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HTC Vive review – VR finds its Wii Sports moment

Visiting new realities is pretty standard stuff for your average gamer, but until now we’ve had to make do with viewing them through the window of a TV or PC monitor. Actually being physically present in those worlds? Now that’s something else entirely. And yet, 2016 might finally be the year that virtual reality takes off. Ever since a fresh-faced Palmer Luckey broke Kickstarter history with his Oculus Rift1 prototype in 2012, the hype and anticipation around VR has only grown more intense so much so that every tech company on the planet now seems to be releasing its own headset, from big players like Sony2 and the now Facebook-owned Oculus right down to LG, Huawei and optics-manufacturer Zeiss3. Not all VR is created equal, though. Most headsets to date have utilised your smartphone in some way, most notably Google’s Cardboard initiative4 and Samsung’s Gear VR headset5. However, your phone’s mobile graphics hardware simply isn’t up to providing a truly convincing VR experience. If you really want to trick your brain into believing your somewhere else you need a lot more graphical horsepower.

HTC Vive Review - VR Finds Its Wii Sports Moment

That’s why the HTC Vive (and the Oculus Rift) must both be powered by hulking gaming PCs, making these headsets a long way from the slot-and-play fun of Cardboard or Gear VR. In addition to that big desktop PC, the Vive has further requirements that make it even more of an ‘enthusiast’ product. For starters, it costs a whopping 689, but more importantly its unique feature room-scale VR that lets you move around freely requires a sizeable playing space to use properly. While many of us could make that space, say by chucking the coffee table on top a sofa, it’s unlikely that you also keep your gaming PC in that room too. As well as finding that space, there’s extra hardware (and cabling) that needs to be setup to track your movements. Then there’s all the problems it shares with the Rift; you might need to update your graphics card (HTC recommends you have an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or an AMD Radeon R9 290 for the best experience), you will need to update graphics drivers and ensure your PC is running smoothly. For some this is just day-to-day stuff, but this really isn’t a device for casual consumers.

Admittedly, the world’s most advanced virtual reality headset was probably never designed for them anyway; instead, the HTC Vive is what VR enthusiasts have been waiting for, because by golly does it deliver. While I haven’t tested the final consumer version of the Oculus Rift yet (though I do own a DK2), the ability to move and wave the Vive’s two controllers around like proper, physical hands is really quite extraordinary. It’s one thing being able to look around a virtual space sitting down and operating your virtual avatar with a gamepad, but being able to walk through it, lean over its precipices and throw your limbs every which way to evade its dangers? That’s really quite magical. In fact, I’m already pretty convinced that the Vive is more than worth the extra 189 it costs over the Oculus Rift. That may well change once Oculus finally releases its motion-tracking Touch controllers later this year, but when we don’t currently know how much those extra controllers are going to cost I’m estimating at least 100, if not more, on top of its 500 headset the Vive probably isn’t going to be as expensive overall as it might first appear.

HTC Vive Review - VR Finds Its Wii Sports Moment

Setting up Vive’s Base Stations

The secret behind the Vive’s room-scale VR is its two base stations. These small, glossy, black boxes can track your movements up to 60 times a second by bouncing lasers off the surface of the headset and controllers, all of which are studded with a dozens of tiny sensors to provide sub-millimetre tracking precision. The lasers also help keep latency levels to an absolute minimum, making sure that any feelings of nausea or motion sickness are kept well at bay. You only need to be tracked by one base station at a time, but this isn’t much good when you turn round or go out of range. Therefore, the second one comes into play to pick up the slack, allowing you to carry on playing without your world being disrupted.

HTC Vive Review - VR Finds Its Wii Sports Moment

Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR also use cameras to track your movements, but these only come with one device that sits directly in front of you, preventing them from doing proper room-scale VR. Both can (or will be able to) track the position of your hands as well provided you buy additional controllers Oculus’ Touch Controllers for the Rift and Sony’s PlayStation Move controllers for PlayStation VR but you still won’t be able to move around the room, giving Vive a unique advantage when it comes to fully immersing yourself in your new virtual worlds. However, for all their technical wizardry, the base stations are arguably the Vive’s least practical component, as they require a fair bit of rigmarole to set up correctly. For starters, each one needs to be at least two metres off the ground, so you’ll need to place them on something tall like a bookshelf or tripod, or more likely use the bundled wall mounts to get them to the right height.

HTC Vive Review - VR Finds Its Wii Sports Moment

They also need to be plugged into mains power and positioned in opposite corners of your play area to provide the best coverage, so unless you happen to have perfectly placed plug sockets, you’ll either need to break out the extension leads and be prepared to have wires trailing round the edges of your room. The only thing you don’t need to do is sync them with the headset and controllers, as this all happens automatically. The whole thing is reminiscent of setting up home cinema surround speakers. Unless you’re willing to do some serious DIY chasing in cables then you’re going to have messy cabling, and it makes moving the whole setup, especially once your factor in the PC itself, a huge chore. For room-scale setup, you’ll need a minimum play area of 2m x 1.5m as well, but it doesn’t matter whether you have a square setup or a rectangular one. These space requirements don’t apply if you’re playing seated or standing, but you’ll still need to be positioned within the scope of the base stations for it to work.

References

  1. ^ Oculus Rift (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
  2. ^ Sony (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
  3. ^ Zeiss (www.zeiss.co.uk)
  4. ^ Google’s Cardboard initiative (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
  5. ^ Samsung’s Gear VR headset (www.expertreviews.co.uk)

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