All of the big players in VR – a group that also includes the Oculus Rift, Sony's Project Morpheus, the Samsung Gear VR and perhaps even Starbreeze's StarVR – have very good products right now, sharing a similar ability to teleport you to wild and wonderful places.
But one thing the others are missing is the ability to let you walk around those virtual worlds – not just with a controller, but actually strolling around with your own two feet in a space that's mirrored in the virtual world.
The HTC Vive lets you do that – and it's nothing short of amazing.
When you strap on the Vive, you get a quality headset that, if it alone were its selling feature, would be good enough to be up there with the rest (my glasses fit underneath more comfortably than with Oculus or Morpheus). But once you start walking around, it's a bit of an "Aaah, okay, this is what VR is supposed to be" moment. The ability to stroll around that 15 x 15 ft. space makes other headsets, with all due respect, look a little last-gen.
If HTC and Valve can launch the Vive with at least a solid software library, this is the one to beat. The free-moving element is that big a step forward – and that well-implemented.
Our first Vive demo had us walking around the deck of an underwater shipwreck, watching various sea life swim around us. This one was only mildly interactive, but the sense of immersion (feeling like you're present in the virtual world) was the highest we've experienced. The two controllers I was holding gave me "hands" in the virtual world, and I could walk freely, exploring as I would as if I was really there.
The Vive removes an obstacle to tricking your brain that no other headset is removing. Walking around a space makes it feel even less like you're playing a video game, and more like you just quantum-leaped into another place.
Another demo had us gathering ingredients to cook up a meal. Sounds boring, right? Nope. It was nothing short of mesmerizing, as the Vive's wireless controllers (very similar to Oculus Touch) let me pick up ingredients, walk across the room, then drop them back into a pot (or, as I enjoyed doing, throw them around the room to see how many things I can break and how much havoc I can wreak).
Yet another demo let me paint in a 3D space, choosing among options like fire, ink or rainbows (the palette sat in my left hand) and then drawing with the "brush" in my right hand. I could walk around the room and draw patterns in 3D space. Again, the key is that it all felt real, with my muscle memory able to take over and act intuitively, using my entire body as if I was really doing this.
The 3D light painting demo was one of the trippiest things I've ever experienced (and my old high school friends will tell you, that's no small claim). People are going to take drugs, strap on the Vive and go on one hell of a ride.
It's about full-body freedom. All good VR tricks your mind into thinking it's somewhere else … but when your body isn't involved, there's still some disconnect. Putting not just your hands into the virtual world, but also your entire body – as only the Vive does right now – sets you free to completely experience VR as if you were there.
What feels intuitive to you, the ways you'd interact with this world if you were really there, is exactly what you do.
That's the experience, but what about the technology? The magic happens courtesy of a pair of base stations that you place in the room, which track your head (the sensors on the Vive headset) and your hands (the wireless controllers). The controllers are a bit like more advanced Wii controllers, with triggers sitting where your index fingers rest, grips on the sides (which respond to the natural gripping gesture which will be your first instinct) as well as touchpads on the front.
It's the same principle as Oculus Touch, and HTC's version is in very good shape. There was no perceptible latency, and it felt completely natural.
While the controllers are wireless, the headset itself is still wired, so you do need to keep some awareness of the long tail hanging down from your head, as you mill about the space. We'll look forward to future versions that go wireless, but I didn't trip once during my half-hour inside these wonderful virtual worlds, so as long as you don't act the fool and try to run while wearing the headset, it probably isn't a major concern.
There's also the fact that you'll need a room for the Vive. While many people can temporarily take over their living rooms or reserve something like a loft or recreational room for VR gaming, folks like college students in dorms or adults who live in studio apartments may not even have the option of unlocking the Vive's full capabilities.
Like Oculus, you'll also need a PC to pair with the Vive. HTC's Executive Director of Global Marketing Jeff Gattis tells us that the company still isn't ready to announce the minimum specs for that paired PC at this point (mostly because it could change before launch), but we should find out within the next few months.
... and Gattis also tells Gizmag that the Vive is still on track for launching this holiday season. Oculus and Morpheus are both launching in early 2016.
It's too early to say if the Vive will launch with a strong software library, but many VR developers we've spoken to are making games for Oculus and SteamVR simultaneously, so it could very well benefit from that. If you're a VR developer, making a second Windows-based game is extra money for relatively little extra work.
No word yet on pricing for the Vive (and, again, we don't know how expensive a gaming rig you'll need to power it), but VR enthusiasts may want to start saving their pennies now. The Vive is the real deal.
Product page: HTC