Oculus has become the best-known name in virtual reality thanks to Palmer Luckey, its young founder, its $2.4m Kickstarter campaign and its $2bn acquisition by Facebook. Yet in the first innings of this market, it is not Oculus but HTC’s Vive that is a hit with early adopters.
In some ways that has as much to do with who those early adopters are as the technical merits of either product.
The hardcore gamers who own a powerful enough PC to run a VR headset already spend much of their time on Steam, the digital download store run by software giant Valve. The Vive was developed in partnership between Valve and HTC (which is better known for its smartphones), and it too runs on Steam. Those gamers are also more likely to stump up $799 for the headset.
Since the Vive was released in April, the library of VR games available has been steadily increasing, including Rec Room, the Wii Sports-meets-Second Lifemultiplayer game that I reviewed two months ago. I have spent a few weeks living with the HTC Vive — and as I will explain, this is a product that you have to live with, not merely own or use.
Steam users currently rate Rec Room as the second-best VR game, according to the store’s rankings. The top-rated VR title is The Lab, a free download developed by Valve itself. Getting initiated into VR is no easy task but The Lab serves as the perfect introduction to this new medium.
It is made up of a selection of mini-games and “experiments” that range from the mundane to the slightly terrifying. Playing fetch with a little robot dog in the Icelandic wilderness is one of the gentler ones, or you can play God by throwing planets around in the Solar System.
More familiar video-gaming thrills can be found in Longbow, where you fire arrows to defend the castle from invading stick-figures, and Slingshot, where the objective is to cause as much destruction as possible in a warehouse stacked high with crates, which crash and explode with a satisfying sense of heft.
My favourite part of The Lab is the Robot Repair shop, where a few minutes of interactive story show how VR can mess with a user’s feelings of proximity and space. Give anyone a turn in Robot Repair and I guarantee they will instantly understand what all the VR fuss is about (I don’t want to spoil it by explaining too much more — just try it).
I am dwelling on Vive’s software before I start talking about the hardware because the experiences conjured inside its headset are rich and sophisticated. Players can use their hands in each game thanks to its two motion-sensitive controllers, and are free to move around quite a bit, thanks to the Vive’s “room scale” approach.
So far, the Oculus Rift has been designed as a seated experience and uses a traditional video game controller, which limits its scope — although I expect both shortcomings to be fixed in updates to the Oculus package by the end of the year.
The downside to Vive, however, is that delivering such a vivid, full-bodied alternative reality requires considerable investment, not just of money but also of real estate. More so than any other VR headset, the Vive requires a lot of space, a lot of cables and a lot of plug sockets.
To enable users to walk around freely in VR, the Vive uses two “lighthouses” — sensors that must be placed at diagonally opposite corners of the room so they can always be “seen” by the headset.
I live in a rented apartment, so drilling the lighthouses into the wall was not an option. Instead, I used two portable camera tripods. Even fully extended, these did not quite reach the recommended height for the sensors.
I have no complaints about the quality of the tracking system. The problem here is less technological than social and ergonomic. The HTC Vive headset, its towering lighthouses and two sneaker-sized controllers, plus a PC and monitor, together took over my living room. Including two chargers for its controllers, the whole set-up requires seven available plug sockets and I lost count of how many wires.
If your house or flat is big enough for a dedicated games room, study or home theatre that can serve as a permanent place to play VR, then this stuff may not bother you. In a modest San Francisco apartment with no spare room, it felt quite an imposition.
Once everything is plugged in and all the relevant software has been downloaded, setting up the Vive is surprisingly straightforward, thanks to a user-friendly walk-through guide. It is possible to dismantle much of the kit after each session, if you have somewhere to stash a box the size of a microwave.
But doing so means deciding to play VR becomes a battle of wills: do I want to erect a pair of tripods, boot up the PC, make sure the controllers are charged and strap a screen to my face? Or do I want to pull my phone from my pocket and play Candy Crush instead?
The investment of time and effort is rewarded many times over with a genuinely stunning new form of entertainment. Several visiting friends (most first-timers in VR) were all wowed by The Lab. But not many seemed keen to leave extra technology in their living rooms.
The price is steep, too, on top of the $799 VR kit. For those who do not already have a VR-ready PC, expect to pay at least $1,000.
I have been testing Vive with an HP desktop PC running an Intel Core i7 with 16GB of Ram and an AMD Radeon R9 390x graphics chip, which altogether costs around $1,400 (£1,080).
The spec checklist for these high-end PCs can be intimidating but if you do decide to splurge on the full VR package, it is worth paying the extra for a fast, powerful machine like HP’s Omen line, for smooth graphics and future-proofed processors.
Nobody said that entering a new world would be easy. HTC and Valve have created a unique combination of hardware and software that delivers the best VR experience available today. However, having to spend about $2,000 to buy all the kit, and dedicating a whole room to house it all, sadly puts the Vive out of most people’s reach.