Today we’re taking a look at the recently released Virtual Reality headset called the Vive born from a partnership between mobile hardware manufactuere HTC and software developer Valve. It’s an expensive bit of kit which has you strap it to your head and be transported to other worlds. In effect you’re looking at two screens through complex magnifying glasses which creates the effect of being fully immersed in a 3D environment. We’ve been playing with the Vive and a number of games for a week now and give you the full low-down of what to expect.
To begin, there are a few ground basics to cover first. The Vive is currently being sold for around £750 in the UK with quite a backlog for deliveries, so if you want one, you’ll have a to join a queue and receive it a month or two after ordering, plus it isn’t cheap. Secondly, you’re going to need a reasonably powerful PC to hook it up to which means upgrading the graphics card to a minimum Nvidia GTX 970 or an AMD R9 290X which will set you back just under £300. You’ll also need a pretty decent CPU as well which adds to the cost further. Without these your experiences in VR could be severely hampered so it’s crucial you make sure your system is up to spec first. There is a handy online tool you can use to see if your components are up to scratch.
With the technical pleasantries out the way the next thing you’re to be mindful of is how much space you have in your home. That’s right, to get the most out of the Vive you’re going to need a minimum 2m x2m area free from any clutter – that includes pets! To be clear, The Vive can operate a seated or standing experience at a desk in a small room (much smaller than the recommended 2m x 2m) which is fine, but the real excitement of VR begins when you’ve got the space to move around a little.
Once you have your Vive (and boy the box is rather huge), you’ll need to unpack all the bits and set up the two base stations at opposite corners of your play area (they both need to be plugged into the mains as well). These can be wall mounted, placed on tripods, or stands even high shelves and bookcases. As long as there is a clear view of the floor and the two stations can see each other. These clever boxes are lasers which track your movements in VR – they are not cameras in any way so if you’ve got concerns about privacy they are unfounded. Setting up the stations is obviously subjective depending on how you mount them but the process is easy and requires little skill. Be mindful of things like wall mirrors though because depending on how you’ve positioned the base-stations they can still impact the tracking. Covering up a mirror with a t shirt on a coat hanger works well depending on the size of the reflective surface. On a plus point a shiny 50 inch TV had and large windows (with blinds open) had no effect.
The overall Vive set up is pretty simple even for those with limited technical knowledge, and once you attached all the cables and plug sockets to power each component you’re good to set up the play area via the SteamVR tutorial. This is a quick process which takes a few minutes and if nothing changes (as in you don’t move the base-stations) then you won’t need to do it again.
With your PC up and running , room set up, Vive at the ready, you can now jump in to some VR experiences. Because the Vive is partnered with Valve you’ll incorporate SteamVR on your PC. You’ll have access to a number of free Vive experiences and demos to get you started.
The Vive headset itself is easy to put on and has extendable straps to keep it securely rested on your face. There are some other adjustments you can make to get it fitting more comfortably such as a dial to get the lenses matching up with your pupils, and space between your eyes and lenses for clarity or if you wear glasses. You’ll notice a sweet-spot of visual acuity in the center of the display. Averting your gaze towards the edges you’ll notice a distinct blurring which is distracting. This is a limitation of the lenses at this juncture and means to maintain clarity you’ve got to look directly at objects rather than move your eyes. There’s a bit of leeway here but it’s not perfect.
To reiterate, the visual clarity is not as good as current 1080p 2D monitors you might be used to and again this is a limitation of the hardware at present. You might also notice individual pixels similar to looking close to a TV set. There’s also quite a bit of glare from bright objects on dark backgrounds such as white text on black, although believe it or not the black levels inside the headset aren’t as dark as you might imagine – the face foam does prevent light from the outside creeping in very well though.
These visual elements can be distracting if you focus on them. However, once you begin looking around in VR or become fully immersed you’ll soon forget about the visual discrepancies because your brain will be taking in far more pleasing visual elements. There’s more caveats though and the first is the chaperone system which brings up a grid when you’re near to the edges of your play space – you define this during the room setup phase. It’s a handy system to stop fists going through TVs or walking into walls, but at the same time you can get completely lost in the game world and forget about your bearings in relation to the outside world which just goes to show how powerful VR can be. Once you become more attuned to your play area the chaperone system can be switched to a less intrusive mode. Interestingly some of the software does a good job of keeping you in bounds too. There’s also a camera which allows you to see the outside world which is handy for picking up controllers that aren’t switched on, or just being able to see without having to take the headset off – especially as you might have just got it comfortable. As another positive note, you’re able to sync up the headset with a mobile phone via Bluetooth which allows for notifications and answering and making calls. This is pretty neat and means you can game without interruption and not completely cut yourself off from the outside world if desired.
The other warning is the tethered cable which you’ll find gets in the way and is quite chunky. It’s something you learn to be wary of at all times and on the occasion where you kick it out of the breaker box you’ll understand why it’s important to be mindful of it. That sais, after extended play it’s pretty easy to know and feel where it is and adjust your movements accordingly. Newcomers or those you’re demonstrating it to might need some external assistance.
The VR Experience:
So, the VR experience itself is one to behold and there’s enough variety of content available on Steam to mess around with including some free demos to try out. Some of your existing library of games might also work and if you want to play any game you own via Steam in a virtual theatre you can do that too, although again, be warned the visual quality isn’t great as a trade off against having a virtual massive screen.
The Vive comes with a couple of free pieces of software but it will be The Lab which should be the first port of call to see what the Vive can do. It’s here where you’ll play a selection of mini-experiences whether that’s defending your castle against attackers with a bow and arrow, visiting a fantasy shop filled with secrets or piloting a space craft and shooting up attacking orbs. What you’ll instantly notice is how you as the player are submerged into the environment, so when compared to a 3D TV where you’re always on the outside looking in, VR feels like you’re inside completely. The Vive’s room-scale allows you to move around the environments and if you have the space, walk around objects. This is impressive stuff and as mentioned once you’re locked in you soon forget about any visual defects. The Vive’s wand controllers are perfectly tracked as is your head movements which means you’re able to interact with objects in the game world such as picking up objects, examining them and throwing away. The level of interaction is engrossing so when coupled with being able to look around you 360 degrees there’s a real sense of presence within the 3D space which you’ll never get by looking at a 2D monitor.
Thanks to the software available, the Vive can transport you to many places, but be warned there’s some content which is a bit lacking and can only be described as demos at the moment. There’s few AAA style games but the ones that are available really stand out. There’s also quite a bit of shovelware which might be interesting to dip into but be warned the pricing feels a touch too high for what’s on offer so waiting for a Steam sale might be the best bet here. There are some full games like Elite Dangerous which can be played seated with a controller which are fantastic in their own way and means if you just want to lounge out then you have that option.
The HTC Vive is an incredible but pricy piece of tech that’s well worth it if you’ve been interested in VR for some time now and as long as you dial back any high expectations from early tech. Family and friends will obviously have a great time sampling the delights you show them and although the technology is still rather limited in terms of display quality, the feeling of presence and interactivity is right where it counts. It’s early days for commercial VR and this is reflected in the lack of full games, but over time the library will grow giving many more options for those with varied tastes. As of now VR is rather niche, but with the quality experience on offer from the Vive, it’s something that comes well recommended if you’ve the space and budget to get the full experience.