Form and function
The HTC Vive is not an elegant headset. While the Oculus Rift evolved through many prototypes into a slick, light headset built to woo the mass market, the Vive looks much the same as it did when it was unveiled in 2015: a big, unapologetic hunk of plastic. Heavy plastic. The Vive weighs noticeably more than the Oculus Rift (555 grams vs 470 grams), and feels more cumbersome for two reasons: it’s held on your head purely with elastic straps, unlike the Rift’s semi-firm rubber that gives it more rigid support, and it tends to rest some of its weight on the bridge of your nose. Much of the Rift’s weight is in those support arms, and that weight doesn’t actually press down on your head.
Designing a VR headset is an enormously complex task, but I believe HTC could have—and should have—shaved more weight off the Vive, and developed a sturdier strap system to better support its bulk.
The first two times I tried to adjust the Vive for my head, I was ready to throw the $800 headset straight into the garbage. Everything frustrated me. Compared to the Oculus, it’s very difficult to properly strap on by yourself. The Vive’s cable runs along its top strap, which makes that strap annoying to loosen or tighten when the headset is in place. I tried tightening the side straps to hold the headset firm, but found that its weight caused it to droop on my face just enough to blur my center of vision slightly. I was close, but clarity was maddeningly just out of reach. And the plastic clip on the left strap was rubbing painfully against the back of my ear as I moved. I felt pissed.
Eventually I got it right, and my opinion softened. With the Vive snug on my head now, I can slip it on with ease and have a clear field of view in a few seconds. The foam padding around the facerest is softer and more comfortable than the Rift’s, and it comes with a second foam pad for ‘narrow faces.’ I’m just speculating here, but the Rift’s firmer foam may actually help hold it in place better against your face—my biggest problem with adjusting the Vive was its weight causing it to sag downwards just slightly. The Vive’s softer foam may also wear down and compress after a few months, but for now, it’s the more comfortable material to have pressed against your face.
…for now, [Vive is] the more comfortable to have pressed against your face.
The physicality of using the Vive can often help distract me from its weight, but it does start to pinch my nose after 15 minutes or so. I often find myself pulling back on the straps like I’m recentering a baseball cap on my head. The fit will be different for everyone, and I recommend having someone help adjust it for you the first time you put it on.
While I don’t like the Vive resting on my nose, I love the plastic baffling HTC built around the nosepiece—it blocks out far more light than the bottom of the Rift headset, but still allows enough light in for me to hold my earbuds under my chin and check which one goes in which ear. It’s much easier to completely ignore the outside world staring at the Vive’s screen.
But why do I have to use my own earbuds or headphones? The Rift’s built-in earpieces are brilliant—they sound great, are loud enough to block most outside noise, and easily swing into position (and out of the way) on small plastic arms. The Vive, despite costing $200 more, has… a dangling 3.5mm audio plug. HTC’s pack-in earbuds are a cheap, poor excuse for audio. And good sound is hugely important to VR—realistic 3D audio helps our brain buy into what our eyes are seeing.
Using your own audio source adds another cable to the Vive mix and further complicates the process of putting on the headset. I’ve tangled myself in my earbud cables, and I’ve had to reach around blindly when the cable swings loose. Like the heavy plastic mounting, the lack of integrated audio makes the Vive feel less like a polished consumer product and more like very powerful, but still slightly awkward, hardware for a very niche audience.
By trying to pack as much as possible into the Vive, HTC made some compromises. But some of its power features are truly great. The front-facing camera lets you see what’s going on outside the headset without taking it off, and is a powerful addition to the Chaperone system. Games aren’t really using it yet, but we’ll see more from the camera in the future. And the headset has a lens-to-eye distance adjuster, activated by pulling out on the strap mounts on each side and rotating the circular mount points, that could be great for those who wear glasses. Everyone on staff who wears glasses has been able to wear them inside the Vive without a problem, with a more comfortable fit than in the Rift.
The HTC Vive’s controllers make all the difference. Yes, standing and walking around in room-scale VR creates immersion, but your natural reaction, once you have that immersion, is to reach out and touch the world around you. We’re not all the way there yet, but the Vive’s controllers get us closer than we’ve ever been before. They’re shaped like wands with circular tracking arrays mounted on top, and they’re elegantly simple in terms of inputs. There’s one trigger, typically used to activate menus and ‘grab’ objects. A trackpad, much like the ones on the Steam Controller, sits on the front, and can be divided up into multiple buttons or inputs by developers. Small buttons above and below the trackpad serve as menu buttons, and a squeezable grip under your palm adds on extra input.
From the time I’ve spent with Oculus’s still-in-development Touch controller, it’s hard to say which will finally be the better VR input. The Touch controllers feel more natural—like making a fist instead of holding a wand—but the Vive controller’s trackpad is a nice forward-thinking bit of technology compared to the Oculus Touch’s more antiquated array of dual joysticks and four face buttons.
Your natural reaction, once you have that immersion, is to reach out and touch the world around you.
The one feature of the Vive controller I don’t especially like is the grip button—it’s easy to accidentally squeeze in the heat of the moment. In VR Baseball, the grip changes the vista outside the stadium, and on more than one occasion I changed it from a normal skybox to OUTER SPACE by squeezing a little too hard when I took a swing. Actually, that was pretty cool. But the point stands.
The rechargeable batteries in the controller have yet to run out on me, even after several hours of VR play per day and sometimes forgetting to charge them overnight. They’re rated for four hours of continuous play, but I think I’ve put that much time on them in a single day without charging and the batteries held out.
The accuracy of Valve’s positional tracking makes it a joy to use the Vive controllers, especially in games that let you interact with most objects in the environment, and I often find myself wanting to touch walls, tables, and other virtual objects. The controllers don’t entirely disappear in your hands, but they work well enough to facilitate basic interactions easily and intuitively, and that’s thrilling in VR.
The HTC Vive uses the same 1080×1200 pixel displays as the Oculus Rift, which are high resolution enough to make the ‘screen door’ pixel density issue of past headsets mostly a thing of the past. The 90 Hz refresh rate, coupled with the Vive’s extremely accurate positional tracking, does a fantastic job of preventing VR motion sickness. If using the Vive makes you feel queasy, it’s almost certainly the fault of the games, not the hardware.
Also like the Oculus Rift, the Vive uses a pair of fresnel lenses to warp its 2D screens into a 3D field in front of you. That means the same issues that exist on the Oculus exist on the Vive. Here’s how I described it in my Oculus Rift review:
“The edges of bright in-game objects (and especially text) produce a distracting shimmering effect some people are calling ‘god rays’ or ‘light rays.’ Imagine looking up at the sun while standing underneath a tree, and seeing bright beams of light striking your eyes from around the edges of the leaves and branches. It’s a bit like that in VR, but every bit of white text you look at will have those shimmering rays streaking out toward your eyes. They move as you move your head and your perspective on the virtual world shifts, making anything bright you aren’t looking directly at blurry.
You can see a good example of the light ray effect in action here. I don’t think I even noticed this effect at first. I was just wowed by being in VR. VR is really cool! But now I find the light rays a constant distraction, a reminder that I am looking at a screen, and often a source of eye strain when trying to read shimmery text.”
While this effect is still present on the Vive, I don’t find it as pronounced or noticeable as I did on the Rift. Perhaps that’s due to subtle differences in the lenses, or the distraction of standing up in VR, or simply the things I’m looking at on the screen. But I’m less bothered by the light ‘blur’ on objects as I move my head from side to side.
I also love the Vive’s field of view compared to the Oculus. It’s not dramatically bigger, but it’s a different shape and feels like a larger window into VR with more vertical space. It’s a bit like peering through an old oval diving mask compared to the more horizontal Rift FOV.
The Vive’s screen is good enough for games and the SteamVR interface, but definitely too low-res for SteamVR’s ‘Desktop mode’ which lets you see your whole desktop. Things are too small to be easily legible and detail breaks up without a higher density pixel array. But there’s software to help with this, like Virtual Desktop. If the next generation of VR headsets are able to step up to 4K panels, they’ll be far better at representing text and UI outside of games.
The weight, straps, and lack of integrated audio in the Vive are all disappointing elements of its hardware design. There are compromises here that you shouldn’t have to make for $800. These things, for me, cause the Vive to narrowly miss out on being an exceptional piece of hardware as a portal into the world of VR.
And yet the experiences it produces are exceptional. Developers aren’t yet forging incredible new ground in VR, designing genres that were never possible or thought of before, but the experiences they are already delivering feel fundamentally different. Being able to walk around, reach out and touch things, and believe you’re inside a 3D world—when I do those things on the Vive, it’s hard not to think that the future is here. A future that’s a little too heavy, a little ungainly, but bold and promising nonetheless.
When I played platformer JUMP, even with a controller, my stomach dropped each time I fell. Some part of my brain thought it was real. When I ask myself if I want to deal with the weight of the headset to play something as physically engaging as Space Pirate Trainer, even though it’s little more than an arcade shooting gallery, I say yes. When I draw in TiltBrush, I can’t help being excited about all the things kids and artists more skilled than I will create with it, that I’ll then be able to walk around in three dimensions. When I play awkward or basic launch games like A Legend of Luca, a fully room-scale RPG adventure, I see the potential of more complex games a year down the road.
The VR scene on SteamVR feels bustling, with more games coming every day and dozens already playable. Most still fit into that category of games that show the potential of VR, but won’t captivate your attention long-term. In the Vive, that feels okay, because the sheer act of being there is powerful by itself. Maybe it’s not reality, but it’s real enough.