- Really immersive
- Full 360, 3D movement
- Extremely responsive wireless controllers
- Needs to be tethered to PC
Update July 12: Writer Farrha Khan went hands on with the HTC Vive and its now-wireless controllers at San Diego Comic-Con 2015! You can read her impressions of the untethered controllers on Page 2.
HTC is also taking the Vive on a "world tour," letting members of the public try the VR headset for themselves. For dates and cities where the Vive is headed,check here.
Hands on review continued below ...
There's a TV show from the early 1990s called Red Dwarf that depicted the last human (and a group of humanoids) that were lost in space in the future, desperate to get home.
One of the big ways they stayed entertained was with a holographic headset that let them play in hyper real worlds, like they were living in the action sequence.
It was meant as comedy, a chance for men to be stupid and depraved and powerful and ultimately escape the onboard reality they were faced with. I always thought that idea, that experience, would never be real.
But with the HTC Vive I took my first steps into that world.
The HTC Vive headset looks and feels precisely like any other of its kind on the market right now, but with the ability to move around a room when playing.
Unlike some of the more mobile-focused offerings, this one needs to be tethered to a PC (and a powerful one at that) to work, so you'll need to be careful when wandering around to not trip over. The big difference is on the front of the headset, which is adorned with 37 sensors that connect to two wireless infrared cameras.
These wireless cameras are placed in two corners of a room (3m by 4m is suggested as adequate) and combined with the headset will create a virtual space to play around in.
The wireless controllers are pretty complex but feel massively intuitive – a trigger on the bottom lets you pick things up or perhaps fire weapons, and on the front, under the thumb, lies a trackpad to let you cycle through options.
(I was sadly unable to photograph any of these bits, thanks to it being so early build).
The headset is tight fitting but perfectly comfortable, with a strap across the top to hold it in place, with another strap that secures things around the back.
During my time, where I was pretty energetically moving, it didn't slip once, so the fit is clearly up to scratch.
HTC stated that it came on board as a partner with Valve to create this system as it was capable of creating beautiful hardware. While the unit is solid, it's not really what I'd call beautiful - it's black plastic with some little reflectors in it, and the untrained would have no way of knowing it wasn't an Oculus Rift.
The final version, which will be on sale by Christmas this year, should have a more impressive chassis - making this out of brushed metal would be really cool, and I get the feeling it's going to be quite expensive anyway, so adding a little more to make it look premium wouldn't hurt.
Entering a new world
When I entered the secret room where HTC was showing off the new headset, I was taken by how many wires were strewn around the area. It was a big arena, with the headset prominently in the centre, but connected to the large gaming PC in the corner.
The controllers were also heavily tethered, as were the cameras in two corners, used to measure the space and register the sensors on the headset when I moved around.
However, it's important to be clear here: the wires are simply to facilitate the early demo. The controllers will be wireless in the future, but HTC didn't want to have any interference from the Wi-Fi-a-thon that is MWC.
The cameras will be slimmed down, and the headset will only need a single HDMI cable in the future to allow for the high volumes of data to get into the headset with the required lack of latency.
But then a pair of headphones clasped to my head were all that was needed to throw me into an unbelievable world of virtual reality. Before walking in I promised myself I wouldn't start smiling or laughing when I tried it on. I promised I would be a professional journalist, sagely analysing what this meant for the world of virtual reality and its place in HTC's future strategy.
I lasted approximately seven seconds before I started giggling like a tipsy schoolgirl. It's far more than a gaming platform, as it will allow you to do things like tour museums, watch films and learn – as well as hopefully kill zombies in full 360 motion.
The first demo was an underwater galleon, with me standing on the deck. Fish floated around, and I could swat them away in 3D, with a little haptic buzz telling me I was successful.
However, that wasn't the awesome bit. I was instructed to walk to the edge of the boat, which I did. It was eerie. I looked over the edge into a watery canyon to see an old plane lying there… and I started laughing. It was unreal.
Then I turned my head to see a blue whale coming my way, and it took every ounce of rationality and logic to not duck. I could walk right up to its eye and peer at every bit of it as it swam across the deck.
The clarity was a massive step up from those in Oculus Rift or Gear VR, and although I've never experienced motion sickness in those headsets that extra sharpness will definitely help those that hate the current VR range.
Next up was a kitchen where I was asked to pick up utensils and ingredients to make tomato soup. My controllers were turned into hands, but this was probably the least impressive demo. I kept dropping things, and opening fridges and microwaves seemed like a waste of time.
But I totally nailed that soup and sent it out to the restaurant.
A 3D canvas then provided one of the best experiences of the HTC Vive demo, allowing me to use the controllers to their full effect while letting me interact with the space fully in all dimensions.
A right hand trigger press let me paint in mid air with ink, paint, fire, snow and loads of other options, while the left controller was my palette, and a stroke of the touchpad flipping through the options. It was incredibly smooth and impressive for an early device.
The rest of the demos were pretty average, although did highlight some of the inherent advantages of a 3D VR headset. For instance, I was a 'giant ghost' on a tiny battlefield, and I could kneel down to look at the tiny soldiers firing cannons at one another, with smoke so real I almost thought I smelt it.
Or a robot repair facility – it was a frustrating one as it was meant as comedy, but very limited in what could be done. The idea was to pull the robot apart in 3D and then walk around it to see the issues – while all I could do was flip it about, the idea that this could be used to train mechanics or engineers in the future seems solid.
However, it's important to note I didn't want any of these demos to end. I wanted to explore the space for longer and see what I could really do with the games… the fact most timed out when I was just getting going (HTC had a lot of people clamouring to use this) shows how engaging it is.
The HTC Vive is a plastic headset that really doesn't look very different to anything else you've seen out there - but trust me, if / when you get to use one, you're going to see it's a massive game changer.
The 3D VR world is so far ahead of what the others are doing right now. While the Gear VR is great from a fixed point of view, it's pixelated and limited compared to what HTC is announcing. It does have the benefit of being untethered though, and I really hope future versions ditch the wire.
What HTC and Valve have done here is create something that's finally starting to fulfil the promise of VR, although it's only an early test.
Big question marks remain on how much this will cost – it WILL NOT be cheap, given the amount of processing and hardware on show here – and people will worry about falling over real life objects when zinging around their living room.
But this is really an amazing piece of kit – do whatever you can to try one out for yourself, and while you might not buy one this year, if the gaming community (and others) develop some really impressive titles for the platform it'll be a must-buy before long.
By Farrha Khan
HTC brought a Vive "tour bus" to San Diego Comic-Con 2015, and along for the ride were two wireless controllers first promised to us the first time we hands on with the VR headset.
The controllers are identical to one another and feature a trigger button for your index finger and a wheel for your thumb. The wheel can be used for things like switching between menus, and it also has a satisfying click when you press down.
The sensors sit on the end of the wireless controller, and between the headset and the two controllers, there are over 70 sensors for precision tracking, which certainly helps with smooth transitions and movements.
There is also a small red and black button sitting under each other, just below the wheel, but I'm not sure what they are used for. Or rather, there were no use for them in the demos I tried at SDCC 2015, which were the same underwater galleon sequence and painting demo as MWC. The latter felt extremely fluid and natural with the light, wireless controllers.
There was also a fun Portal demo, in which you get transported to the inner bowels of the Aperature Laboratories. You're given instructions by a voice, and the real-life controllers act as your controllers within the game.
First up, you need to put your controllers over an orange light to "calibrate." At this point, you assume you're a robot, though it wasn't quite clear during my Comic-Con demo.
You can explore a bit of the room, open up some drawers, and then open up a door by pulling on a lever. Each of these instances feel very natural because of the controllers' haptic feedback, and it's like you're really influencing the Portal world, not just pushing buttons.
There's plenty more to this demo, and lots of Easter eggs for those who have played Portal before. With this experience, you feel like you're transported into that universe completely.
With only the headset's wire to contend with, each of the VR experiences felt more immersive than they would have had the controllers been tethered. There are literally fewer ties to the real world, making the interactions feel a little more natural.
Overall, the controllers were super responsive. There didn't seem to be any noticeable delays, especially in the paint demo. And I didn't feel nauseous, something I experience in other VR demos, especially if move too quickly.
Of course, these wireless controllers are still only dev units, which HTC started sending out three weeks ago along with the headset. The headset itself has had no changes since MWC this past February.
The final product, which Jeffrey Gattis, HTC executive director of marketing, assured me will be much better looking, less bulky and lighter, will be announced in October, along with full specs, pricing and availability.
HTC says that it's still targeting a launch by the end of year, and before that it's taking the Vive tour around the US and Europe over the coming months.