The entire modern industry of virtual reality can be traced back to a few key people and a bit of luck.
Legendary programmer Michael Abrash — now chief scientist at Oculus but working at Valve from 2011 to 2014 — was convinced that augmented reality would become the future, and was working on a few solutions at Valve before reading Ready Player One and becoming convinced that virtual reality was a bit more feasible.
This was around the time Palmer Luckey began putting together serious Rift prototypes, and then showing them to id Software's John Carmack, who used them to demo a new version of Doom 3. There was a great sharing of technology, thought and experimentation between many companies. While virtual reality has many parents across multiple generations, the modern rush began and was accelerated in only a few places. Valve was one of them.
The ability to explore virtual environments by walking around them was always part of the vision, however. The existence of Valve's virtual reality technology was a poorly kept secret for a long time before the HTC Vive was formally announced. There were whispers at industry parties asking whether or not you had seen "the room" an installation inside of Valve's home offices that was plastered with QR codes. You wore a headset and could walk around the space and explore a virtual environment.
And now the $799 HTC Vive is here, a collaboration between Valve and beleaguered hardware manufacturer HTC. Ultimately the QR codes were ditched in favor of what became the two "lighthouse" base stations, and suddenly the door was opened to a retail product.
The result is the most expensive virtual reality platform of the big three — the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR — and it offers more features out of the box than any of its competition. But it also asks more from its users, by far, than any of the hardware with which it's competing.
I went online and picked out a $20 set of 7-foot speaker stands on which to mount my base stations. Each lighthouse station includes a standard mounting bracket on both the back and the bottom of the hardware, and it's a simple task to use some gaffer's tape to keep the power cable affixed to the stand. When you're done, you can collapse the whole thing and put it away. It's a good compromise between a more permanent mounting solution and something a bit less secure.
My solution isn't perfect: If someone bumps into one of the stands it can cause a swaying effect for the person in VR, and some have reported that even minimal vibrations on the floor, such as someone jumping up and down, can lead to wobble in the image.
Once you have a workable solution for the two base stations, you'll need to set up the rest of the hardware, and there's a lot of it. But take a breath and dive in.
The ports on the back of the breakout box include AC power, HDMI — along with an included cable — or Mini DisplayPort for video to your PC, and USB. Then the three attached cables from the headset plug into the other side of the breakout box, and those plugs are helpfully color-coded so you can tell which side is which. The headphone jack for audio is located on the top strap of the headset itself, and accepts any standard headphones or set of earbuds, and the Vive even comes with a set of earbuds in case you don't have your own. The two motion-sensing controllers charge via the included micro USB cables that can plug into your PC, or directly into an outlet using the two included adapters.
Once everything is turned on and properly connected, you'll need to download Steam VR and follow the on-screen instructions. You'll need to make sure that the base stations can see the headset and controllers. Then you point at your monitor and push the trigger on the controller before setting all three pieces of technology on the floor so Steam VR can calibrate the height of the base stations for reference.
After that, it's a matter of holding out a controller with the trigger depressed and "tracing" the outside of your play area. This allows Steam VR to lock in the exact size and shape of your play area, which is followed by a quick video tutorial that explains the controller and a bit about VR.
The workable space the Vive grabs based on the "tracing" of your room turns an irregular shape — as you try to avoid furniture or even the speaker stands I was referring to before — into a simple rectangle. By making sure you don't cut any corners, literally in this case, you can add a lot of square feet to your usable space.
It's a bit tricky to explain with words, but my advice would be to spend a few minutes trying to make as large, and as rectangular, a space as possible in your area if you're shooting for room-scale experiences to really maximize what's possible in virtual reality.
While the Rift can be set up on any desk in a number of minutes, tearing down, moving, setting up and resetting the entirety of a good Vive setup can be a bit of a chore, even after you've done it a few times. This isn't the worst thing in the world — it's worth your time to make sure you're setting everything up properly for the best experience — but it's not something you'll be putting back in the box quickly to bring to a friend's. Even if you optimize your placement strategy and mounting solutions, it will always be a bit of a pain in the ass. There's no way around it.
We had hoped for a bit more of a jump from the fit and finish of the Vive Pre development kit, but the final retail unit still feels like a piece of hardware that's a generation away from being truly easy to use. The Vive's head-mounted display looks like something closer to a science fiction prop than the sleek, automotive-inspired lines of headsets like the Oculus Rift. It's a bit easier to get on and off over glasses than the Rift, but it's also noticeably heavier than Oculus' headset and trickier to adjust, and the velcro strap adjustment was a particular annoyance.
The use of the cabling on top of the strap for the audio jack is also an interesting decision. The good news is that you can connect any headphones you'd like directly to the headset, from the included earbuds to a large set of cans if you want to be a bit more isolated. But the downside is this becomes yet another cable you need to manage. In some cases I actually used standard Scotch tape to attach the cables from my earbuds to the strap so they wouldn't swing around as I moved.
There is also that pass-through camera, which is located in the middle of the headset's face, near the bottom. This is how you're able to see "through" the hardware, and it has proven incredibly useful when combined with room-scale experiences. The ability to swap instantly to the camera in order to see someone in your actual environment and then jump right back into the game isn't just useful; it often feels necessary as you're searching for controllers that may have been turned off or headphones that are resting on your desk.
There are, as far as we can tell, no calibration screens in the software, which would be useful. You're stuck simply adjusting things until it feels right or until the hardware matches your own measured interpupillary distance. You'll also want to spend some time making sure the cable that connects the headset to your PC is unkinked, lest it pull your head back as you try to move away from your system.
The display's resolution is high enough that you have to really look to see the pixels, and any number crunching is less important than the fact that the screens seem to disappear after a short time in the headset. You can adjust the distance between your face and the lenses by pulling on the circular logos on either side of the unit, which limits the field of view a bit while making things much more comfortable for people with glasses. Interpupillary distance is adjusted using a knob on the bottom right of the hardware, and you can dial in your exact number due to the on-screen indicator as you move the screens closer or farther away from each other.
The Vive requires a period of adjustment. For example, it's easy to forget you're wearing a screen over your eyes once you become immersed in a game — but it's also easy to knock the controller into your face when you bring an in-game item close to your eyes to examine it. This was an oddly common occurrence.
The HTC Vive is as much a platform as it is a device, certainly more so than its immediate competitors. Motion controllers are packaged right in, along with the technology to make sure they’re tracked within the entirety of the space you’ve set aside to play in.
There’s nothing stopping you from using a traditional controller while seated, or even a flight stick for games like Elite: Dangerous, but the focus at launch is clearly on the two bundled motion controllers. Their inclusion allows developers to assume players will have them.
It helps that they’re fantastic. The controllers have enough heft to feel satisfying, but are light enough to be held outstretched for extended periods of time without muscle fatigue. They also offer a variety of input options. The included tutorial explaining their use is a wonderful way to acclimate to the touchpad located near your thumb, the trigger under your index finger, the two buttons to the top and bottom of that touch area, and the buttons on the sides that are used by squeezing the controller. Using two of them provides plenty of versatility.
You can see a virtual representation of the controllers once they’re switched on and you’re wearing the headset, just as you can see the lighthouse stations even without turning on the pass-through camera. It can feel a bit strange to be able to "see" the controllers modeled so perfectly in virtual reality, and reach for them like you would any other object in the physical world. This becomes even more surreal, if not more impressive, when you look as if you’re picking up your "hands" or even a firearm that is lying around in the environment.
The controllers exist primarily to model other items. They can be a firearm in a game, or the hilt of a katana. They can become a paintbrush or a stylus. You can use them as virtual hands to grab or manipulate the game world. They’re not controllers in the traditional sense; they’re designed to do as much as possible in a way that feels effortless once you’re inside a game.
The value in the controller is that the limitation of knowing how to use a traditional gamepad is removed somewhat from the "challenge" of a game. We take it for granted, but an Xbox One controller has two analog sticks (that are also buttons!), one directional pad, two triggers, two bumpers, four face buttons, the Xbox home button, and the buttons formerly known as Start and Back. We think this is normal because we’re used to it, but the modern gaming controller is a specialized piece of equipment that we’ve trained on for years.
The Vive wands' design allow anyone to pick them up and just ... do things. In Job Simulator the challenge is learning how to perform each task, and interactions happen when you touch something and hit a single button to grab it. That’s it. The Vive’s controllers allow for interfaces and interactions that can be quickly understood and enjoyed by nearly everyone. It’s a welcoming, fun way to play games that offers much more fidelity than Nintendo’s Wii or Microsoft’s Kinect provided.
They also illustrate some of the more brain-bending implications of virtual reality hardware design. You can check the amount of charge left in a controller by looking at it in virtual reality, where a battery indicator appears at the bottom, though it doesn’t show up on the actual device in your hands. And that charge is pretty substantial. While I have yet to be able to stay in virtual reality long enough to wear one completely down, a three-hour session seems to have only taken the battery down about halfway. The controllers charge via included micro USB cables.
Along with its base stations, the Vive’s controllers are its "secret" weapon. They’re the difference between a fancy display and a platform that enables new ways to play. While the Vive’s headset grasps toward parity with the Rift — and in some ways comes up short — it’s the controllers that help bring it all together.
Being able to look down and see virtual hands, and then squeeze to see them open and close, changes everything. Using your real-world skills with firearms to aim inside a game while ducking behind cover to protect yourself is transformative. None of this would be possible without these controllers, which succeed in terms of ergonomics, versatility and technology.
Also, wear the wrist straps. It can be all too easy to lose track of how enthusiastic your movements become before smashing into a window or television.
HTC has its own launch platform that you can install if you’d like, but you can just as easily use a gaming platform you’re likely already familiar with: Steam.
Steam operates as the Vive hardware’s desktop client, and opening any Vive game using Steam also launches Steam VR, the software that drives the Vive. There is also a sort of virtual reality "loading program" in which you can hang out when you don’t have a game open, and you can bring up a floating version of Steam’s Big Picture mode at any time by hitting the menu button.
It’s a nice workaround; Steam is a known system, and you can buy, install or delete games using a virtual laser pointer connected to one of your controllers, or even message your friends. There is also a desktop option on the bottom of the screen that allows you to interact with your PC’s desktop at any point, using the laser pointer to move your cursor. It can be very strange if you’re watching someone in VR and you see them begin to move the cursor on the desktop remotely.
It’s not an elegant solution, exactly — Big Picture mode was designed for televisions, not for a 3D environment — but it works well and provides you with every feature you could possibly want. It’s also familiar; you won’t have to relearn how to do anything if you’ve ever used Steam Big Picture Mode.
So while it may be nice to hope for a more interesting environment set up strictly for VR, this is a pretty efficient way of introducing all the features you’d want in Steam VR right now, including a theater view that allows you to play any game in your Steam library in a virtual environment. It may feel a bit hacky, but it works, and that’s the important thing.
Steam VR also comes with a surprising amount of options, giving you plenty of control over the experience. You can change the color and line density of the chaperone system. You can mirror the audio from the games to the television, or the monitor to which your PC is connected, so other people can hear what you’re hearing. You can set it up to give you a warning if your game drops below 90 fps, which could make you ill.
Valve and HTC have also solved a number of VR problems that still plague the retail Oculus Rift. You can tap the menu button twice to bring up the pass-through camera of the Vive, which allows you to see a ghostly blue version of your immediate surroundings. This allows you to see if someone else walked into the room, to find a controller that may have been turned off, or to grab your soda to take a drink.
The chaperone system, Valve’s name for the software that keeps you from literally running into the walls, is another clever aspect of the technology. A wireframe pops up when you walk too close to the limits of your play space, and fades back away when you’re back in the safe play area. You can even have the pass-through camera fade in an image of the physical wall when you get too close.
It all sounds very strange in print, and even visually, but it makes sense when you’re wearing the headset. The system does a very effective job at teaching you the limits of where you can and can’t go, without yanking you out of the game.
You can even connect your phone to the headset via Bluetooth and a smartphone application so you can pick up calls and respond to texts while in virtual reality, although that feature wasn’t yet switched on as of this writing. Valve has solved the problems of keeping track of the real world and being cut off from your immediate surroundings very well, and none of these issues are by any means simple.
The smartphone app also gives people a good way to get the attention of someone deeply immersed in virtual reality without freaking them out, which is an actual concern that you learn about very quickly once a cat jumps in your lap when you think you’re in a spaceship.
You get Steam in VR, which means the HTC Vive is actual years ahead of any competition in the space just by dint of running atop a well-used gaming platform. But that’s not all Steam brings to the Vive — it has many clever ways of keeping you safe in the hardware, while also making sure you can do as much as possible without removing the headset.
The software store for the Vive is Steam, and the collection of VR-ready content is already an overwhelming mixture of demos, early access games, first chapters, some full games and some applications, and there’s a whole bunch more to come.
This is good and bad. The content is not arranged as in the Oculus store, but we’re used to the somewhat chaotic nature of Steam by now, and you can even filter by standing and sitting experiences, or games that use a standard controller or the motion controls. But again, this takes a bit of doing. It’s not tricky stuff if you’re used to navigating Steam, but it’s certainly not nearly as immediately user-friendly — albeit, simplified — as Oculus’ option.
Be aware of what you’re getting before you pay money for a game, however. Is this the first chapter? Is it a game that will be completed over time, or is it out and completely finished? There are already games that require a somewhat large room to work at all — Unseen Diplomacy requires a space of 3 meters by 4 meters, for instance — and sometimes that’s not immediately apparent until you read the full description of a game.
What’s striking is just how much there is, and how varied the experiences have become already. There’s some weird stuff: I can’t even begin to describe Irrational Exuberance to you, but many of those strange and experimental games are worth trying. There are also a number of games such as Job Simulator that reward and encourage streaming in-game; many Vive developers seem to innately understand how important social features of these games will be.
Among the enormous selection of Vive-ready content in Steam, here are some of our favorites.
One of the more intense launch games, Hover Junkers fully takes advantage of room-scale virtual reality by having players duck behind virtual objects for cover while piloting flying scrapyards to kill their opponents. The build we played may have only had a shotgun or handgun by way of weapons, but playing the game is a violent and unpredictable look at the future of online VR.
Hover Junkers is a game that exploits the movement options given to the player by the Vive, and the more you’re willing to move, the better. The button to transmit voice chat also makes your hand give the middle finger gesture. This seems significant.
The Lab is Valve’s play area, a place filled with fun and interesting demos that show off what the Vive, along with its controllers and room-scale tracking, can do. Set in the Portal universe and featuring all sorts of fun things to see and do, this should be one of your first stops after setting up your Vive.
We can’t be the only ones hoping for the longbow demo to be made into a full game. Oh, and be sure to pet the weird robot dog thing. The Lab shows off how good Valve can be when the company is focused on pure play, and it shows the studio's designers really want to put the Vive’s best foot forward in terms of production values and pure delight. These demos can make anyone feel like they’re a kid again.
What Fantastic Contraption, one of the Vive’s pack-in games, does well is experimentation. The act of putting something together — to see how it works in action and then adjust your design until you succeed and move onto the next challenge — is exciting and, thanks to the game’s wonderful spectating features, something you can share with other people watching you play. This, alongside games like Tilt Brush, shows what’s possible in terms of creation in virtual worlds.
Job Simulator is what happens if computers try to recreate the drudgery of entry level jobs based on an incomplete idea of the reality of human existence. It’s a dystopian idea mixed with some of the broadest humor currently in VR, along with some of the slapstick humor that comes from being able to pick up just about anything and throw it at just about anyone. When your exit menu is eating a burrito, and the developer went to great lengths to offer tools so you can broadcast live from within the game, you know something interesting is going on. Oh yeah, and it’s one of the games packed-in with the system .
Space Pirate Trainer puts a laser gun, or a shield, in both of your hands, then throws drones at you and asks you to survive. You’ll understand the game in seconds, but the fact that you can physically dodge the lasers from the incoming drones means that it’s an intensely physical experience that can, after a long session, leave you winded. This is how I imagined it would look and feel like to be an action hero in the 1980s' version of the future, and the need to play "one more round" to chase your high score will hold your interest for a very long time.
Final Approach begins to teaching you how to touch planes in the air and trace their flight path in 3D space until they safely land, and then it begins to layer on challenges and fun little games. During one scene I was using a hose to put the fire on a plane, and in another one I had to throw life preservers at sailors in danger of drowning.
It felt like playing with an amazing set of toys, telling little stories to yourself about how they all interacted. It can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you have to prioritize what to do and when as the levels progress, but it’s a game that shows just what’s possible when you pair third-person games with touch controls.
This is basically MS Paint, but in virtual reality.
You can doodle in 3D space with a variety of effects and brushes, or step into someone else’s creation to experience it for yourself. You’re not making a drawing as much as you’re creating an environment, and the app almost nudges you toward dance-like motions as you create objects and designs that looks and seem real.
Like so many things on the Vive, this can be hard to describe with words or even video, but it’s one of the best programs for showing people the value of VR while giving them a comfortable space in which to experiment. There is no "wrong" way to play Tilt Brush, and this is one of the best experiences for selling people on how creative virtual reality can feel.
Excerpt: In the The Gallery's VR elevator shaft, I looked up to see a smear of star-lit sky framed by walls whizzing away. I felt dizzy. I looked down to see a lava-like floor rushing toward me. This was much, much worse.
I thought, I am standing still in the Moscone Center, at an elevation of zero feet. I am not actually moving. And yet, I badly wanted to rip the Vive headset from my face and plead phony VR-related nausea to attending developers, standing around watching me play their game.
As the elevator increased the speed of its descent I reached out to hold onto some non-existent upright. I was starting to sway. I thought to myself, fucking hell, I might actually fall over here.
Excerpt: "Time to go buy a sword!" he said. I didn't have a sword yet; the game thus far had solely been about collecting items and solving simple puzzles in order to progress. Turning around — not just in the game, but within the room too — I found a selection of swords in another room. After buying and grabbing the cheapest one, I trudged back toward the skeleton monster with trepidation.
Unlike the rest of the demo, where it was possible to statically press buttons to pick up objects, I had to swing my arms to attack with my sword and protect myself from the skeleton's counterattacks. It was exhilarating and scary and, when I won, it made me feel like an actual hero.
That short boss battle illustrated what the Vive does best. I felt like I'd physically accomplished something by warding off a monster that appeared taller than me.
It’s hard to imagine the conversation that begins when someone brings home a piece of consumer electronics that, according to the included mounting solution, assumes you’re going to be drilling into your walls.
That’s of course after, or maybe before, the conversation that takes place about buying a virtual reality platform for $799. Of course, Valve and HTC stress that you don’t need a room just for VR, but the best experiences come to life when you have at least a few feet in any direction in which to move.
And, as with the Oculus Rift, you’re going to need a pretty powerful gaming PC. Ninety frames per second isn’t a goal for comfortable VR; it’s the absolute minimum, and Valve doesn’t seem to be doing nearly as much when it comes to enforcing a minimum experience for players. Oculus Home is its own curated store. Vive games will come from Steam, which is a bit of a Wild West when it comes to quality control.
So the headset is heavier and not as polished as its competitors, the cable bundle is clunky, and setup requires a large initial investment from the player in just about every way.
The Vive feels like a first pass at a retail product, or like a very refined development kit. We’ve set up the system and torn it down numerous times, in numerous rooms, and the process became a bit smoother every time. But it’s not like you can decrease the number of moving parts here. There is a large number of people who will never be convinced due to the price and the amount of space required; for that matter, there is a large number of people who simply don’t have the space required for room-scale VR, and it’s possible that standing VR may also be an issue for some.
But I do have the space, and the computer, and the enthusiasm needed to set this thing up in an optimal manner. We’ve also taken a good number of people through games and demos in our New York City offices. It’s important to show this stuff to a large number of people, and to let them get their hands on it in a real way, far from the controlled atmosphere of press events and industry shows. And, simply put, it blows your mind.
Holding a sword, ducking away from enemy arrows, sneaking around traps and solving puzzles ... you get to experience things that feel real in completely virtual environments, using your hands and body movements to succeed or fail. I spent close to 90 minutes trying to figure out a puzzle in a virtual reality adventure game, only to find a clue written on the bottom of an item in my backpack. During my time in the game, my back got a bit tired since I was hunched over a virtual piece of machinery, so I sat down to take a break and think about what to do next.
Being able to see your hands or even just the floating controllers locks you into the experience in a way that can’t be matched by the more familiar control mechanisms of the Rift. The act of holding a virtual laser and jumping out of the way of drone fire in Space Pirate Trainer is an amusement park ride mixed with a video game, a simple experience that’s amazing the first time and remains so on the 100th play. If nothing else, the Vive has convinced us that Oculus needs to release the Touch controllers as soon as possible. These are experiences that you can get lost inside, featuring natural methods of interaction that require little existing knowledge of what video games used to be.
So yes, the Vive asks a lot from anyone buying the platform, but it gives just as much back, if not more so. Everyone has the same reaction after a demo, in our experience: They remark on how complicated it seems and how little they’d want to set one up in their own home, and then they get wide-eyed and want to tell you all about how amazed they are by the experience. Valve’s challenge is to get the second part of that reaction to overrule the first, and the company will have an uphill battle on its hands, but it’s off to a very promising start.
Product: Tyson Whiting, Casey Miller
Video: Sarah Bishop, Ryan Simmons, Miles Ellis, Mark Olsen, Sara Masetti
Vive demo crew: Chris Grant, Megan Farokhmanesh, Tara Long
Vive demo crew (cont): Susana Polo, Simone de Rochefort, Spencer Hall
Editor: Arthur Gies
Copy Editor: Samit Sarkar