HTC’s announcement of a virtual reality headset, created in partnership with world-leading games company Valve (Half Life, Portal, Steam…), took Mobile World Congress entirely by surprise on Sunday. We were all feeling pretty clever, thinking we’d already seen everything they had to show (since most of the HTC One M9 material leaked before the launch), and then they beaned us in the side of the head with an amazing-sounding VR headset that somehow stayed a complete secret until the minute it was announced. Well played.
I was so excited about the HTC Vive headset – from two of my very favourite companies, no less – that I’d dashed off an email requesting a test slot before they’d even changed slides. And I got one. And it was today.
Here’s our HTC Vive review.
A ski mask with a view
Immediately after my test slot, I tried to tweet what I’d thought of the experience. Words failed me, so I resorted to punctuation:
Just tried the HTC & Valve virtual reality headset. Can’t talk about it til tonight but all I can say is: !!!!!! #MWC15
— Holly Brockwell (@hollybrocks) March 4, 2015
Yes, six exclamation marks. The HTC Vive (or Re Vive as it’s called on the marketing material, in line with the Re brand of cameras) is an experience that will leave you as speechless as Michael Bay without his teleprompter, and as hyper-excited as a puppy dog with 8,000 tennis balls. It is tremendous.
I’ve tried the Oculus headset three times now, and it blows me away every time. But this was something different entirely. The HTC system uses beacons in the corners of the room to map the space, which means you can walk around your environment as if it had been built in your bedroom.
The HTC team give you a whole range of experiences to show off the different applications of the headset, and are the first to explain that whether the product is successful will come down to the content created for it. That’s why they’ve partnered with Valve, who make some of the most popular videogames of all time – to ensure there’s brilliant content at launch.
So what did I try? We started off with an underwater scene, looking up at the waterline and down to a wrecked aeroplane far, far below my feet (which I couldn’t see. Takes a bit of getting used to, that). Peering over the railings of a ship to a seabed so far down gave me a genuine flutter in my stomach, and was indistinguishable from really being there except that you can see the pixels if you look for them. Oh, and the fact that I was suspiciously dry for being underwater.
There was a tabletop war game (I could walk into the middle of the table, so the cannons were shooting through my waist! A little odd), a cooking simulator (I threw a tomato across the room and it bounced balefully to the floor), a 3D painting experience (drawing a neon picture and walking around it – even through it – made me feel more like an artist than anything else ever has) and more – but best of all, hands-down, was the Portal experience at the end. I was full-on standing in Aperture Laboratories, GlaDOS insulting me gleefully while I tried to fix a robot under pressure. It was magical. I wanted to live there.
The experience involves wearing the ski mask-like headset with its two thick lenses, and holding two controllers that look quite a lot like the top of ski poles, actually. Initially my left pole-handle failed: it showed as lying on the floor when I was holding it in my hand. A quick reboot fixed that, but left me with a deeply unsettling feeling that my entire universe could be turned off so easily. The HTC Vive experience is so incredibly immersive that you forget you were ever anywhere else. It’d be very easy to walk into walls if the headset didn’t pop up a grid to remind you where they were whenever you wandered too close.
Taking the headset off was immensely disappointing. Suddenly the real world feels dull, fixed, and mundane. It’s like coming out of a dark cinema after an amazing film. Back to reality? I prefer my virtual one.
HTC Vive price and availability
The HTC Vive will be out this year for consumers, and dev kits will be available this Spring. Pricing and dates for UK availability are not yet confirmed, but we’d expect the kit to retail at somewhere in the £1500-£2000 region based on competitors.