Just over a month after ordering the PC Invasion HTC Vive, it showed up. It wasn’t even a pre-order. Well done to HTC for being able to deliver.
Regular readers and listeners to our Podcast will know that we’ve been following VR developments quite closely for the past couple of years. It’s been interesting to watch the Oculus and Vive hype machine swing into action this year. There’s been plenty of pictures of users staring at the ground with headsets on, videos of people saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and then there was the mad rush to pre-order. This has been important to make gamers think VR is the next big thing. I’m now on a jounrey to find out if VR is the future or not.
The Vive turned up and the box, as you probably know, is quite large and it’s stacked with cables. In fact, it probably has the more cables than any other hardware I have ever taken out of a box. The day these cables can be reduced will be a glorious day indeed.
The key component is the Link Box, which is the junction between the PC and the headset. Three cables go from the headset into the box on the front, and three go out the back of the box to the video card, power and USB. The Link Box should also be stuck down so it’s never dragged by the headset cables for whatever reason. Tripping over the cable could pull the box but if it’s stuck or weighted down, the headset cables would just pull out from the box which should cause no damage to the Link Box or the headset.
The HTC Vive’s big plus over the Oculus Rift is the room-scale and the fact it has working controllers. It’s also more comfortable for those with glasses, which is why we opted for the Vive. It can be slipped on fairly easily with glasses.
The base stations that are required to handle the room-scale are the biggest pain to deal with when setting up. The room this was going in needed to be by a suitably high-end PC which thankfully it already has. It’s also a big room with 12ft high ceilings. I did try a couple of tripods first, and they worked fine, but they did look quite hideous.
One great feature of old houses is picture rails which were about to prove useful. With a combo of a couple of picture rail hooks and some picture hanging wire, these could be slung over the rail and suspended. It was fiddly but worked. It’s easier to live with one cable hanging down the wall to power the lighthouse units instead of two ugly tripods cluttering up the corners of the room. It also meant it was a permanent setup, which is actually quite important.
All in all, after moving a couple of bits of furniture, the whole room setup process was quite painless.
When working out the room-scale by following the on-screen setup instructions and walking about with a controller to set the parameters, what surprised me most was the amount of room it needed to activate. It needed a little more than I had planned for. This required another quick furniture move of the office sofa to a new position in the room to gain another half-metre in width. That done, it was finally good to go.
I can image that anyone with a small room is going to find using the Vive a pain in the backside. Not being able to have everything setup permanently just makes using the system a complete hassle. Having to move a PC, the lighthouse units, and the headset and controllers would be very annoying.
Testing the headset for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Was it going to be so much better than the DK2 I have been messing around with the for the past year or so? My initial impressions were that it was a little underwhelming once the setup demonstration kicked in… but we’ll get to that. The demonstration itself is really good and SteamVR picked up the controllers no problem after I had resynced them. It’s important to note that everything to do with the headset is handled through Steam. There’s no other software that comes with the kit.
Inflating balloons and knocking them about the demo space was a strange experience, because seeing the controller in the demo with no hands felt really weird. They appear exactly where your hands are positioned in the real world. Because of this, moving them inside the demo feels instinctive even if you can’t see your hands. Targeting the balloons to pop them with the laser was so easy, it just felt natural. This was a good indication that the room-scale with controllers would make this experience feel like a real step up from the static Rift experience.
A good test to see how much of a step-up it was from the Rift – and something I was eager to try – was the Elite Dangerous Vive support. Elite Dangerous was pretty good in the DK2, even if the text was quite hard to read.
Getting it working was a little tricky; you need to set the 3D to “headphones” in the video settings and the game should pop up inside the Vive. However, what appeared was bloody terrible. The gamma on the Vive just made everything look white and there’s nothing you can change to fix that in the Elite Dangerous graphics options. I thought that was game over.
It turns out that there’s a way to fix this that’s not obvious at all: I needed to take SteamVR out of Direct mode so that the PC thinks there is another monitor. Then, using the Nvidia Control Panel, reduce the brightness, contrast etc for the Vive. You then need to go back to SteamVR and put it back into Direct Mode before starting Elite Dangerous. Yep, it’s a bit of a pain, but at least you should only have to do this once.
With that fixed, Elite Dangerous looked as it should in the Vive… but there are problems. Most notably, the god ray glare is appalling. It’s actually so off-putting I have decided not to attempt to play this again until Frontier sort something out. The text should be a lot crisper than the DK2, but it’s not. This was a huge disappointment, but Frontier are aware there are issues still. A recent post from Frontier reads:
“For the sake of clarity, this isn’t so much a bug in ED’s code as it is to do with the native FOV of the Vive. Some Aliasing tweaks are on the way though, which should improve things for everyone.”
To sum up, it looks okay, but it’s hardly that much better than the DK2. Time to move on and try something else.
Next up was Valve’s The Lab to really find out what we can expect from the Vive, because if there’s one company that will have experimented a lot with VR, it’s Valve.
The Lab is not so much a game but more a bunch of tech demos all placed inside “The Lab”. These are very simple VR games and experiences to help a user get familiar with using the headset and the controllers. They have done a reasonably good job with it too. It’s extremely polished and it’s a great intro for new VR users.
There’s a nifty bow-and-arrow game where you have to stop the invading hordes breaching your castle gate; there’s a look at planets in the solar system which you can manipulate with the controllers; and you can make a dog fetch a stick among other “experiences”. These are just small demos of what’s possible, but none will have you going back for more once you’ve tried them out.
This is all well and good, but again, I was struggling to find something amazing for the $800 headset.
In the next part of this report, I’ll be attempting to find some actual games and not just demos or cheap VR games. It’s not going to be easy but I’ll give it a go. I’ll also be summing up my overall experience with this generation of VR. Having used consumer VR on PCs for 20 years now, this whole new experience has been interesting but what everyone needs to know is whether it’s worth the investment or not.
Disclaimer: The PC Invasion HTC Vive was not provided by HTC. It was purchased by PC Invasion.