the HMD itself. It’s not as smooth looking as the Oculus Rift and it’s a little bit bigger, but it’s still comfortable to wear once you adjust the straps to fit your head. I went through a few videos online to see how people were putting it on and found a strap configuration that lets me put it on and take it off quickly, like a pair of ski goggles.
There’s an IPD or interpupillary distance (the distance between the center of your pupils) adjuster knob on the HMD. You’ll want to move that around so that your eyes can be in the center of the lenses for optimum clarity. For those that wear glasses, you can adjust the distance of the headset from you with knobs on either side of the HMD. A hidden button on the left side of the HMD will bring up the Steam menu if you don’t want to use the controllers to do so.
The foam gasket that contacts your face isn’t too thick or thin and is mostly comfortable sitting on your face. I opted to get a VR Cover that’s leather and waterproof because from what I’ve seen, you can work up quite a sweat playing some of the games. Plus, I want to keep the foam as pristine as possible, but in case you need to replace it, HTC has included another one in the box and you can order more or make your own.
On the bottom of the Vive are microphones that you can use for voice communications. Unlike the Rift, there’s no built in headphone, but HTC does include a 3.5mm plug as well as ear buds for you to use. You can use your own headphones if you want and I opted to use some wireless headphones from Steel Series and Logitech when using the Vive. The mic is pretty convenient though since you can also pair up your phone to the Vive and make phone calls without having to remove your HMD. And you won’t need another thing plugged in if you’re going to use something like Team Speak or Steam’s own voice chatting service to talk with your friends.
There are many features that sets the Vive apart from the Rift and a huge one are the controllers. Think of them as Wiimotes on steroids. They may look a little odd, but they perform beautifully. As you are waiting to start a game, you can see the virtual representation of the controllers in space and exactly where they are in relation to you. Moving them around in the virtual world, I could not perceive any lag at all. It was that responsive. I’ve seen videos of someone tossing a controller to a person wearing the Vive and the player catching it even though they only saw virtual controller.
The controllers feature a trigger, a Steam menu button, another contextual button, grip buttons, and the a clickable trackpad that’s also on the Steam Controller. Everything works quite well together and if you’ve used and gotten used to the trackpads on the Steam Controller, you know they work very well and works great on the Vive controller as well. There’s rumble inside and games take great advantage of it. For example, The Lab features a bow and arrow demo and when you pull back an arrow, the controller shakes a little mimicking tension from the string being stretched. It’s truly amazing and small feature that makes playing a game even more immersive. The controllers are comfortable to hold and last a good day or two’s worth of gameplaying before needing a recharge.
I like the setup of the wires plugging into a breakout box that then plugs into the computer. It’s one simple combo wire with HDMI, USB, and power. Unlike the Rift, where I have to dedicate a few ports for the HMD and the camera, you’ll just need one USB plug for the Vive. Why’s this great? Well, the Rift relies on cameras to track the HMD while the Vive uses Lighthouses, which I’ll get into in a minute. You don’t need to plug Lighthouses in so if you want to add more Lighthouses for more accurate tracking in the future, just plug one into a power source, set it up in software, and you’re good to go. The Rift will need multiple cameras that each need to plug into a USB port so adding more cameras requires more USB ports, which one can possibily alleviate by using a hub. Still, you’re plugging more things into the computer, whereas the Vive only needs two items plugged in, simplifying the process.
Speaking of the Lighthouses, these little boxes emit an IR signal and they are what helps track the HMD and controllers in space. The controllers and HMD IR-diodes read the sweeping lights from the Lighthouses and calculates its orientation and position. These passive devices have to be mounted up high and at an angle though to ensure optimum accuracy. The nice thing is they can be placed in many positions, just as long as they are in opposite corners and two ar facing each other. I’ve actually used a single one when I was in a seated position while using Virtual Desktop, but you’ll want two to get the best accuracy.
Visuals are important for a good experience and the fresnel lenses in the HTV Vive do a pretty good job. You can still see a slight screen door effect if you look closely, but once the action starts and you’re doing your thing, it all goes away. You can notice some of the grooves of the lenses if you look closely as well and sometimes the pictures produce god rays or rays of light that seem to shine to you at certain parts of the image. For me, I found them to be minor occurrences and issues in the grand scheme of things and most of the time I don’t notice them at all.
All this walking around can be dangerous, except HTC and Valve has come up with an ingenious way to make it as safe as possible while being “blind” in the virtual world called Chaperone. After you designate your play area, a virtual boundary is set up. Anytime you get close to a boundary, a grid pops up in your view, much like the grid walls in Star Trek’s holodeck. The closer you get to the edge, the brighter the grid becomes. It’s a great visual cue on when you’re about to get away from the safe area you’ve set.
There’s also a single camera on the front of the headset that can also be used in conjunction with the Chaperone system. You can set it up so when you get close to the edge, the camera kicks in and you’d see a Tron like view of the world. It’s pretty impressive and this overlay of the real world also helps let you know if you’re in danger of hitting something outside of the designated area. You can also manually turn it on anytime and you can even use the camera to see a full color video of where you are looking. The camera on the HTC VIve really helps in many ways and I can’t wait to see if some developer takes advantage of it in one of their games.
But the best technology in the world is nothing without content. Valve has done a fabulous of job making sure there’s a ton of solid content before the release of the HTC Vive. For pre-ordering the HTC Vive, I was given Tilt Brush, Job Simulator, and Fantastic Contraption. All three are incredibly fun to play with and all three are constantly being played in my house. I just want to specifically mention Tilt Brush because for artists and doodlers, it’s an incredible new way to create art. I’ve purchased so many games from the Steam store and many games right now are priced very, very low. Oh, and I’m not locked into using the HTC Vive when getting games from there so in the future if I decide to switch to another VR headset from another company, games should work as long as they are compatible and not because I’m not using a specific branded HMD.
For a first generation product, the HTC Vive is an incredible piece of technology that’s left me speechless many times. I get lost in games like never before and the setup just opens up so many brand new ways to play games. You really can’t explain how great VR is to those that have never experienced it. A lot of my friends equated it to 3D, which there is that but it’s so much more. But once they strapped on the HMD and started trying out a few games, they were blown away and it changed their view of VR. For me, the HTC Vive was worth every penny of the $799 I’ve spent on it and I’ve gotten many, many hours of enjoyment out of it in the past month. It’s truly a game changing device and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for VR.
I've been reviewing products since 1997 and started out at Gaming Nexus. After writing for a few different sites that went under, it's nice to bring back a site that's not dependent on revenue and just wants to deliver news and reviews of products.
I'm married, and enjoy first person shooters, sports games, and real time strategy games.