It's amazing that after years of promise, virtual reality is finally here and accessible to everyone. Everyone with a pukka PC and a healthy bank balance admittedly, but here nonetheless.
Both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are available to buy for normal consumers (as long as you're willing to wait for shipping in the case of the latter) and they are packed full of potential. Virtual reality isn't just a gimmick, it's here to stay we feel and these two headsets are leading the charge.
We've been playing with the full consumer release of the HTC Vive for a few days and it genuinely offers experiences that are new, fresh and interesting.
However, being an early adopter might not be all it's cracked up to be. Regardless of how amazing virtual reality and the Vive in particular can be, getting to the point where you can try it out for yourself is a rocky road. Setting the darn thing up can be a frustrating process, as we found out for ourselves.
We'll be publishing our extensive review of the HTC Vive and the SteamVR games available in due course - when we've played with it more - but first we feel the need to detail our experiences during the setup process.
We encountered several key issues that caused more than a few expletives to fly, so hopefully our obstacles and the way we overcame them will help you if you come across the same problems.
To give you context, we set-up the Vive in a normal, average London flat's living room, with (just) enough space for the movement aspects of the Vive to work. We also used a gaming-specific tower PC recently built (by ourselves) that exceeds all of the recommended requirements.
After, we also set it up on an amazing gaming laptop for good measure, to give a second side to the story. Here is what we found out...
HTC Vive unboxing
Considering how much tech is involved, the HTC Vive kit comes in a reasonably compact box. However, lift the upper compartments and you soon find so many leads and power supplies that the whole task ahead of you seems daunting.
Technically, the setup process when started on a PC takes a quoted 30 minutes, but opening the box, unsealing all the components, and laying them out in front of you so you can see what's what before you even download the setup software can take anywhere up to 15 minutes before.
We recommend you do this, as you'll then get an idea of what cable goes with what device, as the package comes with the HTC Vive headset, two base station room sensors, two motion controllers, the link box you need to connect to a PC, and a pair of in-ear headphones.
HTC Vive setup software
The next stage is to download the software from HTCVive.com/setup.
It does a good job of guiding you step by step through the process and is clear and concise. It will even download and install both HTC's Vive software and Steam if you don't already have it. It will also install SteamVR - the main software that is needed to recognise and pair all of your Vive components.
If you don't have a Steam account already, the setup software will also help with that. All the HTC Vive experiences and games are available through the Steam platform, so you will need one for sure.
We already have a Steam account with more than 400 games (you've got to love a Steam sale), so no trouble there.
The software then dwells on each of the components, explaining how you set them up adequately. And it was with the first of these we realised our first problem.
HTC Vive base station sensors
The HTC Vive kit comes with two base stations, sensors that map where the headset and controllers are and facing at any one time. They are essential to the experience and need to have clear line of sight to the entire play area.
They need to be in opposite corners so that their vision overlaps for a better reading of the space and therein lies the problem.
HTC provides a wallmount for each of the base stations, so you can screw them into the wall - the setup software even advises you might need a drill.
We live in a rented accommodation, however, and are planning to move in the near future, so don't want extra holes in the walls. In addition, we already have a 55-inch TV, Kinect sensor and PlayStation Camera for the Xbox One and PS4 respectively, so additional wall space for gadgetry is at a premium.
The sensors, though, need to be above head height and angled downwards and we don't have any high shelves in the room at all.
Luckily, one answer came in the form of a tripod we use for photography, so that was one base station sorted. It just about reached above head height.
The other base station would be more of a problem as we don't have two tripods laying around.
The only solution we could come up with was to use the living room door, opened inwards, as a makeshift base station stand. We placed it on top of the door, facing the play area and angled downwards by shoving a USB stick under the rear (as the stations are simply cubes with no tilting mechanism of their own).
It's also worth remembering that each base station gently vibrates - we suspect they have optical motors inside - so you do need to fix them down even if placing them on a shelf. We used duct tape in a very inelegant solution. Worked though.
Another issue we were then faced with is that while the base stations communicate to each other and your PC wirelessly, they still required power.
Only the one we set-up with the tripod was anywhere near a power socket. The other required a four-way power strip to be stretched across the rear of the living room, getting in the way somewhat and looking clumsy. It also took a while to find as we don't just have spare ones lying around. They don't say that in the manual.
Nevertheless, the green lights on each of the sensors lit - to show they are connected and are facing in the right direction - and that stage of the process was complete.
HTC Vive wireless controllers
We love the style and functionality of the wireless controllers supplied with the HTC Vive, as you will find out in our final review. But nowhere did it say in the setup process that you should charge them before use.
Maybe you don't, as most products come with quite a bit of charge in them beforehand - enough to get you going anyway. Force of habit though had us putting them on charge as soon as we got them out of the box, so they could be fully charged by the time the setup was complete.
It's not a problem, more a helpful tip this time.
They each come with Mini-USB to USB leads and charging adapters, so if you don't have enough USB sockets on a PC to do it, you need to find even more plug sockets.
What was more of an issue is that one of the controllers, no matter how we followed the instructions, where we placed it in the room, or how many times we switched it off and on again, it wouldn't pair. The other did straight from the box, so it caused more than enough agitation and Basil Fawlty style shouting at the faulty one (see what we did there?).
Eventually, we pressed the Menu and System buttons together for 10-15 seconds and that surprisingly did the job. It paired immediately after.
This is probably something you can find out online or in the manual, but we fluked it.
HTC Vive link box
The next step is to connect the link box, which hooks up to your PC through HDMI and USB 3.0. However, we don't have a spare HDMI socket on our Nvidia GTX Titan X graphics card.
Very few graphics cards have two HDMI outputs and we use ours to connect to a 1080p monitor. There's no passthrough on the link box (unlike the forthcoming PlayStation VR) so you can't split the visuals to run to both a monitor and the headset on the device HTC supplies so we were faced with an all-new, more infuriating issue.
You need the monitor on to continue the setup process, so can't just plug the link box and headset in instead. So what to do?
That's when we realised the link box also has a mini-DisplayPort input and the GTX Titan X has four DisplayPorts. What we didn't have to hand however, was a mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable. And there's not one included in the HTC Vive box - just a HDMI cable.
Those yet to set-up their HTC Vive's and have time need to consider a couple of solutions. Either use a different video output to feed a monitor (or TV), thereby leaving the HDMI port free for the link box to connect to, or buy a mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable in advance.
We had neither option available to us, so it was time to scratch our heads.
We could have stopped and bought a cable from a nearby store, but that kind of lead isn't just available at Argos (we know, we checked). Also, with the setup now sprawled everywhere, we were not to be beaten.
Instead, Amazon Prime Now came to the rescue. We found the required cable was available to us, for around a tenner, and bought one to be delivered within a two-hour time slot.
It was, we plugged it into the link box and our graphics card, and a bit of restarting and graphics driver updating nonsense, we were fit to go again.
It's also worth noting that the link box also requires power, so you'll need yet another empty power socket to hand. That's five now, counting the USB charging adapters for the controllers.
HTC Vive room setup wizard and calibration
Now that all the hardware was correctly set-up and paired, we needed to calibrate the software for our room dimensions. That also threw up a few issues.
Even when running the room setup software on the mega gaming laptop (as we'll discuss a bit further down), we had error messages and one seemingly common fault.
The software asks if you want to set up the HTC Vive for room scale or standing operation. Room scale enables you to move around and therefore presents wireframe barriers inside games and experiences so you don't bump into walls or furniture. The standing still option is best for smaller rooms without the required space (of 6.5ft by 5ft).
We opted to set it up for room scale as our space was almost exactly right (slightly more, but just a fraction). The software asked us to point a controller at the monitor to get an idea of overhead direction, and on the next screen asked us to calibrate the position of the floor by placing the controllers in the centre of the space and clicking an on-screen button. An on-screen button that failed to appear. An on-screen button that failed to appear during setup on both the desktop and laptop PCs.
This is apparently a common issue and can be solved by clinking next, completing the rest of the setup and then going back into the SteamVR software and running the room setup process again. When run straight from the menu (that appears when you click on the SteamVR icon in your Windows 10 taskbar) you get a calibration button on the exact same page in the wizard. Many have reported that it fails to appear when run from the setup tutorial.
This isn't disastrous but is confusing and likely to befuddle normal consumers who aren't already cynical about PCs and hardware installation.
Thankfully, the rest of the calibration steps went without fuss. We do have a tip, however; you will be asked to trace the outline of your play area using one of the controllers. We found that the advanced option (enabled through a tick box) offered the chance to simply click in the four corners of the area and the software did the rest. It provided a more accurate reading, we found.
HTC Vive tutorial game and sound
Finally, we were in a position where the HTC Vive was usable. We had video running to box the headset and our desktop computer. The controllers worked and worked well, and we were in a wonderful and empty holding landscape. We were in VR, hurrah!
Hang on though, where's the sound? The sound was coming from our PC speakers rather than the in-ear headphones supplied.
Not once did it give us an option to change that in the setup wizard. The start of the tutorial mentioned sound, but without any options to change it.
If you find yourself without sound like us, you have to explore the SteamVR software options again, where you will find the settings. Once the settings pop-up has appeared, you'll need to change the options in the audio section so that sound is fed to the headphones. Our default was just to our PC speakers, but we changed it to feed the headphones only when we were using the HTC Vive.
You can have it feed both headphones and speakers simultaneously, or just the speakers if you have a cool 5.1 or 7.1 system cunningly placed around the play area and want the full effect. But we opted for headphones and even decided to ditch the in-ears for a better pair of headphones as it's really tricky to get the earbuds the right way round when you've already put the Vive on your noggin.
At least now we had the whole effect going on, VR visuals and surround sound. We hadn't downloaded any games or other experiences yet, so there wasn't much to do (you can download them from within the virtual world, but we'd advise you download them prior to play otherwise you'll be stood around waiting for them to install). Instead, we checked out the included tutorial. Which promptly crashed.
HTC Vive PC specifications
As well as have strange error messages pop up during setup, we had many crashes during gameplay. It's a weird feeling too, as it's like the world just goes blank while you're in the middle of something.
It could be our PC but considering we exceed the recommended spec for HTC Vive it can't be the hardware surely. We have the aforementioned Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan X graphics card, Intel Core i7-4790K processor running at 4GHz and 16GB of RAM. We're running 64-bit Windows 10 but doesn't everything these days with multi-core processors the norm?
Crashing wasn't something we ever expected.
It's worth noting that these are early days for the HTC Vive and much of the software is updated regularly, but the tutorial will be the first port of call for all newbies, and it crashing often would leave many of them with a poor first VR experience.
We did find a workaround that seemed to do the job. We downloaded the beta version of SteamVR instead of the one installed with the setup software. That didn't crash at all. It also required firmware on the controllers to be updated, so is a more advanced version of the software (although might have some flaky features we haven't encountered yet thanks to being in beta).
To download and try it for yourself, head into your games section on Steam, right click SteamVR in your software list and select properties. The last tab is labelled "Betas" and in there you will find a drop down menu where you can select "beta - Steam VR Beat Update". Once selcted and confirmed, it downloaded a new version of SteamVR which worked for us.
If that causes you problems down the line, you can always repeat the process and reselect the "opt out" option instead.
HTC Vive on a gaming laptop
We finally got Vive working well with our desktop PC although we also highly recommend you close all other programmes before entering the virtual world. These could have been another reason for our occasional crashes.
Now it was time to check the setup process with a gaming laptop. We chose to run the HTC Vive using an Asus ROG G752VY - a powerhouse of a machine running an Intel Core i7-6820HK processor and 32GB of RAM. It has an Nvidia GeForce GTX980M GPU which, while not being quite as powerful as the Titan X, makes mincemeat of anything you run through it.
The laptop also, mercifully, has a HDMI output that works while simultaneously feeding video to the monitor. That potentially makes a gaming laptop a more attractive option to run Vive from, especially for those who haven't even heard of a DisplayPort.
We still had issues with the room scale setup and error messages, and you'll still have all the practical quibbles with finding places to place the sensors and their power supplies, but in many ways setting up the Vive with the Asus was a smoother operation.
We also didn't experience the same level of crashing when running the general SteamVR software rather than the beta build. But then, the ROG G752VY costs more than £2,000. We built our own PC for less than a grand.
It does though have the added benefit of being portable. Our gaming tower PC is not.
HTC Vive final thoughts
Although this isn't our review of the headset or the games, we still have some thoughts worth sharing at this stage.
These are early days for virtual reality and we're certain that there will be future headsets that refine the process, but we found the setting up of the HTC Vive to be a partly frustrating and lengthy experience. It didn't help that we didn't have the right cable, or the right cable but the wrong output, but that's something normal consumers will face too.
Every problem was solved eventually and the end result is well worth it, we feel.
We're also sure that software niggles will be sorted through patches and updates, it's just that at this moment in time, based on our own encounters, VR and the HTC Vive specifically is not consumer-friendly enough for our parents.
Not unless we set it up for them first.