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REVIEW / HTC Vive

 

Last summer I documented my experience with the HTC Vive, after waiting for hours to try it during their bus tour. Suffice it to say, I was impressed. I said at the time, “If you have a chance to try out the HTC Vive, take it. Wait in line for four hours. There’s really no substitute for experiencing it for yourself.” And now that the Vive and its competitor the Oculus Rift have been released, more people will have that opportunity. I was lucky enough to pre-order the Vive, and now that I’ve spent much more time with it and tried many more things with it, I’m really glad I did. Using the Vive is the most immersive experience I’ve ever encountered in any medium.

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Unfortunately, before I could try new things on the Vive, I had to set it up. This required about six hours and one trip to an electronics store. It wasn’t until early the next morning that I actually got it working. There’s more than just a headset inside the Vive box; it’s a headset, two controllers, two base stations, and all of the wires and cables that go with them. The base stations have to be on opposite corners of a fairly big space cleared of furniture and the like; I imagine that alone will be a problem for some.

Even if you do have enough space, you have to run the power cable down from the little black boxes. And since I can’t get things into my wall easily, I had to stack one atop a lamp and another on a bookshelf. Then you have to plug in the headset, which uses a special box to connect to power, video, and USB. All of the cables you need are included, and there’s even a DisplayPort (Firewire) option if you only have one HDMI port. Once all of that is done, you have to set up the tracking, which took a long time.

 

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Nothing I did ever seemed to make a difference. After hours of trial and error, with no instruction from HTC or Valve, I eventually learned that I needed to tick the box in the Steam VR settings that said “Direct Mode.” Hours of work for a simple solution. Of course, all of that would be for nothing if I didn’t already have a beefy enough computer for the Vive to work.

But much like the four hour wait before I tried the Vive for the first time, it was totally worth it. The display is as clear as ever, and while you can see a little bit of black out of the corner of your eyes, you won’t notice it when things start moving. The motion of the controllers is spot on, and interacting with objects in the game world feels totally natural.

When you first put the headset on, you’re greeted by a customizable 360 degree image and a Steam menu.  You can actually explore your non-VR games here, or even look at the web, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The interface takes some getting used to, as it shows games you own and games that are available together on the default view, but it’s easy enough to figure out. Once a piece of software starts, you can press a button on the controllers or the headset itself to go back to the Steam menu. Beyond that, the experience of using the Vive is exactly the same as I described it in the preview; it’s the only VR platform I’ve ever used that actually can make me feel like I’m there.

 

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The room scale technology, which lets you walk around the space you’ve cleared out, works quite well. Most software has a function to let you “teleport” to go beyond the confines of the room. The only problem is the long cable that connects the headset to your computer. It’s long enough that distance is never an issue, but you have to be careful not to trip on it or get it wrapped around you.

Still, like all of the other issues with this hardware, it’s overshadowed by all of the positives. It’s so immersive that my 10 year old cousin got scared when something big appeared, and had to stop playing. And if you don’t have the space for the room scale experiences, there is software for the Vive that works more traditionally, only requiring rotation. There are only a few worthwhile games that you can play seated, with so many currently exclusive to the Oculus Rift, but they can be just as impressive as the room scale games.

 

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Speaking of software, I should note that there are very few fully fledged games available for the Vive. There’s plenty of software out there, but for the most part you’re looking at demos and early access games. Fortunately, the games that are available make excellent use of the hardware.

Even something like Elite Dangerous, which just has you sit down with a normal controller, is so much more immersive with the Vive. Rather than getting into the full Vive catalog, I’ll focus on the three games that come free with the hardware for early adopters: Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption, and Tilt Brush. I tried demos of two of those before, but Fantastic Contraption is brand new.

 

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Job Simulator is the standout of the launch games for me. Presented as a robot from the future’s idea of modern human jobs, it places you in four different job-related environments and invites you to explore and play around. You are given goals and instructions, but you don’t have to follow them, and you can follow some in really bizarre ways. Each of the four environments is chock full of things to play around with, and things don’t always work quite how you would expect them to.

The copy machine in the office environment, for example, will make a complete copy of anything you put in it. And I mean ANYTHING. My friend discovered some possibilities I never even imagined; I won’t spoil them here. It’s worth noting that Job Simulator is too small to keep you going for a long time, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts. It also makes good use of the room scale technology; the workspace is the size of your actual room, so you never have to teleport and break the illusion. All of the interaction comes from grabbing and moving things, so it all feels very natural.

 

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Tilt Brush is pretty much the same as it was when I tried it out in the summer. It’s a 3D, 360 degree drawing program. There are a wide variety of brushes and effects to use, and just doodling with it is a lot of fun for a bit. It is It is a bit hard to wrap your mind around drawing in 3D, and if you aren’t an artist there isn’t too much to do with it. It’s a cool concept, and great for artists, but it’s really just a fun distraction for the rest of us. It’s great as a free add-on but I wouldn’t buy it.

 

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Finally, Fantastic Contraption is the game I’ve played the least of the three. The concept is similar to the mobile game Bad Piggies, but in 3D. Basically, there’s a goal zone somewhere in the distance, and you need to design a vehicle that can deliver an object to that goal zone. The motion controls make this a lot deeper and more immersive, but I also find that it’s difficult to get things straight when the software isn’t helping with that.

Still, if you like physics based puzzle games, this one does a great job of bringing them into room scale VR. That being said, like the others, it’s not on par with a major $60 game. It’s also worth noting that parts of this game are creepy as sin. From the weird green cat from whom you get the pieces to the dog with a play button for a face to the gigantic looming monster in the background of the menu area, I get the feeling that there’s more to this one than meets the eye.

 

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There is actually one more piece of software I want to bring up: The Lab, a free collection of demos and mini games made by Valve. The entire package has a Portal theme, and it includes two of the demos that were used to show off the Vive at events: the Portal 2-themed Robot Repair that blew me away in the summer, and the DOTA 2-themed Secret Shop shown at later events. There’s also a slingshot-based game that plays like a 3D Angry Birds, an archery game, and a demo that lets you play fetch with an adorable robot dog, among other things; all of it is done with the Portal series’s trademark humor. It’s designed to show off what the Vive can do, and even though it’s small, I highly recommend it.

Despite the limited software library at the moment, the HTC Vive is incredible. Everything I said about it in the summer still holds true. It’s by far the best technology for making you feel like you’re someone else. But the Vive is also incredibly expensive, at $800. Granted, this includes the two motion controllers and tracking stations, but it’s still too steep for the average gamer. In addition, the setup can be a nightmare, and it might be troublesome for the layperson. I highly recommend at least trying the HTC Vive, but unless you’re really the early adopter type, I would hold off on buying it for now. But if you are ready to dive face first into virtual reality, this is the way to go.

 

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