How the HTC Vive changed my opinion of virtual reality

When I received an invite from Intel South Africa to come and experience a hands-on session with the HTC Vive virtual reality (VR) headset, I was somewhat hesitant. Let me clarify: I’ve had VR experiences before, and none of them sold me on the concept. My earliest impressions were courtesy of Google Cardboard, where I was able to look around virtual rooms with no sense of depth perception, and it pretty much felt like I was in a cardboard box with built-in lighting.

Eventually I had a brief encounter with the Oculus Rift, and that left me feeling like I wanted to throw up at every turn during faster-paced games. I was also disappointed at not being able to fully interact with the VR world, because the Oculus Touch controllers (which launched last year) weren’t available at the time. Now, thanks to Intel SA and the HTC Vive, my VR experience has risen to another level, and my opinion of virtual reality has completely shifted.

Editor’s note: in the interest of clarity, Intel is in no way affiliated with the creation or distribution of the HTC Vive. The Vive is the product of collaboration between Valve (yes, they of Half-Life and Steam) and HTC. There’s currently no local distributor for the Vive. That said, Vusi’s first experience with the Vive was thanks to Intel having a demo unit on hand.

For those who’ve never heard of the HTC Vive, it’s a VR solution that allows you to be fully immersed in virtual worlds. In my opinion, the way the Vive’s bundled controllers allow you to interact with these virtual spaces is what sets the Vive apart from all the other options. During my experience I interacted with virtual buttons and wielded imaginary lightsabers, ducked behind crates and bounced back laser beams with my lightsaber. This experience doesn’t come cheap, carrying a price tag of $799 (around R11,000!). It’s R2,000 more expensive than the Oculus Rift (excluding Oculus Touch, which is a separate $199 purchase), but it’s jam-packed with features that, in my opinion, position the HTC Vive above the rest. There’s a host of other VR solutions out there, so you may find your preference differs, but the HTC Vive is easily the greatest VR experience I’ve personally had. Do keep in mind that at this price, only dedicated VR enthusiasts should consider making the purchase, as it would be a shame for the HTC Vive to gather dust in a corner somewhere.

The HTC Vive comes with the headset, two motion controllers, a connector box, two motion-sensing cameras, extra padding for the headset, connector cables and a microfibre cloth. The headset weighs around 550g, which makes it heavier and larger than its competitors – but there’s a reason for that. It’s equipped with sensors that detect your every movement and enable a superior level of interaction. Though it looks and feels heavy, it’s really very comfortable once you put it on thanks to three adjustable Velcro straps to help it fit your head. There’s also a camera on the front which enables you to view your real-life surroundings, negating the need for you to take off the headset when you need to interact with the real world. That said, it’ll be funny explaining to your partner or parent that you’re indeed able to see them, even though you’re wearing this bulky headset that should be blocking your vision.

One downside with the headset is the long cabling that’s connected to the unit, as I found myself grabbing the cables from time to time while playing to push them out of the way. Another key component of the headset are the lenses: these are really excellent compared to other VR solutions that I’ve played with. The displays behind each lens are 1080×1200 OLED panels, with a combined resolution of 2160×1200 pixels. This allows you to get the same dynamic range you’d get from your OLED monitor or TV. A significant difference with the resolution achieved by HTC Vive versus other VR options is the 90Hz frame rate. This means it’s highly unlikely you’ll have to clean up vomit in your room due to motion sickness.

Next on the list is the pair of motion controllers, which are your means of interacting with the VR world. Their elongated design allows for seamless transition between things like shooting and grabbing a sword. On top of each controller is a track pad. Above that is a menu button and below is the system button. On each side sits a grip button and there’s a dual-action trigger on the back, much like you’d find on a traditional controller. The controllers are lightweight and pleasantly comfortable. They’re equipped with vibration feedback and offer an impressive five-hour battery life, recharged via Micro-USB.

The controllers can act as either a representation of your hands or as weapons, and not only does the Vive know exactly where each controller is in the VR world, it also recognises the exact angle at which you’re holding them. The X and Y axes read incredibly accurately, and I imagine playing a game of VR golf would yield an amazingly true-to-life experience. Although, if you must know, I suck at golf and will most likely suck at VR golf as well.

Another downer is that I found myself sweating profusely whilst wearing the headset, so sharing the HTC Vive with other people might be out of the question – unless you have no issue with sweat-sharing. I guess this could be solved by purchasing more padding, and there are also sanitary pads available as well. I’d highly suggest some cleaning after each use.

A feature I really liked on the Vive is its support for room-scale VR, which helps encourage movement while playing. Green guidelines appear when you move outside the play area you’ve specified during initial installation, which prevents you from bumping into your furniture or any other things in your gaming space.

The Vive provides an amazingly immersive VR experience, whereby you can interact with your virtual worlds in a more natural, satisfying way, and can “see” your hands pushing buttons, or frantically slashing and shooting at pesky zombies. Consider me converted.