Virtual reality is a mind-blowing experience that will make your jaw drop. The ability to escape the real world and get immersed in an imaginary, enhanced reality seems like something out of science fiction. Virtual reality is here, though, and it's becoming increasingly accessible. There are now a handful of VR headsets on the market to choose from that range from $10-$800, and that doesn't even factor in the cost of a gaming PC for some. However, if you are looking for the most immersive and best virtual reality experience that money can buy, the HTC Vive is the clear choice.
The HTC Vive is big – both in its innovative step forward and because it feels like a brick is strapped to your face when you're wearing it. The thick plastic headset looks like an oversized diver's mask. It isn't very comfortable and weighs your face down despite only weighing 20 ounces. It has three long cables that rest atop your head and run down behind your neck. They serve as an umbilical cord of sorts by connecting you to the virtual world. There is also a cord for connecting your own headphones, in case you don't want to use the included pair.
The Vive is equipped with two vibrant OLED displays that offer 1080 x 1200-pixel resolution for each eye. This matches the Oculus Rift's resolution, and the screens are nothing short of impressive. Since the headset has a 90Hz refresh rate, you consume more than 233 million pixels a second while wearing the headset. And since the Vive's screen ratio is 9:5, you get a tall, wide (110-degree) field of view. To ensure you get the best experience, HTC made the headset quite adjustable. There's an interpupillary distance (IPD) dial on the right side of the headset. When you spin it, the lenses and screens move together to line up with your IPD. If you wear glasses, the headset has a "relief" adjustment that allows you to change lens depth as well.
The Vive has a front-facing pass-through camera that lets you see what is in front of you in the real world when you double-tap the home button on the remote control. When using the camera, it's almost as though you have thermal or predator vision. This comes in handy often and helps prevent you from bumping into something.
Although we didn't conduct a durability test for the headset, you can feel confident it won't break if you drop it occasionally. The headset remains secure on your face thanks to its thick, adjustable straps. Sweat is inevitable when playing the Vive, especially during games that require you to jump around and move about. There is a foam pad on the headset that soaks up sweat, but after a while it does begin to smell. We recommend getting a cover that you can easily wipe down to prevent the spread of bacteria.
What differentiates the Vive from other virtual reality platforms is its tracking system. HTC and Valve developed two "lighthouse" towers that you place at opposite corners of your room. These are what pinpoint your location and track the movement of the headset.
The HTC Vive is shipped in a gigantic 19-pound box. Within it you'll find the headset, two base stations and their mounting kits, two controllers, a link box to connect the headset to your computer, headphones, plenty of cables and a cleaning cloth.
Setting up the HTC Vive isn't difficult but it is time consuming. It took us a little over an hour to get our test unit up and running. The hardest part is mounting the lighthouse stations; we even had to whip out some drill bits. If you are unable to mount the lighthouse towers, you can fix them on to two tripods or place them on top of a tall shelf. The base stations should be ideally placed more than 6.5 feet off the ground diagonally facing each other. The largest amount of space the sensors can cover is 15 x 15 feet. You need to calibrate and map out the space by walking around its perimeter while holding a controller. We put some gaffers tape on the carpet to serve as a border of the playing space.
Once you get your space mapped out there's plenty of plugging in to do. The link box has ports for power, HDMI or Mini DisplayPort, and USB 3.0 to connect your headset to your gaming computer. In total you'll need three power outlets for the Vive. We also needed two extension cords to get our setup to work.
The HTC Vive isn't really a plug-and-play solution like the upcoming PlayStation VR will be. You need to install SteamVR on a gaming computer, even if you already have Steam on your computer already. The file is about 60MB in size and took us less than a half hour to download and install.
The user interface for the Vive mimics Steam's Big Picture Mode, which you may be familiar with if you are a PC gamer. You can use your controller like a laser pointer and press the trigger on its underside to make a selection.
We felt as though navigating menus, starting games and switching them could have been an easier process. Oftentimes games won't quit entirely and the only way to remedy the issue is to fully reboot the Vive headset, which requires you to remove it from your face. This isn't a huge deal, but it gets annoying having to reapply and adjust the headset to find a comfortable fit.
During our testing we had mirror display mode enabled, which means almost everything you view with the headset is also displayed on your computer monitor as well. Unfortunately, this doesn't include menus within SteamVR. Since virtual reality is so new, it's probably an experience you'll want to share with friends and loved ones. We just felt as though it would be easier to explain how to work the headset to newcomers if you could also see the menus and user interface which the player sees.
Arguably the best part about the HTC Vive is its two controllers, which serve as your key to the virtual world. They're wireless, rechargeable and outfitted with sensors to track your hand and arm movements. They can also act as a flashlight, gun, shield, bow and arrow – it really depends on what game you are playing.
The controllers resemble a Wii Remote more than they do an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller. They are comfortable to hold, even for long periods, and have wrist straps so you don't drop them. There is a trigger button on the controller's backside, two grip buttons on each side which you squeeze, then a home button and a menu button on the top. The controllers also feature a circular touchpad that you can use to scroll or click with your thumbs.
When you power on the controllers and put on the headset, you can actually see a virtual representation of the two controllers. They look just the same as they do in the real world. Being able to reach out and grab them, despite being blinded by the headset, seems surreal. It's a small touch but an impressive one.
Games and Experiences
When you order the HTC Vive, you get download codes for The Gallery – Episode 1: Call of the Starseed, Tilt Brush, and Zombie Training Simulator. There are several games available on Steam that range from $5-$30. There are even free demos for many games.
Obviously, virtual reality is better experienced than it is explained, and there are already thousands of games, videos and experiences to consume on Steam VR. We had folks of all ages test the Vive headset and all had positive experiences.
A former Navy commander that has scuba dived for more than 30 years played theBlu, a game that simulates a deep-water dive. He said he was extremely impressed with the experience. We had several reviewers get scared to the point of running out of the room while playing The Brookhaven Experience, a game of survival that lets you experience the zombie apocalypse.
Some games put a twist on old arcade classics like Space Pirate Trainer, which is basically a modern Galaga. Others are humorous, like Job Simulator where you can be a mechanic, fast food worker or even an office worker. The game was created for our future robot overlords that took over our jobs long ago, to see what it used to be like working humans that hard to earn a living.
So far the trend with VR games is that most are short experiences around 30 minutes. Only a handful, like Call of the Starseed, are played for extended periods of time.
The HTC Vive is clearly the top VR headset available. However, its price and requirement of an expensive gaming PC may be deal breakers for some. If money isn't an issue for you, the Vive is a phenomenal device that everyone should experience at some point in their lives. It provides an incredible, immersive experience that's unlike any other.