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HTC Vive Guide: Space, Comfort, Image Quality & More

What it's like to use a Vive in your house?

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What are the best HTC Vive games?

The most important proviso for everything I’ve written above, far bigger than my lack of space, only just-capable PC, complimentary hardware and oversized spectacles, is that, technically speaking, the Vive has not launched yet. All software I’ve tried, including firmware and the SteamVR application itself, is pre-released. The physical attributes of the hardware aside – resolution, cables, annoying whining sounds – everything is subject to change.

This is especially true of the handful of games and demos I have available: all are essentially pre-release, many don’t go far beyond proof of concept, some are designed only for behind-closed-doors demos in huge rooms, some were made for earlier versions of the hardware, and some are made with a more generalist VR approach in mind, rather than the Vive especially. Come April and beyond, there’s almost certainly going to be a deluge of updates and entirely new games, and much of what I’ve tried so far might become essentially irrelevant as far as encapsulating the Vive’s capabilities goes. I’ll be writing more about ‘full’ experiences further down the line, but for now here’s a very brief summary of the stuff I’ve used that is, for one reason or another, the most noteworthy. This isn’t exhaustive; partly because I’ve not tried quite everything yet, partly because I’d just be repeating myself for several of the demos.

Tilt Brush

By far and away the crown jewel of the pre-release demo and app bundle. Google’s VR painting tool is marvel both of creativity but also of what a virtual reality can mean. Mid-air paintings become vast, floating light sculptures which seem as real as anything really real. Scribbling with the motion controller, creating art from nothing, is both fluid and precise, and, to once again use that word I hate, about as magical as any experience I’ve ever had. Loading up the showcase images – enormous neon dragons, life-size, impressionistic crowds, a mushroom seeming sculpted out of clay – was to feel that museums and art galleries will be revolutionised in the coming years. Tilt Brush is the Vive’s killer app so far, without a doubt.

Aperture Robot Repair

A very funny vignette from the Portal universe, and perhaps the most dramatic statement about the Vive’s potential too. Its sights pointedly range from the tiny and intricate to the vast and vertiginous, and its artists and its engine have combined to make something which somehow looks so, so much sharper and more detailed than anything else I’ve yet tried.

Job Simulator Demo

A one-level slice of the upcoming Valve launch title. A good time for sure and one of the demos which think hard about interaction as well as awe, but we’re in the buffoonish physics side of things – a bit like playing Surgeon Simulator with a Wii. And also your senses being absolutely convinced that you are stood inside cartoonish robo-office from the near future.

That said, on the one hand you’re clumsily knocking over cups of coffee or struggling to push a plug into a socket, but on the other you’re getting to pick up and actually throw a convincing paper aeroplane. A sign of more precise things to come, perhaps. Job Sim is, I think, going to be one that you fire up to show off the Vive’s capabilities, but I don’t know how many times I’m likely to return to it for my own edification.

TheBlu: Encounter

Aka the one which most makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another world. You’re stood on the deck of sunken galleon, as ocean life both tiny and impossibly vast swims by. It’s incredible; a rewriting of what you believe computerised entertainment can do. But file under Experience rather than anything like a game. Nothing at all wrong with that – I look forwards to a steady stream of similar visits to impossible places.

Ninja Trainer Vive Demo

Fruit Ninja in VR. Again, a bit Wii-like, in that you’re swiping your controller as if it were a sword, but it’s so much less gimmicky when you’re actually ducking to avoid a melon that’s hurtling towards your eyeball. The most convincingly game-y thing I’ve tried so far (and a good workout too), but, y’know, it’s Fruit Ninja.

The Brookhaven Experiment Demo

Essentially a lightgun shooter in VR, though of course you get to move around phyiscally too. Zombies charge at you; you raise the sights of a gun (i.e. your controller) to your eye and shoot the shambling buggers. Simple and one-note but, as a proof of concept as to how VR FPSes might work, it’s got a lot to say. In a few weeks I’ll find out whether the full version of Brookhaven does more with the concept.

SculptVR

Minecraft meets Tiltbrush: this is about building worlds rather than mere images. Limited as it is but very natural to control with pleasingly immediate, grand-scale results. A very, very strong statement about how the next-gen of building games are going to work.

8i Portal

8i are experimenting with how VR home movies might work. The facility to record these things ourselves doesn’t exist yet, but 8i offers clips of how the results might look if we did. There’s a guy sat on a rock jutting out the side of a mountaintop; you control the camera circling around him, and the sense of vertigo is delectable. Another has a mother and baby recording a VR message for that child to play once it’s older. The mum witters as the baby crawls around the room, and you can move the camera anywhere within it. The actor is quite annoying, but as a proof of concept it got me pretty hard: if I could record full 3D, 360 VR clips of my beloved two-year-old now to look back upon once she’s a pissed-off teenager who hates my guts, I most certainly would.

Um. There’s another one with a girl in a bikini. Um. It’s… quite good. Um. Yeah, that future is totally happening for VR, for better or worse.

The Grand Canyon VR Experience

Not especially great in its own right: it doesn’t look as good as I’d hoped and involves too much exhausting, Wii-style paddling to control a canoe that’s semi-auto-piloted anyway. But in terms of ‘VR is going to recreate places you can’t otherwise visit in real life’, it got me excited. I want to spend my evening nosing around a VR Monument Valley instead of watching The Apprentice. I think this is going places, even if this particular demo isn’t quite there yet.

Whirligig

The only video player which works with the Vive so far, but I’m expecting there to be several probably superior experiences come April. It’s a pain to control – needs an Xbox controller – and anything high-def is treacly on it, but it’s basically an alpha and I expect to those things to improve significantly. It’s nonetheless good, because I am in the cinema. I am watching a film on a vast, vast screen, and I can move my head around to look at different parts of it or lean a little closer. It’s a big, big part of why I believe in VR. Granted, it’s entirely anti-social and that’s a hurdle to cross, but speaking as someone who can’t get to the cinema often because I have kids, and also as someone whose partner doesn’t want to watch genre films and TV with him, it’s a dream. It’s even amazing for telly: I watched an ancient Doctor Who episode on it and it seemed impossibly cinematic, wobbly sets and all.

It also leads to another thought: I want to play standard games like this. Not even made VR-specific: just playing them on a massive, curved, ultrawide veirtual monitor. Sure, there’s the res issue, but I think I can cope with that. I’ve long been tempted to pick up an ultra-widescreen, high-refresh curved jobbie but always baulk at the price. Perhaps with SteamVR Desktop Theater I don’t need one.

Conclusions

  • Yes, you need a helluva lot of space for the room-scale stuff, and that’s going to be an insurmountable problem for a great many people. However, some of the best applications, like movie-watching and Tilt Brush, can be used from a seated position.
  • Think of it as a 720p device which nonetheless requires a 1440p-capable PC.
  • Motion sickness isn’t an issue, in my experience.
  • Don’t think of it only in terms of image quality. This is about the rewriting of your senses. Come for the genuinely astounding, reality-altering experience, not for the visual fidelity. If that’s something you just can’t come to terms with, stick with ultra-res, high-refresh monitors until we’re a couple of VR generations down the line.
  • In terms of games, almost all bets are still off until the consumer release in a few weeks – and beyond.
  • The physical hardware is high quality. You’re not going to feel short-changed in that respect.
  • Tilt Brush is a landmark piece of software.
  • I’m absolutely a VR believer, even more so now that I’m using a Vive regularly, but I don’t feel that it’s moving anywhere near the mainstream with this generation of hardware (though mobile headsets may be a different story). As fantastic some of the experiences I’ve had are, my advice if you can’t spend the money comfortably is to wait a year or so longer to see how the whole market shakes out. if you can spend it comfortably, a) please will you buy me a bigger house? and b) yeah, get a Vive. It’s pretty, pretty good.

Any questions, shout ’em below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Thank you to Valve for providing the hardware. We’ll be writing more about the Vive once units begin to reach consumers and the first wave of games has been released. We’ll be doing the same for the Oculus Rift once we have one too.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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