My three year old was in the room the first time I tried the HTC Vive. I interrupted his playing; I couldn’t help myself. “Holy cow…” I said, taking in my mountaintop bungalow for the first time. A butterfly flew past my leg and I instinctively moved out of its way. “Wow,” I said later, looking out into open air from an elevator at the top of a skyscraper. When I learned how to use my jetpack, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as I soared through the air, pointing my hand to steer, and imagining for a moment how Superman must feel. “Why you say ‘wow,’ daddy?” he asked me, just as I was coming face to face with a blue whale. “I wish you could see this, buddy,” I answered back. “I wish you could see this.”
It’s the same for you. Rather than write a review, I wish you could just see this, what the Vive brings to the table. It’s revolutionary. It’s awe inspiring. Believe the hype, because VR is the real deal.
Like most gamers, VR was a cool idea but one I never personally got to try out. It sounded amazing but until this year, I just didn’t have a PC capable of running it. With a system rebuild under my belt, I decided it was finally time to give it a go. Like any burgeoning technology, there are issues yet to be overcome, but even with the challenges, if you’ve got the funds, the Vive is a solid investment in rediscovering wonder in video games.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Assuming you’ve never heard of the HTC Vive, what is it? The Vive itself is merely a vehicle for experiencing Virtual Reality. It’s a headset, packaged with two controllers, two base stations, and a Link Box to connect it to your computer. The headset is dimpled with 32 separate sensors, but there are even more you can’t see. Each controller features an additional 19 sensors. There’s also an accelerometer and a gyroscope, as well as a front facing camera. Two infrared base stations are included in the package and scan the room to keep your real world movements in-sync with what’s happening in VR. Together, they completely translate where you are and what you’re doing in virtual space.
The Vive headset is your window into virtual reality. Using special lenses, the HMD produces a stereoscopic 3D effect with an excellent sense of depth. Each eye has its own 1080x1200 resolution screen refreshing at 90Hz to avoid motion sickness. Our unit was upgraded with the deluxe audio strap. This add-on features rigid straps molded to fit the back of your head and two headphones. Once the display is in place, you simply tighten a knob to secure its position. The open-ear headphones in this set are fantastic, delivering high quality audio with shockingly little noise bleed. There are two face cushions included for wide and narrow faces, allowing you to choose the one that will seal off any outside light and sit comfortably on your face.
Setup is fairly complicated the first time you run through it but after a handful of setups becomes easy. After mounting the two base stations in opposite corners of your room (I used a shelf and a camera tripod), and plugging in the base station/headset, the controllers have to be calibrated and used to trace the free space in your room. All told, it took me about 15 minutes on my first attempt and around 5 on my last.
The base stations are the real ace up the Vive’s sleeve. If you have as little as three square meters of free space, they allow you to take part in Valve’s “Room Scale” VR. Unlike the “Standing’ preset, Room Scale allows you to move freely within the boundaries out your traced space. It’s not perfect, as you trace free foot space and some games require you to reach (say, into a lamp), but being able to physically move in your environment is amazing. Combined with the excellent tracking built into the device, it works wonders at tricking your brain into believing you’re in the game world even though your thinking mind knows you’re not. It’s game-changing.
Even when standing stock still or sitting in your chair, the experiences possible are still a joy to behold. Playing through Eve: Valkyrie, I found myself leaning in to get a closer look at my instrument panel, grinning as my in-game body moved exactly as my own would have. Then I blasted off into space and craned around in my office chair to keep a bead on the enemy. The Lab’s archery minigame, Long Bow, is gleefully addictive as you defend your castle against oncoming waves, pop balloons, and blow up barrels with real hand-eye coordination. Windlands requires reaching to swing like Spider Man between floating platforms with an incredible sense. Heck, even playing Minecraft in VR elevates the experience to a new level (spiders are big).
One of the most common criticisms of VR in 2017 is that games often feel like tech demos. In the last two weeks, I’ve found that this is frequently the case, but I’ve yet to feel truly disappointed as there are simply so many different experiences to try. It is true, though, that many of the most compelling titles are either short experiences, episodic, or in Early Access. I have a desperate desire to see some of these games finished and out the door, but many are using Early Access exactly the way it was intended: to fund and guide continued development. Investing in Virtual Reality right now means investing in its future by helping fund good ideas and showing they can make a profit. Many of these Early Access games are good and are testing the limits of what’s possible in this space, they’re just not done yet.
That said, VR has come a long way from the sparsity of mid-2016. There are hundreds and hundreds of experiences to have, from full games to virtual tourism/educational apps like Google Earth VR. It’s also amazing how revolutionary VR can be for classic game concepts. Simple games like block breakers are feel fresh again in virtual reality. Wave shooters, score attacks, arcade racers. rhythm games - all of these are worth trying in VR, even if you’ve seen it all on PC and console. Contrary to some users, I would also argue that having a wealth of experiences along with true games is not only a plus but a selling point for virtual reality. What is this platform if it’s not experiential?
So is VR amazing? You bet. The Vive opens up a world of experiences where games are only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s not perfect. The resolution of each screen, while great on paper, still results in some of the screen door effect on still objects (in motion, it’s barely visible). More bothersome, however, is that the headset has to be positioned perfectly on the eye. If it’s even a little out of place, you’ll lose much needed definition. In virtually every gameplay lull, I make a point to readjust and retighten so it’s just right. The two face cushions both hold up well to the pressure of needed to hold the headset on your face, but they also soak up sweat like a thirsty sponge. Pro tip: keep a few of these on standby if you’re planning on showing it off.
Wires are also a continuing concern, which is true of every VR headset currently. Rather than fully immersing in a new world, you’re constantly stepping over and adjusting the bulky tether to your computer. There are ways around that, but none of them are affordable or realistic for most people’s living spaces.
The HTC Vive is an amazing piece of hardware. My father is in his mid-50s. He’s far from a techie and avoids big purchases. Within minutes of trying the Vive, he was moving around naturally experiencing the same awe and wonder I had during my first time. When he was done, I asked him if he thought it was worth $800. If you had the money, he said, yes. He could definitely see that. It was just that cool. There are things to improve. Games are still working through Early Access. But for all of that, it breathes an incredible new life into video games.
As someone who plays games for a living, I had begun to wonder if I would ever experience awe and wonder in games again. The Vive delivered that in seconds. Get hyped. VR is the real deal.