HTC Vive VR review: great ideas, unfinished execution

One month ago, I tested a virtual reality headset called the HTC Vive Pre. The Pre was a development kit created by gaming behemoth Valve and smartphone maker HTC, and it was one of the most exciting new pieces of hardware I’ve had the pleasure of writing about — a device that offered full-body, room-scale VR.

The headset above is not the Vive Pre. It’s the final consumer edition Vive that’s coming out today, although it looks almost identical — the branding is new, and the small focus rod on the bottom is ridged instead of smooth, but I still sometimes worry I’m picking up the wrong set by accident. What’s changed is the context. The Pre was an obviously unfinished device that never went on sale, complete with software glitches and half-finished games. The Vive is a real piece of consumer hardware that you can go online and pay $800 for right this minute. It’s coming out a week after the Oculus Rift, a competing headset with impeccable polish but limited ambition. So expectations for the Vive are high — and the headset both exceeds and falls short of them.

Since its first prototype was announced in early 2015, the Vive has been very clearly a full VR system, not just a headset. Besides its heavy black goggles, the system includes a pair of wireless motion controllers shaped like cupholders on sticks, and two "lighthouse" towers that are placed at opposite corners of a room, shooting fields of lasers for motion tracking. The Vive grew out of a prototype at Valve, and while the remotes don’t look much like gaming hardware, they’re designed like a slimmed-down, split-up version of the company’s more traditional Steam Controller. Each one has a clicky front trigger, a pair of side bumpers that you can press by squeezing tightly, two top buttons, and a smooth trackpad.

The Steam Controller’s trackpad was originally meant to give PC gamers mouse-like precision on a console-style controller, but on the Vive controllers, it could easily be replaced by an ordinary d-pad for most of the experiences I’ve tried. The best argument for it is aesthetic: it’s the trackpad that elevates the Vive controller design from fancy Wii Remote to something truly futuristic; each pad a beautiful little circle that looks like a cyberpunk data chip or a pan of expensive eyeshadow. And adding an interface element that’s foreign to almost everyone is a great signal that the Vive isn’t just for people who know their way around a controller.

Unfortunately, "beautiful" isn’t a word I’d apply to any other design element. Everything I said about the Pre in March is still true on the Vive: it’s a big, almost military-looking mask that drags your face down with its weight, though it’s possible to anchor it well with the Vive’s thick straps. The same little problems are still there, like the way the face mask soaks up sweat during physically demanding games. It’s not a major issue, but Valve representatives and game developers at GDC were clearly aware of it, and it would have been great to see it fixed on the final Vive.

Technologically, the Vive matches the Rift’s resolution, with 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye. The field of view seems slightly more rounded-off than the Rift’s, but it’s barely noticeable. On a pure image quality level, both are at the top of the VR headset game. But the Rift showed everyone that consumer VR headsets can be both comfortable and a little stylish, while the significantly heavier Vive remains something you might expect to see in a fighter pilot training course or a ‘90s arcade. While I haven’t exactly stress-tested the headset and controllers, they’ve stood up to at least a few accidental drops to the floor and smacks at the wall. Where I’d be careful cleaning the Rift’s delicate cloth exterior, I’d have no compunctions taking a spray bottle and rag to the Vive.

Connecting all the Vive’s parts isn’t conceptually difficult, but there’s a lot to do. In addition to a high-powered PC and its accessories, you’ll need three power outlets for the Vive system: one for a little box that links the headset to your PC, and two for the lighthouse towers that pinpoint your location. These need to be placed diagonally across the space you’ll be using, with a clear view of each other, preferably somewhere over your head. The towers don’t need to connect to your computer, and they can sync with each other either optically or with a long cable. Optical connection is more convenient, but it’s also hit-or-miss: the towers are great at tracking your headset, but they’ll sometimes decide they don’t have a clear line of sight for reasons that are invisible to human eyes.

The simplest setup solution is to use the pair of wall mounts included with the Vive. But if you can’t mark up a wall or want to move your Vive around frequently, very tall lightstands with one-fourth-inch, 20 TPI tripod screws will work. So will perching one on a high bookshelf. Whatever you do, your room will look like it’s being monitored by stubby security cameras — though you can reassure visitors that they aren’t under surveillance, they’re just being shot with tiny lasers. Either way, you should keep people out of the way as much as possible — though it didn’t happen every time, having someone walk between me and a tower would often disrupt the Vive’s tracking abilities, sometimes causing my vision to blank out altogether for a second.

The Vive towers can cover a maximum area of 15 by 15 feet, but I was able to play almost every experience Valve provided in a rectangle just wider than my outstretched arms. The Vive’s accompanying setup tool guides you through calibration quite well — there’s a step-by-step process that includes tracing around your space with a controller for room-scale VR and simply orienting the headset in your preferred direction for standing. Unfortunately, the tool occasionally hung or made me skip steps, leading to things like getting stuck under the floor during my Portal-themed tutorial experience. And the system isn’t perfectly reliable either — I’d occasionally get tracking errors or lighthouse syncing problems for unclear reasons, although they usually didn’t last long.

Once you get it working, the Vive does an excellent job of helping you simultaneously navigate virtual and physical reality. The perimeter you traced during setup is lined with a "chaperone" fence that appears when you get within about a foot of the limit, so you can avoid hitting walls or furniture. By default, it’s a brightly colored grid of squares, but you can adjust color and line frequency to your liking. In a small room where you’ll spend a lot of time close to the edges of your space, a subtle and unobtrusive boundary wall makes it easier to get lost in the experience while staying safe. As of today, you’ll be able to connect your phone via Bluetooth to receive call and text notifications, although the feature wasn’t available at the time of our review.

One of the Vive’s most unique features is a front-facing camera that supplements its chaperone system. The camera can give you a filtered, monochrome outline of the world around you, like some kind of non-thermal Predator Vision — it’s precise enough to pick up stripes on a friend’s shirt, but stylized enough that you won’t expect flawless image quality. Like the chaperone lines, you can change the filter’s color, and you have some control over when it appears: you can turn on the real world any time by double-tapping the Home button, or set it to appear when you reach the edge of your space. The former is incredibly useful, while the latter can be more annoying than helpful if you’re nearing the boundary lines frequently.

Most of the Vive’s customizability is cosmetic, but it helps its platform, a system called SteamVR, feel like the start of a true virtual reality user interface. When you put on the headset, you’re dropped into an empty environment that evokes The Matrix’s blank Construct space. Hitting the Home button brings up a window containing Steam’s TV-friendly Big Picture interface. It works almost exactly like Steam would on a normal big screen — using one of your controllers like a laser pointer, you can buy and install games; see notifications; and even browse the web, including streaming video sites like Netflix and YouTube. The app didn’t always seem to recognize my selections, and holding the pointer steady enough to hit tiny checkboxes was a chore, but the system works well for almost anything but inputting text, where you can either painstakingly point your remote or try a painfully over-sensitive trackpad-based keyboard. It’s also possible to hit a button and call up a window with your non-VR computer desktop, or to play your non-VR Steam games in what amounts to a virtual personal theater. The most obvious gap is a lack of 360-degree video apps, but this is also a weak spot for the Oculus Rift.

In some ways, Valve and HTC have a huge advantage over Oculus with Steam. It’s a program that’s on almost every PC gamer’s machine already, and it can support games in both VR- and non-VR modes, so you won’t need to buy them twice — it even supports playing games on the Oculus Rift. It also has an active modding community posting content on Steam Workshop. In addition to a few default images, SteamVR lets you personalize your home base by browsing the Workshop for virtual tableaux. It’s not a huge catalog, but there’s a nostalgic quality to hunting through it, like scouring the internet for custom desktop wallpapers from a decade or two ago. (Unsurprisingly, one of them is the literal Matrix Construct, complete with Neo and Morpheus.)

On the other hand, Steam is already an overstuffed and ill-organized piece of software, and it now effectively gives you three different Vive-related apps: the primary Steam app, the SteamVR desktop toolbar (which can be launched separately), and the headset’s interface. Settings are scattered across all of them, forcing you to do things like enable the Vive camera on your desktop but customize its features in your headset. Digging through Steam’s system menus has never been particularly convenient, and it’s even harder with a bulky pair of goggles. Especially compared to the simple, locked-down Oculus Home software, SteamVR is the Linux of virtual reality — a powerful system that offers a lot of freedom at the expense of user-friendliness.

Far more than the hardware or interface, the Vive’s big selling point is that it’s the only available headset that lets you walk around and physically interact with virtual worlds, and it will be for the next few months. The Vive supports some standard sit-down games that use a gamepad or even mouse and keyboard, including an Adventure Time platformer that launched on both Rift and Gear VR. But it also hosts many of the most interactive and innovative VR experiences. Some of its key launch titles reflect this: there’s Tilt Brush, a three-dimensional painting tool from Google; a playful physics game called Fantastic Contraption; and Job Simulator, a wry commentary on late capitalism told through the medium of trashing office cubicles and tossing slushies at robots.

Many of the best ideas for interactive VR are being developed on the Vive, even if they weren’t conceived for it. Tilt Brush, for example, was originally a gaze-based art app for the Oculus Rift development kit. But it needed motion controllers to mimic the natural language of painting, and walkable space to remind people that they were sculpting as much as drawing. The thick Vive remotes aren’t a perfect substitute for brushes, but HTC and Valve were the first companies to put locomotion at the very center of a VR system.

The Vive’s controllers feel a little clumsy compared to the easily grabbable Oculus Touch, but they’re still convenient, with long battery lives and included Micro USB chargers. They’re also highly versatile, providing the kind of tactile feedback that pure finger-tracking solutions like Leap Motion lack. In Cloudlands VR Minigolf, they appear as the hilts of golf clubs; they’re the guns in shooters like Space Pirate Trainer VR, and they’re clumsy but functional hands in a number of other games, grabbing objects at the pull of a trigger or squeeze of a bumper. Just holding them suggests obvious uses that I haven’t seen: Where is the realistic VR martial arts trainer? What about the game where you board up a house while zombies try to break in?

But if Oculus played its launch a little too safe, coming out with a selection of perfectly polished but over-familiar titles, HTC and Valve have done the opposite. The Vive is set to launch with dozens of experiences, but as a whole, Valve’s catalog feels haphazardly assembled and full of concepts still awaiting solid execution. There are lots of good ideas among the launch titles: Selfie Tennis is a one-person twist on a classic sport, Audio Arena is a clever combination boxing / rhythm game, and Final Approach is a cute and satisfying air traffic control simulator. But very little of what I tried felt substantive and polished the way that Chronos or EVE: Valkyrie do, whether the issue was underdeveloped gameplay, awkward glitches, a confusing interface, rough art design, or simple brevity.

Increasingly, this is just how games on Steam evolve, inside and outside VR. It’s become more and more common for developers to launch unfinished projects through its Early Access program, and the best way to think of the Vive for consumers might be that it’s an Early Access season pass for VR. That pass will give you some great experiences, like the frenetic cooperative shooter Raw Data and survival horror game The Brookhaven Experiment. But it’s just enough of a taste to make you hungry for full versions that often have no hard launch date, although a number of them are slated for some point in 2016.

The longer it takes for developers to polish these experiences, the smaller the Vive’s advantage over the Oculus Rift becomes. Rift owners can already buy games through Steam, and if Oculus keeps its promise to release Touch controllers later this year, it makes sense for developers to include support for both systems, since HTC and Valve have rejected exclusivity deals. A single Rift camera already tracks several feet of floor space, and Touch’s two-camera setup could support most of the Vive games I’ve tried. We don’t know how much Touch controllers will cost, but it’s unlikely that they’ll bring the Rift’s total price above the Vive’s $800. For most people, the biggest differences between the Rift and the Vive may ultimately just be aesthetics, ergonomics, and personal philosophy.

In the end, there’s a good argument that the Vive’s ideal customers are neither makers nor players of games. Virtual reality has a long history in fields like architecture, industrial design, and military training, and the solid, no-nonsense Vive can replace older solutions like CAVE rooms at a fraction of the cost. Oculus has clearly thrown its weight behind VR film and gaming, but Valve and HTC have been more circumspect — they didn’t craft an entertainment ecosystem, they just showed up with some goggles and controllers and let people play with them. For now, at least, that’s turned out to be enough.

  • Lots of innovative motion control-based games and experiences
  • Emphasizes motion control and body movement
  • Rich, customizable user interface
  • Solid construction
  • Heavy and ungainly
  • User experience can be glitchy and confusing
  • Many games still feel unfinished
  • Highest total cost for a VR headset

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