Like everyone else, I heard about the Oculus Rift a few years ago when it was first announced. If you are not part of everyone else, that’s a Virtual Reality Headset.
Then, I sort of heard about the HTC Vive, and the PSVR, which are two other headsets made by different companies, but I never really paid attention to them.
I had this unsupported bias, thinking that those were great ideas, but probably didn’t look very good and would be mostly useless until several years from now, when the technology would be advanced enough to make them actually good.
Boy was I wrong.
About a month ago, a friend of mine bought an HTC Vive. He invited me to try it out at his place, so I accepted. I figured that if I could get the chance to try it out for free, I’d save money because it was something I’d want to try out someday for sure either way. Little did I know I’d leave his place and immediately start Googling to know the exact prices, specs, and pros/cons of each headset. I was instantly hooked.
I will not go as far as to claim that it’s undistinguishable from reality. The 90 frames per second limit is still lower than what you can see in real life, the field of view is slightly smaller, and if you focus on the same thing for long enough, you can see the pixels. Furthermore, you can’t really forget about the fact that you have a huge piece of metal on your face, and a cable dangling from the back of your head.
But it’s close enough. When you are playing a game, exploring a fantasyland, piloting a spaceship or meeting up with people from around the world, you don’t stop and think “I’m in a video game, none of this is real”. You really do crouch when standing at the edge of a tall building to avoid falling, and you really do hold on to whatever you can find in a roller coaster. Reality is still there, but it’s very easy to ignore it. Every single time you take it off after playing it for 30 minutes or more, it feels weird, as if you had completely forgotten what reality looks like.
Long story short, I bought mine last week, and have been basically playing non-stop ever since I finished my last midterm exam. I did not forget to go to work, but it would have been very easy to.
Also, every single muscle in my body hurts. Turns out that flailing your arms around and crouching non-stop, even without any extra weight, is quite the work out when you do it for hours. As a guy who really isn’t into sport, the “feeling completely drained out and broken” part is probably stronger than what the average person would experience, but also a sign that I am actually doing some effort in there without even realising it until I’m completely tired. That’s probably great news.
The price tag is basically the only problem with this product I see. A few months ago, it cost 1300$ (CAD). It recently dropped down to 800$, which is a substantial drop, but it’s still expensive. Many people don’t have a thousand bucks laying around to buy such a thing, and most people who do would still hesitate before spending it all on what is basically a very high tech toy. Furthermore, you need a pretty high-end PC to use it. I already had a VR-capable PC, mostly because I’m a gamer, so there was no price tag on that part for me, but you’re basically looking at another 1000$ minimum if you currently have nothing, and a few hundreds if you already have a decent computer and just need to upgrade it a bit.
There are also a few things any potential buyer should know about the Vive. First of all, there are three modes, and each VR-compatible game allows one or several of the modes, depending on the gameplay. Those modes are sitting, standing and room-scale. Sitting games have you basically sitting down and either using your normal keyboard and mouse, using only the headset for 3D 360° visuals, or the controllers for very small movements. Standing mode is you in the middle of the room, never moving your feet, and controlling the game with the controllers and your head, so movement is limited but an integral part of the experience anyway. Room-scale requires you to own an empty space at least 5ft 6in x 6ft. You configure the play area by moving the controller around the edges the first time, then you are allowed to free roam in the area while playing your game (there is an in-game wall that shows up when you approach the edge to make sure you know before you leave).
As for me, I think it was totally worth the 800$ price tag, but I also think that if you do not have the space necessary to use room-scale, it will not be worth it. Sitting and standing games are great, but room-scale is where things really become epic. Also, no matter how much space you have for room scale, you will always wish you had more, so don’t sweat it if you barely have the minimum. Even reaching the maximum supported area will still leave you wishing for more, because the experience is so epic.
Before buying, I did some research for the pros and cons of headsets, mostly because I had only tried the Vive, but there are more options out there, but also because I really didn’t know how far the tech has gotten, so I had to brush up my knowledge.
One important fact to know is that since VR is very new, all the developers were working on their own, sharing as little information as possible to try to get an edge on the others. This resulted in several extremely different headsets that do mostly the same thing. The way they are built (hardware) and the way they are programmed (software) is so different that, as of today, any dev that wants to make a VR game has to make several versions for each headset they want to support, like devs have to make games specific for Unix or Windows, for example. This means that Indie developers with little money can’t afford to support both the Rift and the Vive right away most of the times, and have to choose a “main” headset, and then make a version for other headsets later if they have the time and money. This resulted in many titles being exclusive to a specific headset at least temporarily, and makes the available selection very different from one headset to another.
PlayStation Virtual Reality (PSVR)
Honestly seems like the best out of all the headsets currently available. It is pretty cheap (399$ USD), has 120 FPS, and does not require an expensive High-end PC, since it runs on the PS4 instead. The only reason I did not buy this one is because I am not a console player, and would not want to buy a Playstation and then have to completely refill my games library for a completely different platform. It looks great, has all the features of the other headsets, and more. The available games library is also huge in the Playstation store, so this headset really has no downside. If you already own a PlayStation, I definitely recommend it.
- Best immersion and realism
- Cheapest price-tag
- Doesn’t require an expensive computer
- Requires a PlayStation 4
- Your play area must be in front of your TV
The Rift is basically the first decent VR that hit the markets, and still a big player today. The Rift has existed for a long time without any hand-held controllers, and that severely limited the options for interactivity in standing experiences, which means that other headsets have a pretty big headstart on the Rift as for the variety of games. Even today, the controllers are often described as unintuitive, and there is no big video game company behind the Rift (It’s Facebook), which means it is often shunned by elitist gamers, sometimes for no real reason.
- Still pretty cheap (499$ USD) without the controllers
- Has existed for longer, so can be expected to be more stable
- Smallest game store
- Have to pay extra to get hand controllers, and they aren’t as intuitive
- Requires high-end PC
HTC made a deal with Valve very early on, and received a lot of support from the video game mogul. With Steam APIs and tons of funds, the Vive is fine tuned to deal with Steam and its incredible reach. This means that a lot of indie devs chose the Vive for their games at first, because of the Wide range of advantages offered by native Steam support.
- Widest selection of games readily available through Steam
- Native support for all the functionalities you are used to through Steam
- Very intuitive controllers (that are actually included)
- High price (599$ (USD))
- Headset looks kind of ugly
I am not being paid by HTC or anyone else for this post, but honestly, it’s a great toy for both solo and party play (Have you ever tried playing Pictionary, but you’re drawing in 3D in Virtual Reality? It’s super fun!). I don’t regret the purchase, and you probably won’t either.
You can run SteamVR Performance Test right away from your computer to know if it is VR capable without any upgrades.