July 14, 2016

HTC Vive - 2 Months After

Virtual Reality, HTC Vive

Having received my HTC Vive just over two months ago, I believe now is a good time to capture my thoughts on the experience. Since launch, Valve has released several updates to SteamVR that noticeably improve the reliability and ease of use of the platform. I will break this post down as such:

Hardware & Physical Space

The Computer

It's no secret that Virtual Reality is a demanding experience on the hardware front. Having long ago drank the Intel and Nvidia Kool-Aid, I opted for a build using their hardware (as I've done since I can remember building my own computers). The parts list is as follows (Also viewable from PC Part Picker)

Function Part
CPU Intel Core i5 6600k
Motherboard Asus Maximus VIII Hero
GPU EVGA GeForce 980ti FTW
RAM G.skill TridentZ 32GB DDR4-3200
Primary Storage Samsung 950 Pro NVMe

The 980ti is more than capable of handling current VR titles and with the overclock I've been able to achieve on that Core i5, CPU bottle necking hasn't been an issue. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Nvidia's GTX 1000 series GPUs aren't more cut out for the task. AMD also has newer offerings more tailored to VR, but I am not nearly as familiar with their lineup.

The Space

Valve recommends a minimum of 2m x 1.5m of open space to use the Vive, which just so happens to be the exact amount of free space I have. Due to the cord limitations, it is also beneficial to have the computer you will be using either in the same room or very close by. This limits the amount of cords strewn about the place and makes any troubleshooting that may become necessary easier to accomplish.

The Experience

This is extremely dependent on the developer of the game/experience and unfortunately can vary quite a bit. Sticking with The Lab as a baseline (set of games and experiences designed and developed by Valve), the experience is pretty impressive. Two distinctions of experiences are the 'photo realistic' and the purely artificial ones made of 3D models and rendered scenes.

Photo Realistic

Both The Lab & Destinations make use of actual photos (small portion of The Lab), stitched together and processed accordingly, to put you in another location, able to look around. These types of experiences are void of any sort of interaction, though Destinations does use little 'info' boards that allow you to read about the location. It's basically Google Street View at this point, but given time, I'm sure more features will be added which allow more interaction.

The potential for this type of experience could grow into VR tours or lessons. For instance, the Everest VR title that is due out soon. Not many of us are able to climb Mount Everest (kudos to those who have/can). Because of this, allowing some able, willing soul to do so and record it all allows those of us less willing to experience it in our living room. Likewise, schools could use it to explore museum exhibits, time periods being studied, etc.

Artificial Spaces

Pretty much every other game or application for the HTC Vive falls into this category. They vary from very cartoony (Out of Ammo, Fantastic Contraption, Job Simulator, etc.) to more realistic (theBlu, The Gallery, Universe Sandbox, etc.). Naturally, the more realistic the aesthetics, the more taxing on the computer you are using. While these may not completely transport you out of your actual reality, they can certainly be fun and engaging.

As I write this, some of the more prominent titles are starting to get released. For instance, Raw Data and Nvidia's VR Funhouse. Both of these appear to be quality, VR experiences with impressive visuals and technical demonstrations. The studio behind Raw Data has extensive VR development experience (not something that can be said for most) and should hopefully be able to produce one of the first AAA Virtual Reality games.

The Games

Thankfully, the three games that came with the HTC Vive (Job Simulator, Tilt Brush and Fantastic Contraption) do a fantastic job of demonstrating the state of VR and what the experience can be. Another being The Lab, which is free via Steam and equally impressive.

With the relatively low number of released games, it's pretty easy to map out a demo of the hardware for a first-time VR user. One could either jump into the beginner tutorial, setup by Valve, to introduce the user to the controls and mechanics or dive into a game of interest. Tilt Brush for the artistic, Battle Dome for the multiplayer shooter fan, theBlu for someone who wants a spectacle, Lightblade VR for the Star Wars fan, or The Lab for the indecisive. Naturally, a few other titles fall within these broad categories and there are others with additional appeal.

The biggest pitfall for most games is how long they keep the player engaged. A majority of the games are nothing more than tech demos with some interaction. Most struggle to keep you playing for more than 10-20 minutes at a time. Hopefully, once more mature games are developed and released with fleshed out stories, this trend will change.

My Verdict

Must haves
  • Beefy Computer
  • 2m x 1.5m open area
  • Nice to haves
  • Bigger play space
  • Wireless headphones
  • Large TV for spectators
  • To be completely honest, I am most excited for consumer Augmented Reality to hit the market. Not having to completely isolate yourself from the physical world is preferable to me personally. Having said that, I think this first go at Virtual Reality is a pretty good one. The games and experiences have a long way to go before they are anything more than a demo of the idea.

    Performance is also inconsistent between games and developers. Some of the better games allow fine adjustment of the graphical settings to ensure a smooth experience (The Gallery comes to mind as a good example). Tracking of the hardware is also spot on (when both base stations are working and properly synced) and quite impressive.

    Demoing the hardware and software to friends and family can be a toss up. No matter how much I vet out my configuration and make sure it works, as soon as someone else dons the headset, something usually goes wrong. This can span from my computer losing connection to the headset (HDMI / Displayport issue usually), base stations losing sync with each other (location of link box for BT connection or visual obstruction), games not closing properly (any number of causes), or other similar issues.

    My Scoresheet

    Some of these I've purchased with the intent of playing later, and others I've merely purchased on impulse (Steam Sales got me again). Either way, it's pretty indicative that most of these titles keep your attention for short periods of time. I've yet to find a good title that'll keep me engaged for an extended period of time (say 30+ minutes). Some multiplayer games such as Battle Dome come close, as do story based experiences like The Gallery.

    Game Time Played (min)
    Audioshield 102
    Job Simulator 95
    The Gallery - Episode 1 : Call of the Starseed 85
    Hover Junkers 75
    Tilt Brush 62
    Universe Sandbox v2 57
    Fantastic Contraption 54
    theBlu 38
    Vanishing Realms 28
    Out of Ammo 27
    Space Pirate Trainer 24
    Battle Dome 19
    Cloudlands : VR Minigolf 18
    Destinations 15
    Holopoint 13
    The Nest 12
    Lightblade VR 9
    Zero-G VR 3
    Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes 0