HTC Vive review: This is VR the way we always imagined it

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We review the mesmerizing HTC Vive, the best first-gen VR headset(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Most of us grew up imagining VR as first-person simulations. Whether it was trading virtual gunfire, exploring fantastic worlds you'd never see in real life or chatting with people who only exist inside a computer, the VR of our dreams was always a first-person experience. It turns out our imaginations were onto something, as that's where today's VR is indeed the most magical. It's also where the stellar HTC Vive leaps past its competitors.

Mobile, gamepad-based and third-person VR can work better than you might expect. But in VR games where you're sitting down with a gamepad in your hand, there's a disconnect between physical and virtual. You're controlling the action with sticks and buttons; it's more video game that happens to be in VR than it is virtual reality in the most literal sense.

Moving to standing/motion controller VR kicks it up to another level of immersion, but after a while that starts to feel a little confined; you'll eventually want to stretch those boundaries and walk around a larger space.

That's what separates the Vive from Facebook's Oculus Rift. There will be more layers of immersion revealed in the years and decades to come, but right now room-scale VR is the leading edge – and the Vive owns it.

The HTC Vive is the only current VR headset with a system built around walking around a room, freely and safely. Its 360-degree tracking with sub-millimeter accuracy opens the door to games where you explore your environment as if you were really there, turning and moving in all directions (and like in the real world, the Vive has no one "right" direction you're supposed to be facing). High-quality room-scale games can be almost a religious experience.

One of the Vive's killer features is its Chaperone system. The biggest VR innovation from the last year or two, Chaperone pops up holographic virtual walls when you get close to the edge of your playing space, letting you know when it's time to back off. The walls are subtle enough to be unobtrusive, but obvious enough to keep you in-bounds and avoid smacking into a real wall. It's the perfect match for room-scale.

And it works. Walking around a room-sized space in a variety of launch games, we've yet to bump into anything. The Oculus Rift can track room-sized spaces, but without something like Chaperone, it would be at best clumsy, at worst unsafe. For that reason we'll probably never see room-scale VR as a major focus on the first-gen Rift.

Our thinking on room-scale has shifted a couple times during the last year, but after using the Vive at home, we're now completely sold on this stuff. If you're going to spend loads of money on a high-end virtual reality setup, we think you'd be settling to leave out room-scale. VR without it feels incomplete.

You can use the Vive for seated/gamepad or standing VR experiences too, but to get your money's worth, you'll want to set it up for room-scale. Using it just for seated or standing games would be like buying an Xbox One just to play old Xbox 360 games on it. Your hardware has a higher ceiling; why not use it?

At launch, the Vive's game selection isn't a concern at all – in fact it's arguably better than the Rift's impressive lineup. The Vive's selection isn't necessarily deeper, but we think its highlights soar higher.

Almost all the games we've been playing on the Vive use its tracked motion controllers and support room-scale. Many early games are simple sandbox types of experiences that drop you into a static environment and let you play around with virtual objects or tools. The hilarious Job Simulator (above), Final Approach, Fantastic Contraption and Tilt Brush all fall into this category. We'd already played those games at different events through the last year – we already knew they'd be a blast to bring home.

What we weren't prepared for were the Vive's action/adventure games that take place in larger worlds. Playing Vanishing Realms (above) and The Gallery - Episode I: Call of the Starseed, my jaw drops open, as I walk around, knowing full well that the generic "Oh my god!" and "Holy shit!" exclamations my lips are forming aren't quite doing it justice.

Both of these games use room-scale movement, but you can also teleport around their larger virtual worlds. Teleporting (by holding down the Vive's trackpad button, aiming and letting go) is the early go-to method for wider than room movement in SteamVR room-scale games. It's an intuitive solution for first-person VR's locomotion problems: it gives you movement beyond your own physical space without making you feel like you're going to hurl.

The best way to describe these two games is to imagine playing The Legend of Zelda or a classic adventure game, only instead of controlling the character on your screen, you are the character inside a fully-realized 3D world, using your own legs to walk around, your own hands to handle weapons and objects. It's the kind of VR role-playing experience that we always dreamed of.

Multiplayer shooter Hover Junkers (above) also lets you move beyond one static space, but instead of teleportation it uses a moving platform technique, turning your room into a hovercraft. You can walk around its deck (physically moving around your room), but you also pilot your room/hovercraft around the virtual world.

We're going to see lots of VR games that use these two tricks. And we think that's great: unless your room is the size of a warehouse (which the Vive couldn't support anyway) you'll need some way to virtually move beyond the size of your physical space, or else every game will confine you to one small environment like an office or tiny floating island. That would get repetitive really quickly. Teleportation and moving platforms are the best solutions so far for stretching your world beyond the size of your room.

Most importantly, neither technique made us feel sick. The Vive's physical/virtual connection doesn't just add to the sense of immersion; it also keeps you from feeling nauseous.

The Vive's tracked motion controllers are awesome, giving you hands inside of virtual worlds from launch day (Oculus' equivalent Touch controllers don't launch until the second half of this year). The Vive's controllers let you reach out and pick up objects, fire weapons or engage in this almost feels real sword fights with undead skeletons (seriously, you need to play Vanishing Realms). The controllers are comfortable in hand, with a slightly grippier feel than the ones that shipped with the Vive Pre developer kit, and have tracked perfectly for us.

Your Vive playing space can be any size up to 5 m (over 16 ft) diagonal distance from base station to base station. These "Lighthouse" stations (below) will be mounted either on your walls or on tripods in opposite corners of your room, emitting invisible lasers that the Vive uses to determine the headset's and controllers' precise positions in space. And since they aren't optical sensors, you don't need to connect them to your PC; all they need is one power outlet each.

There's some brilliant engineering going on here, but what's important is that Lighthouse tracking works to perfection.

We've been using the Vive in an 11 x 9 ft. room, but any space that lets you walk at least four of five steps in any direction will do for room-scale games. You don't need a dance floor-sized plot of land nor do you need to devote floor space to it permanently. This was our biggest misconception about the Vive before bringing it home. Sure, this sounds fun, but am I really going to go through all this elaborate setup and devote an entire room in my house to it? No you aren't, because you don't need to.

It took me about 10-15 minutes to set up the entire system, including mounting the base stations. When you're done playing, your Vive space goes back to being whatever it was before. The only remnants will be a PC sitting off to the side, with headset and controllers stashed away nearby. The two small base stations won't get in anyone's way.

You do have a long cable dragging behind you while you're walking around in VR. We all look forward to the day when high-end VR will be wireless, but in the meantime we can live with the minor annoyance of the cable. It isn't too intrusive: I've yet to trip over it or have any real problems, just the occasional need to quickly brush it aside, step over it or give it a little kick.

The headset's forward-facing camera is another killer feature. While the Chaperone virtual walls keep you from bumping into stuff, the camera is more about quickly popping out of VR to take care of real-world business. A double-tap of the controller's system button at any time brings up a live view of your surroundings, usually coming up within 3-4 seconds. It lets you do things like take a drink of water, have a quick chat with a family member or tie your shoe.

The Vive will also have a feature called Phone Services that syncs with your smartphone over Bluetooth to let you answer phone calls, read and reply to text messages, and view calendar events while in VR. The feature wasn't ready in time for this review, though, so we'll update after we've spent some time with it. If it works as advertised, it will fit into the same mold as Chaperone and the camera: serving as an anchor back into the real world when you need it.

HTC and Valve were smart to devote all these features to keeping one foot in the real world. It sounds paradoxical, but they make it easier to get lost in virtual worlds. You don't need to keep real-world concerns – like missing an important text or, you know, bumping into walls – in the back of your mind.

The Vive works well with glasses. You can easily slide its lenses forwards or backwards to either make room for your specs or give you a wider field of view. I wear contact lenses whenever possible with the Vive, as I do appreciate the widest FOV with the lenses pulled all the way back, but the extra space is great for when I am wearing glasses. And it isn't all or nothing; there are different gradations of lens position, so you can find the right balance between glasses comfort and field of view.

The Oculus Rift doesn't have this, and wearing glasses underneath it can lead to some uncomfortable pressure on your face.

If you're shopping for a first-gen VR headset and money is no object, then the Vive is the one to get. Though the Rift is US$200 cheaper, remember that its motion controllers aren't included in that price (and they won't even launch until later this year).

And based on what we've seen from PlayStation VR at event demos, we don't think it's even worth considering, with its archaic motion controllers, dug up from the Nintendo Wii era, that can't hang with the Vive's and Rift's modern controllers. Sony is taking a cost-cutting shortcut there, putting its otherwise promising VR headset on track to be a colossal turd.

So we recommend the Vive – but what if you aren't completely sold on VR, or aren't yet sure if you want to spend nearly two grand on it? Is the Vive's magical first-gen virtual reality worth considering?

It certainly isn't cheap, ringing up for $799, in addition to the ~$950+ gaming PC you'll need to power it. Unless you're already a hardcore PC gamer, that's probably much more than you've ever paid for anything video game-related. The Vive is a futuristic gaming system, one unlike anything that came before it, but for many people $1,750 or more is too much money to pay for fun and games.

Living on the bleeding edge of consumer tech has never been cheap. The first Macintosh in 1984 cost about $2,500, the first HDTVs in 1998 started at $8,000 and nearly a decade later the original iPhone launched at $500 with a two-year blood oath to AT&T. Like those products, today's best VR will become more accessible over time. It's possible high-end VR will always be this expensive, but future mid-ranged VR will eventually catch up to today's high-end. If you're patient (we're talking years patient, not months patient) you may get a similar experience for much cheaper.

We could say we wish high-end VR were cheaper today, but not if it meant compromising quality. Pricing isn't everything. For virtual reality to take off, the high-end stuff needs to make a smashing first impression, offering the kinds of experiences that get people dreaming of owning it – if not today, then someday. Fortunately the Vive makes for a mind-blowing first impression, delivering the best, most bleeding-edge VR today.

The HTC Vive is a phenomenal gaming product that, expensive as it is, gives you plenty in return with its magical, transportive experiences. And these will only get better as developers have more time to create deeper games for it. Facebook's Rift will also deliver magical experiences (and it will feel more complete later this year when Oculus Touch launches), but the first-gen Vive has the higher ceiling. Chaperoned room-scale VR pushes VR's frontiers farther forward than seated or standing VR does, with no added drawbacks.

If you're interested in VR and have the money to spare, we think you'll be absolutely blown away by the Vive. It's by far the most exciting first-gen product I've ever reviewed.

The awesome HTC Vive is now shipping, with current orders (at least in the US) expected to head out in May.

Product page: HTC

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