Modern virtual reality is here, and it offers amazing, can’t-find-them-anywhere-else experiences.
But you’ll have to pay dearly to step into VR, you may find yourself queasy if you stay there too long and — if you’re using the HTC Vive system — you run the risk of abruptly ending your time in the virtual world by tripping over some real-world wires.
You’ve probably heard about Oculus Rift, the much-anticipated headset offered by Facebook’s Oculus unit that just started shipping late last month. Vive is, for now, Rift’s chief rival and offers even more immersive experiences.
Co-developed by HTC, the Taiwanese electronics company best known for its smartphones, and Valve, the gaming company that runs the Steam download service, Vive is built around a sophisticated headset, as is Rift. The headset has its own built-in pair of HD screens, one for each eye. It’s also covered in sensors that allow users’ motions to be tracked precisely as they turn or lift their head or walk around their living room.
Part of Vive’s motion-sensing system is a pair of “base stations” that emit lasers that interact with the sensors in both the headset and in the included pair of hand controllers. Those controllers are what help set Vive apart from Rift.
At least for now — Rift will get its own motion-sensing controllers later this year — Vive is the only one of the modern systems that allows users to see a virtual version of their hands or handheld tools inside their VR experiences, increasing the immersion.
In the game
These are early days with VR, so developers are still trying to get a handle on what types of experiences are appropriate for the medium. Through the Vive app and a special VR section of the Steam store, you’ll find games that will appeal to both hard-core and casual gamers and experiences that take you into different environments or worlds that would be difficult or impossible to visit in reality.
Many of the games are fun. “Cloudlands VR Minigolf,” for example, was a wacky and whimsical take on putt-putt golfing. On one hole, I had to get my ball across a ramp that kept moving from left to right. If I missed, the ball went straight into a raging river. If I hit it too hard, it would jump the ramp and bounce off a cliff behind the flag and off the course. After missing a few too many times, I realized I was just as bad at putting in the virtual world as I am in the real one.
But the nongame VR experiences are where Vive and other systems really shine. “TheBlu” takes you under the sea. In one scenario, called “Luminous Abyss,” you are standing on the deep, dark depths at the bottom of the ocean. I watched in amazement as an anglerfish enticed a smaller fish into its hiding spot with its eerie glowing lure — and then ate it whole. I felt like a kid as I bounced tennis ball-size transparent jellyfish up and down with my hands. And I stared in awe as I was surrounded by a giant school of bioluminescent fish that lit up the deep. I really felt like I was there.
But experiences like that, as amazing as they are, come with numerous costs — literal and otherwise.
To step into Vive’s version of VR, you’ll have to pay $800 for HTC’s kit. But that’s not all. In order to run Vive’s software, you’ll need to have a high-powered PC with a top-line graphics card from Nvidia or AMD to connect to the headset. If you don’t yet have such a computer, you can expect to spend at least $1,000 for one — and probably a lot more. I was fortunate that Nvidia loaned me one to use because I don’t own one that’s anywhere near powerful enough.
But there are other costs besides price. For one, if you buy the Vive set, you may be missing out on some games. “Eve: Valkyrie,” a spaceship combat game that is one of the most hyped VR titles, is exclusively available for Oculus Rift, as are a few other titles.
For another, the setup can be kind of ugly. The base stations needed to monitor your movements while wearing Vive need to be mounted at least 6½ feet above the ground. But they also need to be plugged in. I don’t know about your house, but mine doesn’t have any outlets that are that high off the ground, so after I got Vive set up, I had some unsightly black wires trailing down my walls. You could fix that by calling in an electrician, of course, but at even more cost.
In order to work, Vive has to be plugged in by wire to your PC. I had to be sure to be aware of the wire or run the risk of tripping over it. But having to keep track of it meant that I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the virtual worlds I was visiting.
Spending time in virtual reality can make you queasy or give you headaches. As good as the Vive system is in terms of the experiences it offers, I often felt a bit sick when I took off the headset — even sometimes when I had worn it for only a few minutes.