I realize I'm not sure where I am, literally speaking.
I know where I am virtually. A miniature golf course? The bottom of the ocean? A demented office filled with robots. My little home office became all these things in the middle of the night. I walked through these worlds with my feet. I pulled at things with my hands. And, many times, like when I was looking at a school of luminescent fish in the darkness of the ocean bottom, I'd see a glowing blue grid. A wall. My wall. HTC Vive was warning me of where my simulation would end. I lift the helmet. I've turned myself around. I'm huddling next to the closet, cords tangling under me.
Time for an eye break.
You remember the holodeck from "Star Trek"? Or, maybe, the Ray Bradbury story "The Veldt." Virtual reality is one thing, but a whole room that can come alive and be your space is a different type of spatial magic. And right now, the HTC Vive deals in that magic exclusively.
Much like the Oculus Rift -- the best known virtual reality system out there -- HTC Vive runs on high-end gaming PCs. It's tethered with long cables that run to that PC. But Vive also adds the hardware to interact with spaces with your hands, and to walk around too. A pair of motion controllers and two light-emitting boxes turn a space of your own into a mapped grid.
You're not just entering VR. A chunk of your home is, too.
What it offers that Oculus Rift doesn't (yet)
Virtual reality on a PC, which both this and Oculus Rift hook up with in many very similar ways, is about pushing the limits of graphics and power. The downside is that you need a big, pretty powerful Windows PC to make it work (read about what you'll need -- odds are, your PC will need an upgrade), plus it needs to be tethered with cables.
Vive adds the ability to not only use your eyes and head, but your hands and body in virtual reality.
For $800 (£689 in the UK and around AU$1,340 including shipping to Australia), the HTC Vive offers a complete motion-tracking headset, two wireless motion controllers, and two small, whirring, laser-emitting boxes that scan your room and create the bounds of your motion-tracking virtual play space. Plus earbuds, mounting brackets for the laser boxes, power adapters, and lots and lots of cables.
Update, August 2017: Following its competitors' lead,to $600, £600 or AU$1,000.
Oculus Rift costs less ($600), but only comes with a headset, a single motion sensor, a remote control and an Xbox One game controller. Oculus will get its own motion controllers too, called Oculus Touch, but they're not arriving until later this year. And at an unknown price.
Vive is a collaboration between electronics company HTC and PC game software publisher Valve. Valve's Steam PC store and platform is what drives Vive. Valve offers a good handful of SteamVR games at launch, and many of these games aren't available anywhere else yet (but will be, later on this year). The Vive comes with a few free games, and they're all excellent: Job Simulator, The Lab and Fantastic Contraption.
Every time I had tried the Vive since my first demo last year, I'd been in controlled spaces, with attendants helping me goggle in. Now I'm using this VR equipment on my own. I've set it up and gotten it running many times, on multiple PCs, both at the CNET office and in my home.
What it offers is unparalleled. It's the best virtual reality experience you can have right now, and it's also one of the most amazing tech experiences, period.
But it's a lot of gear.
I connect it with a massive Clevo laptop running a desktop-level graphics card. This already feels like a cyberpunk novel from the '90s.
Vive's headset is huge and bulbous, and it looks like a spider head. It fits comfortably, even over my glasses, though sometimes the lenses fog up. Thick straps stretch over my head and are held in place via velcro, like a bathing cap. Cables run down my back: a thick tether of three cords that plug into a breakaway box. A headphone jack dangles in the back, where you can connect your own headphones or use the buds that come included. The Vive's tether is very, very long: about 15 feet (4.5 meters). You're meant to wander in it.
It tangles around my shoes as I walk across my office.
The Vive's controller-wands are very good, and a little oddly shaped. A ring-shaped disc of plastic at the top, a hand grip, several front and side buttons, a trigger and a large concave clickable disc that's like a giant trackpad. They have haptic vibrations and rechargeable batteries.
Gripping the wands and pulling the triggers, it starts to feel like I'm grabbing things and picking them up. I can see the controllers in VR, and they transform. In painting apps like Google's Tilt Brush, they become spinning palettes and brushes. In the game Job Simulator, they become disembodied white-glove cartoon hands. In plenty of other games, they become weapons.
The Vive's neatest trick is its room-sensing magic, which happens via the two light boxes I mentioned above, which connect to AC plugs, but not to your computer. They emit light to help position your head, hands and feet properly.
Room-scale VR, and the cage of reality
Vive can work while standing still or sitting as with the Oculus Rift, if you wish, but the Vive can also expand out to allow full-room VR. And hey, "room-scale" VR is why you'd want to buy the HTC Vive in the first place. But you'll need at least 6.5 by 5 feet (2 by 1.5 meters) of space to work with, up to 16 feet (4.9 meters) diagonally between the light boxes...which need to be set up in line of sight from each other, preferably high in the air. I ended up using camera tripods, or balancing them carefully on bookshelves and stacks of boxes.
Setting all this up feels like specialists' work. Sometimes it feels like fetish gear. It's definitely not for those who find an Xbox Kinect intimidating. At least the Vive has easy-to-follow instructions. I downloaded software, wired my boxes, calibrated my floor, and attached my headset in half an hour.