BARCELONA: VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) was once a mix of clunky headsets, chronic eyestrain and headaches, but the HTC Vive looks to transform it from a nauseous experience into something not too far removed from Star Trek's holodeck.
HTC revealed the consumer edition of the Vive at MWC 2016, but kept it firmly out of our reach in a locked plastic box. Instead, we were offered the opportunity to try the Vive Pre, a version of the headset that bridges the gap between the Developer Edition and the final consumer version.
The Pre has different branding to the final edition, but in practice it’s very close to the headset that will arrive sometime in early April at a the hefty price of $799, around £574.
With that in mind, we put the Vive Pre through its paces to see how stands up against the likes of the Oculus Rift.
HTC and gaming partner Valve have put the Vive on a significant diet since the Developer Edition and it’s now more ergonomic and a lot less bulky. A lighter construction combined with a soft foam-like material around the edges and supportive straps makes the Vive Pre noticeably more comfortable to wear than the Oculus Rift.
However, it still needs to be wired to an I/O box that connects to a PC, a wire that occasionally got tangled around our legs in the physical world as we wandered about the virtual one. It’s also covered in sensors to help the system track the wearer’s location in virtual space. This gives it a retro-futuristic look, but no-one is going to look good wearing it if we’re honest, not that you’ll care once the immersion sets in.
The HTC Vive Pre’s motion-sensing controllers have also been overhauled. The two new controllers no longer resemble a clunky tool from the future, and mix game console triggers and buttons with a touch-enabled panel for each hand.
The controllers are like a very advanced version of the Nintendo Wii’s remote. They track motion in a virtual space, simulating arm movements and allowing wearers to reach out and interact with things in a virtual environment, albeit while looking a little odd in the real world.
The HTC Vive Pre has one 1200x1080 display for each eye, effectively providing a 2160x1200 resolution screen when both eyes are combined. Virtual worlds are wonderfully clear and sharp as a result, with a decent amount of colour and contrast as well. Each display also fills the vision, making the whole experience more immersive, yet avoiding a feeling of claustrophobia.
But the beauty of the Vive Pre is the 90Hz refresh rate which makes the entire experience seem silky smooth with none of the lag and ghosting that has blighted other VR headsets. This is good news for people who suffer from nausea and eyestrain when using such devices.
We initially felt a little self-conscious putting on the Vive Pre in front of onlookers at HTC’s busy stand, but the feeling began to pass when it kicked in and we found ourselves in a grey virtual room.
Unlike the Developer Edition, the HTC Vive Pre has a built-in camera that can be triggered at the press of button, and allows you to see partially through the headset. We did this and became acutely aware of multiple sets of eyes peering at us. But we were fully immersed in the VR world when the first demo, an underwater scene, fired up.
The Oculus Rift and other VR headsets are generally used while sitting down, so it took a few moments for us to get used to the idea that we could physically walk around in this virtual environment. The underwater demo was impressive, but we felt a tad static. That soon changed.
A second demo, called Job Simulator, involved performing office tasks as instructed by a robot. We were asked to make coffee, plug in and boot up a PC and delete some emails. All this was done by physically moving and reaching out with the controllers in the real world, while using the triggers to grasp things and make mouse clicks.
What started out as odd soon became very natural, to the point that we automatically picked up a book that we'd knocked down.
Another demo, created by Google, involved painting. Again, it required a momentary re-programming of our mind to realise that we could effectively walk around our virtual scribbles, rather than being limited to the 2D painting of real life.
It hammered home how VR can be far more than ogling 360-degree videos and images. The immersion was only slightly eroded when a grid popped up to warn us that we were getting a bit close to a physical wall.
The final demo with the Vive Pre involved fighting off a wave of space robots with guns in the place of our hands. As the number of killer bots filled our vision, we were forced to duck and dodge their fire and make use of an arm-mounted energy shield to deflect the attacks.
The first demos were relaxing and almost whimsical, but this was an intense experience, causing adrenaline to kick in and hearts to race. We felt genuinely exhilarated when the demo was over.
The speed at which the Vive Pre and the controllers react to movements injected an element of physicality to the VR experience, making it far more immersive than using a VR headset and a traditional game console controller.
HTC and Valve have hit a high note with the Vive Pre. It’s a country mile ahead of the Oculus Rift in terms of interactivity and immersion and is simply stunning. We challenge anyone to try the Vive and not be impressed.
But there’s a catch. It is much more expensive than other VR headsets and requires a decent gaming PC to power it. This means spending well over £1,000 just to get started. Then you need to a clear space that allows you to move around without knocking things over or injuring yourself. Try finding that in London for under £1m. Yet we really want a Vive.
The VR rebirth is in its early days, and HTC and Valve have nailed the experience so far. We can’t wait to see the advances when VR really takes off, but it's safe to say that the Vive Pre paved the way. µ