HTC Vive review: The best VR experience you can have right now, if you've got the space

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.

htc-vive-fullbody-02-copy.jpg

Setting up those light boxes in a space could require tripods.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

htc-vive-product-19.jpg

That little camera in the headset activates near walls, if you want it to.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

htc-vive-fullbody-11.jpg

VR fatigue.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

ssc3639574210057569535e9e1c7bec39853028b9b.jpg

Fantastic Contraption is one of Vive's very best launch games.

Northway Games

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.

htc-vive-product-28.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Best Wearable Tech for 2020

All best wearable tech

More Best Products

All best products