HTC Vive Review: Oculus Rift’s Rival Makes VR Bigger
When you strap on HTC’s incredible new Vive virtual reality headset, you’re transported into digital landscapes that you don’t just watch. You walk through them, jump around them and reach out to grab them.
Step 1 of the Vive’s setup ought to read, “Buy a bigger house.”
You’re going to a want an unobstructed 15-by-15-foot patch. Coffee tables and ottomans will have to go. Pets, too. Think of this $799 gadget less like buying a new TV, and more like installing a swimming pool.
Last week, rival Oculus Rift debuted the first immersive VR system targeting gamers who stand or sit alone, hooked to a long cable, in front of a pricey PC while wearing video goggles. With the Vive, which began shipping Tuesday, you’ve still got the PC tethered to the goggles, but now you’re wandering around and swinging your arms in the air, too.
Neither experience is exactly natural, or easy on a queasy tummy. But the Vive is the first tech to arrive at home that makes interacting with a computer as intuitive as walking and pointing at things. Here at the beginning of the VR era, it’s the closest you’ll find to Star Trek’s Holodeck, the virtual vacation machine.
That became clear last Friday morning, when I was crawling around the floor with a Vive headset on, jabbing at the air with an 8-inch wand. Inside my headset, I was floating in the sea, probing an anemone. A Vive app called TheBlu: Encounter dropped me in a computer-generated reef that I could explore, something I’ve never done in real life. The view made me gasp.
The Vive is less buzzy than Oculus, and its product is less refined. That’s not saying much—I wouldn’t buy either right now. Yet the Vive has two clear advantages that helped me get lost in the experience and forget all about the gear. First, I was free to move around the whole room, so I could peer over the edge of the reef or inspect a floating critter up close. Second, holding motion-sensitive controllers, my hands became part of the action so I could interact with the undersea life.
What makes both possible is laser tech straight out of “Mission: Impossible.” You mount two small boxes on opposite walls, and they sweep your play space with invisible lasers. Using these, the Vive tracks 32 sensors on your headset and 24 on each controller, so it can locate your head and hands with precision. That’s how it knows when you’re crawling in one corner of the ocean floor, or reaching out to bop a giant jellyfish.
So how do you keep from face planting into a real live wall when you’re blindfolded by VR goggles? The Vive has a fascinating solution. Whenever you get a little too close to an obstacle, a virtual wall called the Chaperone shows up in your field of view. The Vive knows where the real walls are, even irregular ones, because you trace your safe perimeter with motion controllers during setup.
The Vive’s sensors can track up to 225 square feet. (You can use it in smaller spaces but won’t be able to use some games.) In contrast, the Oculus Rift uses one sensor, more akin to the Xbox Kinect body tracker, which currently restricts your motion to a radius of a few feet.
Vive’s safeguards make it more comfortable than the Rift and other systems. VR is isolating. You feel paranoid when you don’t know what’s happening around you. In addition to the Chaperone, HTC put a camera on the Vive headset: Double tap a button on your controller, and up pops the real world. Soon, the Vive will notify you when you are receiving calls and texts, a feature that wasn’t ready for me to test.
Unfortunately, there’s no clever tech fix for the Vive’s heavy PC tether, which snakes out from the back of your neck like a dog leash. I never actually tripped on it, but it was hard to forget about it. I couldn’t quite master wacky #SelfieTennis, where you are your own opponent, because I wasn’t comfortable sprinting cross-court fast enough to return volleys. (Tether-free smartphone-based VR rigs like the Samsung Gear VR are nice, but they aren’t capable of the position tracking that make the Vive so immersive.)
Even if you don’t jump around, there’s a lot to do in the Vive universe with just your hands. With the Vive’s magic wands, you see representations of your hands as you pick up and manipulate virtual objects, shoot missiles or swing lightsabers. One terrifying app lets you try open-heart surgery. The Rift, by contrast, makes you use an Xbox controller; its own Touch motion controllers, which wowed me during a demo, are slated for sale later this year.
I was most impressed by the creative possibilities of being able to touch the virtual world. In Google’s Tilt Brush app, free with the Vive, one hand is a brush that leaves a trail of light when you pull a trigger; the other hand is a palette for you to change colors and types of paints. It’s a new kind of three-dimensional art form: You can paint in the air then walk through your creation. I can’t wait for acclaimed British artist David Hockney, a pioneer in iPad art, to get his hands on—or rather in—VR.
The Vive’s biggest problem versus the Rift is that it is uneven, and occasionally downright buggy. Developed by phone maker HTC and gaming software company Valve, the Vive’s app store is all over the place—there’s no guarantee of quality, and Valve doesn’t provide comfort (aka queasiness) ratings, the way Oculus does. Apps sometimes crashed or stuttered, even though I was running them on an incredibly powerful $3,000 PC called the Area-51, from Dell’s Alienware.
And even though Valve is a big name in gaming, the Vive oddly lacks VR titles that have fans salivating. The Vive is launching with more than 30, but there are no iconic hits like Valve’s own “Half Life,” or even titles like “Eve: Valkyrie” that got so-so reviews on the Rift. Gamers who are most likely to pony up for a first-gen VR system like this should be wary about buying into another Laserdisc or HD-DVD that goes nowhere.
It’s way too early to tell who will win the VR race, but the Vive isn’t in the pole position. Oculus has the resources, and Silicon Valley sway, of its owner, Facebook. FB 1.33 % There’s also Sony, SNE 0.58 % whose PlayStation VR debuts later this year with the backing of the most-popular game console and one of Hollywood’s biggest studios.
Both the Vive and Rift face challenges attracting a mainstream audience. Wearing the Vive goggles, which are actually slightly heavier than the Rift’s, isn’t something most of us are going to want to come home and do each night. (The goggles leave a temporary scuba mask-like imprint on your skin that I like to call “VR face.”) For both, the image quality isn’t sufficient to convince you that you’re actually in another reality. Everything is a little pixelated, like you’re sitting too close to an old TV.
Not to mention, it’s boring to have people over to your house and then sit idly as they use Vive—all the more so when they’re taking up a whole room to do it.
After a week with each, I had more fun with the Vive than with the Rift. It’s clear that being free to roam with my hands and body makes VR way more compelling. But the experience only adds to the puzzle of how we’re going to fit VR into our lives—and our already overstuffed homes.