HTC and Valve have created the best VR gaming headset so far.
The only way to understand the HTC Vive is to try it. It’s not simply that you want to assess the quality of immersive virtual reality (VR) it offers. At first glance, all the first-generation headsets look – well – a bit clunky. You look and wonder, “Is that thing comfortable?”When used over a relatively short period – we tried three different Vive games for about 15 minutes each – HTC’s headset emerges as probably the most comfortable higher-resolution offering currently aimed at consumers (though it still costs a hefty $800/£550 and you’ll need to spend at least as much again on the PC platform).
As the exploded view shows, this is a complex product physically as well as in terms of the silicon and sensors inside it. Yet HTC has paid proper attention to balancing the headset’s weight. Once your game begins, you do largely forget it’s there.
The positioning within your VR world is also cleverly done and effective. Vive’s Lighthouse base stations not only sense where you are, but also alert the headset to signal the real physical boundaries around you before you blunder into the wall.
“Each Lighthouse flashes its IR LED array, signalling the start of a cycle. Vertical and horizontal lasers then sweep across the room, and fancy photosensors on the headset and controllers start looking for lasers,” iFixit’s teardown experts explain. “The tracked headset or controller can then determine its position based on the order its sensors receive the laser sweeps.”
Meanwhile, the two wand/trackpad controllers look a little bizarre at first, but prove surprisingly intuitive – for oldies, indeed, they quickly prove a great deal more straightforward than the standard controllers found on an Xbox or PS4.
However, there are two arguably significant ergonomic concerns that various longer playtime users have reported.
First, things can get quite sweaty around the eye sockets after a while. During the demos we attended, HTC did provide sweatguards that sat over the inner foam eyerest because there were multiple users for each test unit.
Second, the first-generation Vive remains tethered to a PC, its Lighthouse position-sensing base stations and more (depending, for example, on your preferred option for audio). Dancing around these multiple cables during a truly 360-degree game can take some time to master. The future of VR will inevitably be wireless.
The specifications do pay off when you’re in VR. Combined resolution from the two 1080p AMOLED displays is 2160x1200 and the refresh rate is 90MHz. There is the occasional artefact or visible line, but not enough to prevent an appropriate suspension of disbelief. Your field of view within the VR environment is 110 degrees, just above what we normally have.
At the same time, when you look at the components on the Vive’s bill of materials, it quickly becomes apparent that almost all those that can be identified are standard-line (COTS) parts. Of course, much of the heavy processor lifting will be done elsewhere by, typically, an upper-range Intel or AMD CPU/GPU combination.
However, where the COTS aspects of the Vive bode well for the future is in allowing VR headset manufacturers to bring down costs rapidly, as the PC CPUs with sufficient performance are themselves ushered into ‘value’ hardware by Moore’s Law.
Indeed, in June Microsoft decided to license the Holographic OS created for its enterprise-level augmented/virtual reality HoloLens headset to OEMs. It will continue to target higher-end opportunities – some inevitably Xbox launch notwithstanding – but now believes partners like Asus, Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo can integrate and deliver products to the mid-market.
Coming back to the Vive, however, the big software winner here is HTC’s partner – and main developer of the underlying VR technology – Valve. It has its own SteamVR products, it is a prime developer of VR games and, having also seeded the lower-resolution VR for Samsung’s Gear system, has come to straddle this nascent market.
Meanwhile iFixit’s teardown team says that while the Vive is complicated, the headset, base stations and wands are all relatively easy to fix. It has awarded the whole package a high 8 out of 10 score for repairability.
And coming to the ergonomics that we began with, it’s also worth repeating iFixit’s observation that “the head strap and face pads are removable and don’t incorporate any sensors or electronics that might be prone to failure.”
So, the Oculus Rift, for all its Facebook backing, already has one very serious competitor. By autumn we’ll see the third big virtual reality headset play for the mainstream, PlayStation VR. And the price tag there is looking to be just $400.