THE WASHINGTON POST
After a little less than a week with the HTC Vive, I have to say that the new virtual-reality headset from HTC and Valve can be disorienting. It’s hard to set up. It can be a little wonky.
But it’s also completely amazing.
Along with its rival virtual reality (VR) headset — the Oculus Rift, which began shipping to customers last week — the $800 Vive carries with it the promise of a new generation of gaming, as well as the promise of new frontiers in communication.
The Vive box comes packed with a good amount of gadgetry. In addition to the 1.2-pound headset, you also get two hand-held controllers, two light projectors, many power cords and a bridge to connect everything together. You’ll also require a powerful PC with a top-end graphics card, as well as an HDMI port, a USB port and at least seven power outlets at your disposal.
Once you get everything setup — no mean feat, as I’ll describe later — you can get to the real fun: playing.
HTC provided me with a review code that gave me access to around 20 titles, covering a variety of genres. Some are more like experiences rather than games — simulations or cool environments to marvel at and explore — or very basic arcade games. One of my favorites was “Space Pirate Trainer,” which lets you wield your controllers like pistols and shoot at small, flying droids that are bent on your destruction.
It sounds simple, but it was enormous fun — proving that even uncomplicated ideas can be completely transformed by virtual reality. Even bending down to examine something on the ground becomes a novelty. So does ducking into cover and actually peering out from behind a column to shoot. On a normal screen, some of the most compelling titles that came with the Vive would be laughably bad, with cartoonish, slow-moving enemies. But when they’re coming at you, are your size and have ghoulish groans that are ringing in your ears? It’s not so funny.
The real strength of the Vive is its hand-held controllers, which are rendered in the headset in such detail that it can be difficult to remember they’re not real. HTC and Valve have clearly put a lot of effort into getting the physical vibrations, or haptics, just right with these controllers. Somehow, your body can sense the tension of a bow string or the rattle of a sword through these subtle vibrations, which are also excellent at providing you cues for when you’ve picked something up in a game. It takes a while to get used to having two controllers, but the freedom and flexibility this gives you in a game is mind-blowing.
Sound is incredibly important to keeping you in the VR world, and the Vive’s included earbuds leave much to be desired, if only because they have a tendency to fall out. That’s another advantage for the Rift, which has a built-in headphone and microphone. Good headphones should make the Vive more useful as a smartphone extension — you’ll be able to take calls from inside the headset, according to HTC and Valve, but those features weren’t live during my testing period.
Another main Vive perk is the inclusion of a front-facing camera. That lets you not only see a tiny square of the real world when you’re navigating menus, but the camera can also overlay a picture of the room you’re in over your game at any time. That has come in handy quite a few times, when in-game spinning has scrambled my internal compass.
Even bending down to examine something on the ground becomes a novelty.”
-Hayley Tsukayama, The Washington Post consumer technology writer
Despite my overall delight, there are some serious drawbacks. Many people worry about motion sickness, but I didn’t have too much of an issue apart from when I tried to use the Vive over my glasses. The headset is heavy, however, which was essentially the limiting factor for my play time. If I spent more than 90 minutes or so with the headset on, I started to really feel the pressure on my head and on my cheekbones. And while I didn’t have too many freezes or game-ending meltdowns, there were a few times when the tracking would lose my hand, or the computer would fail to recognize an input right away.
The biggest drawback for me though was the sheer amount of space that using a Vive requires. My husband and I had to rearrange our furniture to walk out a roughly six-foot square space in our living room. Ideally, you would have an entire, mostly empty room to play in — particularly for some of the larger experiences. That may not be easy for everyone to do, though.
Setup is also fairly intense. The two light projectors have to be around 6.5 feet high to accurately capture your movement. The Vive comes with a wall-mounting kit to do this permanently. And then you have to find up to seven outlets to plug in all the components, a monitor and a PC. Mapping out the room and getting everything up and running took roughly 30 minutes.
Is it worth it? I’ve wavered back and forth over the past week. For hard-core gamers, there’s no doubt that the Vive offers something new. There’s an unmistakable feeling of being inside of the action, having the freedom and flexibility of movement that you always dreamed of having. The Vive, more than any other VR headset I’ve tried, makes me fully redefine what it means to play in “first-person.”
The cost of the Vive, however, is a serious drawback, as is the commitment you have to make to its setup.
But if you’re the kind of person who nerds out about these sort of things, let’s just say that the temptation will be very, very strong to get one.