We leave in sleep those who don’t know… and we leave at dawn…
My first personal VR unit was the Playstation VR – a device I did a first impressions review on a little while ago. While I was overall impressed with the initial experience, I wondered how units like the HTC Vive fared. I had some hurdles to overcome before I could get one. Those hurdles have been… mitigated, I guess, rather than totally overcome. Thus I am now ready to start my journey into the HTC Vive – and give thoughts on whether it’s worth the weight (The box was 6kg. Also, Gabe Newell).
What’s in the box
I’m going to skip the entire “What is it?” section because if you found this article, you probably already know it’s a VR headset. Let’s just skip to the box.
The box is full of stuff, some of it unnecessary depending on what you already have. You get the headset itself, two controllers, the little breakout box, three power adapters (with the worst possible form factor), a bunch of different cables (namely USB, HDMI and a special link cable discussed later), two lighthouses, two wall mounts, and a bunch of other stuff I’ve probably forgotten. This is not as simple as PSVR – there’s a lot more work involved, and PSVR wasn’t exactly easy either.
Your first 5 or so minutes will be spent unpacking the box and ripping open little plastic packets. No joke.
The first job is to set up the lighthouses. These two little boxes require power from their DC adapter, meaning you’ll have to put them somewhere near a power plug. The units themselves have a surprising amount of heft to them. You can use the included wall/ceiling mounting bracket, or you can sit them on conventional tripods (there’s a screwmount on the bottom and on the back). They need to sit up fairly high at opposite corners of the room – this is how the headset and controllers track their position in real space. The two boxes also need an obstructed view of each other and need to be within about 5m – if there’s any interference, you can use a cable to connect the two of them. This was the most frustrating exercise because the wall adapters are weirdly orientated so that they will block whatever power point is immediately to their right side. Why HTC thought this was a good idea is beyond me, it’s fucking annoying. Also the ‘wall plug’ included is for brick/masonry, not for drywall/plasterboard. For the handyman inept like myself, this was not particularly clear. I mounted mine such that I got a 2.5 x 1.8m play space – about the minimum for room scale. Be careful mounting them and screw them into a stud or the top plate if you can – they’re quite heavy and will probably rip the plate out of the wall if you just screw into plasterboard without a wall plug.
The next step is to set up the breakout box. This little box needs power all of its own too – bringing us to a grand total of 3 power points to get the Vive running. This plugs into the headset and the computer via HDMI (or DisplayPort, but no DisplayPort cable is included) and USB 2.0 (strangely, mileage may vary with 3.0 though I had no issues). The Vive plugs into the box too.
The headset itself has numerous adjustment straps and several cables (all of which are replaceable) hanging down from its rear. Plug them all into the box, then plug a set of headphones into the 3.5mm headphone jack, and bang – you’re physically set. This entire process took me about 15-20 minutes; the majority of that was trying to figure out how to get everything to plug in properly. I ended up using a powerboard – with USB ports on it to charge the controllers. My media room looks kind of messy again, but there aren’t many elegant ways to do this.
You might have the physical stuff done, but now you’ve got to get the software working. The software is fairly easy – download the Vive setup app from HTC, follow the prompts, then use Steam to finish up. Steam VR will help you set up the play area and calibrate tracking with a very intuitive system of placing the controller on the floor, and then walking around the play area with it. And that’s basically it. I didn’t have any issues with it not being recognised, or crashing, or anything like that – it really did just work, and within about 5 minutes I was using the headset! There’s a few other little things to set up – like adjusting the headset once it’s on your head, and setting the interpupillary distance using a small knob on the side of the headset, but otherwise it’s not hard to do.
I haven’t done much except play around with Steam VR Home, and the Tutorial app, so I can’t say much about it yet. But my initial impressions so far, compared with the PSVR, are thus:
- Graphical fidelity is much, much higher. I’m running this on a gaming laptop – 6700HQ, 1070 and 16GB of RAM. Where many games looked really blurry on the PSVR, everything looks really sharp on the Vive. It’s like night and day.
- The Screen Door Effect (SDE) is actually a bit distracting. The PSVR actually doesn’t have this, but once you’ve used the PSVR and then used the Vive, you can definitely notice it. I find that I look through it after a while (and I ignore it) but it sort of detracts from the clarity.
- Tracking is infinitely better. It’s so accurate that I find my sense of proprioception is utterly fooled and can make intuitive judgements about the positions of my hands and body in virtual space. The sense of presence is far, far greater than the PSVR, namely because the tracking is awfully close to 1:1. It’s creepy. I can quite accurately and effortlessly judge distances in virtual space.
- I’ve already hit something with a controller – I stupidly jumped to catch a balloon in the tutorial and forgot I had a ceiling fan above me. That’s how immersed I was.
- Framerate was steady, though I think I noticed a few dropped frames every so often – and it manifested mostly as tracking issues. Nothing immersion or game-breaking. I’d probably put it down to the weaker mobile GPU.
- Don’t really understand the IPD setting yet. There seems to be a sweet spot that I haven’t quite yet found. While overall clarity is better on the Vive than the PSVR, I still get areas of blurred text or what I’d call ‘bleeding images’ that disappears when I adjust the headset a bit. Hard to get the right spot.
- I didn’t trip over the cable too much. My play space isn’t super big, but it’s big enough for me to twist and walk quite a bit. I was very much aware of the cable though.
- So far I’m really impressed.
I’ve got a few games ready to go, and I’ll have a quick play through and give a better impression of how it works as a gaming system. See you next time!