How is the image quality?
This is the thing I’ve been asked about the most (albeit only on Twitter, where I imagine a disproportionate amount of my followers are tech-aware enough to have either tried or read about the first two generations of Oculus Rift, which were hamstrung by low resolutions and motion sickness issues). How good does a Vive game look compared to the crisp and clear edges we’re used to in traditional PC games? And what about that screendoor effect?
One thing to bear in mind above all else, because thinking about this only in terms of resolution and clarity is like thinking about a piece music only in terms of its lyrics. The world you see, in any VR game or application, is enormous. Overwhelming enormous, but also highly tangible – 3D and 360 degrees. Never mind how crisp and clear it does or doesn’t look: you feel as though you’re there. I hate the word ‘magical’, because at best it’s a marketing term and at worst it’s feeble-minded credulity, but I am sorely tempted to use in in this context. To put on a Vive headset is to be transported to another place. I struggle to empathise with anyone who can only think about that in terms of the technical quality of the image.
However: in all traditional image quality regards, this is a step down from the 1080p setup many of us now consider a baseline for modern-day PC gaming. While the Vive, like the Rift, boasts an on-paper resolution 2160×1200, which is approaching 2K or 1440p, it actually comprises two 1080×1200 screens – one for each eye – displaying slightly different images that are effectively composited into one by your brain. The PC still has to render a 2160×1200 3D image, but what you see is ‘just’ 1080×1200 – i.e. 1,296,000 pixels compared to the 2,073,600 of the 1920×1080 resolution we call 1080p. That’s half the pixels, and much closer to 1280×720 / 720p’s 921,600 than it is to 1080p. These are the brass tacks that 2016’s high-end VR headsets cannot escape.
The composited Vive (and Oculus’ too) image has almost 25% more pixels than 720p, but the combination of effectively blowing the image up massively and there often being only minimal anti-aliasing (a consequence of the GPU rendering 2160×1440 at 90 frames per second – a minimum spec graphics card often won’t have the headroom for MSAA) effectively negates that. We would be wise to think about the Vive as effectively a 720p device, albeit one which requires 1440p hardware. Purely from an image quality POV, it’s loosely comparable to playing mid-period Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games. However, bear in mind that games can run in lower than that resolution too, which may have to be the case if your PC’s not up to the job.
The good news is that it looks so, so much better than the first two generations of Oculus Rift (the only ones available to genpop so far), and this is practical improvement too: text and some fine detail is perfectly legible. ‘Proper’ games are entirely plausible in that regard, which they sadly were not on the Oculus DK2. I can still feel the acute migraine I got after trying to navigate Elite Dangerous’ menus with a DK2 last year.
The bad news is that you can expect jagged edges and, at least in most the demos I’ve tried so far, an arguable over-reliance on big, chunky, relatively low-poly 3D models in order to try and avoid this. However, many of these are very early, made for an older model of Vive and quite possibly not for 2016’s higher-end PCs. I am relatively confident that a combination of more up-to-date titles come April and the likely launch of truly 4K-capable single graphics cards for the relative mainstream later this year will result both in games that look crisper out of the box and PCs that can muster more anti-aliasing. Valve’s own Aperture Robot Repair demo looks strikingly crisper than almost anything else I’ve tried, so I’m almost certain that, in the right hands, greater things are possible.
Even if that doesn’t happen, put it this way: I would much, much rather take a hit on resolution now than have this exciting tech limited to wealthy triple-SLI gonks as a result of it prematurely chasing 4K. I can get all of this on a single GTX 970. I’ll note here that m’esteemed colleague John is significantly more disappointed by the resolution than I am, and I wonder if that’s because I spend a lot of time with the Oculus DK1 and then DK2 rather than dropped straight in. Seeing the rapid evolution first-hand, and particularly the switch from illegible to legible text, makes me more willing to accept the limitations.
Let’s move on to the screendoor effect, which is the term given to a visible pixel grid. That happens because you’re basically pushing a mobile phone screen right against your eyeballs, and thus become able to discern the individual pixels. This too would be reduced by higher resolutions – i.e. every pixel becomes smaller – but see above, basically. The screendoor effect is most certainly there with the Vive, but much improved upon the Oculus DK2 and it’s something I usually stop noticing soon after putting on the headset. (I am more aware of it when watching a film, but that it compensated for by video not suffering the jagged edges of games. I’m really, really into the VR as a movie-watching device, but that’s probably another article).
Going back to the Xbox 360 at 720p comparison: this is basically like sitting really, really close to the TV in that scenario. (Except the TV is transformed into a 3D, 360 degree wonderland. Please don’t forget that).
It’d be nice if the screendoor effect wasn’t there, but it doesn’t meaningfully sour the deal as far as I’m concerned. More dedicated image quality enthusiasts may find this to be the most disappointing element of the Vive, though. Whether that kind of response is comparable to an audiophile tutting at speakers because the mid-range doesn’t sound quite right instead of enjoying the record he’s playing is for you to decide.
There’s another issue which is slightly more problematic for me personally, and that is that the sides of the image blur and distort and overlay partial concentric circles if I’m wearing glasses. Now I wear quite big glasses, because I haven’t quite got the message that hipster-dads moved on from those three years ago, so this may not be the case if you wear smaller glasses. But, for me, while my glasses fit relatively comfortably inside the headset, they’re messing with the already-limited peripheral vision inside when wearing it, and butting up so close to the concentric circles inscribed on the lenses that they become sporadically visible.
Fortunately I have contact lenses I can wear, which sort all that out, although a) this is one more bit of hassle and b) my eyes dry out rapidly when I’m looking at a screen while wearing lenses. Again, this is a problem relatively specific to me, but at the same I am comfortable making a sweeping generalisation that many prospective Vive-buyers wear spectacles. It’s not an insurmountable problem, and it’s more of a distraction than a problem in any case, but just something to bear in mind.
As I mentioned, there’s also a limited amount of peripheral vision. You can compensate for this by physically looking around, but sometimes the awareness that your face in a box does sneak through the wonder-sights.
‘Good but not great’ would be my summary of Vive image quality, but I think on the one hand we’ll have high-end gaming hardware enthusiasts feeling it’s unacceptable and on the other hand more casual users thinking it’s god-damned miraculous. There’s no question that a higher pixel-count is needed if VR is going to become a comprehensive alternative to/replacement for monitor-based gaming, but that’s simply not feasible until we’re all toting significantly more powerful graphics cards.
Is the HTC Vive comfortable? Will it make me sick?
Something else I’ve been asked about often, as ‘VR = motion sickness’ seems to have become received wisdom now. I have suffered no particular ill-effects using the Vive, which is a relief given I had to give up on and sell my DK2 because it was making me feel so damn queasy.
Occasionally one demo or another has become unable to maintain 90 FPS and the framerate spikes, the motion sensors lose their bead on me and the world jumps about or, once, the Vive rendered my playspace as if I were standing on an invisible slope. In those instances, I felt absolutely terrible – fine when the framerate recovered, but in a couple of cases I had to quit the game or restart SteamVR.
I’m entirely happy to put these down to teething troubles of early software and my own sub-optimal Lighthouse placement though, and also to resign myself to buying a more powerful graphics card once NVIDIA and AMD hopefully start shipping their 16 and 14 nm graphics cards later this year.
I don’t think there’s a meaningful motion sickness issue with the Vive, but if you haven’t got a total monster of a PC, don’t expect entirely smooth sailing.
General comfort is possibly more of an issue. For one thing, the long, thick trailing cable (comprising power, USB and HDMI) from the headset and intended to run down one’s back gets in the way all the damn time, and feels quite heavy too. When I first tried the Vive in an expo demo room, the cables were carefully tucked into something like a belt loop in order to limit this, and I imagine we’ll soon see a clutch of unofficial accessories intended to similarly stop the cable from twitching away or snaking around our ankles, but there’s no escaping that the umbilical cord is a significant physical handicap for this generation of the Vive. VR’s future has to be wireless, but I imagine there are huge, huge latency, battery and signal strength issues to overcome first.
Again, this isn’t by any means a deal-breaker, but it is an annoyance. Once you factor in headphones, whose cable ritually becomes interwined with the headset’s, you might find yourself having to laboriously disentangle various cords in addition to powering everything off once you’re finished with a VR session. I might pick up some bluetooth headphones to reduce this problem somewhat, although if I’m fussy that likely means some degradation in audio quality.
Though, again, often my mind is being so thoroughly blown that this isn’t going to matter a jot in practice. And this is such a key thing with the Vive: principle vs practice. All these phsyical and technical compromises might well offend the principles of a set of a game-players who are used to having the best. In practice: amazing experiences. Which brings me neatly to…
On page four: games, other software and conclusions.