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Tech Review: HTC Vive


Lets talk VR for a bit. While I can’t say I’m an early adopter, I can say that I am enthusiastically making up for lost time. I first got the bug when my son Isaac let me use the Samsung Gear he got for free with his phone. The apps I tried out were fairly cool, but battery life was short, and the phone kept overheating in the cradle. But it worked well enough for me to want to explore more options. I bought the upgraded Gear for myself, along with an aftermarket cooler to keep the phone from burning up, and that was more satisfactory, although there were still some things lacking, like the ability to intuitively handle objects in the environment, or to walk around. A simple hand controller upgrade helped with the first issue, but I was still chained to a single spot, or had to teleport to get around.

And the battery life was still short.

It was around this time that the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive came onto the scene. While other systems like the Microsoft sponsored “AR’ helmets, and Playstation’s VR rig are grabbing a share of the market, at the time I started looking, these two were really all there was to play with.

I took a couple of test drives with both systems when they first came out, and I liked them both. I thought the Oculus apps had a slight edge in game play, but the Vive had a slightly more comfortable feel. The optional Touch controllers for the Rift were better than the Vive wands, but the Vive included wands with the initial setup. To be honest, the graphics appeared to me to be equal, although fanboys on wither side claim their favorite system looks better. Two things sold me on the Vive. First, the Oculus is tied to Facebook. Zuckerburg already gets enough of my info; there’s no reason to give him more access to my life. Meanwhile, the Vive is partnered with Steam, and has a more open sourced feel. Second, and more importantly to me, Vive was built from the get go to have room scale VR, which means you can walk around in your virtual world.

At least, the part of it that will fit in your living room.

Oculus is working to do that now. You have to buy an additional sensor, and from what I’ve heard, implementation is spotty, but improving.

I don’t know the sales figured for the two systems on launch, but I do know that Oculus cut it’s price nearly in half in an attempt to get market share from Vive while the Vive price has remained fairly steady. Vive has introduced upgrade to shore up their weaknesses relative to Oculus, including a Deluxe Audio strap, a wireless transmitter, an upgraded Head Mounted Display (HMD) or visor, and coming soon, upgraded controllers. I haven’t seen any real upgrades for the Rift.

Both systems require a fairly substantial computer to run effectively so it isn’t something you’re gong to get into cheaply. Although some of the newer players are shooting for a lower price point and less stout system requirements, you pay for that with lower resolution and a smaller bandwidth.

So with that background, let’s talk about the Vive.


The Vive comes with everthiong you see in the picture. Two base stations with power supplies and mounting hardware, the HMD, two controllers with charging cables, the three way cord to connect the HMD to the controller box, two charging cables and wall warts for the controllers, earphones for audio, the controller box plus power cord, and a USB and HDMI cable for connection to your computer.

Yes, you need plenty of outlets to set up the Vive.

The Vive does not come with instructions. Instead there is a printed URL that takes you to a site that walks you through set up. Your first step, even before ordering your Vive, is to download and run the Compatibility Checker to make sure your system can handle the Vive. The system requirements are:

  • CPU:Intel Core i5-4590/AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better
  • GPU:  NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970, AMD Radeon R9 290 equivalent or better
  • Memory: 4 GB RAM or more
  • Video output: HDMI 1.4, DisplayPort 1.2 or newer
  • USB port: 1x USB 2.0 or newer
  • Operating system: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1 or later, Windows 10

While the Vive will run with this system, you will have a much better experience if you go bigger, particularly on the graphics card and the CPU. My current system is running an i5 7600k and a GTX 1070, and I get no drop outs, no glitches, and good solid stable game play. I did have some issue with my GPU overheating, so I rearranged the cards in my tower and turned the fans up, which seemed to fix the issues. (I am upgrading my system now, due to installing the wireless link causing my CPU to max out. More about that in a moment.)

The set up instructions are fairly easy to follow, as these things go. I opted to get tripods for my base units instead of hard mounting them. This gives me portability if I ever want to take my rig out on the town (LibertyCon, maybe?) or on a business trip. Basically, you set up the base units diagonally across the room and plug them in. If necessary, you can change their channel numbers, but I didn’t have to do that. They connected and synced with each other automatically.

Then you plug the control box into your computer, which is where I ran into trouble. My graphics card had one HDMI output, then three Display Port outputs. The instruction for the Vive do not mention what to do with Display Port connection. I tried a Display port to HDMI adapter, but this does not work. The control box will not connect with the HMD. After about 30 minutes of frustration, I found a forum post that discussed this issue, and swapped my connectors around. The Display Port to HDMI adapter went to my monitor, while the straight HDMI went to the control box.

Success. Everything booted up and my computer spent about 30 minutes installing drivers, booting up the HMD and updating controllers. Then I downloaded Steam, and the HTC app, Viveport, and downloaded a few games.

And then I played.

I don;t know how to describe that first moment when you become immersed in a game. Watching the game on a monitor does not do it justice. The feeling of immersion is almost total. With the controllers in your hands and the earphones in your ears, every where you look, everything you see, everything you hear, tells you you’re in the game, instead of in your living room. The haptic feedback built into the controllers is surprisingly effective in heightening the reality of the illusion. No, you don’t feel pressure when you pic something up, but the brief vibration along with the visual feedback ‘tricks’ your hand into feeling like you’re holding the object. The other night I was playing virtual Ping Pong and set my paddle down on a table that didn’t really exist. I dropped my controller onto the floor and was surprised for a moment that it didn’t rest on the table.

The immersion is that total.

HTC-VIVE-Deluxe-Audio-StrapThe only thing that bugged me was the earphones. First, the sound wasn’t as good as It could be, and second, I don’t like having things in my ears. HTC came out with a Deluxe Audio Strap that replaced the headband from the original Vive. Instead of plugin earphones, we got a headset integrated into a new headband. The new band was easier to adjust, more comfortable, fit better, and featured ear covering muffs with far better sound, and far more comfort for me. I was set! The stereo sound, the 3D visuals, everything was now nearly perfect.

After a few nights of play, I started having a problem with my system. It would play normally for a while, then, at random, the video would shut off entirely and the GPU fans would jump to 100%. It happened at random intervals, and because I lost video and the only way to restore it was to reboot the PC, I couldn’t prove that the GPU was overheating. I figured I had a defective card, and got ready to order a replacement. Then, I had a thought. Could a laptop run a Vive?

The answer was yes, but it would have to be a pretty powerful laptop. Enter Alienware. I picked up one of their gaming rigs at a fairly nice discount as it was a refurb. It had an i7 CPU and the GTX1070 card. I ran into the Display Port issue again, but found that mini Display Port cable would work between the laptop output and the control box. (The Vive page didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the Mini DP port on the control box. Once again, I found the info in the forums. Thank goodness for other nerds!

I ran the Vive on the laptop for the better part of a year with no problems at all. And one very cool benefit; I was now completely portable. I packed up the whole rig and took it on a business trip with me. I set the system up in my hotel room and everything worked perfectly. It packed up easily in my computer backpack.

Eventually, I wanted to use the desktop again. I wanted to be able to feed the image to my TV, so when the grand-kids played, they could watch each other on the playback monitor. The laptop screen was just not big enough, and trying to support three monitors (laptop screen, Vive, and big monitor) was causing lag in the system. So I revisited the PC, ordered a replacement GPU and then decided to crank up the desktop again to see if I could recreate the issue and see exactly what was going on. I cleaned the case, re-seated all the cards, and then cranked up all the fans to 100%. I connected everything back up to the PC, and started to play.

Didn’t fail. 30 hours of play over 3 weeks and the system never failed again. Now I have a ‘spare’ graphics card. Whatever shall I do? SLI anyone?

vwaI mentioned earlier that I was upgrading my system. Here’s why. I said that after I got the audio strap, everything was nearly perfect. The small fly in the ointment was the wire bundle running from the control box to the HMD. It was always in the way. I usually routed it over my shoulder and behind me, but when playing first person shooters (an absolutely amazing blast in VR) or fighting zombies (Drunk or Dead. Hilarious game.) I would step on or trip over the cord. HTC came out with a wireless solution, but it required a vacant slot in your computer. Laptops don’t have slots. But, since I’d just moved everything back to the desktop, and it was Christmas time, I pooled my gifts (Thanks to my mother-in-law, the NYAA, and my boss) I bought the wireless adapter and installed it.

The install was easy; and again, the instructions were online. This could be awkward if your only computer is the one you’re installing on, but HTC gives you a QR code to call up the instructions on your phone. Simply install the card in your computer, attached the wireless adapter to your HMD (If you have the Deluxe Audio, it goes on very smoothly. It takes a bit more work if you are using the standard strap.) Connect the included battery pack to the adapter, then launch the software. Once the adapter has synced to you computer, fire up the Vive software as usual.

This accessory changes everything. First, not only does it get rid of the wire, it gets rid of the controller box. Remember the frustrations I had dealing with the Display Port and adapters? All gone. With the wireless adapter, you can put the controller box away. Everything runs through the wireless adapter. As an additional benefit, the adapter can handle up to three HMDs simultaneously. Room scale multiplayer VR is now a reality, albeit a pricey one.

Which brings up an issue. Everything running through the wireless adapter creates a significant load on the CPU. So much load in fact that my CPU, the i5-7600, pretty much maxes out at 100% while I play. I’ve got a good cooler on it, so CPU temps are okay, but I’m getting drop outs, losses of signal, and occasional signal issues during busier moments of game play.

So I’m upgrading to a 9th generation i7, which means an upgrade to the mother board as well.

HTC and Valve (the company behind Steam) have some other upgrades for the Vive either already out or in the pipeline. Already out is the Vive Pro, a new HMD with much higher resolution and improved ergonomics. The price tag on it is $799, which to me is too high. I’m happy with the display I have now. (Of course, upgrading to the newest generation of processor while running two 1070s in SLI means I could run the Pro…naah. Not yet. I’m literally still blown away by the first generation Vive. I’ll wait until the third generation.)

Of more interest to me, and still without an officially announced street date, is the Knuckle controller, while will upgrade the Vive wands to show fully articulated hands that work in VR space just like hands in the real world.

I’ve already talked about how amazingly immersive the VR is. Now lets talk about the downsides.

First, the HMD is a bit heavy and cumbersome. The Deluxe Audio Strap helps with that a lot, but to get the HMD to hold position, you need to wear it fairly tightly. Fortunately, it’s well cushioned, so that doesn’t cause an issue. Also, the top strap takes the load off your neck, so you don’t get sore.

You do get sweaty though, so the foam cushion can get a little gross. The Vive ships with several foam cushions and you can buy disposable liners to go over the cushions when multiple people are sharing the HMD. The HMD has two adjustments that effect your vision. The first moves the lenses in and out, which changes the focus slightly, but, more importantly, gives you room for your glasses inside the HMD. As a man of a certain age, I was worried that my growing farsightedness would cause an issue, but it does not. I focus clearly and easily on the images in the screen. The second adjustment sets the distance between your pupils. If you know that distance, you can set it easily. If you don’t, experiment until you find the most comfortable setting. This greatly reduces the eyestrain some users of the Oculus Rift complain about.

The Fresnel lenses used in the HMD are of moderate quality. Occasionally, distortion around the periphery of your vision will cause problems, but it is usually minimal. The Pro HMD is supposed to be much better in this regard; I haven’t had a chance to try it out and see for myself.

The hand controllers are…adequate. They work, but picking up, grasping, and throwing objects is not very intuitive. Shooting a bow, on the other hand, is very immersive! It just feels right. Same with shooting a weapon. The hand controllers point naturally, which really helps when you’re drunk and trying to head shoot zombies. The hand controllers have an excellent battery life. I’ve yet to have one die in the middle of a gaming session and I’ve gone for as long as 90 minutes before getting tired.

Speaking of getting tired, I haven’t mention much about games yet, and this post is already long enough. So games in depth will be part two of this post next Wednesday. For now, I’ll just say that some of the most immersive games are the simplest in concept. For example, I’ve logged dozens of hours on Audio Shield and Beat Saber, as well as The Lab. On the other hand, I’m about to start Fallout 4 VR, which was included in my purchase of the Wireless adapter.

So, to sum up, the Vive is not cheap, by any measure, but if you want room scale, wireless VR, and the ability to have more than one player in the room, the Vive is the only way to go. HTC, Steam, and Valve are constantly pushing the limits of what VR can do.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play some Beat Saber.beat-saber






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