HTC Vive impressions: Virtual reality is here, but price tag is high

CBC's Jonathan Ore went hands-on (or is it face-on?) with the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. While the experiences are unlike anything found in traditional media, the device's price tag could be a hurdle to all but the hardest of hardcore fans.

At $1,149, it's the most expensive VR product currently on the market

A participant wearing an HTC Vive virtual reality headset plays a game at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing in April. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Virtual reality may be the next big thing in consumer tech, but until more people try it first-hand, it can be incredibly difficult to describe.

To help proselytise the virtues of VR, HTC recently held a press demonstration of the Vive in Toronto. At $1,149, it's the most expensive product currently on the market, so only the most enthusiastic early adopters have plunked down the cash to have one in their hands (and on their face).

Over the course of 45 minutes, I was whisked away to multiple "virtual reality experiences." Some felt like little more than tech demos that, while making a great first impression, wore out their welcome in minutes. A handful showed greater potential, giving the player lots of options to explore the new and surprising genres afforded by the hardware.

Pet a whale, or paint in 3D

The first demo threw me to the bottom of the ocean in a short tech demo called theBlu: Whale
Encounter. I stood on the bow of a shipwreck as fish and a giant whale swam by.

The sunken ship's surface, slightly lilting after being lodged into the ground, was slightly disorienting. Walking to the edge and staring into a trench was genuinely unnerving. I knew I was in a conference room with a perfectly normal, flat floor, but dared not take a step forward when my eyes saw a fatal pitfall.

If you've played a first-person video game on a PlayStation or Xbox, you use one analog stick on the traditional controller to look around, and the other to move around. On the Vive, the sticks are taken out of the equation: your entire body's movement is registered, and physically walking and pivoting inside the play space defined by the sensor cameras.

Peering over the edge of the sunken ship in theBlu: Whale Encounter was described as 'genuinely unnerving' by CBC writer Jonathan Ore. (Wevr, Inc.)

The mental hurdle of moving your body instead of pressing a button will prove disorienting to most VR first-timers, but the sense of immersion it affords is unlike anything else in gaming today. Imagine sitting in a planetarium, looking in all directions to see the full picture instead of sitting in front of a flat television screen. That's almost what it's like to be immersed in virtual reality.

Google's Tilt Brush, a VR take on art apps like Fresh Paint, takes the same idea of stretching a 2D space to a 3D one, and applies it to the canvas. Holding your left arm in front of you like a palette brings up a menu of colours and brush styles, much like in Adobe Photoshop. But physically holding your arm to do this makes you feel like Bob Ross on The Joy of Painting more than scrolling through the same menus on a desktop computer ever could.

After choosing your brush and colour, you use the other hand to "paint," but in a 3D space. It feels more like creating a sculpture than working on a flat canvas: once you've put a streak of colour into what looks like the air, you can then walk and look around it in three dimensions. Unlike making a clay sculpture in real life, however, your "materials" can blend and intermingle with a paint-like consistency.

Job Simulator a standout

The most interesting demo had less to do with virtual reality tech and more with good writing. Job Simulator takes the conceit that a Vive's optimal play space is a little larger than an office cubicle and gives you a menial job, such as useless office work or manning the register at a convenience store.

The twist? It's set in 2050, where robots have rendered all human work obsolete. The simulation is the robots' best guesses about what human work life really looked like. This introduces cartoonish scenarios where a robot (a floating CRT monitor with a face on the screen) asks you for a "meat cylinder" (hot dog), or using a photocopier to literally replicate objects like a stapler or doughnut.

The HTC Vive set comes with a headset, two controllers and sensors. You'll also need a powerful PC computer to run the software. (HTC)

It's a great little simulation, thanks to your ability to interact with just about everything in front of you, and with four jobs all with several hours' worth of challenges, it seemed to have the most longevity out of any Vive demos I tried.

In addition to the curvaceous headset, the Vive also includes two controllers with a clickable touch pad and buttons. PlayStation gamers will liken them to wand-like Move controllers from a few years ago, complete with unusual circular appendages that make them look like a cup-and-ball toy.

The controllers' unusual shape helps track your movement with two sensors, about the size of small portable speakers that have to be set up from a high vantage point in your room. You can set them on top of tall tripods or perch them on a  shelf, but HTC recommends nailing them to a stable position on your walls.

A game called Job Simulator might not sound fun, but it's full of humour and clever writing, and you can pick up and manipulate almost every object you see. (Owlchemy Labs)

Add to this the bundle of cables running from the headset to the desktop you need to run the programs, and you have a complicated contraption and a minor tripping hazard if you aren't paying attention.

Thankfully, none of the demos HTC showed me gave me motion sickness or vertigo. The headset might make a mess of your hair, and leave an unsightly imprint on your face after an hour or so of play, but it's adjustable. You'll also be able to wear glasses without trouble, if you need to.

High price for (mostly) short games

The question of longevity remains the biggest hurdle to an unqualified recommendation for the Vive. Like the Oculus Rift, it provides experiences unlike anything else in popular media.

But the $1,149 price tag is far too high for a couple hours' worth of cool moments. You'll also need a beefy computer to run the software.

To help ease the sticker shock, order the Vive and you get Tilt Brush, Job Simulator and puzzle game Fantastic Contraption for free. They retail from $32.99 to $43.99.

Tilt Brush and Job Simulator held the most promise of a fully featured product, and more are continually being developed and released online. As exciting as it may seem today, it will probably be a few years more before most customers find their money's worth in VR.


Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.