I’ll unashamedly admit it: I love virtual reality. I don’t know if it’s because I once watched a girl on some gaming show in the ’90s using one and talking about how she just ‘looked around the magic carpet’, or because I was supposed to go for my birthday one year and it was shut.
Whatever the reason, I can’t help by smiling with glee whenever I enter the virtual world – and that includes using Google Cardboard with phones that, really, shouldn’t be doing VR at all.
So when I tried HTC Vive for the first time at MWC in 2015, I was giddy with excitement when a blue whale swam past, or when I painted in 3D in the air using the clunky controllers and huge headset plastered to my head.
Fast forward 11 months and I had another chance to finally work out if ‘looking around the magic carpet’ might actually be a VR euphemism, as HTC’s headset has been retooled, sleeker and improved, to emerge as the Vive Pre.
It’s called Pre as it’s only for developers right now, so they can start creating some new games (hopefully meaning I don’t have to play the same ‘office simulator’ over and over again) to showcase the power of the Vive headset.
There are myriad improvements with the Pre over the first version, and they largely seem to be big jumps forward. The base stations, which sit on the wall to help map the space you can walk around in in 3D, are smaller, wireless and (apparently) make less noise too, although I didn’t even know they were loud in the first place.
The headset itself now has more straps with extra Velcro for adjustments, and a cradle at the back to help it fit more snugly around your head. The foam around the eyes and the nose clip can be replaced to ensure the most comfortable fit when using the Vive for extended periods – in short, it’s much easier to put the headset on easily.
I did struggle with the fit a little – the cradle didn’t sit on the back of my head too well, but when I adjusted the top strap to pull it further back, the weight of the Vive rested on my nose too much. It’s not a big deal though, and one I look forward to working out when I get to review this fully.
The controllers are also much-improved over the previous versions I’ve seen, giving developers many more tools to work with. The touchpads are still there but now clickable, and the rear trigger has two stages to allow for more refined interaction.
They’re still chunky little beasts, with large holes at the top. I’m not sure if this is for future accessories, or just so the trackers can see them in 3D space, but they’re pretty huge. That said, they’re well balanced and I had no idea how large they were once I was in the virtual world.
Ah, the virtual world. The sheer immersion and ability to move around in the 3D world – it’s just brilliant. I’m actually not going to go too much into the gaming experience, as that’s been covered a thousand times already.
I only saw the under-sea game once more (with fish floating around my eyes, me being able to walk around a sunken boat and a large blue whale popping over to say hello) and a weird office simulator where I played a robot role playing as a human working in a depressing office. That was a weird one. (Although I did throw a cup of water over my robot co-worker and he sparked a bit. #lol #banter)
There was also a great opportunity to play a star-fighting title, using a gaming chair complete with a large thrust control on one side and joystick on the other. Both were festooned with buttons, and it was genuinely disconcerting (in an amazing way) to spin and turn the space craft and be able to look out the window in all directions when combined with the Vive Pre.
Still couldn’t shoot down the enemy ship though.
The gaming experience is enhanced thanks to brighter screens on offer, and more intelligent processing meant everything looked a bit clearer, even in the distance. It certainly felt more vibrant compared to casting my mind back to the first version, but without being able to see the two versions side by side it’s hard to quantify just HOW much improved it was.
But the biggest, and most important, update for the HTC Vive Pre (apart from the new design) was the addition of Chaperone – using the new camera on the front of the headset to give the outside world a place in your virtual one.
I’d heard about this before the demo, and was worried it was going to ‘infect’ the immersion somewhat. So when I placed the headset on, I was told to move forward. I duly did this, and was asked if I could see the Chaperone in action – to which I replied in the negative.
‘Really?’ came the reply, before asking me to walk back again. Then I realised: I was seeing the new mode in action but it was too subtle for my brain to register. Previously the Vive simply had a large grid that flipped into whatever VR title you were playing to let you know you’re about to smack into a wall. It was a little off-putting.
Now that grid is much more faded, and when you cross it the Vive will start to faintly overlay the outlines of objects and people moving around – think how the Matrix looked to Keanu Reeves when he could finally see it all in code, and you’ll get the idea.
The reason I hadn’t noticed it first time around was that, well, it just felt like normal life. There was no question in my brain that I was looking at the scene I knew was out there, but it didn’t feel alien in the virtual world.
And if you double-tap the button just below the D-pad on the new Vive control, you’ll activate a more high-contrast version of the world, letting you clearly see the outline of a chair you want to sit in, or a drink you’d like to sup.
It’s hard to explain without showing it to you, but trust me: it works really well and feels like the perfect balance between VR and the real world when you need it.
There are some parts of the Vive VR experience that aren’t as great as you’d hope – there’s still that damn wire connecting you to your high-end PC and it’s easy to trip over it when you forget it’s there.
You can’t blame HTC too much for this, as it’s streaming two distinct Full HD images in without a touch of latency, and the gaming experience needs to preserved above all else.
But even Full HD isn’t as clear as you’d want it to be – HTC calls it ‘photorealistic’ but you’d never struggle to tell the difference between a photo and the real world here. That’s not to say it breaks the immersion when you’re in the VR world, but the fish in the underwater game were a little rough around the edges when you looked at them properly, and the sheen on the large whale didn’t quite feel right somehow.
And then there’s the issue of price – or lack thereof. This isn’t going to be cheap, you can tell, and the fact even the specs needed for the high-end PC you’ll have to have to power this haven’t been announced leave me with a fair bit of worry. But most people will be aware the cost of VR will be higher than the mass interest in the early days, and paying a lot more for something like the Vive experience will just be a fact of life.
The HTC Vive Pre release date is something of an unknown quantity too – it was supposed to be here before Christmas last year, but we’re still at the developer stage. Here’s hoping the proper date we can get our hands on one of these is coming soon – there’s only so long the VR-loving public can read about demos and stay interested in a product.
HTC created something amazing with the Vive, and that’s been hugely refined with the Vive Pre. The upgrades to seem to have had a tangible effect, and everything feels much, much more polished than previously.
The gaming is still so immersive thanks to the ability to walk around in the space, and the slow reduction of wires from the base stations and controllers is hugely welcome. Gaming using this, even with short demos, still leaves me with a massive grin and I can’t wait to have a more active game using these controllers.
I wish the resolution was a touch finer, but I appreciate we’re too early in the VR game for that right now. I really want HTC to put a price and release date on the Vive, as there’s only so long the interest can be maintained.
But the overriding experience: the Vive Pre is awesome. Virtual reality is amazing. Young Gareth is hugely satisfied with what he tried today – and the excitement at trying this properly is only going to grow.