For those that have been living under a (real world) rock, HTC Vive is the result of a joint partnership between HTC and Valve to produce the 'gold standard' in Virtual Reality.
Before I start my review, I must admit that I work for HTC and therefore you may see my opinion as a little biased - however it also means I've used Vive a LOT, and run demos on a LOT of people, so I like to think I've picked up on a thing or two.
So let's start with the hardware...
The kit is still in development stage and so therefore isn't the final look and feel. However the insides are unlikely to change.
The Vive kit comprises of 3 elements:
The HMD (Head-mounted display)
2x Wireless controllers
2x "Lighthouse" base stations
In the box you also get mounting hardware (for the base stations), rechargeable batteries (for the controllers), a battery charger and all the cables you need. (Box contents may change for final version!)
So the recommended space requirement to get the most out of Vive is around 3x4 meters, however I've used Vive in spaces as large as 5x5 meters right down to a sitting down position and still had totally immersive experiences.
The common misconception is that you need loads of space for Vive and the truth is, yes - the more space you have the greater the experience and the more content you can play - but you don't need it and there will be plenty of content available for whatever space you have.
After you've setup your area, two "lighthouse" base stations need to be installed in each corner of the room as high up as possible and pointing into the middle of the room. These will be used to track the movement (to a degree of a millimetre) of your headset and controllers. Then you only need to connect the headset to your PC, install Steam VR and you're ready to go!
So how does it work, and what makes HTC Vive so different to all the other VR systems out there?
HTC Vive uses more than 70 sensors including a gyroscope, accelerometer and laser position sensors - the end result is super accurate tracking that will truly immerse you in your new environment making you completely forget the room you are 'actually' standing in, or even the way you are facing.
The benefit of using lasers to track your movement is it takes very little computer power - The lighthouse base stations simply measure the time it takes for each laser to hit each sensor on your headset and controllers and by looking at the data from each sensor, a mathematical equation is all that is required to work our your precise location and direction in a fraction of a section.
Other VR solutions out there use cameras to analyse a room and track LED lights positioned on your hardware - a far more resource heavy, and less precise way of tracking.
So what's it like to actually use?!
Every time someone asks me this question, my reply is that it's extremely difficult to explain until you experience it for yourself. Imagine being completely detached from the real world and completely immersed in the virtual one you find yourself in.
You'll see from these images of people in Vive the general reaction I see time and time again - constantly smiling faces and true immersion. I've seen people crawling on the floor, running away, instinctivly jumping back and even screming at events in front of them.
One of the demoes includes being underwater, walking around on the bow of a sunken ship. The sense of 'being there' is so real, people with a fear of water or drowning often develop genuine fear and enxiety when put in this scenerio - this is just an example of how immersive and 'real' Vive can be.
What's to stop you walking into a wall?
This is where Valve's "Chaperone" system kicks in. Walk too close to a wall and a blue grid will fade into your world, warning you that you are getting close to the (real worlds) limits. Think of the holodeck from Star Trek and this is basically what you see.
It's a very effective way of warning you about the real world without pulling you out of the virtual scene you're in. A simple rotate or step back is all that is required.
The chaperone system also works with the controllers (to stop yourself punching the wall by accident!) along with the headset.
Objects in the room can also be taken into account when setting up the chaperone boundaries for the first time such as furniture etc. This way you don't need a completely empty room (like the holodeck!) and with a few furniture adjustments, Vive should work in most homes.
Vive is rumoured to launch with over 50 titles at time of release (more than Xbox One or PS4!) which would be amazing if true, however, until this time I've had the privilege of spending many hours on the below demos of which I will give my experience.
- theBlu - You start at the bottom of an ocean on the deck of a sunken ship with fish and other sea life swimming all around you. You can walk from each side of the ship, nervously peering over the side to see long drops and sure death - you instinctively step back! Just when you start to relax and take everything in around you, the shadow of a huge creature gets increasingly large, until you notice it's a giant whale that's impossible to take your eye off as it approaches to within near touching distance. Watching someone from the outside at this moment pretty much always results in wide open mouths and frozen on the spot until they wave it off, still in awe over what they have just seen. Words and video will never do this demo justice. Until you experience it, you simply won't understand.
- Fantastic Contraption - A game that starts relatively easy and gets hard fast, but in a fun way! Object of the game is to build a 'contraption' that takes a pink ball from one end of the map to the other and through a pink goal zone. For the first level you get a wireframe of the contraption you need to build to ease you into the game, but after that you're on your own! A great sense of achievement when you accomplish a level. VR works great in this game as you walk around your creation inspecting and tinkering with it from all sides until you have a winner! I've only managed to get to level 5 on this game so far at which point you have to really start thinking out the box - but when you finally figure it out (or fluke it) - boy does it feel good!
- Final Approach - If anyone has ever played Flight Control on their phone or tablet - this is basically the VR version! Catch planes that are flying all around you and draw it's flight path to the correct runway to gain points and progress! If something needs sorting on the runway like putting out a fire or clearing away birds zoom in to the ground and get your hose out! Once you've mastered planes, helicopters are introduced and suddenly you find yourself surrounded in flight paths praying to god that nothing collides! This game is seriously fun and you can easily imagine larger and more complex levels soaking up many hours of your time...
- Tilt Brush - The team behind this art software recently partnered up with Google and they have made something pretty special. Draw you masterpiece right in front of you, then move around the room to view from a different perspective. It really is taking art to the next level by adding another dimension. You can even load a creation by a famous artist and be 'inside' it as it's created around you exactly how the artist made it. Whether you're an 'arty' person or not, Tiltbrush will bring out your creative side with the collection of brush types, colours and special effects you can add. Turn on nightsky environment and you're suddenly painting in deep space.. Another one that has to be experienced to truly appreciate.
- Aperture Science (by Valve) - This is generally the Grand Finale of a VR demo. With the polish and humour you would expect from a Portal game, this demo gives you a delicious taste of what's possible and (hopefully) just around the corner in the world of VR. You strart in a room that will feel strangely familiar to anyone that has played Portal and are soon given instructions to follow by GLaDOS, of which you will mostly fail. With scenes that will make you step back, laugh and just stare in amazement! This demo ticks all the glorious boxes... Valve - Take my money and give me Portal VR!
- Shopkeeper (by Valve) - Based on Valve's Dota 2, it drops you into a magical store, packed with potions, dragons, weapons and more, and you're instantly greeted by a friendly shopkeeper, who gives you a light to help you look around - which is exactly what you do! The graphics on this game are extremely polished which really adds to the sense of actually being there. As you look around for hidden symbols, each one you find shrinks you to the size of an ant. At one point turning around to find a massive spider looking down at you - this gets a lot of screams! Again, just a sneak peak into the VR future, and oh god do I want some!
- Fruit Ninja - Not on the official playlist that we show to most people (due to the excessive swinging of controllers and that we can't afford to damage any!) But extremely good fun! The sense that you are actually holding a full size samurai sword and actually slicing fruit right in front of you is too real! (aka way too addictive!) If you think you're done with Fruit Ninja - think again.
Yes that's right, HTC Vive works just as well seated as it does standing. There is currently less content around for this mode of play - but the ones I have tried have been just as immersive!
Elite: Dangerous - I recently tried this experience at EGX. I walked into a room and sat down at a desk with a flight stick to my right, throttle controller to my left and Vive headset in front. Putting on the Vive headset was like stepping into the cockpit of my new spacecraft. I immediatley look down to see my arms on each of the controllers, as they were in real life. Moving the controllers resulted in my virtual arms (which were considerably more toned) moving at the same time. This was the first time I had had 'arms' in VR - and it was amazing! As I flew around shooting down pirate ships, I often only had to look in a different direction to find the enemy I was after and didn't have to rotate my entire ship to get them in my field of view. All this made the experience incredibly immersive - I actually felt like I was in a ship in the middle of a space battle. On the other hand, this game worried me the most... As I sat comfortably in my new futuristic space world, I knew in an instant I could easily spend an entire (real) day in this world...
HTC Vive has a lot of things going for it. Not only (in my opinion) has HTC partnered with the best company it could ever of wished for (Valve), most reviews out there will tell you Vive gives by far the best and most immersive VR experience. And then there's content, with over 50 titles rumoured to launch with Vive this could set it apart and put it miles ahead of the competition.
Price will obviously need to be considered, don't expect it to be cheap! And then you'll need a pretty beefy PC to run it on. But in my personal experience, once you've tried Vive, little things like 'price' will not get in your way!
VR is here to stay and will not only revolutionise gaming - think about VR meetings with people around the world, or front of house seats at the theatre or medical school training - the possibilities are limitless.
Yes, there will be cheaper options than Vive on the market very soon - but the key phrase for me is total immersion. I want to feel like I'm actually there, completely unaware of my real world surroundings. The ability to walk around and fully interact in your new world. As it stands, only HTC Vive Steam VR delivers this experience.