How much space do you need for the Vive?
If you’re worried that you don’t have enough space for a Vive, then I’m sorry, but you don’t. This requires serious space, not just the bit you get by pushing the coffee table against the radiator. The official figure is 1.5mx2.0m, which doesn’t sound like much but, at least in terms of terraced houses in the south of England, turns out to be near-insurmountable unless you get rid of most of your furniture. Valve did bandy around the reassuring promise that all you needed was the same amount of space as two side-by-side yoga mats, but perhaps one man’s yoga mat is another’s double-quilt.
This would be a more accurate summation of the minimum required space: could you park a car in it and have a little room to spare on all sides? If not then I’m afraid you’re screwed. Apart from for games which allow/require sitting down, of which there will be no shortage (and may even ultimately be the most satisfying experiences) but for which you may be better off with an Oculus Rift. Though we won’t know that at RPS towers until we have both headsets in hand.
Here’s a guide to my own space now:
As I said above, I manage to create just shy of the minimum space by rearranging all my furniture and getting rid of quite a bit of junk. The room looks pretty ridiculous now: bed slammed sideways against one wall, furniture pushed into every corner and this blank open space at the front. Whether I keep it this way or revert to something logical depends on how edifying the first proper wave of Vive games in April is.
As it is, I’m a few inches short of the official minimum space, but after cheating the system and learning where the obstacles are the hard way (my shins my shins) a weird extra-spatial awareness has kicked in and I pretty much know where I am and what to avoid even when I can’t see meatspace at all. The room I’m using is both a study and a bedroom, so I can’t get rid of that bed: were that gone I’d be laughing. But I wouldn’t be sleeping, and therefore wouldn’t be laughing after all. I could set it up in the lounge, but that would necessitate moving the sofa into the kitchen. Also I’d need to haul my big PC and all its cables down there.
As for having ‘only’ the minimum space, it doesn’t often feel too tiny in-game or in-application. Most of them I’ve tried depict scenery going to a virtual horizon rather than slamming up walls around me, so I tend to feel as though I’m standing in an enormous space. Walking close to a real-world wall throws up a Tron-like grid known as a Chaperone, which I instinctively back away from rather than try to walk through. The brain immediately and completely treats VR-world as the real world: I think this is the most amazing, and most terrifying, facet of using the Vive.
Sometimes what I need to get to is on the other side of these Chaperones, and I’ve found myself trying to reach through and end up banging the controller against a window or the corner of a chest of drawers. At one point I knocked over and accidentally demolished my beloved LEGO AT-AT, stood atop a bookshelf, because I was trying to turn on a pretend computer that I couldn’t quite reach in Job Simulator. I consoled myself with the knowledge that, before too long, we’ll surely have VR LEGO and I won’t need to run that same risk again.
Some demos – including Valve’s own Portal vignette, Aperture Robot Repair – allow you to teleport, pointing the controller at the spot you want to be in, hitting a button and then that becomes the new centre of your room. I suspect that, ultimately, almost every game/app will need something similar if this is to work; most of us simply won’t be able to achieve the maximum space, in which the Chaperones all but disappear.
What I’m trying to say is that, really, you need a dedicated room for your Vive. If you’re the kind of person who has £750 to burn on speculative first-gen new tech and already has a high-end PC to use it with, perhaps you also have a big house too, though.
Should you move somewhere bigger purely to embrace your VR-bound future? No, not yet. Unless you’re very rich.
I’m going to follow up this article after the Vive’s full launch with impressions on how it works in Standing (and seated) mode. At the moment the majority of its demos are designed to drop jaws with the room-scale stuff, but I’ll have a better sense of if standing-only use is viable without killing the magic once there’s a wider spread of finished software available.
How does SteamVR work?
Here’s how to actually use a Vive. You need to fire up the SteamVR application, turn on both controllers, turn on both motion sensors, plug some headphones into the headset, stick the main contraption on your head and then you’re standing in wide-open virtual space, from which you can launch a modified version of Steam Big Picture by pushing the main face button on one of the controllers. That controller then acts as a laser pointer, with which you can launch, install and remove games (already filtered into VR-only) and fiddle with settings. There’s a volume slider too, so you don’t have to go rummaging around in meatspace to turn the headphones up or down.
You’re also able to pick from several bundled backgrounds and apply them to that lobby as enormous 360 wallpapers – starfields, landscapes, that sort of thing. It can even load up images of your own, although this currently requires taking the goggles off and selecting it from your desktop.
I should mention here that, whenever you’re in a VR app (including this lobby area), you are able to see a recreation of your two controllers, presuming they’re turned on. This means finding them if you’ve put them down somewhere is never an issue. Genuinely ingenious. In the lobby, you can see similar models of the two Lighthouses, which is handy for orientating yourself within your real room without having to take the goggles off.
There’s also an option to have the front-mounted camera on the headset display a live-feed of the real-world when you’re in the Steam VR lobby, and I imagine some games will eventually make use of this. The camera’s not amazing, and struggles in low light, so it’s not quite capable of helping me find and press a specific key on my keyboard without taking the headset off. It’s definitely useful for checking exactly where I am or even just being able to look my partner in what I’m pretty sure is her eye when she comes in and demands to know what foolishness I’m up to now. I’m looking forwards to seeing how this camera can meld VR and AR further down the line, though.
The Steam VR UI is slick stuff for sure, although when used in standing mode I struggled to make some of the Steam buttons work – the laser pointer seemed to go through them rather than onto them. I suspect this will be ironed out in the regular firmware and software updates, though.
Let’s head back to meatspace for a minute, because I want to talk about the Lighthouse beacons. They look subtle enough, so having them on display, as it were, isn’t a problem (trailing power cables aside), but by god do they whine. A constant high-pitched whirring noise that’s distracting and even uncomfortable if the room is otherwise silent.
If, like me, your VR space is also your sleeping space, you’ll definitely need to turn them off every night – but the fact that they’re clearly scanning and imaging constantly has me thinking that they should always be turned off when not in use. Think of the planet, and all that. However, in what I feel is either a massive oversight or simply a technical hurdle the engineers couldn’t quite cross in time, they don’t shut themselves off automatically when they can’t see a headset or Steam VR is closed. They don’t even have power buttons. This means that, for complete shut down, you need to manually pull the cables or turn them both off at the wall. However, if the beacons can see neither each other or the headset, they will eventually enter a standby mode, albeit with one with a blinking white LED. So you can tuck the headset away somewhere and turn one beacon to face the wall and the noise, at least will stop.
In either case this can feel like a right hassle, particularly if, like me, you’re prone to staying up far too late mucking about in VR-world and suddenly need to collapse into bed. Isn’t remotely a deal-breaker: I’m just trying to be exhaustive about the practicalities of using a Vive. It’s something the second gen (if there is one) needs to account for, however: either build in auto shut-off or somehow get rid of the noise.
General observation: it all works and works very well, but sometimes the rigmarole of turning it all on and off has genuinely dissuaded me from using it (I’m speaking as someone who does work, housework and childcare without meaningful pause from at least 7am to 8pm straight every day though – I’m simply exhausted by 8). It is much easier to simply slump in front of a monitor. The experience I have if I do that is significantly less dramatic, of course.
On page three: image quality and comfort.