We are in virtual reality's infancy, but the HTC Vive is already very capably showing off what a premium VR experience is capable of looking like.
[Update: Its closest competitor, the Oculus Rift, may have seen the release of its own motion controllers and a subsequent price cut but for our money the HTC Vive still has the edge in the battle of the VR titans. Its room-scale still feels more complete, and its integration with the SteamVR platform makes for a seamless operating experience.
It's still a little too expensive compared to the amount of content available, but this equation is slowly shifting as more games are released, not to mention the various deals that are being run.]
In fact, it's so far ahead of what much of the competition is offering that it can be difficult to describe the experience of using it to someone who hasn't yet tried VR themselves – it's akin to trying to describe moving footage to someone who's spent their whole life staring at pictures, or describing a game to someone who's only ever watched films.
But the highest complement we can give to the HTC Vive is just how right it immediately feels, and how easily all your reservations about VR fall away as soon as you start using it – even if you've been a VR naysayer up until now.
Virtual reality is an entirely new medium and, to that end, has some of the problems all new mediums face when they first start out. The naysayers will claim that there isn't a great library of games out yet – technically not a true statement, but one we hear all the time nonetheless.
They'll say that it's too expensive and the hardware just isn't that good yet, but while it's a somewhat pricey setup, the experience you'll get on the HTC Vive is unrivaled. It's lightyears ahead of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, miles ahead of PlayStation VR and, until very recently, the Oculus Rift, too.
And, as it turns out, we're not the only ones who think so – developers agree. A recent study on Gamasutra reported that 49% of the companies they surveyed were currently developing games for the Vive while only about 43% said they were working on a game for Oculus Rift.
When paired with the proper hardware – a PC with an Intel Core i5-4590K and either a Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD R9 390 GPU – the HTC Vive is an incredible gateway into a new medium, one that is currently dominated by short demos and rough-around-the-edges games, but should one day play host to full-length films, television shows and contemporary art.
The positives, in condensed form, include: one-to-one movement tracking; a perfectly natural 110-degree field of view; there's nary a screen tear or dropped frame when you're using the right equipment; movement feels natural; it has best-in-class controllers; and the experiences, the demos and the games available through SteamVR, simply blow the competitors away.
But before we tackle games, let's take on the elephant in the room: price.
The HTC Vive itself isn't cheap, despite a relatively recent price drop. As of now, the system, which includes the headset, the controllers and the base stations themselves, sells for $599 / £599 / around AU$760, and that's before you buy a computer with the recommended specs.
For comparison, the Vive costs one and a half times as much as the PlayStation VR and $200 more than Oculus Rift. Now, ultimately the question is whether you'll find that it's worth the extra cash for a better experience.
That's a fair discussion to have, albeit one that we can do almost nothing about right now. New hardware, especially at the cutting edge of a nascent industry, is going to be expensive.
But wait, why is it so expensive? What exactly does it do?
How does the HTC Vive work?
The first time we got our hands on the HTC Vive was at Mobile World Congress 2015, where HTC first made the announcement of its partnership with Valve, and it has been retooled and vastly improved since that original showing.
The consumer version works wonderfully, is vastly easier to setup and feels ready to be shipped to the public which, considering that units are supposed to go out any day now, is a very good thing.
Like other virtual reality headsets, the Vive has the arduous task of completely immersing you in a video game by producing two images simultaneously. However, unlike PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift that use a single camera to track your head and extremities, HTC Vive has two base stations, which sit on the wall attached to the included wall mounts or a high shelf and help map track your movements as you walk around in the 3D world.
What the stations track are small divots on the top of the two controllers and on the headset itself. There are 72 of these dots speckling the controllers and helmet that help accurately track the Vive.
Inside every box is a Vive headset unit, two controllers, two base stations, a cloth to wipe down the lenses, a small hub that sits between the headset and your PC, charging cords for the controllers and power cables for base stations. Also packaged with every unit are three games: Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption and The Lab. It's everything you're going to need for a great virtual reality experience minus the computer that powers the whole thing.
New to the consumer version is a spectacularly simple setup program that should, for the vast majority of tech enthusiasts, allow you to breeze through the setup process.
Once you're plugged in and the room has been mapped out, you're free to roam around every inch of the digital space. This means digital worlds can be more expansive and more immersive on the Vive than the other two systems and, thankfully, less nausea-inducing, too.
The only limitations you'll encounter once inside your digital world are faint blue walls made up of lines that keep you inside the playzone. These blue lines are superimposed into your game by SteamVR, the software put out by Valve that's running underneath every virtual experience.
It's called "chaperone mode," and its practical application is to prevent you from moving too far outside the area that you've set up for the Vive and potentially stumbling into furniture/plants/animals/etc around your home and hurting yourself.
As for the games themselves, what's there is simply amazing.
In the course of two weeks, I've played 20 or so titles, some of which are much, much better than others. I'll cover them in detail in a moment but, in short, they were mostly fantastic showcases for VR, full of personality and just as varied as you might expect. One minute I was on top of a castle fending off stickman invaders with a bow and arrow, the next I was inside of an arcade cabinet fighting spaceships in three dimensions. I played mini-golf on an impossibly constructed multi-level course and trained to become both a ninja and space pirate.
Some of what I just described is part of Valve's The Lab, a collection of games that the iconic developer put together to introduce players to virtual reality. While I haven't seen every third-party title on the Vive (it's almost impossible considering that about 5-10 new games have been added every day in the past two weeks), the difference between first-party and third-party titles are night and day.
This is something I see changing in the coming weeks, months and years, however, and not something I hold against the system on day one.