Sitting comfortably in the list of the top four highest rated virtual reality headsets, the arrival to market of the premium level HTC Vive VR headset was always going to be widely anticipated.
The battle for market share later in 2016 will be a bloody one, with Samsung and the Gear VR already off the blocks, Sony’s Playstation VR due for release later in the year, and the Oculus Rift already in delivery phase.
Early indications are that the Vive will hold its own against those rivals. In their partnership with game maker Valve, HTC look to have a partner who can make sure the gaming aspect is well catered for. Here we’ll take a look at what the Vive headset has to offer.
- What Is The Vive?
- Launch News
- Features & Design
- Games & Experiences
- Setting Up
- Accessories & Add-ons
- PC Requirements
- Resources – More Info
- Future Developments
- Video Guide
What Is The HTC Vive?
HTC are a Taiwan based smartphone manufacturer who early on saw the potential in VR entertainment, and kicked off development of their own VR headset.
After much anticipation and development, HTC finally showed the new device – known at the time as the Vive Pre – to watching industry experts at the January 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Early indications from that demonstration were that the Vive would hit the stores offering a virtual reality solution that at least rivals the Rift, if not betters it.
If you don’t already know, virtual reality headsets are designed to wear over the head so as to exclude the wearer from any external distractions, and present images direct to the eyes. This gives a feeling of immersion – or presence as it’s now popularly known – and puts you into the environment you’re watching as if you were really there.
HTC’s pride and joy does this very well indeed, leaving you feeling as if you’ve witnessed something special after just a few minutes immersed in the VR world it presents.
The pre-order phase for the Vive began in late Feb 2015, with first deliveries being made in early April.
Why pay $599 for an Oculus Rift, when for only $200 more, you can get the more immersive Vive VR kit from HTC and Valve?
The pre-order price for the device was set at $799 for US consumers. That’s around the £555 mark in the UK in a currency conversion, however the actual selling price in the UK is set at £689. The rest of Europe sees a Euros price of €899, with Australians paying $899, Canada CAD$1150, Japan 112000 Yen.
Features & Design
The Vive operates in conjunction with a suitably built PC which sends signals to the headset at a rate of 90 frames per second.
Nothing ground-breaking there, but what sets the device apart from others are the external dual laser sensors that track a wearers full body position as opposed to just the head. This is known as room-scale VR, a capability that means you can actually move around in virtual environments as if you were really inside them, and not just watching.
The headset package comes with the two wireless VR controllers, the sensors, and the display which has a built in camera. Integrated phone features are an interesting add-on, allowing wearers to take and make calls, receive texts, and check calendars all while inside a virtual environment.
These lasers send beams across the room you’re in and communicate with the headset to determine body position. Further tracking is provided by over 70 individual sensors in the set itself along with a gyroscope and accelerometer that in combination allow you to be tracked in an area of around 15ft by 15ft.
If it works, this will allow real body movement within the virtual environment being displayed. In other words, you’ll be able to look around, and theoretically walk around.
The drawback from this innovation may be that to do this requires the headset to be connected to a power socket, which may actually serve to limit movement. Clearly the more complex a device, the more it may cost. That too could be an issue while the idea of the technology is still growing, and buyers don’t want to take early risks.
Two controllers are expected to ship with the unit when it goes on sale. These allow control over any form of VR interaction, from gaming through to other experiences such as painting. This last named was in fact demonstrated by HTC at the Las Vegas show.
These wireless controllers are hand held and easily operated, looking like a couple of microphones. They’re finger operated by triggers or you’ll use a thumb to work the clickable touchpad, with a home button situated underneath the pad.
The two grapefruit-size room sensors, called Basestations, continuously read the position of your body and can support a “virtual space” within a cube measuring 16-foot diagonal. Those sensors are what really separate the Vive from other VR experiences, letting you walk around (in a limited way, since you’re tethered to a PC) the virtual world.
Where it gets really clever is with the integration of a front-facing camera which can show you the real world around you. These appear as vague green shapes overlaid over the top of the virtual reality content you’re immersed in. Very useful as an aid to not bumping into anything if you’re moving around. All you need to do is click the home button on a controller to activate the camera.
The value doesn’t end there, as there is a separate feature known as the “chaperone” which automatically shows a blue outline of the real world if you happen to move out of the sensor zone.
These two innovative features may just open up a whole new range of experiences for Vive owners.
From a comfort perspective, much effort has gone into building a comfortable and reasonably light unit which does also fit adequately over spectacles.
• Display 2160x1200px or 1080x1200px for each eye.
• Refresh Rate 90Hz, which allows content to be rendered at 90fps (frames per second)
• Sensors Over 70 for head tracking which can track movement accurately down to 0.1 of a degree.
• Controller Battery Life 4 Hours (recharge via USB)
Setting Up The Vive
After all the positives that can be said about the experience the Vive delivers, you’d be right in thinking there are some drawbacks.
One of them is in the initial set up, which is not quite as straightforward as you’d hope.
The key first consideration is whether you want a moving or stationary VR experience. As we’ve seen before, if you’re going to be making body movements you’ll need to be using the body tracking capability. That means making sure you have the minimum 5-15 square feet space, and also setting up the sensors which need to be positioned carefully on opposing walls of your chosen space.
After connecting up to your VR capable PC and mapping out the area wu=ith the controllers, you’ll most likely have used up around an hour in the overall preparation.
Games and Experiences
During the CES demonstration, onlookers were treated to some stunning virtual imagery.
The Vive was used to show an underwater game that has you on a sunken boatdeck with fish all around. The demo ends with a giant whale swimming up in a display of precise detail.
Another demo that caused a stir was the ‘painting in mid air’ experience, which delivered an end result that was acclaimed as amazing. You can even walk around the finished article and view from different perspectives.
With no obvious latency in these more straightforward iterations of virtual interaction – for example the painting – the Vive is looking good in handling that important aspect. Latency is a common problem, and describes the delay between moving to look at something and the screen resolving to show the new spot you’re looking at. If the Vive can handle this in the faster games, there’s a good chance that HTC are on to a winner.
On the subject of games, more on actual titles will become clear in the coming months. However there is already one intriguing title known:
• Elite: Dangerous – a first-person space simulator with you as the pilot of your own spaceship. Already hugely popular with gamers on other platforms, the VR version is set to make a big name for itself with gameplay that involves exploration of a universe and battles within it.
Here’s a good list of what’s coming.
Early versions of the Vive user manual state the requirement of at least 5ft by 6.5ft room space to get the full experience from games, though it’s likely that smaller sizes will be OK for a large number of general VR experiences.
Allowing for these room dimensions should allow wearers to fully utilise the laser tracking features.
Accessories & Add-ons
Although controllers can be considered as accessories with other devices, the Vive controllers are an inherent part of the solution. They’ll come packaged with the device.
Other add on accessories may come to light in time. We’ll report on those if and when they’re announced.
As the Vive is designed to work with a PC, similar to the Oculus Rift, it’s likely that the requirements for a high end PC set up will apply. That means a fairly expensive graphics card along with some other high end PC specifications. As an estimate, count on around $1400 to get up and running. If you already have the correct level PC equipment, the likely price of the headset will come it at an estimated $500-$600.
Graphics chipset / video card Nvidia GTX 980 with 4GB or better
CPU Intel Core i7-3770K Quad Core CPU or better / AMD FX 4350 Quad Core CPU or better
Memory 16 GB RAM
Hard Drive 8 GB available space
Operating System Windows 7/8/10 64-bit
There are enough positives in the general Vive experience to far outweigh the negatives, but it’s good to know what those negatives are up front.
The main one is in the weight of the headset itself. It’s bulky and heavy, as many of the higher end devices will be. The Vive though is noticeably heavier than its competitors, which may reduce the amount of time you could comfortably wear it in a single session. The cable connecting to the PC may also be a problem worth watching out for.
Resources & Info
We haven’t even got the first consumer model of the Vive out of the way yet, so looking to the future is some way off. The technology looks as if it doesn’t need proving, it’s clear that the headset delivers the virtual reality experience with stunning aplomb.
So HTC will need to see how sales go, given they’re up against strong competition from Sony and Oculus. There’s no doubt though that the development team won’t be taking a long break, they’ll need to be working towards future improvements with some focus.
This official HTC video below is designed to give a taster of the VR experiences that will enjoyed by headset owners.