Virtual Reality is now getting billions of dollars in funding, and things are moving fast. The HTC VIVE is one of the two main options that PC users have, the other being the Oculus Rift, and now the HTC VIVE Pro. We have used the HTC VIVE for two weeks, tried dozens of VR apps, and are now ready to share our view about it, and shed some context about potential alternatives.
Does it work well, is it built to the highest standards, will it make you sick, who is this for? These are some of the many questions we want to answer to, along with enough information for you to extrapolate how HTC VIVE will work for your unique circumstances. To start this review, I want to show you a short demo of what VR can do, and I recorded a VR Longbow gaming session:
Since everything is designed to run on SteamVR, you’ll need to have a Steam account and install Steam on your gaming system. I recommend doing that once you know that your HTC VIVE system has shipped, it will save you time once the box has arrived.
To make the search for VR apps easier, there’s a filter that will quickly allow you to navigate. At the moment, there are no 360-videos to use as “trailers”, but I’d love to see this in the future because the description doesn’t quite cut it and it’s not like you can search for a Youtube trailer once you have the headset on.
You can even download/pre-install games before getting the hardware. That way, you’ll be able to play right away.
Tracking hardware and operational area
When you open the HTC VIVE box, some parts may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s pretty easy if you break things down nicely. There are a lot of moving parts because the VIVE brings everything edgy about VR today including dual-trackers and dual-controllers.
VIVE gives you several usage scenarios: seated, small area (“standing only”) and large gaming area (“room-scale”). Obviously, if you have a large area available, it’s preferable, and the immersion will be that much greater.
The reality is that most people don’t happen to have a “VR room” available. HTC VIVE can track you within a 15×15 feet area (225 Sqft), which is the largest of all VR systems today. Oculus Rift can track within 5×11 (55 Sqft) feet, and PSVR can cover 8×6 feet (48 Sqft). In my case, I had 9×9 feet available for VR.
Don’t sweat the size too much. Obviously, there are cases where moving around is *much* more immersive (adventure games, place discovery), but most VR content today requires moderate to no walking around. All apps have a “teleportation” function that allows users to shift places within the VR world. That said, being able to move relatively freely does enhance the experience significantly, depending on the game.
VIVE comes with two laser trackers that will follow the motion of your controllers (hands) and your VR headset. This method allows HTC to have coverage on all sides since the trackers should be placed on opposite sides of the gaming area. Having two makes it unlikely that the system will lose tracking because a controller is out of the line of sight (behind your body).
These trackers come with mounting brackets to place them permanently on walls, but for our purpose, I just used tripods and took advantage of the built-in standard tripod connectors (2 per tracker).
The trackers could also be sitting on a shelf or other places that may be already available in the room. You’ll have to try several things, but the idea is that your head and hands should be in the line of sight. SteamVR has indicators to show you if everything works.
The setup instructions in the box are very easy to follow. The only thing that you should pay attention to is that although all three 12V power supplies (2x tracker, 1x headset with ~10 feet cables) look the same, their Amperage output isn’t. Make sure that you plug them into the right device. I don’t think that you can damage something, but an underpowered device could not work properly.
Upon connecting everything, you will connect the Power supply of the VR Headset’s main “box”. Your PC will detect it and install basic drivers directly from the box. You may have some subsequent firmware and software updates, but overall, the installation went smoothly on a recent VR-ready system.
Once the drivers are up and running, you can launch Steam, then launch SteamVR with the “VR” logo at the upper-right of the Steam window, or from the steam status icon on near the clock. The headset should display an empty gray space which shows a virtual floor, and where the trackers are in the room
The HTC VIVE VR Headset is a solidly constructed piece of equipment. It feels much more solid than both the Oculus Rift and the PlayStation VR headsets. It is also a bit heavier, but don’t worry I’m only 5’11/180 lbs, and we’ve had smaller people try it, and no-one complained about the weight.
The OLED screen can display 2160×1200 pixels with a refresh of 90Hz (frames/second or FPS). This refresh rate is considered to be the minimum to avoid motion sickness that could be induced by VR. The games rendering are executed fast enough to play at 90 FPS obviously, which is why you need a fast computer.
The field of view of the VIVE is 110-degree, just like the Oculus Rift, but it seems like that visually, the VIVE is slightly more immersive. This may be due to a different aspect ratio between the two. In the end, the difference isn’t that big, and shouldn’t be a sway factor at this point.
I found the headset to be easy to adjust. It may be because I have a buzzcut… I heard folks complaining about it, but I don’t see what the big deal is. I had other people try it as well. In general, the headset owner will tweak this him/herself, and will help friends with it.
On the right of the headset, there’s a knob to tweak the settings for the distance between the eyes. It will affect clarity slightly, although most people don’t bother too much with it. It may be worth paying attention to that if you’re going to spend a lot of time playing, but I usually don’t, even if other people use the VIVE.
Finally, the HTC VIVE has a front camera built into the VR headset. It opens a lot of possibilities, such as a mode where you can see what’s around you without removing the headset, thus, solving a major VR friction point. There’s also a remote possibility for Augmented Reality (AR), but I haven’t seen anything compelling at the moment.
The HTC VIVE ships with two controllers in the box. This is hugely important for two reasons:
- Developers can rely on those
- VR is so much more interesting when you can grab, and interact with virtual objects.
The ability to have your hands interact with a VR app is the difference between “able to look everywhere around you” and “feeling like being in a virtual world”. This is a very important point that we need to get across users who have not tried VR yet.
Oculus ships only with a Xbox controller by default (Oculus VR controllers exist and will come), and it’s fine for some games. Others provide a much higher level of immersion when they use your arms (+VR controllers): shooting with the longbow, using a shield, and more.
The controllers are very well designed, and although they seem quite large, I found their usage to be very intuitive. They require a minimal learning curve, and after a few minutes, most people feel comfortable with them.
To best describe what you see, it’s like being in another world inside a diving helmet (like this one). The main area of your vision (what you pay attention to) is represented in current VR apps, but your peripheral vision is not.
Humans have a larger vision span than most people realize. You can test this by looking straight and moving your hands on either side of your head — you will perceive movement although you don’t see details. A perfect immersion should almost cover the whole hemisphere in front of you.
The immersion is very good and very intuitive. Even a person who has no gaming experience or any VR affinity will be impressed with the level of immersion, and how connected you are with the virtual environment.
With the VIVE, the fact that you can grab, push and more stuff with your hands makes it exponentially better. Valve has some great mini-apps that show you many potential aspects of VR: gaming, education, discovery, virtual travel. The potential is enormous.
Will it make you sick?
I get this question a lot because VR has a bad reputation about possible motion sickness, maybe comparable to a very mild version of balance disorder. First, it’s important to understand why VR may cause sickness. You body has numerous sensors and in this case, the eyes, and the inner-ear (responsible for the balance) are essential to how we perceive the real world.
If what you see does not match what your sense of balance is telling you is happening, you brain may get confused, and this will induce some sickness. Sickness can happen for two main reasons:
- Poor head tracking. Solution = good head tracking
- Latency (“lag”) between physical motion and visual rendering. Solution = low system-wide latency, faster rendering framerate
For the most part, none of the 3-4 people that have tried VIVE in our office got sick, so with our totally unscientific sampling I would say that the odds are good. Seriously, though, I’d love to see some real stats.
At the end of the day, “some” people do get sick, and there is no guarantee that you won’t be one of them – unless you try. My best advice is to try VR somewhere (preferably not on a crappy one) to be sure. I recommend Samsung’s GearVR for a basic experience or Oculus/VIVE for a high-end experience. All three should quickly tell you if you feel sick or not.
How long can I play?
Assuming you don’t get sick right away, the next question is “how long can one play (before being tired, eye-strained)”? It’s a great question. Again, past experiences have shown us that stuff like 3D-TV can cause eyestrain after a while, so it’s legitimate to ask.
In my experience, VR does cause *a little bit* of eye strain, but much less so (for me) than 3D TV/Cinema. When I go to a 3D theater, I always need to remove my glasses a few times during the movie for a few minutes each time.
With VR, I have been able to play 1h to 1h30 and get right back to work. You know – I start reviewing the thing, then I’m just playing… LOL. I think that I could play even longer because I don’t feel “tired”, but I don’t have the time to do so. Seems like another interesting work assignment when new games are released.
After playing for a while (45mn+), there’s a very slight sensation of lightness when I go from VR to reality, which lasts for ~5mn or so. It’s probably because VR headsets still don’t perfectly sync vision and balance. Also, the eyes are artificially focusing towards “infinity”, while the screen just a few inches from them.
YOUR experience may be different, but I spent a good deal of time on forums and talking to developers who deal with this all day, and I haven’t seen signs of systemic fatigue linked to using VR for a one to two hours a day.
A potential social experience
With SteamVR, there is an option to have a VR mirroring on the PC monitor. It means that what you see in the headset is being shown on the monitor as well. It’s great for all kinds of purposes.
I used it to record my gaming session for this review, but it’s mostly useful if you want to share your experience with a friend, or if you want to guide someone through the VR experience. Being able to see what they see allows you to know what’s going on so an observer can provide pertinent information or feedback — this would be critical in an education environment for example.
Safety: will I bump into stuff?
We’ve seen with the Nintendo Wii that games based on physical movements could lead to accidents of various consequences. With that in Mind, Valve made a lot of efforts to have safety was built-in. First, you need to create and configure a perimeter that is clutter-free.
Once that’s done, a virtual wall will appear every time to get close to the edge of that safe zone. This is your clue to stop. I haven’t seen a game that requires you to move fast enough to crash into a wall, but a good golf swing into a low ceiling lamp could be quite awful. Use common sense.
Finally, the VIVE front camera can give you a rough view of the real world, without having to remove the headset. All in all, this should avoid problems unless you lose yourself in the moment. The bigger your room and the less you’ll have to think about it.
Computer interaction within the VR environment
When you are ready to switch games, you can exit, browse, and launch another game from within the VR environment. Because VIVE has two controllers, either of them can be used to open the virtual interface, and you can just point (like with a laser pointer) and click. Other VR headset may require you to look at something and click. It works too.
In general, you can do pretty much all the basic gaming/apps related stuff from inside the VR environment. If you want to interact with Windows, or change your PC settings, you’ll have to remove the headset.
Apps types and availability
The main attraction (or added-value) of VR is to have experiences that you could not otherwise have. It is about immersion. With that in mind, there are many categories of apps that could add a lot of value, thanks to VR.
You can go to places you would never go, with a better experience than existing media. VR can’t (yet) replace photos and movies, but it will give you a “sense” of places that you would not otherwise get. One of the demos was showing a mountain top, and you could get vertigo from it.
There are new apps coming out every day, and instead of listing them all here, I would suggest that you go on Steam and check for yourself. You can find screenshots, videos, etc. there. The topic is just too vast for this already long review. I want to point out the different “types” of experiences you can find.
Discovery: apps that make you explore the solar system or other places that you’re unlikely to go to offer a unique perspective and possible interactions that only work in VR. Even Ikea has an app, and although it’s not super-compelling today, this type of application might be useful in the future. NVIDIA had a great demo of a VR visit on Mars at the GTC 2016 conference:
Education: the potential for looking at how a machine works, with a lot of moving parts, without engaging your safety is huge. Although you could do it on a monitor, VR gives you a feel for what it would be like in the real world. It adds a dimension that bring a lot of value to the table. While VR will not always bring more “information” than 2D or 3D on a planar display, it does make things more interesting.
Seated games: these are games that benefit from the ability to look around at will. Flight simulators and car races are obvious examples, but there could be more. You don’t need a lot of space to play those and they would basically work at your desk. Here’s an example:
Full immersion games: can take advantage of your mobility within the room. This could be action games where dodging and attacks are critical. It could also be adventure games where you need to sidestep traps or avoid monsters attacks. Of course, the full immersion can benefit discovery and education as well, just not as much. To me, this is the finest VR experience you can get, and you need full tracking and as much room as possible to live it.
360 2D content: last but not least, it’s probably that 360 photos and videos are going to be the most plentiful “VR” content, even if that’s not real VR to me, it does use VR headsets. With cameras such as the Samsung Gear 360 and the LG 360 CAM, here’s what can be done:
Watch out for game exclusives: at the end of the day, content is king, so make sure that you find games that will entertain you enough to justify the price of the hardware. Also, be mindful of possible exclusive deals as VR OEMs compete against each other. There is already drama breweing around exclusives between VIVE and Rift.
VR going forward – aka how long will my “investment” last
First of all, “investment” and “consumer electronics” should usually not be in the same sentence </sarcasm>. The second generation of VR (the first being anything before 2015 which did not work) is bound to evolve very quickly. I see several development tracks that will be of importance:
Displays: anyone can see that the pixel density of today’s VR displays could be better. We have something close to 2K, but 8K even 16K will be required before we reach a plateau. I discussed this recently with LG technology guru Dr. Ramchan Woo.
Sensors: the VIVE tracking is pretty much your best consumer VR tracking option today, but better general tracking remains a topic of intense research and will benefit from further improvements for a while. Tracking directly affects the user experience. Just to cite an example, it would be impossible today to simulate using a rifle with iron sights (and aiming with them) in VR right now, because the tracking simply isn’t good enough.
Graphics processors and CPUs: Just as gaming seemed to slow down in terms of technical requirements, VR has boosted it. VR needs much more computing than 2D gaming. CPUs and GPUs are mature components that will continue evolving at their current rates, with no end in sight, especially for the GPU.
Obviously, the content will evolve to match the hardware capability, and will provide better VR experience overall, but from an “investment” standpoint, the hardware evolution will surely make current hardware depreciate relatively fast. VR is currently an early adopter thing, and the experience is very rewarding — if you can afford it.
At $800, the HTC VIVE is the priciest VR package available (official VIVE site). However, it is also the one which brings the complete VR experience to the buyer.
Oculus sells for $600 (official Oculus Rift site), but at that price, it does not give you VR controllers (it’s an Xbox controller), and only tracks from one side. Even though you can move around, not being able to grab objects in a natural way will limit the VR experience greatly.
By the time Oculus comes out with dual VR controllers and dual-tracking, the price may equal, or exceed HTC’s offering of today. Let’s see what happens then. Oculus may put pressure on the price since Facebook has deep pockets.
At $400, PlayStation VR (official PS VR site) would be the most affordable VR system, but there are questions about the horsepower of the current PS4. The rumored PlayStation 4.5 should be much more powerful although -how much- remains to be seen. There are (too) many unknowns at this point, and we’re six months away from official availability.
Required PC Configuration: high-end
In addition to the price of VR equipment, you need to take into account that Virtual Reality is extremely compute-intensive, so you will need a gaming-capable computer.
I recommend using the latest generation of GPU (and drivers) from either AMD and NVIDIA. Our test system uses the NVIDIA 900-Series, but I’ve also heard very good feedback from AMD users.
On older systems, you may run into driver issues, and while it works, the likelihood of having issues is also higher because these companies are focused on making the latest products compatible and ready (I couldn’t get an older gaming laptop to run VR consistently). There is no 100% sure-proof way to test an older configuration for compatibility.
We used a Lenovo Y900 Desktop gaming computer ($2249 MSRP, but $1699 at Newegg) which is “VR Ready”, thanks to its GeForce GTX 980 GPU and a powerful 4.0GHz Core i7 CPU. We have 16GB of RAM as well. Despite all of this, the computer barely touches the Steam VR Benchmark passability test. The NVIDIA GeForce Experience also provides a “check” that can quickly tell you if your system is VR ready.
The next step to scale performance is to use a multi-GPU configuration which could easily add $300 to $400 to the overall cost. Fortunately, this PC ran all apps fine, without any lag of performance jitter, so this should give you a decent baseline for VR performance. VR is intensive stuff!
Conclusion: VR is real, and VIVE embodies it
Most people old enough to have known past VR flops came to “VR 2.0” this with a good dose of skepticism. The early Rift demos in 2013 provided a proof of concept, and things kept getting better from there on. In 2015, HTC announced that it would build the VIVE headset, which builds on many years of VR work at game developer Valve, which had early prototypes back in 2012.
Now, both content and hardware have gotten to the point where I can say that VR is real, it works, and VIVE shows the best of it.
As an emerging technology, VR is poised to evolve very quickly, under intense competition. As such, it’s fair to consider it to be an “early adopter” tech with everything that comes with it: immediate reward, bragging rights, high price, and *relatively* low amounts of content.
But VR does provide such an immersive that there is nothing else that competes. VR is not like 3D TV – it is awesome, and is only in its infancy. In the next 15 years, VR will evolve enormously. Think of how far we’ve come from Doom to Battlefield 4 in the 2D display world. VR is poised to evolve in the same way over the next decade.
Today, the only hardware that gives your the full VR experience out of the box is the HTC VIVE. Yes, it is the most expensive option, but for anyone that can afford it, it is by far the best option.