For as long as human beings have had imaginations, we’ve looked for doorways in the world, ways of escaping the current reality and stepping into a new one. We’ve written stories, made films and games to help us live in other universes, but we’ve never quite cracked the magical portal we imagined. Until now.
2016 is the year virtual reality stopped being a sci-fi pipe dream and started being a real, marketable thing. This year, Oculus became a household name, but most people still haven’t tried it, and don’t know or care that there’s a gaping chasm between the experience you get with a £10 cardboard box and a £600 pro headset. And most people haven’t heard of Oculus’s biggest competitor – its superior, in our view – the HTC Vive.
We’ve had a Vive for the last few weeks, and it’s all we can do not to write this review entirely in capital letters. This thing gives you access to infinite possible universes in a headset smaller than a shoebox. Everyone needs to try this. Here’s our HTC Vive review.
We’ll be straight with you: setting up the Vive is a total faff. It’s not something you can easily take over to a friend’s house, which is a shame because you really are going to want everyone you know to experience it. We may never tire of the exclamations people make when they put the headset on for the first time – my family’s included, “WHOA,” “Oh my god” and “I can’t actually handle this.” Most of my family aren’t tech enthusiasts and only one is a gamer, but all of them loved the Vive.
The setup isn’t so onerous that you can’t take it to other people’s houses, but be aware that there’s about an hour’s worth to do the first time you open the box, and about half an hour to set it up in new houses.
With NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 graphics, 6th gen Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, it easily meets the demanding Vive specs and runs the headset beautifully. This is a proper gaming laptop, and costs just shy of three grand. But you can’t put a price on dragons, or indeed not having your brand-new head-mounted universe stutter and glitch on you because your graphics card’s not up to spec.
Base stations and emergency tripods
One of the best things about Vive is Room Scale, meaning you can walk around in virtual reality rather than just moving your head. You can bend down, pick things up, turn sharply to fight an enemy, and generally move pretty similarly to how you do in real life. It’s one of the things that makes the Vive as immersive and convincing as it is – so much so that one tester who we’ll leave anonymous said “I was going to fart and thought you all wouldn’t be able to smell it because I was in another universe!” They should put that on the ads.
The way Room Scale works is that you have two square base stations which have to be mounted high up in the room. These track where you are relative to the floor and walls. Finding a stable place to put them that’s above your head when standing, without drilling holes (rentals, yo), is pretty tricky. They come with brackets if you’re able to modify your home, but since we aren’t, we had to be a bit more creative. Brilliantly, HTC have thought to include a standard tripod port on the bottom of the base stations, which – combined with a handy Gorillapod – led to working configurations like these:
It also works with full-size tripods, which is not ideal for a permanent configuration but works well enough when the headset’s just arrived and you’re dying to try it out. Also handy for other people’s houses. If you know you haven’t got high up places to fix the base stations to, it might be worth getting some tripods in for initial testing – our big one is under £20.
Once all your base stations are in place, there’s a software tutorial to run through to get it all calibrated correctly, but it doesn’t take long. You’ll need a fair bit of space (1.5m by 2m minimum) to do room scale, but you can still use Vive if you have less than that. The setup mostly involves telling the computer where the floor and walls are, so that when you’re approaching solid mortar it can superimpose a blue grid in the virtual universe to prevent you bumping your head or smashing your controller.
What can you do with this thing, anyway?
One of the downsides of being an early adopter to any technology is lack of applications. At the moment, the Vive is primarily being aimed at a gaming audience (because they’re more likely to have dragon PCs), so most of the applications are games. This means people who aren’t into gaming haven’t taken much notice of it, but they should. In the next few years, this will become the way people learn new skills, step into other people’s shoes, witness historical events firsthand, and go inside films and TV shows – but in the meantime, there are still amazing ways to enjoy it if you’re not a gamer.
For instance, Google’s Tilt Brush lets you paint in 3D using the two Vive controllers, which to my mind look like N64 pads with the side arms cut off (one of the Vive’s designers did not appreciate this comment when I mentioned it at MWC, but judge for yourselves):
Tilt Brush is a bit like Wii Tennis – ridiculously easy to pick up and fun for everyone, but with potential to get really good if you put the time in. My family had a snowman-drawing competition, as one of the backgrounds is a gorgeous snow scene where the flakes fall down all around you. Painting materials include fire, sparkles, and plasma – you can even paint the stars into the sky. It’s beautiful.
Another app with wide appeal is Universe Sandbox, which lets you play God by creating and destroying planets, galaxies and solar systems. There’s a lot of space-themed content for the Vive, because one of its major strengths is convincingly dropping you into a reality you could never experience otherwise. In this case, you’re floating omnisciently in space, creating stars on a whim, dictating orbits, creating asteroids and crashing them into planets. After ten minutes on Twitter, it’s quite cathartic to be able to casually throw Earth out of the solar system.
Everyone I showed the Vive to seemed to have their own favourite game. Universe Sandbox was my partner’s: I’d never imagined having to tell him to “stop creating moons,” or walk into the lounge to find him stretched out on the floor, arms behind his head, gazing up at space. “It’s really calming,” he said, as yet another moon swung by.
My favourite Vive game without question is Job Simulator. This one doesn’t try to be realistic, it just drops you into a brightly-coloured cartoon universe where you get to try out old human jobs like gourmet chef, office worker and corner shop clerk (it’s set in 2050, where the world is mostly robots). Festooned with Office Space and Simpsons references, it’s really witty and manages to make you actually want to spend your Saturday afternoon doing unpaid virtual work – which, in the most meta way possible, is predicted in The Simpsons.
My sister’s favourite was Selfie Tennis, a brilliantly simple game where you play tennis against yourself. It’s surprisingly exhausting, and the only reason I didn’t play it more is that I genuinely needed a sports bra.
HTC worked with Valve to make the Vive, which means the games all come from Steam and run on SteamVR. This makes them easy and intuitive to install, but also means there’s Vive content set in the Portal universe. Called The Lab, it’s basically a set of mini-games (dubbed ‘experiments’) including fixing a robot while GLaDOS shouts at you and adopting the cutest mechanical dog the world has ever seen. It’s brilliant and you won’t want to go back to the real universe afterwards.
Back to reality. You know, real reality
Taking off the Vive headset is a pretty sad experience. It’s insanely immersive, to the point that people in VR will jump a mile if they accidentally touch furniture (or you poke them). When I had to reboot the headset, it was pretty disconcerting to see my personal universe just switch off. The real world seems dull and unsophisticated after removing the HMD, and you find yourself wondering why you have to live in this world when there are so many others (answer: because you have to work so you can afford a living room big enough for Vive).
You do have to take the headset off after a while, though. It’s pretty heavy, and while I’ve not once had nausea while playing Vive games (even on the ridiculously fast-paced AudioShield, where you defend yourself from the notes in a song with colour-coded shields), I do find the headset uncomfortable on my face after an hour or so. Also, if you wear makeup, be aware that you’ll leave a creepy imprint of your face on the headset – you can see my foundation on the nose piece in the photo on the right.
I’d tried the Vive a few times before release, and the final product absolutely lives up to its promise. This is a headset so good that people outside tech genuinely don’t believe what they’re seeing when they first put it on. In some ways, the long, hype-filled road to virtual reality has done it a disservice, because people’s expectations are some gimmicky, 3D-film-type experience, or something akin to the cheaper, smartphone-based headsets (Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard, for instance). Vive is in another universe.
I’ve tried most of the big VR contenders, and in my opinion, Vive is unquestionably the best. If I were buying a VR system, this is what I’d go for.
However, the best product doesn’t always win. The VR wars are just beginning, and Vive’s competition is fierce – Oculus has the might of Facebook behind it, Playstation VR relies not on a pricey PC but a console that’s already in many people’s homes (or will be, when the Neo comes out). If I were in charge of marketing this machine, I’d put one in every shopping centre, every games arcade, maybe even every music gig. Everyone needs to try this.
HTC Vive pricing and availability
The Vive is both eye-wateringly expensive and mind-bogglingly cheap. The kit itself costs £689 in the UK, including headset, controllers, base stations and all the equipment you need. That’s pricier than the base Oculus Rift, but once you factor in the Oculus Touch controllers (which you really need to get a similar experience to Vive), it’s likely to be about equal. However, Playstation VR is a lot cheaper at £349, and doesn’t require several grand’s worth of PC. That’s where the Vive runs into problems.
As I argued here, £689 for a first-generation virtual reality headset that lets you convincingly live in the far reaches of human imagination is no price at all. However, the headset is useless without a PC that can run it, and those aren’t cheap. Personally, I’d love to see a Vive rental scheme, or smartphone-style contracts, or maybe a rent-to-own initiative that helps people get virtual reality into their homes. At last, we have a headset worthy of the dream we’ve been chasing since the 1950s, and rather than worrying whether we can afford it, maybe we need to think about whether we can afford to let it fail.
The HTC Vive is available now.