HTC Vive Review: The Future is Here, and it is Funstrating

The HTC Vive is cutting-edge, virtual reality  tech – but is it worth your hard-earned dollars? We go in-depth in our HTC Vive Review to find out whether the future of computing is all it’s cracked up to be.

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If you haven’t been paying attention, there’s been a sort of virtual reality renaissance over the past four years. We now have extremely compelling product offerings from not one, but currently two and soon, three pretty big companies. Facebook owns Oculus, which is shipping the Rift, HTC jointly developed the Vive in partnership with software giant Valve, and this fall, Sony will start to sell their PlayStation VR offering.

HTC Vive Review - Banana

The HTC Vive, in its really big box. Banana for scale.

While Oculus’ Rift launched first, it’s come under heavy criticism for component shortages, shipping delays, and an overall poor handling of customer satisfaction. Meanwhile, while the Vive has seen slight delays, HTC has made (and thus far, been keeping) a promise that all Vive headsets would ship according to their projected ship dates.

Read: Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive: What’s the Difference?

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What is virtual reality? What is presence?

There are two concepts that are key to understanding this new… frankly, this new paradigm of computing. The first is virtual reality itself. Most people have some vague understanding of what virtual reality (VR) means – usually, it’s an immersion into some sort of computer-generated and computer-controlled world. For many, the best-known example is probably the Holodeck, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Current technology can’t yet compete with the Holodeck, but you’d be surprised at how close it feels.

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So in VR, we remap our real-world senses to their artificial analogs. A headset or head-mounted display (HMD) slips over our eyes. A pair of earbuds or headphones plug into the display and replace our hearing. Haptic engines in controllers can generate a sense of touch. These all work together to put you into a different universe. This is often compared to and confused with augmented reality – in AR, you overlay the real world with additional data layers; in VR, you cover it all up.

The HTC Vive virtual reality headset.

The HTC Vive virtual reality headset. Credit: HTC.

To understand the appeal of VR, you need to understand the nebulous concept of presence. In VR, presence is the sense that you’re there, in the virtual world. You might be thinking, “Oh, that’s ridiculous; I’m always going to know that I’m wearing a bulky headset,” and it’s true, you’re never going to think you’ve been teleported to another universe. But the illusion that the Vive creates works on the less conscious parts of your brain, and the result is that while you know you’re standing in your living room, you might feel scared to step off a cliff, or in my case, try to set the wireless controller on a virtual table at least twice (hurray for wrist straps).

Even at today’s relatively low resolution, the presence that these systems can deliver is downright addictive. Even in Audioshield, a game where the environment is little more than geometric shapes, you’ll start to wonder why you can’t feel the wind.

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Read: Oculus Rift: Hands-on review

One of the key ways that even low resolution headsets can deliver presence is by reducing persistence, or the amount of time that an image remains displayed. Some of the technology is built into the display – global refresh (the screen refreshes at once, rather than by lines or sections), high refresh rates (both Oculus and HTC use 90Hz screens in their VR products; Sony uses 60Hz) – and some of it is built into the software and firmware, like inserting a black screen every other frame.

HTC Vive Review - Base Stations

This is one of the two base stations that helps track where you are in the virtual world.

As a result of these technologies (combined with the headset’s ability to track your movements), when you look around in a game, it feels like you’re looking around in the “real” world. There’s no lag – the displays keep up with your head turning in any direction. This is a must for presence.

Vive review: What is the HTC Vive?

The Vive is HTC’s first virtual reality headset that’s targeted at consumers. It was developed in partnership with Valve, after Valve’s budding partnership with Oculus disintegrated. It uses a lot of Valve’s ideas, including the standalone laser towers that enable “roomscale” (more on that later) VR, and according to iFixit, the Vive’s controllers strongly resemble the Steam Controller.

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Unlike other companies, HTC doesn’t run a software store or platform for their HMD. Instead, they rely entirely on Valve for game purchases, distribution, and management. It’s important to note that the headset can run games that aren’t on Steam, since the Vive doesn’t appear to be locked down in any significant way. With a little effort and a third-party app, you can even get a few of the Oculus Rift games to work on the Vive.

You’ll still need to have Steam on your computer, however. SteamVR is the software that lets your computer and your Vive talk to each other, and it must be running for your Vive to play any games, regardless of their source.

HTC Vive Review - Lenses

Inside, two fresnel lenses bend the display into a field-filling view. Credit: HTC.

In a lot of ways, the Vive feels like it’s almost finished, but HTC ran out of time; when you look into the product’s development history, it’s easy to understand why. Back at CES in January, HTC unveiled the Vive Pre, a beta device designed to get designers up and running on the nascent system. Compared to the development editions of the Oculus Rift, the Vive Pre was a polished, mature design.

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HTC ultimately scrapped a revision of the product in favor of shipping the Vive Pre direct to consumers. While there are some differences between the two sets of gear, they’re minor and don’t affect the core experience (the most notable change is an improved head strap). This proved to be a smart move, as it allowed them to come to market simultaneously alongside the competition; given Oculus’ struggles to get a product out the door, HTC’s ability to deliver sends a strong message.

Read: Sony PlayStation VR: What you need to know

Still, there are key places where the Vive could greatly benefit from refinement. These include the general fit and comfort of the headset, the Vive’s (in-)ability to comfortably wear with glasses, the heavy, three-pronged cable that hangs down the back, and most importantly, a lack of integrated headphones.

What’s in the Vive box?

The Vive comes in a big box. Maybe you expect that, but I certainly didn’t. When it unexpectedly arrived on my doorstep last week, I had no clue what it was – in part because it was so big. The good news is that the box is big because HTC chose not to take any chances with the padding. This thing is filled with foam, and a lot of it. No matter how often your delivery driver throws around this box, your Vive should arrive safe and sound. The packaging is otherwise unremarkable – HTC will no doubt shrink and improve it in time for the next iteration.

HTC Vive Review - Box

The box is too big, but everything is neatly packaged. Controllers on the left, headset on the right.

Inside, you’ll find the basic parts of your Vive setup:

  • the headset itself, with attached cabling and straps
  • two wireless motion controllers
  • two spinning laser cubes that keep track of where you are
  • a breakout box that sits in between your Vive and your PC, and allows your Vive’s Bluetooth peripherals to talk to each other
  • several micro-USB cables
  • enough wall warts to power everything (you get four – two for the lasers, one for your headset, and two to keep the wireless controllers charged – which you’ll want to do whenever you aren’t using them)
  • an HDMI cable to connect the breakout box to your computer
  • a set of earbuds to plug into the audio jack of your Vive
  • nearly useless instructions

The breakout box also has a mini-DisplayPort connection, but doesn’t include the cable. If your graphics card uses either mini- or regular DisplayPort ports, you’ll need to buy your own.

The Vive feels like an expensive device

Everything in the box feels nice. While each component is necessarily made of plastic, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. The controllers are the component I was most skeptical about, and they feel really nice. They’re perfectly weighted, and quite comfortable to hold, with all the buttons in easy reach. The laser emitters have a standard tripod / light stand mount on the bottom, so if you don’t want to take advantage of the included wall fasteners, you can go grab a couple of cheap light stands to use.

The cords and breakout box all feel nice, with the cables covered in that rubbery plastic that feels so nice to touch. HTC’s headset continues the trend – it’s clear that this is a high-quality piece of technology. Having said that, it’s still not very comfortable to wear. It gets hot after a while, and keeping it in the lenses’ “sweet spot” sometimes mean constantly pushing the headset around on your face. If you’ve got glasses, try to wear contacts when possible – you can adjust the Vive so that the lenses are farther away to accommodate your specs, but it’s still not a very glasses-friendly kind of device (particularly when putting it on or it them off).

htc-vive-consumer-press-shots-3-1

Really, there’s only one area where it feels like the Vive falls a little flat – its lack of attached audio. To get around not having headphones, HTC added an audio jack that hangs off the back of your Vive, and tossed in a pair of earbuds with a super shot cable. It’s just really awkward in practice – you have to put the headset on before you can put in the earbuds or your own set of cans. Future versions should have headphones built into the unit; if audio quality is that much of a concern, they could be made removable.

How does the Vive work? Will my PC run it?

Let’s take the second question first. What kind of gaming PC will run the HTC Vive? HTC publishes a list of recommended PC specs, but you look at these as a minimum, not just the recommended, especially the GPU.

  • GPU: NVIDIA GeForce® GTX 970 / AMD Radeon™ R9 290 equivalent or greater
  • CPU: Intel i5-4590 / AMD FX 8350 equivalent or greater
  • RAM: 4GB+
  • Video out: HDMI 1.4 or DisplayPort 1.2 or newer
  • USB port: a single USB 2.0 or greater port
  • Operating system: Windows 7 SP1 or newer

Despite the recommendation of Windows 7 or newer, you’ll probably want to use Windows 8 or Windows 10. At least one app – Virtual Desktop – relies on low-latency interfaces that weren’t introduced until Windows 8. You’ll definitely want to use at least a recommended GPU, since the resolution and refresh rate of the Vive require nearly twice as much graphics oomph as your typical 1080p display (or about 5% less than your typical 1440p monitor).

Meeting the recommended specs for a VR system is more important than meeting them for a traditional gaming PC. With a regular game, if you don’t meet the specs, you can generally still enjoy playing on older hardware. Lower the settings, maybe change the resolution, and you’re good to go; if the frame rate drops on occasion, it’s no big deal.

HTC Vive Review: Breakout Box

This breakout box sits between your computer and the headset.

In a VR game, it’s a big deal. Lower the resolution by much, and you’ll turn the image on your Vive into a blurry, unreadable mess. Drop the frame rate too often and you’ll be hit with lagging gameplay or worse, stuttering and low frame rates. That’s a sure ticket to motion sickness, even if you’re not the kind to normally get sick when playing first person video games.

On the other hand, you can often get away with a weaker Intel CPU from the past several generations, or a high-end AMD CPU, without affecting gameplay too much. You also only need a single USB port, and USB 2.0 is fine, so don’t worry if your USB 3.0 ports are filled up. When it comes to storage, any hard drive will work, but there’s a lot of loading involved here – apps, environments, the SteamVR client, etc. You should really be using an SSD.

The Vive setup is excruciatingly painful

From the outside, the setup process for the HTC Vive is pretty simple. Step 1: Download and install the Vive setup software and drivers (as well as Steam and any games you want to try, if you haven’t downloaded them previously). Step 2: Plug in the laser boxes and set the right channels – if you’re letting them sync optically, one box should be set to ‘b’ and one box set to ‘c’. If you use the super long sync cable, then one box can remain on ‘b’ while the other box is set to channel ‘A’. Step 3: Connect the headset to the breakout box, and the box to your PC. Step 4: Turn everything on and proceed with the on-screen setup.

In reality, steps one through three proceed without trouble. It’s what happens after that makes the Vive, in simple truth, the single most frustrating piece of consumer technology I have ever tried, and that’s saying something.

HTC Vive Review: Setup

The setup animations are cute.

The first time you go through the setup process, it’s actually pretty easy. First, it’ll have you choose whether you want roomscale VR, where you’ll walk around a small space in the real world that’s mapped to a spot in the digital world, or a standing/seated experience, where you stay in one spot the whole time. Setting up roomscale isn’t that difficult; you point at your monitor, you set the headset and controllers on the floor (so they know the floor’s distance and orientation, relative to your head), and you hold a controller while you walk around the play area, so it knows how much you’ve got to work with.

That’s all fine to do once, or even each time you move the Vive and its laser trackers around. But you’ll quickly find yourself needing to recalibrate the Vive – sometimes it needs it once every couple of days, and sometimes it needs it every couple of hours. There’s no rhyme or reason as to what causes the Vive to screw up.

Software: SteamVR and Vive Software

I wanted to separate software into the software that directly powers the Vive, and the software that you’ll run on it, because the experiences are so different. This might sound extreme, but HTC should frankly be embarrassed at the quality of software they’re shipping with this headset.

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of the errors I’ve seen since setting up the Rift the first time:

  • Missing headset on startup
  • Missing one or both controllers on startup
  • Missing one or both laser trackers on startup
  • One of the above happening in the middle of gameplay
  • Camera doesn’t like the USB port on the computer
  • Camera just doesn’t like to work (this is it most of the time)
  • Buttons going missing from the in-VR menu
  • Controllers track but a button doesn’t work
  • Controllers track but are otherwise completely unresponsive
  • In-game controllers just float away or freeze in the air

Occasionally, the controllers can be fixed by holding down their respective power buttons, them immediately turning them back on, but most of the time the problem continues and you’ll need to reboot the whole Vive headset. Get used to that reboot, by the way, as it’s the recommended way to fix most of your issues. Sometimes, you’ll need to reboot the Vive a couple of times in a row, because different problems will pop up at different times.

You know what was between them? Air. Air was between them.

You know what was between them? Air. Air was between them.

I’d start to think that I’d somehow bought a bad Vive, but when you look at places like Reddit, you’ll find threads complaining about flakiness, with users sharing lists of steps to try when something goes wrong. These sorts of issues shouldn’t happen with such frequency on a shipping product.

To be honest, these problems wouldn’t be half as annoying in a traditional gaming accessory. But with something like the Vive, you have to find a place to set down the controllers, remove your headphones / earbuds, take off the headset and set it down – it starts to become a production, and you still get to conduct what amounts to computer witchcraft to try and make your headset work.

Despite these issues, the Vive is an absolute joy

I wanted to be pretty explicit with the issues I’ve had in getting the Vive up and going. It’s been so frustrating that I’ve taken the Vive off and left the room – but none of that matters. None of it matters because when the Vive is up and running – which, admittedly, is most of the time – it is the most fun I’ve ever had with a computer. The issues fade away and you’re left walking around in a million different fantasy worlds. The first day I used the Vive, I stopped walking forward to avoid bumping into a virtual table (and it was a cartoon table that wasn’t remotely realistic); later in the game I tried to set the controller down on a virtual tablet. These moments hook you in and you can’t help but grin.

It’s not the only reason, but a pretty great reason to get the Vive is that it offers “roomscale” gaming experiences right out of the box, and it’s these experiences that offer so much fun. Roomscale is the idea that virtual reality should encompass more than just the chair you’re sitting in, using an Xbox controller to play games. To be sure, seated experiences can be a lot of fun, but roomscale games are simply on another level.

One of the first things you’re likely to notice when you put the Vive on is that it’s much lower resolution than you probably expect. Distant text is wholly unreadable, and even close-up details are pixelated and block. The SDE, or screen door effect, named because of the black grid seen between the pixels, is very noticeable. You might be thinking…this? This is it?

And then you notice how well the headtracking works – hey! there’s no lag at all! And then you see the controllers floating in VR, just like the ones you’re holding, and you wave them around. And then you launch into any one of a wealth of VR-compatible games, and you realize…

…none of that other stuff matters. Whether you’re training in pistol marksmanship with Space Pirate Trainer or repairing robots in the excellent free Valve title The Lab, you will feel like you’ve been sucked into the game. It’s a wholly novel experience, even if the game you’re playing uses the same, tired mechanics.

Vive games: Fantastic Contraption

If you pre-ordered the Vive, you got Fantastic ContraptionJob Simulator: the 2050 Archives, and Google’s Tilt Brush. None of these games are tremendously complicated, but they’re all a lot of fun and do a fantastic job of putting you in a virtual world. Fantastic Contraption is a modern, VR update to the old browser game of the same name. You’re left floating in a fantasy world, with the task of delivering a glowing pink orb to another part of the level.

You do this by creating, you guessed it, fantastic contraptions. Generally hazards on wheels, you can construct your machines however you see fit – the only rule they must follow is that you need to send the orb on to its destination. The Vive controllers turn into wands that you use to manipulate materials and build your machine. This game can be a little disorienting at times, because it requires a lot of movement and a lot of bending down; when you stand up things can sometimes shift.

Vive games: Job Simulator

Job Simulator takes place in a future where VR museums teach you about the jobs of today. There’s a lot of humor in how the game is set up, in how the jobs are described, and the sorts of goals you’re expected to achieve. It’s great example of how you can manage surprisingly fine tasks in virtual reality – in one example, you can reach forward to turn on the cooktop or catch toast flying up from a toaster. And while you inevitably fail at these “jobs”, the computer’s running mouth and the general sense of tone will make you chuckle.

Vive games: Tilt Brush

Google also contributed an app to the Vive’s pre-order bundle, a 3D-painting app called Tilt Brush. On launch, the app dumps you into a blank, black environment. One of your controllers becomes a brush, and the other becomes a series of icons you can tap with the brush to change tools (as an aside, I wish more app developers would include an option to swap “hands”, since left-handed people are relegated to swapping controllers between games).

This tool switching paradigm is one of the most clever innovations I’ve seen in a VR game so far; you can rotate your arm and the set of menus moves along. It’s super easy to use. Once you have your brush and colour, all you need to do is paint. I have little to no artistic ability, but it turns out that painting in three dimensions is easier than trying to translate a 3D scene onto 2D paper. Tilt Brush is a ton of fun to play, especially when you can trade the Vive back and forth with a friend or family member, taking turns to make your masterpiece.

Unfortunately, Tilt Brush was like Fantastic Contraption in that it gave me a sudden feeling of motion sickness, so maybe take it easy with a paintbrush until you have your VR legs.

Vive games: Audioshield

There are other games to try, mostly some that had VR modes added after they came to market. There’s one game, however, that should be an instant buy for anyone that owns an HTC Vive – and that game is Audioshield. This is a simple rhythm game, not unlike a dialed back Dance Dance Revolution, but it’s designed for VR. At a $20 buy in Steam’s store, it is, hands-down, the most fun I’ve ever had playing any video game.

When Audioshield starts, you can choose from a menu of music, or pop in a flash drive or Soundcloud account, and opt for a more custom playlist. Then you choose a difficulty level, a shape of shield (there’s a blue shield on your left arm, and a red shield on your right – hold them close together, and you’ll get a purple one) and one of two battle arenas, and the level begins.

You’re left in a wide open space, a few background details sketched out around you, with an onslaught of red, blue, or purple orbs come flying at you. As you might surmise, your job is to knock them away. In true rhythm game fashion, you don’t die for missing them, you’re just given a poor score when the music stops. Do well enough, however, and you’ll find yourself on a leader board – one is generated for every song you play, and the boards are shared.

When you successfully bat away an orb with the correct shield, the haptic engines in the controllers will rumble, making it feel like you slapped away a blob of water. It’s insane how much this adds to the overall experience, and you will quickly feel a sense of urgency as the blobs come faster and faster, and from different angles. This game single-handedly changed my opinion of the Vive, knocked low by the system’s stability issues. Like several Vive games, Audioshield is also fun to watch; you can see your friend’s screen on the TV, but you also get to see them flail wildly at the air. I can’t recommend this game enough (it’s the most fun on the hardest setting).

Is the Vive worth it?

It’s frustrating, but it’s fun. It’s…funstrating?

There are two kinds of people who consider buying a Vive VR headset. Some people are tinkerers who leave their gaming PCs open, love to tweak and overclock, and don’t mind spending hours tracking down bugs. Others don’t want to have to do any of that; they want to sit down and relax. If you’re in the former category – and don’t mind spending $800 – you should absolutely think about buying the Vive. It’s just too much fun to pass by, and chances are good you’ll get your money’s worth for some time yet, should you wish to sell it off.

If you think you’re in the latter category, however, do yourself a favor and stay away. The Vive is so much fun to play, but it’s also super flaky, which translates to hours of frustration. And I don’t mean that you should stay away forever. This is a new platform, and it’s bound to have a number of bugs this soon after release – in six months’ time, you’re likely to find a much more stable experience.

Alternately, you may simply wish to wait until the Oculus Rift or Sony PlayStation VR headsets start shipping in quantity. If you don’t mind waiting, it’s probably the best option – not only will there be that many more fun VR experiences to play, but you’ll also get to read about which headset rests on top (spoiler alert: they’re all far more alike than they are different).

Despite the issues, I’ll definitely be keeping my Vive. Good VR is just so much fun that I don’t want to miss out on the cutting edge; it’s also super fun to introduce it to someone else and seeing that first smile appear on their face. VR and AR are the future, and this is a promising first step.