HTC Vive review: The best VR experience you can have right now, if you've got the space
The HTC Vive is the closest we've come to a full-room virtual simulation. It's amazing, and it's hardcore. But it's a lot of gear.
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, HTC has cut the Vive's price substantially 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.
I'm going to the length of describing this because you should know that, if you want something easy, don't get the Vive. This is enthusiast-level VR, trading out simplicity for bleeding-edge quality.
Once the Vive scans my room and I put the headset on, I'm in a Valve-created tutorial that guides me through the boundaries of my new space. A white floor spreads around me. A broken TV buzzes in the corner. I look down and can see the Vive controllers floating in front of me.
A robotic eye floats around, telling me to press the buttons on my controllers. I blow up balloon animals, shoot lasers. I walk to the edges of my world, and when I reach the walls, a grid of glowing blue lines appears. That's how you know you've reached the edge of your (real) world.
Every step I take in the real world becomes a step in my virtual one. I'm on a mountain top in Valve's free collection of mini-games, The Lab, tossing sticks to a robot dog. I step toward the ledge. But before I get there, glowing blue lines appear. My reality cage. I want to go further, but if I did I'd hit my invisible but very real closet door. Most games have ways of "teleporting" around by aiming a controller and zapping through space, but it's not the same as taking real footsteps.
The bigger you can make your virtual room, the better. The minimum space for room-scale VR, which my home office is by just a hair, is passable but cramped. In the real world it looks like a lot, maybe, but in VR it feels like a tiny shark cage limiting your freedom. Expand out, like I did in a larger space at work, and you start to forget the walls are there. Suddenly I was walking across the ocean floor, aiming my flashlight at fish, and I felt scared. I walked through an amazing graphic recreation of a real-world church in the app Realities.io and started to feel like I could breathe the musty air. The sense of distance becomes vast.
Chaperone: Your seeing eye
Does wandering a room with an opaque headset blinding you to the real world make you nervous? The Vive helmet has its own camera to help me see, and it activates whenever I get near a boundary of the virtual box I've painted. Suddenly I can see furniture, and outlines of my computer, my desk, my hands and feet, in an X-ray-vision type of heat map.
But Vive can't sense furniture that might be in my way, or pets, or kids. And if I turn off Chaperone, which I can, I'm blind again. If I near a glowing grid-wall, I don't really know which wall that is in my real world. If I punch out with my controller, will I accidentally punch a wall? I almost punched my TV when I drew my home boundary space a bit too close to my desk.
Chaperone is, however, what virtual reality needs once you can go wandering: it's the first attempt at an eye to keep watch on the real world.
Glitches in the matrix
Getting my space set up right wasn't always easy, and sometimes in VR I'd find a controller wandering off, slipping from its tracking.
I found that, once in awhile, one of the wireless controllers or one of the two light boxes popped in and out of sensor range, throwing some games off a bit. Occasionally, the floor seemed like it was over my head. (I had to re-launch the room setup and walk through the steps again.)
Maybe this is Day Zero jitters. Mostly, the Vive feels incredible, lag-free, vivid, seamless. But small tracking errors or hiccups, or a moment where a light box loses its connection -- even briefly -- can ruin the illusion or create a lot of disorientation. Things corrected themselves. I just want to give you a heads-up that with this many pieces, Vive feels like what it is: astounding but still early hardware.
Steam VR, and what's to come
There are already over 100 experiences and games for Vive, and I played as many as I could during the last week. Some are spectacular efforts, like the ultrarealistic Cloudlands VR Minigolf. Others feel like extended demos, like the cool-looking undersea experience TheBlu. Some are a little awkward. Other games on SteamVR don't even work with the included Vive controllers: they require a game controller (I plugged in one from an Xbox One) or mouse and keyboard. Some work on both Vive and Oculus Rift.
That's what's so fascinating about Valve's approach to VR and its app store: It's open, and not necessarily specific to the Vive hardware. Unlike Oculus, which has a dedicated app store all its own, it doesn't feel like SteamVR is all about serving my Vive VR experience. Because it's not. You might like that, or hate it.
Most of what Vive does involves games, but there are already full-scale painting (Tilt Brush) and sculpting (SculptrVR) apps. There's an interactive documentary on Apollo 11. Give anyone these apps and they're astounded.
I let my 7-and-a-half-year-old try Vive, with my supervision. I gave him SculptVR. He suddenly became absorbed in building his own art. He understood the controls, the virtual space. He leaned down to work on a fine detail. It just works.
This is what's amazing about VR.
Your holodeck awaits
I got used to setting up VR, and to the equipment. It started to melt away. Then, I fell in love with the experiences.
Maybe you don't want to invest in all this equipment right now. I don't blame you. There's always nearly free Google Cardboard and very cheap Samsung Gear VR, something simple for your phone. You can take baby steps.
But this is a completely different level. To have this technology in my home, right now, is the stuff of science fiction; pure magic. Magic with caveats. This tech will keep evolving, getting wireless and lighter. Vive won't be the only game in town. But right now, it's your best ticket to the holodeck -- if you want a holodeck. It's got all the pieces, if you can live with the wires and the high-end PC.
If you want the very best VR, the Vive offers motion controllers and an entire room-tracking system in a package the Oculus Rift can't match. Yet. But you trade convenience and compactness for a stellar room-scale VR experience, if you have the room for it.
I don't know if I'd want all this tech in my life right now if I wasn't reviewing it. It's complex, bulky, full of wires and parts to sync. But I'd want to be near it. Very near it. And I can't wait to see the apps and games that come next.
Incredible things are on their way.