Pity me. I have two different VR headsets in my house, so my PC is a mess of cables, USB hubs and strained video output adaptors. My suffering is unimaginable. I have swaddled myself in wires and made my forehead sweat for your benefit, however: to try and give you some sense of how the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive compare to each other in daily practice. While many of the baseline specs are all but identical, there are a raft of smaller differences between the two, even once the matter of the Vive’s room-scale support is discounted. I do, somewhat reluctantly, now have one headset I recommend over the other at this point in time, but with important caveats.
Both headsets have the same resolution (2160×1200, or 1080×1200 per eye) same refresh rate (90 Hz) and same field of view, so any meaningful difference in image quality can be ruled out right out of the gates, as can hardware requirements. However, I have found the Rift to be noticeably clearer at the sides of the image, whereas there’s quite a bit of blur on anything I’m not looking directly at in the Vive. I think this is to do with more the more blatant Fresnel rings carved into the Vive’s lenses, whereas the Rift’s are a clear surface.
Against this is that the Rift’s image suffers from some ghosting, particularly around text – a slight doubling of edges. Oddly, this disappears if I remove the foam faceguard, but then I’ve got the lenses pushing right into my eyeballs and ow. I also tried an awkward, delicate hybrid – using the Vive’s smaller faceguard on the Rift, which was the best of both worlds, save for the fact it looked dumb and fell out whenever I removed the headset.
I’ll also note that I seem to suffer far more motion sickness on the Rift than I do the Vive. I’m not sure of the reason for this, though again I wonder about the differing Fresnel design of the lenses, but I can’t pretend it hasn’t been a big problem. I’ve never felt particularly ill with the Vive, although if I use it too much I end up with a lingering tunnel vision effect for a day or more, but I’ve often felt queasy within a few minutes of using the Rift, and the feeling has remained with me for hours if I’ve tried to keep playing through it.
I’d presumed this was a software thing – the lurching zero-g of ADR1FT, the wild speed of Quake – but then it happened while I was watching Game Of Thrones using Virtual Desktop, which I’ve also used for video-watching on the Vive, and so now I don’t know what to think. There are plenty of circumstances where this didn’t happen on Rift – American Truck Simulator, and some 360 nature video narrated by Dominic West who was for some reason doing his McNulty voice, for instance, so I’m struggling to identity a clear cause. Full disclosure: I am a sufferer of motion-sickness in real-life. Long car journeys and fairground rides are tricky. So there’s every chance most Rift users will be unaffected. But again, it doesn’t happen to me on the Vive. Odd one. Short answer though: Vive becomes my comfort choice, and Rift the quality choice.
This is true in other arenas, too. While on paper the Vive has the technological edge, with its dual base stations and room-scale capabilities, its Steam integration and Android phone notification stuff, the hardware itself lacks a certain finesse that can be found all over the Rift. For a start, Oculus’ headset looks and feels better, with a fabric covering and a slightly slimmer profile. It feels like an expensive item, whereas in-hand the plasticky Vive feels a bit like a tiny bicycle helmet. Even strap adjustment feels that little bit more polished.
There’s also the matter of cables. Let me do a breakdown, actually.
1 x HDMI
1 x USB 3.0 for headset
1x USB 3.0 for motion sensor
1 x HDMI
1 x USB 3.0 for headset/hub
1 x power for headset/hub
2x power for Lighthouse base stations
1x headphone plug
Optional: connecting cable between Lighthouses for large rooms
And this is underselling it a little. While the Rift has all its electronics divided between the headset and microphone-esque desktop sensor, the Vive has a cigarette packet-sized breakout box, which has three cables going in and three going out – power, HDMI and USB. Unlike the Rift, which draws all its power from USB, the Vive must be plugged into the wall, which means there’s a third more cabling going on right out of the gates, worsened by the fact that one of them is likely stretching off in a different direction from the other two.
Add to that the interim breakout box meaning that each of those three cables effectively has a big, inflexible lump in the middle and you end up with this mad nest of wires that’s so much harder to tuck away out of sight. My desk looks much uglier with a Vive than it does with a Rift, basically – but I entirely appreciate that the Vive is doing a bit more, both in terms of the base stations and communicating with its two wireless controllers (which I’ll talk more about shortly).
That’s before we get to the matter of the umbilical cords which run from the headsets. The Rift’s dual connections are bound into one relatively svelte cable whose attachment to the headset is positioned in such a way that it naturally runs down the side of the head rather than the base of the skull, so there’s no issue with sitting back in a full-backed chair. The Vive, though, has three cables only loosely strung together, with a shorter fourth one alongside it for headphones, and it’s all affixed so that it runs directly down the back of your head, making for a heavy weight and an uncomfortable lump if you try to sit back.
In some respects it’s a minor difference, as in either case you’re inescapably wearing a plastic facebox tethered to your PC, but I find myself regularly trying to twitch the Vive cable out of the way of my arms or to smooth it down against my head, whereas the Rift’s is just on and done. I’m simply less aware that there’s a cable hanging off my head. It’s slicker, it’s more comfortable and overall I want to use the Rift more than I do the Vive, motion sickness notwithstanding.
Four other neat touches further cement that feeling. The first is a tiny sensor built into the Rift that sees its display turn on and off automatically when put upon or removed from your bonce. The Vive doesn’t have this. This is handy in Oculus-specific games, which will auto-pause or even offer a desktop mode when the headset’s removed, but it also makes day-to-day running of VR that little bit slicker. With the Vive, you need to manually gun up the Steam VR software if you want to use the hardware, and if you leave it running you can expect more noise, heat and energy drawn from your graphics card. The Rift’s Home software, by contrast, slumbers in the background, springing quickly to life when you don the headset, then everything calms down when it’s removed.
In this, the Rift feels like a far more modern and finished package, whereas there’s a slight jankiness to basic software usage of the Vive. However, this isn’t as clear cut as it sounds. Let’s be honest, how many of us really want to be using the Oculus Home software to buy games? And if we’re not buying games from it, what purpose does it serve?
The Vive, by contrast, is completely integrated into Steam, the place most of us probably want to be. Granted, there are quite a few Oculus exclusives on Home for the time being, so I suppose for the best and broadest possible VR gaming experience you are going to need it, but I suspect it will be grudgingly – and I expect too that we’ll see more cross-pollination between stores over time.
The good news is that Steam VR has a measure of support for the Rift already, and you can bring up much of its interface if you wish – although it’s a bit unpredictable and a lot of the terminology and UI is so clearly designed for Vive that using it can be a bit of a headache. I expect this to smooth out over time though; given that Oculus have now dropped the DRM which was preventing Rift software from running on Vive, it wouldn’t be foolish to expect that Steam will make more UI concessions to their rival too. I’ll come back to the Steam VR software in a bit though, because there are other ways in which it’s far superior to Oculus’.
The second of those other smaller edges the Rift has over the Vive is noise. Its expensive-looking, microphone-like sensor looks a bit like something Picard would use to browbeat Riker from his quarters with, and as such almost looks like a desktop ornament, whereas the Vive’s Lighthouses look like speakers from an entry-level surround sound kit, but realistically both are fairly subtle. However, the Lighthouses emit a constant, distracting whirr – not enough to disrupt game-playing or music-listening, but if the room’s otherwise silent you’ll definitely notice it, and probably start worrying about your electricity bill too. The Rift’s sensor is to all intents and purposes silent. I don’t even think about turning it off, whereas I physically disconnect the Vive’s Lighthouses whenever I’m done VRing.
Now, reportedly the consumer release Vive’s Lighthouses do shut themselves off after a period of disuse or when Steam VR is exited, which would certainly help a bit, but the Vive Pre kit I have can’t do that (I believe it is otherwise identical to the consumer Vive, bar a different name printed on the straps). So I can’t speak to how much this would help ameliorate the situation. As it stands for me, I’m having to manually remove the Lighthouses’ power cables if I want that annoying noise to stop, and replug them if I want to go VR again. It takes seconds, yes, but when coupled with the need to gun up the Steam VR software, somehow using the Vive feels like a bit of an offputting effort, whereas the Rift is ready and waiting. Again though – this is in theory slightly improved on the release Vive.
OK, minor finessing the third. The Rift has built in earphones, which are fixed to rotating and flexing arms which allow you to make them sit flush against your ears, angle them quickly out the way to listen to the real world and generally never have to worry about blindly scrabbling around to find the right earpiece once the headset’s on. By contrast, the Vive requires external earphones, attached either to a dangling 3.5mm plug on the back of the headset or into a USB port hidden under a removable plastic hatch on its top.
This is great in terms of allowing you total choice over what earphones to use, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got myself into a nightmare cat’s cradle of wires because my headphones’ cables have become entangled with the Vive’s, sometimes to the point that it’s tricky to actually extricate myself from the whole kit and kaboodle. Or how many times I’ve been blindly groping around to find the 3.5mm socket while wearing the headset, or to identify which earphone is left and which is right. It is so much easier to simply flip down the Rift’s earphones, which to my non-audiophile ears seem perfectly up to the job of both games and movies.
I won’t pretend I have golden ears, but I like a good headphone, can instantly hear the difference between cheap’n’nasty and decent ones, and have summarily binned many a bundled phone or MP3 player headset because of that. As yet, I have no complaints about Oculus’. They’re not going to satisfy anyone who favours Beats-like bass exaggeration, but it’s a crisp, clear, neutral sound, which is my own preference. They’re also light and very comfortable – because the frame of the headset is holding them in place and bearing their weight, rather than that it’s something else pushing down on your skull or jammed inside your ears.
In theory, the integrated phones allows Oculus complete control over the audio pipeline, which on paper means better positional sound, but as yet I haven’t noticed a meaningful difference there.
Against the Rift in this regard is that, while its earphones can be removed if you wish to use your own instead, there isn’t a built-in audio-output on the headset, so you’ll end up with an extra cable trailing to your PC – quite probably a short one too, which is likely to limit your movement quite a bit. Though it remains my own preferred device, it’s without question the inferior device if you’re absolutely set on using your own headphones.
The fourth added touch is a slight tilt fuction built into the Rift’s visor, which enables me to see at least some of the real world without having to prise the whole device off my face. To do this with the Vive involves a fair bit more strap-stretching and forehead-mounting. Minor, but again adds to that overall sense that the Rift got a touch more final TLC (or Zuckerbucks, as the case may be) than the Vive did.
Let’s move onto controllers, which is one area in which the Vive streaks far ahead of the Rift – at least for the time being. Notoriously, the Rift’s Touch controllers have been delayed and will be sold separately (Rift pre-orderers will receive an unspecific discount and priority places in the queue, if there is one), so for now an Xbox One controller and wireless USB receiver is included in the box instead. It’s a solid controller and the wireless dongle is appreciated, though it requires manual battery replacement rather than has a built-in rechargeable one.
The Vive, by contrast, comes with two wand-like motion controllers, which behave like super-clocked Wiimotes, capable of great precision as well as ramping up the sci-fi wonder of VR. To use these wands to paint ethereal 3D scenes in Tiltbrush is to feel like stepping into tomorrow, while Fantastic Contraption makes VR feel physical as well as visual. They’re an important part of the VR jigsaw, without question. The motion controllers are also rechargeable via standard micro USB (two chargers are included in the box), although long-term this may be problematic, as the batteries gradually lose their charge. I’ll also note that, physically and aesthetically, the controllers feel very high-end – more so than the headset itself.
The Rift winds up feeling so much more… ordinary because it lacks anything like this, because it doesn’t offer what feels like a ‘real’ way to interact with a virtual world. On the other hand, the motion controllers, with their limited buttons and with character movement shifted to your actual body (and the floorspace restrictions that entails), horribly clumsy D-pad clicking or awkward point’n’teleport systems, really struggle to do the trick in traditional games. If you want to make a character move and jump and shoot and all that age-old jazz, the wands can’t hold a candle to a gamepad (or keyboard and mouse, if you’re enough of a touch-typer to be able to use them blind).
Importantly though, you can use any old gamepad with the Vive just as you can the Rift – it’s just that you don’t get one in the box. I’ll warrant that most frequent PC gamers have something hanging around though, otherwise you should be able to track down a 360 one for around £20. Steam VR also supports the Steam Controller, if you have one.
The Rift also includes a little wireless pointer with a couple of buttons on it. It’s neat for navigating Oculus Home but doesn’t really serve a purpose otherwise – you might as well use the Xbox pad. It might come into its own a little more as a remote control for video or as a desk-free mouse in Windows, but realistically that will require third-party apps such as Whirligig and Virtual Desktop amping up their support for it. I’m fairly sure mine’s just going in a drawer, to be honest.
So, for now it’s a hands-down victory for the Vive when it comes to controllers, though that could well change once the Oculus Touch controllers arrrive – depending, of course, on how much they cost. Yes, the Vive was significantly more expensive than the Rift in the first place, but I expect any early VR adopter is going to balk at spending more cash on a platform whose immediate future seems increasingly uncertain.
Onto software, by which I mean the official VR applications rather than the range of games – I’m not actually going to go into the latter yet, because I feel like that side of things is still shaking out, and in any case a great deal of it is available on both headsets anyway.
Oculus Home is a store and a library of purchased applications. There’s a smattering of free stuff amidst a few familiar paid names and then many more unfamiliar ones with what is likely to be considered high prices. The environment is lovely – a large, well-decorated room with an open fire and a sense of quiet grandeur. Realistically though, you’re only going to look around it once, and focus only on the menus within it. And it’s fixed. By contrast, Steam VR’s environment can be tweaked hugely, from the backdrop to 3D objects within it, and to what the controllers and Lighthouses appear as.
I’ve been on the Death Star, I’ve floated in space, I’ve walked through giant azure seascapes, I’ve got my Lighthouses dressed as 2001’s HAL and my controllers carved out of wood. Quite often, I go tweak all this stuff and download new skins or environments from the Steam Workshop just as a virtual activity in and of itself – a chance to go and experience a brand new place without having to worry about controls or content.
Steam VR also offers the option for a desktop view, so you don’t have to take the headset on and off to interact with Windows or check a notification, but clarity and comfort are too compromised to do this for long. In other words, Steam VR has better-realised some concept of futuristic computing than Oculus Home has. Though, of course, you can use the Rift to some extent with Steam VR too, and I expect that support to expand over time.
As do I general game support. Despite Oculus’ recent claims that they plan to fund more Rift exclusives, any smart developer is going to want to support both headsets, and indeed any more which might turn up. That said, given the current VR audience is a tiny minority of PC users, I imagine funding from either Oculus or Valve may be essential for a great many projects to get off the ground. Given that most of the market is effectively priced out of owning either headset, I fear there will be a great many casualties among VR developers nonetheless.
Back to the main VR hub apps. Maddeningly, both refuse keyboard and mouse support – there appears to be some bloody-minded determination from both parties that the future of computing does not involve the PC’s traditional sword and shield. Given that I primarily use VR while sat in my chair rather than standing or – don’t make me laugh – walking, I find myself scrabbling around the desk for different controllers all the time. This is particularly infuriating as I am personally capable of using K+M blind, because I am surely some sort of superhuman. I hope that keyboard and mouse support will arrive at some point – it simply seems needless to exclude them.
This brings me onto the final point of comparison, that being locational tracking. The Oculus Rift can track where your head is and what direction it’s facing, at a range of a few feet. The Vive can track, effectively, where your entire body is across a several metres square space, and once the motion controllers are factored in it can also detect the position of each hand too. This means that you can walk around a room while wearing a Vive, whereas the Rift is limited to sitting and standing. In fact, it can detect some movement within a small radius, and you won’t miss out on 360 degrees of rotation in order to gaze at some vast sight in awe, but right now, no, you can’t wander freely around an impossible place. Both headsets support standing, which I think is an under-reported middleground between seated and room-scale VR, and a cheap, neat way of feeling as though you’re inside a place rather than being an audience to it.
Frankly though, the jury’s still out on whether you can truly do much room-scale stuff in the Vive, at least at home rather than in some public place. Despite official reassurances that the device’s room-scale support would be suitable for the average house, the reality is that few people can comfortably clear enough floorspace for the 1.5×1.5m minimum, let alone the dramatic scale of the 3.0×3.0m maximum. I can kind of fudge the minimum so long as I don’t mind a few banged ankles or occasionally clonking the front of the headset against a bay window, but it just hasn’t proved to be something I want to do often enough to justify all the floor-tidying and chairs-on-beds necessary each time I fire it up. At one point I was seriously considering buying a flip-up wall bed, but my enthusiasm for VR after a few months with it has cooled enough that there’s no way I’d do it.
I do think room-scale VR is fantastic and rich with possibilities, but right now those are not for games. They’re for more simply experiential stuff: wandering slowly around impossible constructs or virtual museums, with freedom to look from all angles, not actually sprinting and leaping about the place. Again, my number one Vive app is the Google sculpting toy Tiltbrush, because as well as the thrill of creating something seemingly physical from nothing, you get to step back to take it in, walk around to the other side of it, or go stand in the middle of it. So far, this hasn’t gotten old.
Room-scale is an incredible possibility-space for sightseeing and for creation, but for gaming I think it’s only suitable for a minority of cases. Having to turn around regularly, having your movement hindered by the weight and length of the cable in addition to any floorspace restrictions – I just can’t see it working. Longterm, a wireless headset used with some gonzo AR overlay onto the outside world yes, embarrassment factors aside, but right now the reality is that I just want to sit down and use a controller or a keyboard and mouse to play games, using the headset as essentially an ultimate first-person perspective. I also use it to watch films on a virtual big screen, although the blockier, softer picture and headset discomforts means that I’m increasingly struggling to argue that this is really superior to watching them on my mid-range 42″ TV.
If that is how you primarily expect to use a VR headset, then the cheaper but slicker Oculus Rift is very much my recommendation. Even the Vive’s trump card, the motion controllers, serve less of a purpose there – as well as their unsuitability to moving a game character around, you simply don’t get quite the range of movement from a seated position that you do from standing or roaming. Again though, don’t forget that you can use a gamepad with the Vive anyway.
The jury is still out on sofware and games – there’s more coming out all the time, and as well as the likelihood that many will support both devices, many are still being experimental with interfaces, and we can expect standards to be reached in time. Whether those are VR-specific new standards or reverting to sat-down, gamepad-controlled type remains to be seen. I’m just not comfortable naming software or games as a deciding factor in which headset to get, not yet. Tiltbrush is the closest thing to a killer app on either, but I’m expecting either that or something very similar to show up for Oculus Touch once that’s out anyway.
As for the overall matter of which headset to get, here’s my answer: neither, not yet. Not unless you can definitely, comfortably afford it, and a highish-end graphics card too. I was as excited as it was possible to be about VR before these things landed in my home, and used them to death when they first arrived, but now I only turn them on a couple of times a week, if that, and usually it’s to quickly check out some new game or experience that I play once and never again. That said, once the rescaled version of American Truck Simulator is out, I’m definitely taking a day off to drive around the West coast with the full headset and steering wheel ultro-gonk setup.
Really, I feel that VR on PC right now is something done out of curiosity, not because it offers a reliably great time. The combination of image quality restrictions – it needs a higher resolution to spare it from its current 720p-esque appearance – and physical limitations, be they discomfort or cabling, adds up to a sense that this stuff just isn’t quite ready yet. No-one’s pretending that this isn’t just the first roll of the device, of course, and I don’t imagine that either Valve or Oculus expected to sell many of these things just yet, but I do worry that it’s launched too soon, and that future consumer appetite could be severely harmed by that.
However, VR is super-cool. I’m not telling you to shun it. It’s just that I believe, at some point in the next couple of years, either we’ll get far superior headsets or these current ones will be dramatically discounted. Or both, even. Hang fire: presuming the entire VR industry doesn’t collapse entirely, things are going to get better and more affordable.
If you absolutely, positively must buy a VR headset now, whether because you have a specific usage in mind (like me and my trucks) or because you’re lucky enough to have the money to burn, my choice would be the Oculus Rift. It’s simply a nicer piece of kit with a clutch of small tweaks and features that make it easier and more of a pleasure to use, even if its capabilities aren’t quite up to those of the Vive. Even that may change in future – not just the Touch controllers, but also the possibility of introducing extra sensors into the mix so it can operate across a larger space. The fact that it’s a bit cheaper for what is in most cases a similar experience helps too. The Vive is definitely the best of the best in terms of VR possibilities right now, yes, both in terms of room-scale and motion controllers, but I’m just not sure that’s best enough to warrant the extra cash, especially given the absence of the Rift’s smaller bells and whistles.
That said, you probably want a Vive instead of a Rift if you get sick on coach journeys.