The Virtually Real Starting Line

This day has been a long time in coming. It was back in MWC (Mobile World Congress) 2015 when HTC announced its partnership with Valve for its Vive VR headset. Let me tell you, these moments are what tech writers and plain ole’ geeks live for.

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With that announcement commenced a long year of anticipation that ultimately proved worthwhile. The HTC Vive was release on April 5, 2016, with enough demos and titles to satisfy both the curiosity and placate users’ worries that it would be lacking in the software department. Our unit arrived yesterday, July 14, 2016, and will be on display in SM North Edsa at the MSI-NVIDIA Gamer’s Event on Sunday, July 17.

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With its release, the Vive ushers in, cliché aside, a new era of entertainment. It is heads above its closest competitor, and not even in the same arena as the pioneers of the tech like Cardboard or Gear. Rightly so, with a high cost being one of the bigger negatives to be found in a box full of glowing accolades. Let’s get the negatives out of the way.


What’s Not to Like?

At $799, the HTC Vive’s cost seems prohibitive at first, especially considering the requirement for some capable PC hardware (at least a GTX 970 or R9 290 videocard, plus a Core i5 4590 or higher. However, it must be noted that the Vive includes features not found in other VR headsets.

Motion sickness is a possible concern with some users, although this is hardly unique to the Vive and is ameliorated with the inclusion of the “Base Stations” that map the room you’re using and allows you to move around the room (depending on the game), avoiding most triggers for motion sickness.

Finally, most games available are either episodic, unfinished demos, or plain tech demonstrators. The quality these titles display are however very encouraging and even at this early stage, are amazingly fun and innovative.


Feature Presentation

So the negatives aren’t show-stoppers. What else is in store for VR gamers? A lot of features. Here are the more important ones, presented in summarized form.

> You get a lot for the money you shell out. Sure it’s expensive, but so are Mercedes cars.

> The base stations give you the capability to use your own movement on top of your controllers to interact with your environment. Movement very quickly becomes 2nd nature in-game, and as a bonus minimizes motion sickness.

> Games even at this early stage are excellent – Steam’s compilation of demos and games called “The Lab” gives off that certain feeling of polished, loving care given to games created by enthusiasts. Other games like the free to play “Sisters” reliably gives me the creeps, and old standbys like Fruit Ninja VR is a whole ‘nother dimension of immersion. Space Pirate Trainer is simply frantically excellent.

> The experience is just so smooth – there were no tearing, slow-downs, or loss of resolution during our testing. The well-implemented controllers feel perfectly calibrated while in use, with nary a jarring moment or awkward pause. The base stations really push the technology forward. See the dimples on the controllers and headset? These comprise the 72 “tracking points” that the base stations use to detect movement.

> What you see is what you would see in the real world, minus the peripheral vision. The FOV (Field of View) feels really natural and does not distort, stretch or unaturally change the game scene.

> There’s also an camera included on the headset, and I can imagine multiple applications for this technology in future applications.

Taken together, these features create an experience so smooth, with fewer distractions like nausea from jerky animations, clunky game mechanics and imprecise hardwar, that it makes me feel like it’s what VR was meant to be from the start.


Sleek Hardware

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In addition to using the unit and experiencing VR in the way it was meant to be experienced, the nerd in me can’t stop admiring the actual hardware in the box. Let’s start with the controllers. Both left and right controllers sport triggers, and is dotted with the same tracking dimples as the headset. There are also touch-enabled circular trackpads on top of the controllers that can have many uses in future applications. There are 2 additional “shoulder” buttons along the handles of the controller, left and right, and can be activated by tightening your grip. A start and a “connect” button rounds out the controls and keep things simple enough to control everything by feel.

The Headset is a display of dimpled elegance, and reminds me of the units found in the animation cult classic Ghost in the Shell. Its high tech vibe is not at all marred by its plastic construction, the foam material of the cushion is excellent and stays cool, and the support is properly designed to hold the headset in place without feeling restrictive or heavy on the head. The wires are properly handled with straps on top that keep them up and away during use. The aforementioned camera sits in the lower-middle, and a power button can be found on the left side of the headset.The cushion is removable, and HTC has thoughtfully included a spare.

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The remaining essential part of the set are the two “Base Stations” that look like small speakers but subtly emit disco ball-like lights when set up properly. These function as movement, position and orientation sensors and use the dimples on both controllers and the headset to detect the user’s actions in virtual space. These are set up ideally a little above the play area bracketing the player in the middle of an open space. Curiously, both base stations vibrate subtly and emit an audible hum. This is probably due to gyros located in the units, and that’s a really cool discovery for me. These base stations also have the option to be physically linked using an included (long) cable, in the event that there are line-of-sight obstructions between the two stations.

There’s a whole nest of USB, HDMI, and power cables and adapters included, but don’t let this discourage you; HTC includes an excellent guide and walk-through of the setup procedure (online), as well as a nifty VR Room setup guide that calibrates the Vive and sets up the room just so. The cables and adapters are all of high quality, and includes thoughtful tags at both ends to tell the user where to plug them in. Neat!

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Additional Gear

Of course, all this hardware is but half of the equipment needed, a powerful PC is used to tie everything together. Especially important is the videocard. Our own setup uses an MSI Gaming GTX 1070, a Core i7 6900K and 16GB of RAM. The videocard is important – it’s the one component handling both the outputs in the VR headset, and also the output to the monitor being used to watch the action from the 3rd person perspective. Thankfully, the MSI GTX 1070 is more than powerful enough; it only occasionally needs to spin up its fans to cool off considering the amount of spare processing power it has.


Conclusion: A Beginning

So where does this leave us? After typing away with utmost enthusiasm about a new device that absolutely blows my socks off experience-wise, I’d be able to give my readers a simple take-away in one short sentence – The Vive is both great hardware and great software serving as the gateway to the ultimate potential of VR. Just take a look at this package – the hardware performs great and combines it with the use of a “real” virtual space you can walk and move around in. The software has Steam as its core, and you can’t get any better supported than that. Finally, there’s the potential – the camera is sitting there unused, and I can imagine all sorts of augmented reality applications that can make use of it in the near future. I haven’t used half of the buttons on the controller yet. And the room I tried the Vive in is not the biggest; a bigger room is definitely something I want to try.

 

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In the end, it’s whether you believe the asking price is worth it. The Vive is essentially a first generation product, notwithstanding the number of developer kits and prototypes that preceded it. The price is high, the experience is delicious, so is it worth it? For me, it is, because we’re just at the starting line of VR.

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Visit the MSI Booth at the MSI-NVIDIA Gamer’s Event on Sunday, July 17, at SM North Edsa Annex and try out the Vive for yourself!

*Thank you to Android Headlines for the demonstrative pic of The Lab: Longbow game.*

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Pingback: VR On the Cheap

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