Step into the future with the HTC Vive

Man with HTC Vive Headset

The virtual world is now open, and it’s worth the entry fee

“This is the future!”

            “It’s so real!”

                        “Oh my God what just flew past me?”

                                    “WOW!”

                                                “Ok, this is the real deal. This is it.”

                                                            “Show me something else!”

                                                                        “Hey, come look at this!”

These are all things you might hear when you watch someone try out the HTC Vive. If you’ve ever watched a grown adult play in the snow for the first time, you’ll have some idea of the reactions people have when they take their first step into real VR.

Recently I got to spend some time getting lost in this strange new world, and discovered that it really does it live up to the hype. If you’ve only seen VR through Cardboard-style headsets, trust me; you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

HMD Name: Vive
Designer: HTC/Valve Corporation
Website: http://www.htcvr.com/
Estimated price Prices vary according to country, and can be found at HTCVive.com.
Display type: OLED
Resolution: 1080×1200 per eye
Headset Field of view: 110 degree FOV
Base station Field of view: 120 degrees FOV
Head tracking: Proprietary Lighthouse pulsed laser tracking
Eye Tracking: No
Audio: 3.5mm audio jack for headphones (not included)
Voice: Built in microphone
Refresh rate: 90Hz
Latency: TBA/Unknown
Optics: IPD and diopter adjustment options allow for adjustment of lenses for eye relief.
Inputs: 1x HDMI 1.4 or DisplayPort 1.2 and 1x USB 2.0
Type: Tethered to computer

Setting up the HTC Vive

First, a confession. I didn’t set this up myself, as I am not the world’s most competent technician and I tend to break things, but I did watch someone else have at it while I sat on the couch being patient.  This gave me a fair idea of the effort involved, as well as some insights from a VR developer perspective.

How long does it take to set up the HTC Vive?

Getting the HTC Vive out of the box and ready to play with took about half an hour, which is a fair estimate assuming you’ve already planned ahead, cleared your future playspace and made sure you have some way to get those cameras really high up. If your delivery has not yet arrived and you don’t want to spend your first day of HTC Vive ownership cursing your own lack of planning, I’d suggest spending $20 on some 7ft high lampstands.

The generous 120° field of view is very forgiving, and playspace setup is simpler than you might expect. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it pretty intuitive and didn’t cause any major head-scratching.

Playspace setup and camera placement

Camera setup tips for the HTC Vive

  • Height is more important than exact location. It’s worth getting the cameras as high up as you can, and the larger you can make your playspace the better it will be.
  • Cameras are best set several feet from the corner of your playspace as long as they have a clear line of sight, but you’ll most likely need to play around with this until you get it working perfectly.
  • Cameras should not be close to bright light sources such as windows. If you have windows in your room, I suggest closing the blinds when using the Vive.

How much computer does it take to run a HTC Vive?

One thing is clear – you will definitely need a decent rig. We first tried ours on a brand new AlienWare system with an Intel Core i7-6700K processor and a GeForce GTX 970 graphics card with 4GB of GDDR5. All the games we tried out worked well, and while it did crash a few times running test environments this was most likely down to software rather than hardware and will not be an issue for most users.

Since then, developers we’ve spoken to have found that the HTC Vive  works well on Cyberpower PCs with Core I7 processors and a variety of graphics cards, including Nvidia 960-980TI and AMD 380x, even though the GTX 960 is below the recommended specs.  Acer and Alienware systems also hold up well.

Laptops with mobile parts do not run the HTC Vive as successfully. However, laptops built with desktop CPUs and GPUs (for example a 4Ghz Core I7 and a GTX 980) can work very well, but they have very limited battery life.

If you’re thinking of getting a HTC Vive and want to find out whether your PC or laptop will run it, you can find the official HTC Vive PC build requirements and test your PC here.

Porting Games To The HTC Vive

If you’ve already started developing an experience for the Vive and can’t wait to walk around in it for the first time, the news is good.  While porting games to Vive is not trivial, it’s still faster than porting to mobile, XBox or anything else we’ve seen before. Ours arrived around 3pm, and it took until late evening to get the initial build runnning.This will obviously vary based on project size and scope.

Inside The HTC Vive

Putting the HTC Vive headset on for the first time was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. Suddenly I wasn’t in my world any more – I was inside Troy and Abed’s Imaginarium, standing in a dark space with a glowing green grid delineating my playspace. Then I loaded up my first game, and any lingering remnants of the real world dropped away. Scenery I’d seen on screen was now real, huge and right in front of me, and the perception shift this caused was exhilarating.  Compared to mobile VR, it’s like the difference between watching a film in the highest quality 3D compared to watching a YouTube video on your phone. It’s the difference between a picture of a tree and an actual tree.

Controlling environments  and moving around

While some environments are easier to control than others, moving around is easy, effortless and fun. At first you move around tentatively, letting your senses adjust to the world like a baby taking its first steps. Then you start to get the hang of it and suddenly it becomes a natural extension of your body. You can fly, you zoom, and throw things at other things with ease.

You do need to watch out for the wires, and whether you leave them lying on the floor or use an overhead hook, it’s worth regularly taking the headset off and making sure you haven’t created your own personal booby trap. If you do use an overhead rig, be careful of crossing your own path and knocking the headset off. Tripping over cables is a real risk, so try and keep them tidy, or have someone around to keep an eye on you as you move around.

Key features that make the HTC Vive stand out

Room scale VR is totally immersive, the controllers are easy to use (and there are two of them), movement and the use of in-game features quickly becomes intuitive, and it really feels like you’ve stepped into another world. Provided you keep your playspace tidy you can move around without worrying about the boundaries; you’ll know where they are at all times.

Main development challenges inherent in PC-based VR systems

The HTC Vive’s groundbreaking features all have their own inherent problems to solve. These are worth thinking about if you develop VR experiences, or if there are things in the real world that make you scream like a little girl. These could even ruin the VR experience entirely for certain users, and whether or not these early issues become large problems depends on the way in which developers adapt to early player feedback.

It’s *totally* immersive

This is awesome – as long as you are ok with being totally immersed. If you’re not a fan of surprises, people standing behind you, or certain types of movement, well, let’s just say you might end up letting out a few high-pitched squeaks. High tech VR feels incredibly ‘real’, and that won’t be a good thing for everyone.

If you do have worries about being freaked out by VR, it’s well worth noting the enormous potential the playing practical jokes on unsuspecting HTC Vive users. If you’ve had a nasty experience that left you with a deep desire to avoid certain situations, it’s a good idea to play on your own, or with people who won’t pull daft stunts when you are wearing an eight hundred buck hat.  It also means that trying VR at a public event might raise issues for some users, and VR dev teams showcasing games in public need to take this into account and make sure users feel comfortable enough to become truly immersed.

The HTC Vive control pads are versatile and easy to use, but they’re all you’ve got

The controllers are intuitive to use and work very well, but looking down and not seeing feet may make you feel like the Invisible Man. It’s weird to experience life as a floating head, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the nausea that some users experience. The sooner peripheral motion detection add-ons are integrated with headsets like the HTC Vive, the better the whole experience will be.

You can move around your playspace

This is great until someone puts their laptop on the floor, kicks their shoes off or leaves their BB8 on patrol nearby. God forbid you have kids with Legos around; if you do I highly recommend keeping your shoes on. It’s also worth making sure pets and small children are kept at a safe distance.

Movement and feature use quickly becomes intuitive

A wide range of HTC Vive games are already available, and they’re all doing things slightly differently. Playing a particular game can mean that you get used to certain ways of doing things, and it can be a little frustrating to get used to certain control combos only to find that they don’t work in a different game. Eventually we’ll probably see some standardization of preferred features across HTC VR experiences, just as WASD keys have become the go-to movement option for many PC game genres.

It really feels like you’ve stepped into another world

Things feel *real*. You really don’t want to run into your personal phobia in VR, and it seems likely that phobia warnings will soon become a standard part of virtual reality game descriptions. I also suspect this will happen shortly after the first player successfully sues a developer for surprising them with something that made them to throw their headset across the room.

Vertigo and motion sickness can also be a major issue, so if you’re prone to it you might want to dose up on anti-nausea medication before you jump in.

How can HTC Vive developers overcome these challenges?

The good news is that these challenges can and will be overcome in the long run, and many of them are already being tackled. The responsibility rests with early developers to think carefully about their personal phobias, traumas, hangups and major dislikes, and be sensitive to players who didn’t buy a non-horror game only to end up face to face with their worst nightmare. It also means that devs need to think carefully about movement and look for ways to lessen its impact on the easily nauseated.

Negative experiences could be avoided by allowing users to turn off environmental features such as low-flying birds and scuttling creatures, as well as providing VR consumers with clear descriptions of potentially problematic content. It’s not unusual to see testers yell in surprise as they are attacked from behind by a giant spider, or are sent flying through the air by a bazooka shell.

The process of overcoming these challenges will most likely be a heavily iterative guided evolution, and it will be interesting to see what different dev teams come up with. There is always a backlash period with new technology, and if history has taught us anything it’s that the challenges inherent in virtual and augmented reality technology can and will be overcome by good design.  In the end it will be VR developers and experience designers who determine what the future of this new reality holds for us.

So, Should You Get One?

In a word; yes. The HTC Vive is the real deal, and the benefits heavily outweigh any downsides. I have no doubt that early issues will be addressed, and that the HTC Vive will set new standards in virtual reality gaming.

To truly understand how far VR has come, it’s worth giving the HTC Vive a try. The only way to understand it fully is to see it for yourself. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller;

            “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

With thanks to uGen for providing a HTC Vive developer’s perspective!

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