HTC’s Vive virtual reality system, which premiered on Tuesday, is strangely positioned.
It’s more expensive than its closest competitor, the Oculus Rift ($800 versus the Rift’s $600). But it’s also more of what you imagine a true virtual reality experience to be.
You can use it to physically explore new worlds rather than merely look around them—albeit only a limited number of worlds are available that are worth exploring. And it will immediately convince you that virtual reality is worthy of the praise it has received. But the frustrating set up may have you wondering halfway through if it’s worth the headache.
First things first: The Vive is the quintessential VR experience—and it absolutely is an experience. The sense of freedom you get while walking through a realistic virtual space, whether it’s a mountain cliff or an imaginary room, is significantly better than the already impressive experience it provide while you’re sitting. I found myself leaping backwards when I glanced down and saw I was on the precipice of a cliff or walking around ‘objects’ I easily could have walked through. Your brain takes very little time to accept the artificial world that your eyes see.
Additionally, while Rift may become more of a threat as an active experience (vs. a passive one) later this year if and when it introduces its proprietary controller that allows people to interact with objects in virtual reality (rather than doing so on an Xbox controller, as it does now), the Vive’s controllers are, at this time, the best in the VR world. Using the odd-looking, oblong devices with circles at the end, you can interact with objects in a simple, natural, and intuitive way. They quickly become extensions of your hand that you don’t give a thought to as you play.
But despite all those pros, the Vive comes with plenty of cons. And they start right out of the box.
Setting it up
Set-up of the Vive is, in no uncertain terms, a pain. First, you’ve got to decide what sort of VR experience you want. While you can opt for a stationary one, where you simply sit in a chair as you do with Rift or Gear VR, it’s unlikely that why people paid the extra $200 for it. They want the room-scale functions that let them physically move around in the VR space. So you’ve first got to clear an area between five and 15 square feet.
From there, grab a ladder because you’ll have to position and mount two sensors, both about the size of a square baseball, on opposite walls. Next you’ll need to go through the relatively simple process of hooking the headset up to your PC (assuming it’s powerful enough to support VR) and (using the controllers) map out the area you’ll be walking in. (This ensures the system can give you a visual warning if you’re about to walk into a wall.)
All in all, expect to spend about an hour to get Vive ready to use.
When you finally strap the Vive’s headset on and begin playing, you’ll notice something: It’s a heavy beast. The Vive, is much heavier than the Rift or PlayStation VR and comes with a bulky trailing cable. Fortunately, that cable isn’t as much of a factor as you might initially fear. During the hours I spent testing the system, I never found myself caught up in it (and never tripped), though I did occasionally have to adjust it as I played.
That weight could be problematic for some people, as it ultimately affects the Vive’s comfort over long play sessions. But odds are you won’t have a lot of those, as the game catalog for Vive is fairly weak right now.
How are the games?
Games like Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, #selfietennis and Fantastic Contraption are well done. Job Simulator offers a silly introduction to VR, tasking you to perform jobs ranging from convenience store cashier to an office cubicle worker, while a sarcastic robot judges you. #selfietennis is a fairly straightforward tennis game. And Fantastic Contraption has you build various vehicles in VR using rudimentary parts and see how they run.
Valve Software’s The Lab, meanwhile, lets you explore mountain peaks and shoot arrows from a tower that’s under attack. The Lab has moments of greatness, but so far the rest of the catalog is a pretty sad state of affairs. Oculus, meanwhile, has a strong slate of games including Lucky’s Tale, its Mario-like platform game, and EVE: Valkyrie, an outer space dogfighting game, that could help it gain a foothold with players.
Valve could be the secret weapon for Vive, though. The developer is a collaborator with HTC (HTC)—and, in The Lab, hints at the possibility of a VR version of its successful game franchise Portal, which will likely make anyone familiar with the franchise giddy with excitement. (It’s worth clarifying, though, that Valve has made no announcement that it has any full games in the works for Vive.)
The in-game experience is pretty seamless, though. That frustrating set-up period pays off when you’re subtly warned that you’re approaching the edge of the safe play zone (the area you previously marked off as clear of obstacles) with a grid that fades into view as you approach, say, a real-world wall. And selecting a game from the menu within the Vive is serviceable, if a slight bit complicated. You won’t spend a lot of time wondering what to do next, which—in a field as new as VR—is a good thing.
The bottom line
Ultimately, with the Vive, HTC is making a very ambitious bet on what virtual reality can be. And the company gets a lot right by creating an experience that’s the closest anyone has come to re-creating Star Trek‘s virtual reality Holodeck.
There are flaws, certainly, and the initial selection of games is disappointing. But given the early adopter audience, most customers will likely avoid frustration. Still, it’s a product that has plenty of room for improvement before it will be even remotely ready for the mainstream world to give it a second glance.