It’s finally happening: after decades of false starts, and ambitions that ran two steps ahead of available technology, virtual reality is just about to go mainstream – and in a spectacularly commercial, practical, and maybe most importantly, accessible way. Multiple players are vying to be the gamer’s choice for the VR headset to get (and let’s face it, gaming is going to drive early adoption), and while they’ll certainly have their pick of options, one of the most promising headsets comes from what once might have been an unlikely source – HTC.
The HTC Vive is a few months away from its retail launch, and the manufacturer is still fine-tuning the experience Vive will deliver, but the last time we checked in with the product was a solid ten months ago – an eternity in tech circles. Has that extra time on the drawing board given the Vive the edge it needs to overcome competition from the Oculus Rift? I checked in with HTC yesterday at CES 2016 in Las Vegas to take a look, and while I came out of the demo less than completely blown away (if only by a hair), I’m pretty darn excited to see just how the Vive will begin reshaping the face of home entertainment.
To be fair, I entered HTC’s demo with some seriously high expectations; to hear what Michael Fisher had to say after his Vive-sperience at MWC 2015, strapping on the visor was nothing less than a religious experience, able to transform even the biggest cynic into a VR-believer after just a few minutes in the virtual world it creates. In a lot of ways he’s not wrong – it’s immersive, captivating, and filled me with the desire to explore in a way few “traditional” 3D worlds have. Current PC games may render detailed environments, but when you walk up to a door and have to press E on your keyboard to open it, you’re immediately reminded of how artificial that interaction is – with Vive, you reach out and just naturally move that handle. You may not feel the cold steel of the lever on your hand, but the physicality of your motion is infinitely more engrossing that a keypress.
This all makes the Vive sound very promising – and I won’t deny that it absolutely is – but a few rough edges detract just a bit from the overall feel of using the headset. For a first-gen product, that’s only to be expected, but especially if you’ve played around with current VR options – stuff like Google Cardboard – you might find yourself still wishing for something a little more, well, real. Really unreal, anyway.
Despite the comparatively high-res 2160 x 1200 panel in the headset (1080 x 1200 per eye) – the sort that appears so very nice on phones, tablets, and big-screen TVs – when you slap on the Vive you’re looking at a mess of individually discernible pixels. Not big-big ones, sure, but they’re plainly visible, and especially in cases where the graphics you’re viewing aren’t sufficiently anti-aliased, jaggy edges constantly remind you that what you’re seeing isn’t quite real. The screen-door effect is far less pronounced in colorful, saturated environments, but stare off into the blank off-white construct of the Vive’s “waiting room” (straight out of The Matrix, in a very good way), and you can’t help but be aware of all those little squares of light building the scene before you.
I’m coming off several months of Google Cardboard use, so moving to Vive I was expecting something better. And it is better, and it’s also not quite good enough. To everyone who asks “why do we need smaller and smaller screens with higher and higher resolutions?” look no further than the VR market.
But lest you think that the Vive is just a souped-up Cardboard, you couldn’t be more wrong. HTC has absolutely nailed maybe the trickiest, most error-prone aspect of VR headset engineering: tracking. The newly revised hardware I tried out smoothly calculated its position in 3D space with the help of its capable array of laser-tracking sensors, and thanks to the 90Hz refresh rate of its screen and some speedy calculations on the PC side, the effect really is seamless.
When you need to take a break from all that immersion, the latest Vive hardware has you covered in the form of a front-mounted camera: press a button on one of the Vive’s wireless controllers, and you get a pop-up window containing a live stream of the world outside the headset. It’s a nice addition that helps the Vive stand out from its competition, but just like with the issue of pixel density, I found myself wanting more – why not a pair of stereo cameras so it didn’t just look like a flat 2D painting popping up in your virtual world, but a 3D portal to the outside?
This was a constant theme of my experience with the Vive: it’s beautiful, a lot of fun, and chock full of potential, but I kept finding myself wanting just a little, little bit more. Take the cables that drape down your back as you wear the Vive – I absolutely appreciate their necessity, especially considering the sheer bandwidth that it must take to drive those displays as fast as they’re going, but it’s not great when you’re supposed to be in some 3D catacomb battle and you’re constantly feeling yourself step on that cable. You might not trip (and HTC said that such slip-ups during its demo sessions have been a decidedly rare occurrence), but you sure may find yourself worrying about it a lot.
Trying out an advanced piece of kit like the Vive has a way of really letting you empathize with HTC’s engineers. The few rough edges that ultimately detract from the experience are easy enough to accept in light of how hard it must be to build something that’s as good as the Vive is – but I worry that some potential customers HTC’s going after might be less forgiving.
Luckily, the company’s really interested in the hardcore gaming market – anyone ready to devote a 15 x 15-foot space to VR gaming is hardcore with a capital hard – and users so familiar with the tech that powers their custom-built rigs are more likely to see past the few places Vive comes up short. But the public at large? Possibly a tougher sell, and that’s not even knowing just how much HTC intends to charge for Vive.
Considering the solid amount of hardware users will get, it can’t be cheap: we’re talking about the headset itself, a pair of laser emitters, and two wireless controllers. If that came in at an attractive number, I’m sure HTC would be shouting it from the treetops – even if just an estimate. That the company’s not, and this close to the start of orders, is concerning.
But the thing is, it’s still going to sell. Just as a $250 gaming keyboard isn’t for everyone, either, Vive may be a niche item, but it’s just so compelling that anyone who uses it is going to have to think long and hard about whether they want to join that club. Add in a killer app or two, and the decision becomes that much easier.
In the end, that club-business is exactly what HTC needs to sell: the idea of being a Vive user. Do you want to get in on the ground floor of what very well may be a revolution, not just in gaming, but in how we interact with computers in general? I don’t yet know if I’ll be among those on the razor’s edge, trying out a product that will almost certainly be much more engrossing as it eventually emerges in its next-gen form a little further down the road, but after a few minutes behind the lenses, I’m not sure I want to wait even that much longer.
That I may still sound conflicted about the Vive is only because of just how much it’s trying to do. HTC’s making a lot of very smart decisions here (and that it will support older platforms like Windows 7 is a huge bonus for an afraid-of-change hold-out like me), and those mistakes it does make will be easy enough to learn from.
Maybe the most promising thing about it, though, is just how strongly the Vive makes you want to talk about it: blown away or left wanting more, you can’t use Vive without forming a strong opinion. Get enough people sharing those, and the buzz alone might just carry both the Vive and HTC into a very exciting (to say nothing of lucrative) 2016.
Pocketnow’s CES 2016 coverage is made possible by dbrand, the boss of vinyl skins for smartphones, tablets, wearables and more. For the most precise fit on earth, visit http://dbrand.com.