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What I've learned after a weekend with the HTC Vive Pre

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Hard lessons from a weekend in the virtual world

The HTC Vive will be released to the first batch of pre-order customers on April 5, but Valve sent Polygon a Vive Pre in order to begin getting used to the platform and covering upcoming games. What follows are a few of our thoughts after three long, enjoyable days spent using the hardware.

Keep in mind the Vive Pre is a pre-release version of the retail platform, so neither the hardware nor the software we're using is final. There are some bumps here and there, and we'll try to note what is fixable — and what you're going to have to live with when the retail units are shipped. I'll also stick around the comments to answer questions from the readers.

To get started, the first thing I noticed was that...

There is a lot of stuff here

We've been told the setup process we're going through with the Vive Pre will differ significantly with the retail Vive, and it's in Valve and HTC's best interests to make that process as simple as possible. That being said, there's a lot of hardware here to unpack and deal with initially.

Vive Lighthouse

The Vive Pre comes with the headset and a long, three-in-one tether. The box also contains the two Lighthouse base stations that need to be plugged into an outlet and installed on a wall above eye level. Then there are the two motion-sensing controllers that charge via USB.

The retail Vive needs to be simple to set up and run, and they're working on that, but there's always going to be a good amount of moving parts to have to deal with as you open the boxes and prepare your space.

I've installed my Lighthouse stations to the wall via double-sided tape. I've also ordered a set of speaker stands so I can take the stations to other locations without having to install something in the homes of my friends.

None of this is tricky, and nothing has to be permanently installed if you want to use strong adhesive, but you do have to hang the Lighthouse stations on opposite walls somehow.

Also, while this may look Big Brother-ish, the Lighthouse stations are passive; they only project an array of lasers onto your VR space. They're not watching you, nor are they connected to your computer. The Pre itself contains a camera on the front of the headset, however.

So, yes, there's a good amount of hardware here to unpack and install. Remember: You have to think of the Vive as a platform, not just a headset.

The tether isn't much of an issue, but it's not perfect either

"This isn’t just marketing, but I honestly find that there’s kind of a sixth sense you develop over time, to the point where anybody who is using the Vive regularly doesn’t even think about [the cable]," Joel Green, producer and audio director of the upcoming VR game The Gallery told Polygon.

"Developers don’t really talk about the cable being an issue anymore, that I’ve heard. Because of the way it falls down the headset and you feel it on your body occasionally, you just kind of learn where it is and now it’s not an issue. I don’t think it takes too long for that to happen," Green said.

Vive Wire

I've spent many hours inside virtual reality using the Vive Pre, and have run my friends and children through their own demos dozens of times. What I've found is that you do get used to the tether very quickly, and learn both how not to trip over it, how to toss it over your shoulder or untwist it when you begin to feel a bit of pressure.

This is a skill even my children picked up after just a few sessions; you just kind of feel where the cable is and deal with it appropriately.

That's not to say it's a perfect experience. It can be annoying having to turn left instead of right or vice versa to untangle the cable in VR. I've also had a guest step on the cable, causing it to be pulled out of the box that sits between the cables and the PC.

This wasn't a major issue. The cable was simply disconnected and the player was put right back into VR when I reconnected it to the breakout box. There was no need to reboot. We were all a bit more careful going forward after that experience.

It's likely going to be a very long time before we get a wireless solution, considering the amount of information that needs to be passed through the HDMI, USB and power cable that make up the tether. This is going to be something players will have to learn to deal with, and it does take a bit of practice. Just remember to move slowly at first, and pay attention to the cable until you understand its movements and limitations enough to deal with it instinctively.

The controllers make the system

The controllers that came with the Pre are heavy enough to feel good in your hand but light enough to be comfortable for long play sessions. The triggers and thumb pads feel great, offering both fine analog control and a button that clicks down.

Vive controllers

There are also buttons on the side of the controller that you push by "squeezing," and those are a bit trickier to use. It's also way too easy to trigger Steam VR's menu by accidentally pressing the smaller button under the thumb pad. Turning that button press into a double-tap would fix the issue, but for now I had to keep reminding myself to be careful when holding the controller, lest I activate the menu or push the side buttons without meaning to.

The battery life wasn't a problem, with multi-hour sessions only draining the built-in batteries around halfway; your tolerance for being away from reality will likely give out before the controllers do. The battery indicator on the controllers doesn't exist on the hardware ... but can be seen when you view the controllers through virtual reality.

Weird, right?

I'll be describing my experiences with the software throughout the week, but overall the addition of the controllers to the base package makes all the difference. The Rift will ship with a standard Xbox One wireless controller and a basic remote, with the VR-capable Touch controllers coming later. This is where Valve and HTC has the advance: developers can plan on the controllers being included with every Vive, so almost all of the games designed for the platform use your hands in some way.

Vive controllers 2

The headset is just a fancy, head-tracking display, but paired with the controllers it becomes the sort of virtual reality experience we've seen in the movies. You can hit a ball, juggle, fire a gun or damned near anything else, and the experience feels great.

At $799 the HTC Vive is $200 more expensive than the retail Oculus Rift, and that's kind of a big deal for players who may be interested in the tech. Packing in the controllers is still worth it.

Your glasses are fine

The headset is comfortable once it's seated properly, but you'll want to spend a few minutes making sure the straps are adjusted properly on your head. Once you get the hang of things, you can quickly and easily pass the headset back and forth between multiple people, with only a few seconds needed to provide a good fit for each player.

Vive headset

Players with vision correction don't need to worry, as you can also create a bit more room between your eyes and the screen for your glasses if necessary, a nifty addition to the hardware that was spotted by Road to VR. The hardware's manual explains the mechanism:

Pre manual

So yes, your glasses will be fine, but you may lose a tiny bit of your field of view if you push the lenses of the Vive away from your face. It's also worth taking a bit of time to properly adjust your inter-pupillary distance, which is done using a dial under the headset. I've been playing with my glasses for days now, and it's been a fine experience.

Watch your ceiling!

The Vive Pre will show you a wireframe wall when you get too close to the bounds of your real-world environment, which allows you to know when you're about to bump into something. This is the "chaperone" system, and the final version of the hardware will have a much more robust use of the front-facing camera so you can interact with the real world while still wearing the headset. For now, though? The currently available wireframe system is good enough to keep you safe.

But it doesn't show you where the ceiling is.

This became an issue when I was showing the hardware to a friend of mine who is more than a foot taller than I am, in a basement that doesn't exactly have high ceilings. You can see the damage the ceiling did to the controller:

controller damage

Everything is fine; the controllers have already been beaten up a bit and even dropped — but sure to use those wrist straps! — but heed my warning: Pay attention to the ceiling. Warn people if they're tall enough to hit it. Ask them to raise their hands above their head and maybe even jump a little. If they can touch the ceiling, it's possible they'll slam into it once they lose themselves in virtual reality.

You can get by with a little bit of space, but you'll want more.

My VR space measures, according to the room calibration system, nine feet by nine feet. I've included a picture of it below:

Vive Pre space 2

It's a good amount of space in a basement in Ohio, but that sort of setup isn't required. As long as you can take one good step in any direction from a standing position, you should be able to play almost all the games I've been enjoying. There's even a setting during calibration for standing-room situations where you have next to no space around you.

As long as you can stand comfortably and wave your hands around without hitting anything, you should be good for many, if not most, of the games shipping alongside the Vive. Many developers I've spoken to stressed the importance of supporting both room- and standing-scale situations.

You can even filter for each one in Steam to make sure you don't accidentally buy or download a game you don't have the space to play:

Steam settings

I prefer to have a lot of space in which to move, and I've given a big portion of my downstairs to make this happen, but it's not required.

It's impossible to describe this stuff to people

I've shown the Pre to my children and a variety of my friends and family, and I'm going to keep doing demos for people in the next week in order to learn more about how people react to the hardware. But it's always interesting to me how many people shrug off my descriptions of the hardware and its uses only to be completely impressed by the technology after using it ... and then explaining it back to me.

They don't quite believe you when you explain, but then after a good experience they try to contextualize it with words. My response has been to shut up and let them get it out of their system. It's kind of fun.

It's impossible to understand how well it all works together until you try it, and after trying it most people want to talk about it. Then they want to show others. There's a viral nature to the experience, and I hope Oculus, HTC and Valve do everything they can to help people try the hardware. There is no other way to wrap your head around it.

Summing up

The Vive Pre is a great preview of what we can expect from the retail hardware, and I'm looking forward to my few issues hopefully being fixed in the final hardware and software. I've also learned a good deal about what's required for room-scale VR, and how other people react to walking around in virtual reality.

We'll be covering software in future stories, but this hopefully gives you a good idea of what it will be like to use the Vive in your own home.