This year’s most advanced virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive, is coming on the 5th April, and it will cost £689 in the UK. Or, at least that’s what it will cost without shipping, as UK buyers will have to fork out an extra £57.60 in postage and packing, taking the total up to £746.60. That’s quite a lot more than its nearest competitor, the Oculus Rift, which costs £500, and more than twice as expensive as Sony’s PlayStation VR, whose price has just been confirmed as £349 in the UK.
To be fair, you do get a lot more kit with the Vive than you do with either the Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR, as everything from the controllers to the base stations and all the necessary cabling comes in the box along with the headset. Oculus Rift, on the other hand, only gets you a headset, the camera and an Xbox One controller, while PlayStation VR only comes with the headset and the connector box, so you’ll need to buy the PlayStation Camera and a controller separately. More importantly, Oculus has yet to announce how much its motion-sensing Touch controllers will cost. Once you factor in all this, the Vive probably isn’t quite as expensive as it might first appear.
HTC has also announced that the Vive will be available to try out on shop floors prior to its official April launch date. Starting from today, you’ll be able to strap on the Vive at participating Dixons Carphone (or Currys PC World) stores in Leeds (Birstall), Reading and Tottenham Court Road in London, as well as PC component specicalists Overclockers UK in Newcastle and Scan Computers in Bolton.
Each store will have a full Vive demo station that’s completely open to the public for individual sessions, and you’ll be able to put in a pre-order for the Vive following your demonstration. What’s more, you’ll also be able to buy a Vive from these retailers starting from May, meaning you can simply go in and pick one up off the shelf rather than having to take a hit on those expensive shipping costs. For a limited time, Vive will ship with three VR experiences: Google’s 3D painting game Tilt Brush, Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives (both of which you can read more about on the next page), and Northway Games’ building game Fantastic Contraption.
We went hands on with the first version of the Vive last year at Gamescom, but the Vive you’ll end up buying in April actually bears a very close resemblance to the Vive Pre, the second developer edition that was first announced at CES. I’ve been hands on with the Pre at this year’s MWC, and I have to say it’s by far the most immersive and incredible VR experience I’ve had yet, so here’s a full rundown of what to expect from Vive come April-time.
What is HTC Vive?
The HTC Vive is arguably the most advanced VR headset currently available. It not only tracks your head movements, but it can also track your physical hand and body motions, too, allowing you to walk around in virtual reality and interact with objects like you would in everyday life using its pair of wand-like controllers.
This is thanks to its pair of bundled-in base stations, which sync with the headset wirelessly and can track your movements 60 times a second with sub-millimetre precision. It does this by bouncing lasers off the surface of the headset and each controller, which are studded with a myriad of sensors to get the most accurate tracking data possible. The lasers also keep latency levels to an absolute minimum, which should help prevent any feelings of nausea or motion sickness while using the headset.
Technically, you only need to be tracked by one base station at a time, but the benefit of having two is that it will never lose track of where you are if you turn around or move out of range. As a result, you’ll want to place each base station in opposite corners of your room to get the best coverage, and they have a maximum operational distance of about 15m, which should be more than enough to fill a large, spare bedroom.
Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, on the other hand, aren’t capable of doing fullscale 360 degree VR, but both will be able to track your hand movements provided you buy each one’s respective additional controllers – Oculus’ Touch Controllers for the Rift and Sony’s PlayStation Move controllers for PlayStation VR. Most of the time, though, you’ll probably be using these headsets sitting down, and you’ll operate them with a standard game pad rather than moving around the room.
In terms of the headset’s technical specifications, the Vive isn’t actually that much more advanced than its rivals. Inside, there are two 1,080×1,200 OLED displays – one for each eye – and they refresh up to 90 times a second, providing very smooth feedback for your head and hands. It also has a 100 degree field of view, so it can still look like you’re peering through a black-rimmed porthole at times, but you soon forget about it when you’re shooting robot drones in space or gazing an enormous blue whales from atop the ruins of an underwater shipwreck.
It doesn’t have any built-in headphones like the Oculus Rift, but it does come with a pair ear buds just in case you don’t have your own set of headphones already. HTC says it’s assuming most people will probably have their own pair of over ear headphones they’ll want to use with the Vive, and these can be easily attached using the audio cable which comes out of the top of the headset.
The only slight snag, quite literally, is the 5m tether cable protruding from the back of the headset, as I almost got caught up in it multiple times as I stepped backwards or moved from side to side during my demo. This is required to connect the headset to the heavyweight gaming PC you’ll need to make its 90Hz visuals run smoothly, but it’s a shame HTC hasn’t come up with a more elegant solution to its rather hazardous cable management in the intervening months since we first tried out the Vive last year.
HTC Vive vs Vive Pre vs Vive Consumer Edition – what’s changed?
The Consumer Edition of Vive is remarkably similar to the Vive Pre. In fact, HTC told us that the only main differences would be a slightly different strap that goes round your head and a deeper ridge round the bottom half of the circular thumb pad on the controllers so you don’t accidentally hit the power button directly below it. As the Consumer Edition was locked away inside a glass box at MWC, it’s difficult to know exactly how it will look once it’s all cabled up, but it looks as though the cables will trail over the top of the headset and down your back.
Otherwise, the Pre and Consumer Edition are nigh on identical, and one of the biggest new additions to the Pre and Consumer Edition of Vive is the front facing camera. This gives you a glimpse into the physical world around you from inside the headset, so you don’t end up walking into furniture or have to take off the headset when someone else needs to speak with you.
^ The Vive Consumer Edition (shown above) is nigh on identical to the Vive Pre we tried out at MWC 2016
With a simple double tap of the power button on the newly-designed controller, the world around you suddenly materialises as a kind of neon-blue heat signature. It’s not exactly life-like, but I could easily pick out the rest of HTC’s MWC stand from inside my open-ended booth. I could also see my hands and the rest of my body below me and it gives you more than a good enough picture to interact with your friends and family naturally – although quite how it looks from the other side of the headset is another matter entirely.
Depending on the outline of your room, the Vive will also show you a grid-like cage when you get too close to the wall or the edge of your room. The size and shape of the cage will change depending on the size of your room, too, and you can draw round any furniture you might have with the Vive’s built-in Chaperone mode so you don’t crash into them. The cage disappears once you move away from the boundaries of your room, though, so it will only break your immersion when it’s absolutely necessary.
The Pre headset itself has also been redesigned since we last saw it. It’s more compact, and the head strap now has three points of adjustment: two at the sides which can tilt up and down via the headset’s hinges, and one over the top of the headset. It comes with two face cushions to suit different face types – a standard curved one and a slightly flatter one for broader faces – and each one has a groove for glasses, so you can still use the Vive without having to take them off. You can adjust the distance between your face and the lenses by pulling the front of the headset away from the sides, and you can even adjust the distance between the lenses. Even better, the headset will guide you through every step of the calibration process, making sure it’s as comfortable as possible.
The lenses are now made from what HTC’s calling ‘Mura-Glass’, which is meant to provide a clearer, sharper picture than standard glass. HTC told me that the original version was almost like looking through a dirty window, but the Pre’s ‘Mura-correction’ is meant to eliminate that. Each demo certainly looked very clear and detailed when I had the headset on, but it still doesn’t erase the individual pixels you can see on the display. This is a common problem on every VR headset I’ve tried, though, so it’s a pretty minor downside overall.
The first thing you notice about the Pre, though, is just how light it is. While I haven’t tried the final version of the Oculus Rift yet, the Pre definitely feels lighter than Sony’s PlayStation VR headset, and I barely noticed it was there during my demo. The straps also felt very secure once I’d tightened them to fit round my apparently ‘rather small head’, according to HTC, and the spongey face rest didn’t let in any light bleed whatsoever despite the bright overhead lights from the show floor just outside my demo booth.
The controllers also now have a huge hole cut out in the top of them to help ease its weight distribution. This ‘void’, as HTC likes to call it, also allows them to pack in even more sensors to improve its rotational movement tracking, as these movements are by far the hardest to track accurately. They certainly worked incredibly well while I was using them, and they’re a massive improvement over the Vive’s original, rather more angular controllers, which had a definite first-draft kind of feel to them when we first used them last year.
Instead, the Pre’s controllers are beautifully sculpted to fit comfortably in each hand, with the trigger button lying at just the right height for your index finger, and the squeezable grip button on the side is within easy reach of your middle finger. They’re charged via Micro USB, and can last at least four hours away from the mains. In fact, HTC told us that they’d been able to run demos all day at MWC without needing to top up the charge once during the day, so it’s likely they’ll last a lot longer than the company’s rather conservative-sounding estimate.
The base stations, meanwhile, have remained largely the same. They’re still small, rather unobtrusive little black cubes, and they can either be wall-mounted or placed on a shelf.