Being honest, I’ve had a hankering to return to that virtual world since I managed to sneak a prolonged session with a friend’s PSVR earlier this year. The hankering was strengthened further when I ran the Vive benchmarking application to see if my PC would actually be able to handle the task and it came back with a thumbs up. Unfortunately I’m far too financially cautious when it comes to purchases for myself to actually splash out and buy a Vive (it took me so long to finally get a new personal laptop)…. luckily I have an amazing wife who presented me with that matt black box for my birthday on Monday last week… or rather Sunday evening because she knew that I’d want to get started on setting up that technical do-hickey as soon as possible.
Since then we’ve both been enthralled by the VR experience so here are my first impressions of what is generally considered to be the Steam endorsed VR solution.
The All Important Unboxing
I… I wasn’t very calm during the unboxing. If I’d thought about it more I would have photographed the process, carefully documenting it to analyse and share with you all. In reality I nervously flitted around the room not quite sure what to do first: “We needed to clear a space, no wait, I wanted to look at all the things, no, we need a cup of coffee first, no, what I really need to do is read the manual…” this cyclical thought process accomplished very little and was on loop for some time.
I did finally get around to unboxing all the “stuff”… and there is a lot of ‘stuff’ in the box. There is the headset of course, but also a stack of cables for HMDI and USB connection both sides of the small interface box. Two room sensors, two motion controllers, and five different power supplies for charging and electric-ing the various bits and pieces. Having never used a Vive before I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but at this stage I was reassured that everything looked and felt both solid and of a high quality.
During the setup I was a little more focused than the unboxing, which was a good thing because this isn’t exactly “play straight out of the box” sort of tech. My wife and I had a lengthy giggle at any hapless parents who may have inadvertently bought this for their children without realising the commitment involved… this was whilst I was standing on a chair with a masonry drill in hand. Unlike the PSVR’s relatively plug-n-play approach the Vive requires that room sensors be mounted at either corner of the play area which essentially fixes it to one location in your particular dwelling. Given that it is also best enjoyed in room mode this also involves clearing an area of a minimum 1.5 m x 2 m for use. Our house isn’t that big, but we do now .. sort of… have an area that can be quite simply emptied and repopulated with furniture as and when a VR zone is required.
The room sensors are marginally intrusive additions to the room; sure they’re neat little black boxes, but they each have a power cable that runs awkwardly down the wall and (unless you happen to have a pair of 6 ft tall tripods lying around your home) really should be wall mounted.
Considering the involved nature of the setup, the process didn’t seem to be designed with the casual user in mind. The first issue I found was that it wasn’t exactly clear where to begin. The box come with a large piece of paper in a conspicuous envelope inside the lid which I assumed would be the quick start instructions. This turned out to be a comically oversized way of telling me the size of the play area I needed and emphasise that the sensors needed to be in opposite corners, although the piece of paper didn’t actually tell me anything about the mounting or setup. On the outside of the envelope was a web address to download a setup guide program and deeper in the box there was a thick booklet in every language possible instructing me how to mount the sensors to the wall and how they should be positioned. I get the feeling that maybe some of this was after thought after people struggled to get it right.
Having mounted the sensor boxes I fired up my PC and downloaded the setup guide which did talk me through plugging everything in and check that it was all talking to each other. Then it informed me that the Steam Room Setup would guide me through the rest of the process… then the steam room setup sort of crashed… so I popped the headset on and found myself about 10ft below ground level in the steam VR environment.
It took me a little while to find the Steam Room Setup again, but finally I had marked out the play area and jumped back in to the Steam VR environment.
My current Steam VR home environment is a Team Fortress 2 inspired tropical base… which is pretty excellent! Given the hours that I’ve spent in TF2 it’s amazing to be put in to that environment and able to wander around, looking at the 60’s sci-fi inspired architecture and vintage computer displays. I’ve spent a good chunk of time just soaking up that aesthetic. I would have loved to post a screenshot… but it seems that it doesn’t work for the home environment….
Steam VR provides the de facto Vive “home” environment; the other option is HTC’s own “Viveport” which shifts the focus from games to more general (often educational) VR experiences. Needless to say I’ve spent much more time in the former than the latter. The truth is that the Vive doesn’t “need” this VR environment, you can just launch games straight from the desktop, but it does add a certain something to the overall VR experience. The concept of the “construct” in the Matrix gave sci-fi fans everywhere the idea that even on entering a computer constructed reality with nothing loaded you needed somewhere “to be”, it’s kind of like that.
The Steam VR home provides a neat place to hang out (apparently also with other people, but I don’t know anyone else with a Vive), and also allows you to launch games/apps directly from wall mounted info screens. It’s also possible to hit a menu button (which can be done in game also) and access Steam through big picture mode, along with your normal desktop, Viveport, and all the settings that you may want to mess with in the virtual world.
… That’s all Great… but What’s it Like to Use?
The current VR experience is pretty great and the Vive is generally considered to be close to the top of the home market in that respect. I can confirm that the head tracking, field of view, and resolution are all suitably impressive and provide an excellent sense of immersion. The headset is about as comfy to wear as it can be considering the weight and there is minimal messing around needed to get different people using the system aside from a straightforward setting of the inter-pupilary distance (nothing beats wierding out your family and friends by measuring the distance between their eyes and commenting on it). There’s a functional single cable tethering the player to the base station and a standard headphone jack at the ‘face end’.
The motion controllers are responsive and each feature a large button/trackpad/d-pad on the top under you thumb, two different menu buttons, a slightly awkward grip button, and a trigger.
The only feature of the whole package that has caused some mild annoyance is the front facing camera which worked really well the first few days, providing an instant view of the world around; handy for having conversations and moving furniture without removing the headset. After this however it began to struggle (I’ve checked and I’m not alone – seems to be to do with the load over USB, although why it worked originally is a mystery) and seemed to take the motion controllers down with it when it decided to get angry. I’ve since disabled the camera which I’m a little sad about because I kept telling people at first what a great feature it is.
The problem is that none of this comes close to describing how incredible the experience is. For that I’d advise everyone to use GoogleEarth VR. Standing like a giant amongst the skyscrapers of Manhattan, finding your own house in what feels like a model village, or just “visiting” somewhere that you’ve always want to go, or have fond memories of, is one of the best “first things to do” in VR and the Vive handles it admirably. VR is at the point where it feels like stepping in to another world – you only have to listen to the language people use “Oh, you have to see this in here“, or “Go in there an look at that“, we’re already seeing it as a portal to another place …regardless of how silly you look flailing around the lounge shooting zombies… Of course we’ll no doubt look back at this era and see it as primitive in the same way that early 3D messes of polygons were primitive, or how early CD games didn’t quite know what to do with the medium, but it is a big step in making VR a viable method for the interactive and visual arts.
… Up next I’ll be reviewing the VR games I’ve been playing… sorry to everyone not interested in VR….