Featured Review: HTC Vive

April 25, 2016 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Tron’s early 1980’s release and subsequent cult following was the first glimpse of what a virtual reality future could look like, one where people step into the world of computers and virtual spaces instead of living completely in the real world.  Since then we’ve had many different versions of virtual reality, from the machine slave future of The Matrix to the VR-addicted teens in Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica.  Most of these have been negative connotations, warning against such a future instead of embracing the possibilities they bring.  2016 has brought upon us the first real look at what a virtual future can bring, and the HTC Vive is the first truly interactive virtual experience that you can get at home, right this very moment, barring you can afford its high price tag of course.  While there are plenty of other solutions on the market, the Vive is the absolute top-tier in feature set and realism when it comes to interacting with the virtual world, so let’s find out what makes up that experience and whether or not this virtual world really is something worth investing in.

Video Review

In the Box

Head Unit

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The Vive’s iconic looking headset is unique in many ways, and similar to other VR headsets on the market in plenty of others.  From outward appearances it’s obvious that it’s design has been borrowed in a way from many other VR headsets out there.  It’s got the same large display unit on front that sits on your face in front of your eyes, and it has straps that wrap around the sides and back of your head as well.  It’s actually the display unit itself that makes the Vive wholly unique to other VR units on the market, and it’s because it’s littered with sensors that are designed to spatialize where you are in the real world in order to place you correctly in the virtual.  Aside from these sensors there’s also a prominently placed camera on the front of the unit, situated slightly lower than the mid-point, to provide a look at the real world while the headset is on.  This is another wholly unique aspect of the Vive that no other VR headset on the market has.

The design of the headset itself has been incredibly comfortable for me, with a large pad that wraps itself fully around the area where your face rests, and comfortable, fully adjustable elastic straps with Velcro strips on the ends of all three straps.  Two straps wrap themselves around the sides of your head, and can be adjusted all the way to the very back of the headset for folks with smaller heads, and the top strap helps adjust the cranium cradle at the back so that the headset is able to offset its weight on the back of your head.  This top strap is also the holder of the ubiquitous triple cord setup that connects the Vive headset to your PC, and serves as the place to route these cables in an efficient manner.  In addition to that there’s a 3.5mm headset jack at the back of the headset too, one that you can plug the included HTC Pro Studio earbuds into, or any other favorite pair of headphones you’d like.  While there are no built in earphones there is actually a built-in microphone, which provides many additional functions that we’ll cover later.

Personally I found this headset to be quite comfortable, even after using it for hours at a time.  At 555 grams it’s a fairly heavy VR headset, and weighs about 80 grams more than the Oculus Rift, and about 50 grams more than the Samsung Gear VR with a Galaxy S7 inside.  In reality that makes none of these units light per say, but having the heaviest package may make some users feel more fatigued when using the Vive for long periods over other VR units on the market.  The elastic headstrap is also a mixed bag for some folks, and again while I had zero issues with it I found that some folks had a hard time adjusting it for their heads and getting it to fit just right.  Without a more rigid solution for these straps it tends to make the display unit rest on the cheekbones more than being uniformly pulled around the surface of the face, and again could result in some users feeling uncomfortable over time.  These straps can easily be replaced via a clip system, and likely we’ll be seeing additional strap designs from HTC and third parties in the coming months to adjust various users’ needs.  Those with long hair may need to tie it back when playing particularly physically exerting games, as the straps tend to slip a lot on the hair and will eventually cause the headset to fall off your head.

My only real concern with the included straps is the longevity of the Velcro on them.  Velcro only lasts so long and it’s very plausible that, especially for users that often readjust the headset or pass it on to others to use, will see degradation of this Velcro fairly quickly.  It’s impossible to judge just how long this will take given I’ve had the unit for a little over 2 weeks now, but I can see it becoming something that needs to be replaced over time.  It’s also obvious to point out the giant cord that needs to be attached to the headset at all times.  In fact this cord is the only cord that needs to be plugged in to the entire unit, as all the other components of the Vive system are completely wireless.  This triple cord is one massive three cables; power, HDMI and USB 3.0.  This is a 15ft long cable that connects to a link box, which in turn connects to your PC via the USB and HDMI ports.  Power is plugged in via a separate power brick, which is of course included in the box.  The weight of the cable actually helped balance out the head unit for me, and I found that any weight that was pulling on my face was generally negated by the weight pulling down the back of my head.

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I actually found that, as long as the cable is draped down your back as it’s intended to be, the cable almost never got in the way of actual gaming.  I did trip over it one time when it became incredibly tangled up during a long gaming session of Unseen Diplomacy, a gaming in which you essentially walk around the room constantly since the rooms are all auto generated by the space you’ve mapped out.  This constant winding forced me to take the headset off after a while and unravel the cord, but it was the only game in which I experienced this issue.  Even then it took an hour of gameplay to get to this point, a period of time that’ll likely make you want to take a break anyway.  When walking around it was easy to tell where the cable was surprisingly, and easier still to shove it aside lightly with my feet as I moved.  If you somehow yank it or trip the cables easily pop out of the link box, which I’ve also heard people call the breakout box since it can disconnect without damage easily.  None of the cables lock in with a clip system or anything, as to try to prevent damage from yanking cables out of the back of your PC.

Something I didn’t initially consider was just how sweaty someone can get in the unit.  While I found myself perspiring during long gaming bouts, some people really sweat a lot.  I mean quite a bit, and it’s for these people that you’re likely going to want to order some extra face pads to go on the unit.  This also goes hand in hand with the straps on the side and back, which by their fabric nature absorb liquid with ease.  These sorts of hygeine issues will certainly gross some people out, and you may want to keep a bottle of Chlorox handy to make sure this thing stays sanitary.  It’s an awkward side effect of having to strap something to your body, and while the Vive is certainly way cooler than older generations of VR headsets, there’s no denying the sweat factor that’s going to kick in once extended rounds of Xortex really get going.

Display and Visual Quality

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Extending from the exterior elements on the Vive’s headset are its internal parts, ones that really aren’t all that different from other headsets on the market.  The large circular lenses encased inside the foam-laden headpiece are larger than older model VR headsets, and provide a window into the virtual world that easily goes toe-to-toe with the best out there.  While we still have a way to go before lenses are completely convincing and provide an unobstructed view into the virtual world, these are among the best lenses ever seen on a VR headset and provide a fantastic straight-on view with little to not distortion.  Distortion actually doesn’t even come into play unless the headset becomes loose or needs readjusting, or you look into the far corners of the lenses.  At this point you’ll find things become blurry, and if you look far enough toward the edges you can actually even make out the rings on the lenses as well.  Normally though there’s no chromatic aberration and no other effects that old lenses caused, just a clean view to the display ahead.

Those in need of adjusting the lenses from their default setting can do so on a dual-axis plane.  The lenses themselves actually space out between 61-75mm to adjust to the distance between your pupils.  This distance is important as it keeps your eyes from getting crossed and fatigued after a period of usage, and should be adjusted before any play sessions.  This is done via the small knob on the right of the headset situated toward the front, and an on-screen pop-up box will appear letting you know where the focal distance sits.  Those in need of additional adjustment can actually bring the lenses closer or further away from your eyes, something of particular importance to those wearing glasses.  This is done by grabbing the wheels situated behind the Vive logos on both sides of the headset, pulling them out a millimeter to allow for adjustment, and turning.  Measurements are denoted by white tick marks on top and give plenty of space for any pair of glasses or other ocular needs.

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This display is actually a pair of displays with 1080×1200 resolution each, effectively making the final image a 2160×1200 resolution panel.  While this sounds incredibly high res for today’s games it appears much less so once you get the headset on, again nothing surprising if you’ve used any other VR headset out there.  This is the exact same resolution other headsets use and while it’s definitely sufficient for current generation VR needs, it definitely needs to be improved in the future.  Computing power is the biggest hurdle at this time, as display densities have long ceased to be the mitigating factor in display quality, rather we simply cannot process all the pixels in said displays at an acceptable framerate.  This is even more so the problem with VR since the display rate has to be locked at 90Hz, 30Hz higher than smartphones and 3 times that of the average console game running at 1080p.  You can quickly see the numbers add up and figure out why we’ve only got these fairly low density displays, especially since they’re so close to the eye.  This results in obvious pixel structure when the headset is placed on, which effectively causes elements in the background to appear blurry if they have too fine of detail.

Text in particular can be difficult to read if it isn’t formatted correctly, something developers will need to be mindful of when making VR games, and again this is nothing unique to the Vive as all panels out there have the same issue right now.  Thankfully all the other aspects of the Vive’s display are phenomenal, as that OLED panel provides not only some incredible black levels thanks to OLEDs unique way of turning off individual pixels when they are black, but also to the excellent saturation and refresh rate of OLED panels as well.  Colors and contrast are nice and punchy but aren’t over saturated, giving you a vibrant view of the virtual world that’s incredibly pleasing to the eye, all while not crushing black levels or hiding color gradients.  It’s also an incredibly bright panel that’s going to keep you awake for sure, one that’s among the brighter OLED displays out there.

Controllers

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Out of all the VR solutions out there only the Vive ships with actual motion controllers built from the ground up for VR.  Unlike the Oculus Rift, which seems to attempt to bridge a gap between traditional gaming and the new VR paradigm, the HTC Vive flings itself full force into the VR world and isn’t afraid to show it.  Much like the headset is covered in sensors to see the light house sensors placed around your room, the Vive’s controllers have a ring formation up top that contains the same set of sensors designed to spatialize your movements in the world and translate them into 3D virtual space.  Aside from sensors there are a number of different input methods on the controller as well that’ll serve as ways of interacting with the virtual world.  Anyone who’s ever used or seen a Steam Controller will know Valve’s hardware design influence here.  These are identical to the Steam Controller’s touch pads in every way, from the texture used on the top to the click of the pad, and even the haptic feedback motors inside.

While your thumbs will normally rest on the large touch pads on the front of the controller, you may occasionally have to reach for the menu and system buttons.  Menu is located above the touchpad and is a convex button, while the system button is located below the touchpad and is a concave button for a different feeling and texture.  On each side of the long controllers sits a pair of buttons simply called the grip button, as either of these actually act as the same button in the virtual space.  This is done for both ambidexterity of the controllers as well as comfortability for users, as you can either press the buttons in with the palm pad of your thumb, or more practically with your pinky and ring fingers instead.  Subsequently your middle or index fingers will rest on the trigger located around the back of the controller, which features a dual press and click mechanism that again is extremely similar to the Steam Controller’s analog triggers with digital click at the end.

The placement of buttons on these controllers is nothing short is brilliant, and feels like a natural evolution of the Wii controllers from years past.  Just like the Wii controllers you can also hold these in any way your wrists will comfortable bend, and the motion sensing in them is second to none.  Thanks to the lighthouse technology that Valve and HTC have developed, movement is tracked down to the millimeter and refreshes at the same 90hz that the display does.  This means buttery smooth, incredibly accurate action that’ll keep going no matter what you’re doing.   Those worried about repeating Wii Bowling and throwing the remote through their TVs or a window can use the built-in straps at the base of the controller; a wise move especially if you’re playing something like #SelfieTennis where you’ll practically be throwing the controller on a consistent basis.  Whether you’re using this as a laser pointer, aiming reticule for a gun or even a sword, the Vive’s controllers are among the finest controllers for any system anywhere, and represent the pinnacle of motion tracking technology that we have today.

As these are a plastic build there’s always a worry of durability, especially if the controllers are dropped or thrown, but thus far in my usage I have yet to see issues.  There’s been plenty of times too where I’ve smacked a wall quite hard, hit the ceiling and smacked the controllers against the headset or each other too.  None of these incidents resulted in any physical damage to the controllers or the head unit and give me the feeling that they are indeed very solidly built.  This is also a nice thick plastic too, not some cheapo thin material, and have a good weight to them as well.

While most VR games for the Vive are designed around the motion controller and its unique uses, there are plenty of more “traditional” games that want you to control them with buttons and the touch pad for movement.  At least so far I never found a time when the inputs provided were not enough for these types of games, and while some games flat out don’t support the Vive controllers yet and require a Steam Controller or other capable gamepad instead, ones that offer the ability to move using the Vive controller’s touch pads were just as satisfying as using a traditional gamepad.  Being able to add on a traditional controller, as you likely already own anyway, is a considerably better way to start things out rather than the other way around, as it provides entirely new ways of interacting with a world that otherwise has never been available.

These controllers also include a built-in rechargeable battery that can be charged via a standard microUSB cable and wall charger.  One is included for each controller in case you don’t have any lying around, and the controllers themselves last about 5 hours of straight gaming on a full charge.  They take about an hour to charge though, so you’ll need to make sure you keep them charged before playing, otherwise you’ll not be doing anything for very long as there’s no way to simply change out the battery with AA’s or something similar.

Setup Process

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Room-Scale VR, as Valve and HTC call it, is the absolutely biggest differentiator between the Vive and anything else on the market.  HTC includes a pair of square lighthouse units inside the Vive packaging that serve to provide tracking capabilities to the Vive headset and controllers.  These boxes need to be either mounted on a wall with the included mounting brackets, or can also be mounted on a tripod or other similar tool.  Be careful when using tripods and other types of mounting units though, as the vibration of the boxes will likely cause all sorts of wonky effects in game if these boxes are not fully stable.  This is caused by the motors inside the lighthouse boxes, which provide a set of lasers set on a spinning axis for the headset and controllers to read.  These boxes are actually linked up wirelessly via optical sensors and will change the timing of each rotator to match other lighthouses present in the room.  At this time there appears to be a limitation of 2 lighthouses maximum, but it appears that HTC and Valve are working on allowing users to add more to the mix for additional accuracy and occlusion prevention.

The two included lighthouses need to be placed in the corners of the room, and following a fairly lengthy but relatively simple setup are ready to track your every movement in virtual reality.  These lighthouses need to be above 6ft, so wall mounting is the most preferable solution if you’re able to do so, and angled downward at a 35-45 degree angle.  These need to be facing in the same general direction as one another too, as they need to be able to see each other to line up the timing of the motors for the lasers.  Thankfully these have a 120-degree angle view on them, so you don’t have to place them precisely in front of one another as an IR blaster or other tech might need to.  These both wirelessly communicate with the Vive and only require power, however if you have an abnormal room setup and the boxes aren’t able to properly see each other to sync up for whatever reason, the included 50ft link cable can be used to physically connect two boxes to properly sync up to one another constantly.

The Link Box is the only other component of the Vive system that needs to be plugged in, and requires its own power adapter (included in the box of course), as well as USB and HDMI connections to your computer.  Folks without an extra HDMI port can use the mini DisplayPort adapter also located on the PC side of the link box, and keep in mind that a USB 3.0 port is preferable to plug the Link Box into, as it requires some significant transfer bandwidth to deliver all the information to and from the Vive, including using the front camera on the headset.  From here you move into the software portion of the setup, downloading the official Vive Home software first via the URL included on the instructions, and following the setup to get Steam, SteamVR and the Vive Home set up.  Any drivers needed will also be installed at this point, and the whole thing is generally very easy to follow even though there are a number of steps.

SteamVR setup is much more like a console than a traditional PC gaming setup, and that’s a very good thing for something that could otherwise be incredibly complicated.  The setup itself is filled with lots of images, videos and other help elements that make understanding the setup process easy.  If you watch our setup video above you’ll find out that it does take a while to get everything going, but there’s really nothing difficult about the setup per say, just lengthy.  It’s in this SteamVR setup that you can select room scale VR or plain old sitting on a couch.  Folks that don’t have the space for room scale VR only have to set up one lighthouse under their TV and set it to channel A, simplifying the process even further.

Room scale VR requires drawing a perimeter around the room though, and this is one segment you want to be careful with.  This perimeter shows up in the VR world when you approach it and should be taken very seriously, especially if you have breakable objects or hazards in your room.  If you find yourself constantly bumping into objects or smacking walls and other things in the room, it might be wise to consider shrinking that perimeter grid by running the VR setup via SteamVR again.  If you’d rather not shrink your play space utilizing the camera on the front of the Vive is likely the second best option, and one that can be toggled at any point in the VR experience.  Simply double tap the system button, which is located below the trackpad on the controller, and the camera turns on, revealing a neon-like representation of the real world around you.  This can help identify what you’ve been stepping on, or to temporarily assist in moving things out of the way or sitting down while in the VR world, all without having to take the headset off.

Movement Tracking

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What’s truly amazing is how real life movement is realistically translated into the virtual world.  Room scale VR really changes the paradigm of virtual reality gaming from a simple window that you can now look through, to an entire world you can fully experience.  Other VR headsets rely on head movement alone to get their point across, whereas the Vive uses your entire body to fully immerse you into the experience.  While sitting on a couch with a controller and looking around will certainly make sense for some games, the Vive doesn’t restrict itself there, and that’s where the magic truly begins.  The Vive fully tracks the headset and controllers in conjunction, and this includes complete freedom of movement as well, not just looking around.  You can crawl under virtual objects, see behind these objects and completely interact with them in the virtual space.

This tracking is accurate down to the millimeter too, so there’s no jumping or jerky movements unless there’s a problem with the lighthouses or something has occluded the visual path between the Vive and either of the lighthouses.  I did have this happen a few times in the month since I’ve had the Vive, but it was always because the lighthouse got bumped or moved in some way and I needed to reconfigure the room.  Needing to reconfigure the room every time you move the lighthouses could become a big annoyance for some people, especially if you don’t have them wall mounted or completely secured to an immovable object.  At least the setup process is quick, but it’s never fun to start off your session with reconfiguring all the time either, but this happened few and far between and again was really always my fault when it happened, not the Vive’s.

Walking around is another massive plus in the Vive’s checklist of features, and it’s yet another way Valve and HTC truly transport you to the virtual world.  Most games handle this via a space to walk around in a room, with navigation throughout the world handled by teleportation.  This is a less nauseating way of moving around than traditional trackpad or joystick movement would be, although some games do offer the option for both.  The biggest problem, as you’ll find out in some game descriptions below, is that your body really thinks it’s in the VR world, so when you’re all of a sudden moving in the virtual world without physically moving your body, you tend to lose balance.  It doesn’t take long to trick your brain into forgetting about this sense of kinetic movement, but it’s about the only adjustment period you’ll likely go through while using the Vive, and of course only on games that support artificial movement via the trackpads rather than physical movement.

What’s really surreal is just how accurate and quick the movements from your body are translated into the virtual world.  Aside from the 1 millimeter accuracy of movement offered by the system is the fact that there’s no perceivable lag in any movement, an incredibly important part of making you feel like you’re actually in the virtual world and not attached to an apparatus, but the smoothness of the movement as well.  It’s also important to note that movement is completely 1:1, meaning moving your arms around looks and feels exactly the same way in the virtual space as it does in real life, and the same goes for your head and the rest of your body.  At 90Hz the Vive’s screens are refreshing 90 times per second, meaning your eyes are seeing nearly 4 times smoother movement than the average movie delivers, and likely 3 times that of the average game.  Unlike a 2D game running at 60fps on a TV or other display, your movements in 90Hz really do make a massive difference in how the experience feels.

Because of this it’s important that the Vive keep its 90Hz refresh rate, and the system can actually interpolate frames when needed to keep this in check.  If a game is unable to run at the full 90fps consistently, SteamVR will automatically scale it down to 45FPS and then interpolate the frames to make a 90Hz refreshed image, making it feel incredibly similar and essentially seamless between the two modes.  This does mess up some games though, so if you find oddities in movement, physics calculation or other problems, this setting can be disabled in the SteamVR settings.

SteamVR, Vive Home and Smartphone Pairing

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Just about anyone who’s ever played a game on a computer has likely used or at least heard of Steam.  In the world of digital gaming, Valve’s Steam service is among the most venerable of all platforms, having essentially begun the digital gaming revolution so many years ago when it effectively launched with Half-Life 2.  Throughout the years it’s grown into the largest digital distribution platform worldwide, and hosts thousands upon thousands of titles and millions of concurrent gamers.  What better platform then to launch the new virtual reality revolution than the one that successfully started one before?  Valve certainly sees it this way, and HTC clearly believes in Valves vision too, as the Vive is supported wholly on the SteamVR platform.  The SteamVR platform consists of OpenVR, Chaperone, Compositor, Lighthouse Tracking, and a handful of other tools for developers to create VR games that work for any hardware that supports the standard, not just the HTC Vive.

While the Vive has more advanced features of any VR hardware out there, even other hardware platforms like the Oculus Rift can use SteamVR games because of its open nature.  As we know from being an Android-centric site, open source is the way to go if you truly want to win, and Valve’s open-armed approach to VR earns massive kudos points with us because of this.  SteamVR is the backend for how the Vive operates, and doesn’t actually require Steam to be running to use the Vive.  In fact if you wanted to you never would have to open Steam, only the SteamVR application, and can launch everything you need straight from the Vive Home application instead.  While this won’t give you access to Steam’s massive library of digital content, you can procure OpenVR games and applications from other places on the web, and it’s the Vive Home application that will recognize these on your system and pull them into an easy to access interface.

It’s unclear if HTC is planning any grander plans outside of what Vive Home currently offers, but aside from a semi-customizable interface and widgets coming in a future update, the Vive Home app allows you to pair your phone with the Vive.  This functionality allows you to actually take calls and text messages from the Vive, all without ever having to take off the headset.  It frees up your hands and eyes from your phone but still allows you to communicate with the outside world via an in-VR interface.  You can reply to text messages and call the person back, but cannot make texts or new calls without first responding to them.  There’s also the issue of only being able to take calls or texts and receive calendar alarms, but no way to actually interface with those individual things otherwise.  It’s definitely limited in its current implementation but seems like it’s set to expand with time.  Not being able to see system-wide notifications means users of WhatsApp, Hangouts and the dozens of other communication tools will still have to use their phones for this sort of communication, so while it’s nice to have integration on the Vive it’s definitely super limited for the time being.

Users who choose to install and use Steam as their main way of getting digital content will be extremely happy with how the Vive handles the connection between Steam and the Vive, as well as the interface itself.  Watch the above video to see our overview of how the Vive’s interface functions so you can get a good idea of what to expect, but if you’ve ever used Steam’s Big Picture mode you’ll know how navigation works.  Big Picture mode was originally designed to be used on a TV the way a console interface would, and provides a less PC GUI way of navigating through Steam and its massive digital library.  It also provides advanced filtering of games, including ones on the store and in your library, and will only show you VR games if you so desire.

If you want to play “regular” games but don’t want to take the Vive off, Steam will launch a theater mode that projects the game on a virtual wall in front of you, giving you the ability to experience the game on a screen that likely appears much larger than the TV in your house does.  The limitation here is resolution without a doubt, and if the resolution of the displays were higher this would be a much more enjoyable mode than it currently is.  Some games will be fine in this type of viewing, however there are definitely plenty of games that will suffer from the resolution loss versus your TV or monitor, and those you’ll likely want to keep back in the 2D space.  In addition to this you can actually completely interface with your desktop from within the Vive.  Clicking Desktop mode on the SteamVR system panel brings up virtual monitors that are configured to be the same size and resolution as the ones in real life.  This gives you a perfect 1:1 overview of your desktop and allows you to easily interact with non-VR titles and other Windows oddities going on with your system.

This doesn’t mean the experience is flawless, however, as anyone who has used Steam or any Windows-based application already likely knows.  Unlike consoles, which are a closed system and are usually fairly free from bugs and other weird experiences, PCs are an open platform and are therefore subject to all sorts of variable and problems that might not otherwise exist.  While the number of configurations that can run VR properly are certainly limited, problems with video and sound drivers, configuration and other weird issues are still here and will likely come to a head at some point.  I ran into my fair share of these sorts of issues, and while they are more related to Windows and my particular hardware setup rather than the Vive, they still encompass the experience that surrounds the Vive and everything that it needs to run.

Games Library

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At this time of writing the HTC Vive ships with Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption and Tilt Brush by Google.  These three VR experiences represent some incredibly fun and varied activities, with Tilt Brush being less of a game and more of a creative art application.  Job Simulator fills in all those humor gaps you’ve been missing since the last Portal game came out, and Fantastic Contraption is set to bake your noodle in a 3D puzzle adventure that’s set to a realistic scale.  If that’s not enough of a value you can pick up Valve’s The Lab for free on Steam, a collection of VR games that absolutely will blow you away.  Whether it’s defending your castle in Longbow, shooting robotic ships in the fully 3D arcade world of Xortex or just playing with the little robotic dog that follows you throughout most of The Lab’s VR world, there’s something enjoyable here for everyone.  You’ll even find educational sections like a human body exhibit where you can view a realistic representation of the organs inside the human body and how the skeleton is made up, or just exploring our solar system and seeing just how massive the sun really feels compared to our planets.

While a lot of these games feel like tech demos or proof of concept titles, there are plenty of games on Steam that have been adopted to work with VR, and more still that have been developed from the ground up for VR.  In fact at launch there were over 100 games fully playable in VR and available on steam, plenty of them retailing at $29.99 and qualify as full releases in every form of the word.  Even some big name titles like Elite Dangerous and Descent: Underground are here and ready to play, as well as nearly 200 others that have been made available for free or a fee on Steam as of the publishing of this review.  The growth rate of VR is insanely amazing to say the least, and it’s easily the best system launch in terms of sheer volume and quality of titles available in a very long time.  With the financial support behind the other major VR platforms out there, Oculus Rift, GearVR and the Playstation VR, this development fury isn’t going to subside any time soon either.

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Click here to check out our games spotlight for the HTC Vive!

Initially you might think that all games look cartoony or overly simple in order to get the needed framerate for the correct experience.  If you thought that you’d thankfully be wrong, as there are plenty of really visually impressive titles to behold in addition to the more simple and clean designs.  What’s important to note, however, is that traditional definitions of what makes a game technically impressive or beautiful don’t normally apply in the VR space, at least not for now.  While you might study the texture, modeling or lighting quality in most modern 2D gaming experiences, once you’ve actually been thrown into the virtual world all semblance of what those definitions mean are completely thrown into the trash.  That isn’t to say you might not notice lower resolution textures or low polygon meshes, but you suddenly find yourself not caring about them anymore.  The visual experience has moved from the number of polygons on a character to the scale and believability of interaction instead.  If you want to see a snippet of some of the games we wanted to highlight throughout the review process, make sure to check out our upcoming HTC Vive Games Spotlight article for a view into a few of our favorite titles and some standout experiences!

Experience

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As a gamer of 27 years now there’s almost nothing I haven’t seen or played.  The NES was my first console, alongside a 386 that ran DOS, and I’ve been going strong with both consoles and PCs throughout the decades since.  I can wholeheartedly and unequivocally say I have not been this excited for gaming since Mario first entered the 3D world in Super Mario 64.  It’s also not since the transition from 16-bit to the 32/64-bit generation that I’ve felt this massive of a paradigm shift in game design and feel, and I think I can safely say this is the single largest leap gaming has ever had.  Gamers 30 and over, do you remember the first time you ever saw or played Mario 64? Do you remember that feeling of awe and disbelief at how 3D really change the way the game felt and how it really created a more believable world?  It’s this feeling that comes fully into play when you first put on the Vive, and a feeling that’s been lost in the 20 years since Mario 64’s launch.  Through all the years of graphical improvements, perspective changes and shader generations we’ve only ever had a visual shift, not a cognitive one.  It’s this cognitive shift that makes this feel less like a shiny new generation of better looking games to one that feels like a completely different experience than you’ve ever tried before.

It’s likely you’ve tried VR before in some way, shape or form.  Whether it was at Disney Quest or another similar theme park style environment, or at home using your smartphone in the latest Google Cardboard viewer, you haven’t quite experienced VR this way.  It’s the complete package of not only looking around that does it, it’s the mix of moving around and actually interacting with your hands that makes this feel completely different.  We’ve also gotten into a new generation of lenses and displays that feature not only less warping and other negative effects from previous generations of VR, but also a refresh rate that keeps people from getting motion sick.  From the moment you put the headset on you’re literally transported to the virtual world.  There’s no transition period, no getting used to the lenses or how the headset feels, you’re simply just there.  It’s like closing your eyes to fall asleep and then waking up to a dream, only one that you can actually control completely.

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I think one of the more surreal experiences was when one of my friend’s son’s was playing Budget Cuts.  As a 9 year old kid he’s quite a bit shorter than most adults would be, and since these games are all designed according to the scale of a human adult, it was extremely difficult for him to reach everything in the game.  One part in particular has you looking through some cabinet drawers to find a key, and of course the key was in the highest drawer near the top.  He was trying to jump to see it, but ultimately was not tall enough to do so.  My astonishment didn’t come in the jumping, which was realistically portrayed in the game world, rather it was in the fact that his father came over to him and picked him up to see what was in the drawer.  It’s this translation from the real to the virtual world that can be simply stunning, and such a simple thing that we take for granted in every day life has now become part of the video game world, something that simply cannot be entertaining or interesting with traditional controller inputs.

What might be the most important thing to take away from the Vive experience is this; this is truly a more natural and human way of interacting with the virtual world.  Over the decades games have gotten lost in the narrative of more polygons, better textures, extra layers of shaders and more buttons than you have fingers for.  The Vive is here to change that, but not by offering some overly simplified version of the games you love, but by giving developers a tool that truly transports gamers into the worlds that have been created.  During the review period I let dozens of people use the Vive, and every single person had the same reaction once they put the headset on.  Everyone from my parents, who are not gamers by any means, to seasoned gamers who have been playing for longer than I have enjoyed this in the same way.  Some took a little longer to get used to certain more “videogamey” type of experiences, but all of them came out of it wanting to buy their own Vive immediately.  The barrier of entry to this experience is what’s ultimately the only difficult sell for the HTC Vive right now, and one that’s not easily overcome.

At $799 (plus shipping and tax), this unit is absolutely not cheap.  Pair that with the fact that you need a good gaming rig to run this and you’ve got a scenario where you would realistically need around $1500 to have the whole thing if you were to start completely from scratch.  Now it’s highly likely that someone who’s really interested in the Vive would already have a good gaming machine that’s maybe only in need of a few upgrades, but for most people we’re looking at an investment of $1,000 or more, and that unfortunately prices things completely out of league for many.  On the flip side, however, many people spend just as much money on the latest smartphone and don’t even bat an eye, so while buying a gaming machine for such a large sum of money seems pretty ludicrous, thinking of it in the context of technology and what we spend elsewhere makes it seem not quite as painful.

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Unfortunately for me this review unit was one that had to be returned to HTC, but to be completely honest if this were my own personal unit I wouldn’t have regretted a single penny of what I spent.  As a seasoned gamer I’m a bit bored of the current gaming climate with the same old, same old that we seem to get year in and year out.  We’ve had so many rehashes of old games, so many tired plays on the same formula that people like me are likely looking for something new and different to try.  It’s this sort of gamer that I feel will be especially impressed with the Vive, not just the hordes of soccer moms that picked up the Wii because they were amazed at how swinging a controller felt like a tennis racket.  The Vive in particular makes so many genres feel new again, and in ways you might not have expected it to.

The Good

Absolutely everything in the box you could need

The most complete VR experience around

Built-in Steam support

Full OpenVR support

Comfortable, adjustable headset

Camera on the front is brilliant

Incredibly versatile and comfortable controllers

Almost completely wireless setup

Can pair with your phone

One of the greatest leaps gaming has likely ever seen

Room scale VR truly brings you into the virtual world

Massive library of available games already

Huge variety of games available too

The Bad

Cost prohibitive

Requires a pretty beastly PC to run

Face pads can get sweaty and gross

Large wire coming out of the head unit may get annoying

 

Final Thoughts

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While it sounds silly to say that being “there” somehow magically makes the same old strategy game or shooter feel new again, the way it changes your perspective both literally and figuratively is really what does it.  It’s truly difficult to explain just how drastic of a change this really is, and it’s difficult to understand until you’ve tried it for yourself.  You can watch all the videos on the Internet of people flailing around in a VR world, screaming in games like Paranormal Activity, and just jumping around for joy as they try to catch fish in TheBlu, but until you’ve worn it for yourself you truly cannot understand how it looks or feels.  For now the barrier of entry is price, and until that comes down it’s simply not going to have the kind of mass market appeal that this experience truly deserves.  Would I recommend it for $800 or more?  Absolutely, wholeheartedly, without a doubt.  Does that change whether or not any of us can afford it?  Unfortunately not, and right now that’s the main thing that absolutely needs to change.  It’s incredible when you find a product that’s this well built and designed, much less one that operates as well as those factors, but the HTC Vive nails it in every single way possible, and it’s truly a game changer for gaming as an industry.