I need to put a huge proviso on this piece. I have readily forecast that VR will be an eventual flop for years, as I did here. My argument is, succinctly, that it will not get a broad enough userbase for major publishers to recoup the hundreds of millions they’d need to spend on triple-A games, so will remain a novelty for relatively well-off tech enthusiasts. I stand by that argument.
I am also a relatively well-off tech enthusiast. I’m excited to play with VR ideas, and see what it can do for gaming. My suspicions are: “not very much”, but I’m interested to see the process, really hoping to be surprised. Valve sent us a few HTC Vive Pres, the pre-release version of the technology, and I’ve been trying to get one to work for a while now. I now look at it with a burning hatred, having suffered for so long trying to set it up. Here’s why:
The Vive isn’t going to be a huge success for so many reasons, from the tech being nowhere near good enough yet, to the ridiculous notion of walking around a room wearing a headset with a massive cable tying you to the PC. But most of all the astonishing price. I didn’t even pay for it and my bank balance got anxiety. It will sell enough units for them to boast of running out, enough to declare early success, but nowhere near enough for Ubisoft to make their next Assassin’s Creed VR only. Not even close. And of course that’s what it needs to be to really have a significant impact on the market.
At launch, despite a ludicrous 61 VR games suddenly appearing unfiltered on Steam in an overwhelming pile of early access half-ideas, there is no major unit-selling game available. Even Valve have only knocked together a mini-game collection – just think about that. Think about how extraordinary it is to launch their purportedly world-changing room-scale VR unit, and not even themselves make a game for it. I find that incredible. But having struggled with this thing for so long, I’m really not surprised.
Alec has written a proper grown-up guide to the HTC Vive, exploring in-depth various aspects and issues, with more professionalism than I could even begin to muster. My response here is a purely personal, emotional one. I have roared in rage this morning so much that my throat hurts. And that was just trying to get the fucking base units to stay still.
Setting up a Vive is no mean feat. The box comes with about two hundred and seventy further boxes inside, miles of wires, and more cable ties than I’ve ever seen in one place. It becomes almost immediately apparent that unless you live in an opulent mansion, getting this set up is going to be a massive bodge. The idea is you place two base units (some say “lighthouses”) at opposite corners of your spare ballroom, in a high enough position such that they can see each other, and scan every square foot of the room from floor to ceiling. No games journalist has a room like this, unless they work for Polygon, because people tend to put things in their rooms like furniture. And very little furniture lies flush to the wall, unless it’s painted on.
I have a room that is, even accounting for Valve’s massive – er… I’m not allowed to write “lie” – understatement that you need only a space the size of two yoga mats, big enough for the minimum floor space. Barely. Like, by a centimetre. But despite that, it remains impossible for me to put the base units in any position that can actually see that space. I even have bookshelves in opposite corners, but placing one base unit on each has proven to be the most aneurysm-inducing misery of my recent times.
Shelves stick out, you see, and for it to see floor to ceiling, the unit too needs to protrude further. After rigging ridiculous set-ups of balanced boxes to place the units at the right angles, they were both sticking out too far for them to see the controllers at the extremes of the room – so the space shrunk and isn’t big enough. Attempts to drill into walls and ceilings proved futile as the brackets supplied need two-inch holes. I re-jigged my jerry-rigs, managed to get them into positions set far back enough to see what they need to see, and… then the screaming began.
One rotated until it was facing the wall, the other leapt from its solid base and fell to the floor. Why? Because someone at HTC decided the best idea in the world was to make the base units as light as possible, but supply the most astoundingly heavy mains cables for each. Because they have to be high up, I had a couple of metres of this thick wire pulling on them, meaning they slowly, perhaps even at first imperceptibly, started moving themselves out of position.
Even hooking the wires around things didn’t help me – just a few inches of this elephantine cable was enough to move the marshmallow-light box. Sticking them with sticky things failed me. And worst, even when I’d managed to do something close to useful, those arsehole base units vibrate. Just a tiny bit, but enough. And the vibration changes depending upon whether it has signal or not, ensuring that they gradually wobbled themselves loose. Oh, and the one with the loose something-or-other inside it occasionally steps up from vibrating to RATTLING. My favourite bit. I know many have managed to get the units in good places and have them work. I have not. I won’t be alone.
Then comes the room set-up. My PC desk isn’t within the square of floor area in which I intend to play these VR games because THEN IT WOULD BE IN THE FLOOR SPACE. So every time I go to the PC to do anything, the software starts screaming that it’s lost sight of the headset and controllers, things start panicking, the VR view goes to a blank blue just in case it weren’t already stupid enough, and then it all calms back down when I step back. That’s some smart design right there.
Anyway, I have that panic while I click to run the room set up, which amazingly requires repeatedly moving back and forth from your PC to the empty space. Stand in the middle of the room and fire a controller at your monitor. Use the mouse to click next. Put the controllers on the floor, click next. Then it’s time to trace the outer limits of your play area. And oh my God, I have only swears at this point. Here is my truthful response to doing that:
“Fuck this shitty piece of fucking shite.”
Here’s a more eloquent translation: Despite being able to see on the display on the monitor that it can see the controller, can see me waggling it about, the moment I hold down the trigger to start tracing the edge it decides it’s gone invisible. Let go, waggle, it’s there. Hold trigger, it’s vanished. Start a little farther into the room, less eventual floor-space, and start tracing, and then despite being fully in view of both units it loses tracking halfway along the first edge. About 28 times in a row. By the time I’d managed to draw all four sides of the space, without its entirely randomly drawing massive triangular indentations into the space that it, for reasons only it can know, chose to imagine, an hour had gone by. But at least I could play.
Except of course not. If I stand between the two base units at any time, the whole thing pulls the emergency lever and switches itself to blank. It’s unbearable, and extremely (literally) nauseous. I’m nearly 6 foot tall, my shelves are maybe seven feet tall. With the units pointing downward to see anything, I’m going to walk between them. I don’t have a choice. My high-ceilinged 400-seater dining room is busy being polished today, so I’m restricted to a regular human room in a regular human house. When I finally get The Lab booted, the in-game representations of my controllers keep vanishing. I’ve no idea why. And the space I’m playing in is so tiny that the holodeck warning meshes that appear when I’m about to headbutt a wall are ever-present because either side is so close.
Then one of the in-game controllers keeps jumping up above my head. I waggle it, and it rejoins me in my hand. Then jumps up above my head. Again and again. I’m trying to throw a stick for a robot dog, while teleporting between the designated standing places in this mountain vista, like some FMV rush-job of the early 90s, and reality keeps jiggling around me. The virtual floor slides slightly, and I nearly fall over. Then the world starts stammering, and I feel sick. I stand still, move myself out from between the two lighthouses, and for a brief moment get a clear, steady view. I pick up the stick, throw it, and I see nothing but an empty white room. Removing the headset, my monitor tells me the game has crashed. And I’m done with VR for today. (And as usual, my computer’s sound and video are borked and I have to reboot to have anything work again.)
Previous attempts have had me wow at theBlu’s demo, the blue whale being truly majestic. The Vive is clearly capable of offering those moments, but for me they’re just moments. Shortly after in the same demo the shipwreck grotesquely slid around me and I was dizzy. I want to laugh and enjoy Job Simulator, but the glitches and the way even with the warnings I kept whacking my hands into the wall make it an ordeal. I have had such a miserable time, despite being genuinely excited to play with this new toy.
The cable from the headset is like a joke. My wife, on having a go (she was very impressed), laughed when she saw the cable. Then tripped over it multiple times when she couldn’t hear my warnings for having headphones in. It’s an inch wide, so heavy. I know VR can’t yet remove the lag with wireless headsets, but if this is the best we can do, it’s really not worth trying. Cords like this are going to be as laughable as early ’90s brick-sized mobile phones. And despite all this heavy-duty work, the results aren’t so great. The images are grainy, the refresh rate just isn’t fast enough even at 90fps, and the equipment too cumbersome.
I think most of all, room-scale VR makes games more difficult to play. The number of restrictions it puts on doing what we currently take for granted massively out-weigh the novelty of being surrounded by the game’s world, of physically moving within it. Both those things are so damned cool, and were I to have a mansion large enough and walls thick enough to have it comfortably set up, I would delight in the fun that briefly offered.
There’s something uniquely amazing about physically reaching your hand out to touch something in a game. But then I remember how much I enjoy being able to run freely around a game’s world without having to teleport or feel like I’m in a falling lift. How rarely I think to myself, “I AM STARING AT A FLAT MONITOR SCREEN” when I’m enjoying a game. How pleasant it is not to walk into furniture or trip over wires when playing a video game. And, perhaps most significantly, how much I enjoy playing games that last more than twenty minutes.
Room-scale VR’s time will come. In a couple of decades, when we’re all old, old people, it will be a pair of glasses with no wires and it will be bloody amazing. But today it’s still really the parody of the late ’80s giant headsets, only marginally less giant. As for the Vive itself – well, for those who live in vast palaces there’s potential for brief entertainment, but I can’t see any realistic prospect of long-term durability. I’d love to be wrong, though.