People will put up with a lot of crap for stuff they deem “worth it.”
They will spend huge amounts of money. They will sit on 20-hour flights. They will dig enormous holes in their own property, then fill those holes with water.
The HTC Vive virtual reality system occupies the same space occupied by high-end sportscars, exotic vacations, and swimming pools. It’s an expensive, convoluted technology that is capable of creating incredible, unmatched experiences.
This is the bizarre duality I face in telling you about the HTC Vive, which is shipping on April 5 to people who pre-ordered the $800 virtual reality system.
It’s hard to be hyperbolic about how incredible the Vive is to use.
It’s literally the only system offering room-scale virtual reality, meaning you can get up and walk around and interact with the virtual world using the Vive’s shockingly effective motion controllers.
At the same time, it’s easy to be hyperbolic about how many glaring issues the Vive faces.
Standing up and walking around in VR is distinctly less appealing when you’re attached to an expensive computer via three heavy wires. That’s before you add in headphones, before you talk about the messy setup process, before you set aside a dedicated space in your home for it.
The Vive is amazing. And it’s also a mess.
The “Incredible, Unmatched” stuff
There are certain moments you encounter with the Vive where you realise that, yes, this is absolutely the future. For me, it was the first time I opened a drawer using the Vive’s motion controllers.
The concept of opening a drawer within a video game is about pressing a button.
“Press A to open drawer” or whatever. I point where I’m looking at the thing, and the game says “OK you can now do whatever action is associated with this thing.” So it’s a pretty big deal when, after decades of playing video games, I’m able to reach out and simply pull out the drawer.
I reached forward, seeing my “hand” in the game also reach forward, and pulled the controller’s trigger. My in-game hand grasped the drawer’s handle, and I was able to pull it backwards and push it forwards just as I would in real life.
It sounds small, I realise. It’s not! That’s a huge change.
The controllers are what makes the Vive so different from stuff like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR — the Vive’s main competition. If great VR is all about putting you in a new environment — to immerse you — motion control is the closest you can get to actually interacting with that new environment.
These controllers, combined with the Vive’s motion tracking system that lets you stand up and walk around in VR, are the closest we’ve got to putting your actual hands into virtual worlds.
The system is limited to a single room, and the headset’s massive trio of wires get in the way all the time, and it gets pretty tiring flailing your arms around and playing on your feet all the time. That said, the experience is mesmerising.
It’s genuinely hard to be too hyperbolic about the Vive. Every single person who’s used it in our office — a bunch of jaded tech writers — has freaked out. It’s simple stuff, like being able to look down and see a perfect re-creation of the Vive’s motion controllers in the air in front of you. Or being able to simply grab objects — people always ask “Which button do I press?”, and the answer is always, “Just grab it.”
That’s magical every single time, like explaining to someone how “Wii Tennis” works. Just swing the remote, like a tennis racket! “Ooooooohhhhhh!” is the common refrain. When you’re playing “Cloudlands: Mini Golf VR” and the only learning curve is your own ability to swing a golf club, it’s evident why this is the next major step in computing.
You can even navigate your Windows 10 desktop using the Vive — motion controls become hyper-accurate mouse tools. Sadly, there’s no efficient way to type just yet (though there is a microphone built into the Vive, which would make an awful lot of sense for voice control). Still, we could see the Vive being the office of the future, right in your virtual reality headset. You can have as many computer monitors as you want, at any size, in a room of your design. The Vive isn’t quite capable of delivering that just yet (or, at very least, the software hasn’t been written), but what it can do isn’t far off.
The “Glaring Issues” stuff
Ferrari owners don’t complain about how hot the engine makes the car — or the lack of amenities like air conditioning, or how expensive the cars are — because they know what they’re getting into. That’s part of the deal. If you bought it to show off and you’re upset, Ferrari will gladly sell it to someone else.
If you’re prepared to drop $800 on the Vive, and you’ve got a computer that’s capable of powering it, and you’ve got the space to set it up, you’ve already bought in, right? You know what you’re getting into.
Maybe it won’t bother you that there are three long, rubber wires lurching out of the back of the Vive headset. They get in the way pretty much constantly, either wrapped around a leg or hung uncomfortably on the back of your neck.
The wires are, by far, the worst part of the HTC Vive.
Experiencing so-called “room scale” VR is incredible. Unfortunately it’s also totally illogical when you’re tethered by several wires to an expensive computer powering the headset you’ve got on.
The Vive system tries getting around all these wires by using a small box as a buffer between the headset and your computer. You plug the headset into the small box, then plug the small box (via wires) into your computer. But it’s not a solution; it’s little more than a slight extension of the headset’s wire (which, in fairness, is considerable in length, making it all the easier to get tangled around you). If you pull the box, and the box pulls the PC, it doesn’t matter that the box ever existed.
There’s a fourth wire that I haven’t even mentioned yet.
That’s the 1/8th-inch headphone jack wire that flops loose alongside the other three. Since there aren’t headphones built into the headset, it comes with a small set of HTC earbuds can be attached. They’re fine, but adding another wire to an already wire-filled process is far from ideal. Adding larger wired headphones is another headache, and Bluetooth headphones introduce audio lag that makes them unusable. The Vive should have headphones built in, even cheap ones.
2: Poor design
The front of the Vive headset is comfortable. I’ve not experienced the red-faced mark left by the Oculus Rift while using the HTC Vive. It’s the back where all the problems start.
Here’s what the Oculus Rift gets right: The mess of wires powering the headset are condensed down to one, simple wire. It splits into two plugs where it meets your computer, but it’s otherwise just one wire. It can even be removed from the headset if you wish. The headphones on the Rift are part of the headset, built in. You slide on the Rift like you slide on a baseball cap. It’s easy!
Things are different on the Vive. There are three distinct wires routed along the top of the straps where the headset rests on your noggin.
These relatively stiff wires are bizarrely run on top of the top-most strap. All three straps are cloth, and all three have Velcro attachments. The wires on the top literally run over the velcro, making it difficult to adjust. It’s easy to nearly drop the whole headset while trying to adjust the straps on your head. It’s just as easy to nearly drop the headset but, at the last second, catch it with your head as three long, rubber wires painfully pull your hair.
It’s difficult to put on the Vive. It’s difficult to take off the Vive. It’s difficult to adjust the Vive. There is nothing smart about the design of the headset’s back fitting — the part where you attach it to your cranium. It feels like a prototype, frankly, and it’s a glaring contrast to the front of the headset (which, while large, is surprisingly light and comfortable on the face).
3: Obtuse setup
Sure, you’ve got space set aside in your living room/office/spare bedroom/whatever to dedicate to the Vive. But are you prepared to potentially drill holes in that room’s upper corners to mount the Vive’s tracking boxes? Ah great, you’ve got some high shelves. Are you ok with long wires running from those boxes to power outlets?
There’s an app that guides setup of the Vive VR system — the headset, the controllers (two) and the motion tracking boxes (two) — and it’s relatively simple. But the very first thing you’re asked to do with the Vive is set up motion tracking, and it’s a serious first step. Drill through what? These long wires are permanently dangling from my walls?
There are other issues, too.
In our kit, after going through the entirety of the setup app, one of the Vive’s motion controllers needed a firmware update. So we plugged the controller in to our computer, went through with the update, and started all over from the beginning. Not a huge deal by any means, but far from the seamless, quick experience that is setting up an Oculus Rift. This is the kind of small stuff that Oculus intentionally streamlined with the Rift. Call it nitpicking if you want, but first impressions matter!
This is “The Future,” but we’re not ready yet
I have no doubt that the Vive delivers the strongest virtual reality experience available.
The headset itself is comparable to the Oculus Rift, though the Rift is better designed in nearly every way. But where the Vive trumps the Rift — for now, anyway — is in motion control and ability to deliver, today, a full-room VR experience.
Walking around in Google’s “Tilt Brush” painting application, 3D-painting in a black room, is unmatched on the Oculus Rift.
Solving the physics-based puzzles in the surreal “Fantastic Contraption” by using the motion controllers is a true delight, and had me easily convinced I was perched on a floating neon platform creating masterful vehicles.
Getting repeatedly shot in the face by Polygon’s Ben Kuchera in “Hover Junkers” was a blast. It was even more fun to duck and jump and carefully line up shots, being careful to hide myself behind cover. The notion of a first-person shooter completely changes when your shots legitimately line up with your gun’s iron sights.
The Vive is, right now, pure potential.
It’s the first look at what’s to come — the first iPhone compared to the iPhone 4, Napster to Spotify — and that’s going to be more than enough for some folks to jump in. If you’re one of those people: Listen, I totally understand. You’re my people. Bless your heart.
For the rest of you sweet, logical people, the Vive is both the best VR system available and something you probably shouldn’t buy just yet. For as incredible an experience as it can create, it’s equally matched in discomfort — the headset’s straps, paired with the wire situation and the headphone situation, make an expensive, bleeding-edge electronics product feel woefully underdone.
But then that’s a bit like saying “the water in this gorgeous swimming pool is a bit chilly.” I get to swim in this gorgeous pool, right? So what if the headset’s a bit uncomfortable when it’s capable of magically transporting you — and your hands and sort of your body — into fantastical worlds? I’ll put up with it, I suppose. It’s worth it.