The deck looked as if it was going to collapse at any moment. I stood looking up at the surface in the distance, marvelling at the complexity of the underwater world before me.
Look behind you, I was told. I looked to my left to see that a behemoth of a whale coming right towards me. I ducked instinctively, giving me a full view of the intricate detail – down to the last barnacle – of this majestic creature as it swam past me at close range.
Visually arresting and with a fluidity of motion that is thus far unmatched, it is clear that the HTC Vive has pulled out all the stops with its entry into the virtual reality world. It has clearly been designed with performance in mind – the extensive motion tracking and the heavy-duty processing power it demands are more than justified by the flowing VR experience.
First time around, I’m seriously impressed by the user experience. The controllers performed best on Tilt Brush – essentially Photoshop for VR – making it easy for me to intuitively access a complex array of functions while also delivering pinpoint precision and the ability to view and add to my artwork from all sides. Equally, it performed well on a shoot ‘em up, with the controllers feeling like natural appendages as I blasted my way through hordes of robotic invaders.
A second test – a zombie shooter – felt less impressive. The reload function felt strange, possibly because there wasn’t a visual cue during gameplay as to where on the controller you should be pressing. This is not necessarily a drawback of the Vive, which is otherwise fairly intuitive – instead, this highlights the need for game developers to indicate clearly the actions expected of the user – and not just in the tutorial.
Unlike previous headsets, which have reported motion sickness problems, this doesn’t seem to be a serious issue for the HTC Vive. Indeed, it delivers the most comfortable, nausea-free experience of all the devices we’ve tested for Connected Lifestyle. An external camera allows you to quickly switch to an external view, so you don’t have to worry about taking your headset off if you need to check your phone during gameplay.
On certain applications the resolution is fantastic, but certain apps we tested failed to deliver optimum visual clarity. While it still compares favourably to the Oculus Rift DK2 (we haven’t tested the full consumer version yet, so watch this space), at times the resolution seems lacking considering the hefty price tag and the array of paraphernalia that accompanies this device.
This brings us onto one of the major drawbacks of the Vive – the set-up experience. This is a labour-intensive process, involving plugging the headset into a 3-in-1 tether into a link box and then further wires from thus into the computer – and that’s without starting to configure the two base station sensors that track your movement. These come with wall-mounting kits rather than tripods, which means that taking it down and setting it up elsewhere is a real challenge.
The sensors ideally need to be set up at opposite ends of the room above head height, with a clear view of the other device – although they will function even if they are not located exactly in line with the recommended placement guidelines. Frustratingly, both require a cable to the mains in order to work; indeed, the whole set-up demands four to five sockets, including the computer or laptop it runs on. All of this means that, in order to get the most out of the HTC Vive, you really need to be setting up a dedicated space in your house for it, complete with plenty of available sockets.
Wearing the headset is a reasonably comfortable experience, although it is feels somewhat heavier than the Oculus Rift DK2. While the wires that come from the back of the headset are tethered together, they still have a tendency to get in the way during play and create a potential hazard when playing unsupervised.
Negatives aside, the HTC Vive has one overriding strength – it feels like it is what virtual reality should be like. There is a sense of quality about every aspect of the package – from the clean and clear packaging and presentation to the sleek design of the headset and accessories.
The complex set-up and over-reliance on wiring are necessary evils at this stage of VR’s evolution in order to guarantee the premium experience that it delivers. This feels like a perfectly acceptable compromise in order to benefit from what is currently the best VR experience that money can buy.