Hands-On with New HTC Vive vs. Oculus Rift at CES 2016

By Published January 05, 2016 at 1:00 pm
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The latest HTC Vive demo plants players within the photorealistic outcroppings of Mount Everest, an atmosphere which serves more as an “experience” than an outright “game.” Mechanics are effectively boiled-down to look at stuff and move the sticks, with the full bore of virtual reality graphics processing stealing the spotlight. Developers Solfar Studios stitched together tens of thousands of frames from the real mountain, accurately height-mapped the mountain, and firmly represent Everest’s actual crevices, ravines, and spine-like ridgelines to the Vive wearer.

This is the final iteration of the HTC Vive. We previously published a deep-dive on the headset’s technological inner-workings, but substantial changes have been made in just the few months following. Core concepts and objectives remain largely unchanged, yet execution and design have received additional development focus thanks to delays from initial Xmas ’15 launch targets. The Vive isn’t the first HMD to push back launch into 2016, either; Oculus VR’s Rift will post its public pre-order page on Wednesday, 1/6, finally nearing its own launch target of 2Q16.

The VR juggernauts are going head-to-head, then, with launch dates fully aligning and graphics vendors supporting all viable technologies. Our initial user impressions are above, GN’s Patrick Stone joining for a different perspective. Carry on for the split-author impressions editorial.

Patrick Stone covers all Oculus Rift sections (demarcated with parenthetical notation); Steve Burke covers the HTC Vive.

Experiences with the Vive – Then and Now (Steve Burke)

Our first experience with the HTC Vive was at GDC 2015, where early HMD (head-mounted display) demos were entirely experiential and without mechanical gameplay depth. We heavily praised the Vive for its then-unrivaled “presence” and immersion, highlighting that the headset, engineered by Valve and whose display manufacturing logistics are handled by HTC, still had room to grow.

Valve has taken that time to develop – as it does – and now has a near-final product on media rotation. This is most obvious with immediate exterior packaging, which the Vive now uses to more gracefully cover-up IR trackers that were previously exposed. For the uninitiated, and this is covered in our tech break-down, two “lighthouse” IR scanners sit in the corners of the room and actively scan for player position, at which point the Vive receives IR and transmits coordinates. That's all more concealed now than it used to be, probably useful for protecting the IR receivers as the device undergoes real-world use.

The controllers have also been updated, now featuring a donut-like circle toward the top of the wand. Each wand has a trigger (index finger), trackpad (thumb), and two buttons flanking the trackpad (also thumb). The circular 'donut' at the top was unexplained for us at time of demo, nVidia noting that they'd just received the setup from HTC/Valve and hadn't yet been fully briefed. It seems like some sort of IR receiver for extended reach or catching/throwing, but we're really not sure. One suggestion was that the holes were perfectly shaped for shot glass drinking simulations.

This run-through with the Vive placed us in the Everest demo. Everest remains firmly in the “experiential” realm of VR gaming without a whole lot of mechanics or consequence. Climbing ladders requires trigger pulls (from the accompanying controllers), and releasing the trigger (letting go of the ladders), wandering off the ladder, et cetera, have no consequence in-game at this time.

Technologically, the demo was impressive with its substantial render distance and FOV, receiving additional support from realistic texturing and some shader FX. As an experience, there's certainly a process of becoming somewhat jaded to the raw immersion and impact of virtual reality as we demo more of these devices; our group was less awe-struck than last time, but that's not to down-play the viability and fidelity of the Vive demo. There's a certain “novelty” factor that runs the risk of growing stale when exclusively sampling “experiences” rather than, as gamers, mechanical gameplay.

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That's going to be a major hurdle for VR devices, too; game support in any traditional, triple-A sense is going to require some specialization by developers. Throwing gamers into Battlefield or Call of Duty with a VR headset isn't going to yield a fun multiplayer experience for anyone remotely competitive, since VR will inherently slow reaction times and precision native to mice and monitors. For single-player experiences, this stuff still requires tuning at the development-level for adequate gameplay, so there's no real “free VR” experience that will feel natural to the new input devices – movement or wands or otherwise. On this front, the Vive and Rift are doing well. Each currently is looking at around 200 natively-supported titles of varying mechanical and experiential degrees.

Vertigo isn't of consequence to our editors who've tested VR, but we've been told by demo operators that some folks opted-out of the Everest experience following uncomfortable feelings with the 18,000-foot chasms. To break form and speak personally for a moment, Patrick Stone and I discussed the concept of immersion in VR following our tests, specifically looking at unsettling scenarios. He's had some encounters with these below, but I haven't yet “been there” mentally. The question posed to me was “have you ever gotten so immersed in the experience that you've forgotten it's a game?” My answer, after no thought, was “no.” I know that feeling, and I haven't had it in VR. After some thought, I'd considered that this is maybe a defensive reaction to the situation – I'm constantly trying to wander off ladders and off cliffs in VR almost as a reminder that it is a game; were I to try and immerse myself, I'd obviously not do these things. It's sort of how I deal with scary movies – which I dutifully hate – where the internal response is an incessant “itsamovieitsamovieitsamovie.” To feel immersed in a planar display while gaming isn't 'scary,' but to get absorbed by something wrapped around the head is just enough departure from feeling control that it's undesirable to me.

That's not at all a statement on the positive or negative potential of VR – just an interesting discussion that seemed worth breaking third-person distance to explore.

HTC Vive – Comfort and Practicality (Steve Burke)

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The Vive mounts the head comfortably and with a 'snug' fit. Anyone experienced with downhill biking or ski goggles already knows what the face mask of the Vive feels like – it's not quite as air-tight as the sportswear, but applies similar, even pressure across the wearer's visage.

Cable management is a constant battle that does remove a bit of the immersion factor, and having an external party to assist in early-use cable navigation is helpful for orientation. The cables run down the top of the head and feed into an in-line dongle, making for a tripping hazard during initial use, but that eventually subsides as the user becomes more experienced.

Practicality is a challenge. The Vive, like the Rift, could technically be used situated at a desk. All of our demos have understandably planted us in the full-on experience – empty rooms dedicated solely to wandering around in VR. That's not a common occurrence in homes, much less so outside of the US, so 'full' use will require some build-up and tear-down in environments where empty rooms don't exist.

Gaming Experiences on the Latest Oculus Rift (Patrick Stone)

The first demonstration software we tested on the latest Oculus Rift was Bullet Train, also hosted in the nVidia suite. This is a first-person shooter in which the player takes no damage.

The earliest part of the game is a training session, used to teach the player how to interact with a few weapons and the major movement device, a time warp/portal tool. During training and gameplay, we noticed that picking up weapons and using them felt relatively similar to the actual, physical motion of using the real thing (minus the kick back, smoke, and fire – hopefully). For instance, training with the handguns saw accuracy improvements from using the sights on the weapon and looking down them physically. The shotgun took a little more practice. Integrating both hands into the pump action motion proved difficult at first but became more natural as the game developed. The weapon that caused the most mechanical input trouble was the hand grenade. Being a VR environment, we expected the game to be as realistic as possible; it followed that, when grabbing the grenade, we tried to remove the activation pin multiple times without success (this felt like a bug or oversight in the game, as we're all used to with 'normal' games). After dropping the grenade, considering it a bugged feature, we were surprised to see the grenade (with pin intact) explode. Oops.

Movement in the game can also be difficult. The Oculus isn't really meant for full, 360-degree wandering movement like the HTC Vive, so the most effective way to transport is to teleport. Teleporting was limited to specific, predetermined points on the map. Performing this action sometimes resulted in teleporting into enemy characters or general jarring sudden displacement. Tactical movement and using cover did not seem natural and appeared relatively ineffective in the game, but might change in the future.

Some realism kinks to work out, but overall a massive step in the right direction for shooter control in VR.

We next chose Surgeon Simulator: Alien Transplant, one title of about nine other options. This game is quite a bit more challenging and allowed us to note that Bullet Train "puts" the weapons in your hands properly. The movement in the game is done predominantly with the user's hands, adding some pivoting to the left and right to acquire surgical instruments. Use of the tools is difficult. Picking them up requires much greater dexterity as the points of contact are exactly where you place the virtual hand on the instrument. More realistic interaction with virtual tools is much tougher than having a gun placed into your hand and shooting stuff – go figure, the surgeon's job of removing bullets isn't as straightforward as putting them into people. We ended up dead for several reasons, namely that we didn't know which tools to use or how they worked. A tutorial at the beginning of this game, like the one for Bullet Train, would have been helpful and probably exists in some non-short-demo capacity (or eventually will).

The final VR experience involving the Oculus Rift was Adrift. This title, developed by 505 games, substitutes an Xbox 360 controller in place of the standard Oculus Touch controls. It is also playable sitting down in a chair instead of standing in an infrared field. The goal is to explore a damaged space station, figure out what happened to cause all the damage, repair a ship, and get back to earth. The challenging part of the game is that you must grab oxygen containers to stay alive, a resource we're constantly consuming and depleting as we jet around. Movement and directional tracking took a while to get used to in the game, and being in space creates the unique experience that there is no "right-side-up." The most enjoyable moment in the game occurred when we drifted away from the space station into the vastness of space. At that point, for the first time in multiple VR experiences, there was a physical stomach reaction to real fear. Definitely uniquely intriguing and almost unsettling, and it ties-in to Steve's observations about mentally distancing oneself from total immersion.

Immersion and Comfort (Patrick Stone)

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The VR experience still keeps you grounded. The graphics quality, the glitches, and the weight (and cost) of the hardware all keep senses alert of a virtual experience. That being said, VR technology is progressing rapidly. In just one year, the Oculus Rift has become a much more user-friendly device with steadily increased resolutions and decreased latencies. The system is now ergonomically well-designed. The adjustable headset fits well over the head, one exception being in the nose area. (Some light gets through if your nose does not fill the area. How the creators can make a nose area that fits all noses is a difficult task, without some sort of modularity). The headset is still heavy, but the foam that lines it is comfortable. We estimate that a user could probably operate it without fatigue for one hour or just over. The hand controls are comfortable and logical. The infrared sensor system tracks movement fairly well, creating a responsive movement environment. We look forward to seeing how this technology can improve in the future.

NVIDIA’s Approach to VR

We're talking to AMD about VR later this week, but already walked-through the basics on the nVidia side of processing.

By nVidia's calculations, VR is “7x more demanding than PC gaming,” where 'PC gaming' refers to the 'normal' desktop-monitor combination. To push 30FPS at 1080p requires 60 megapixels per second of data throughput (if 60FPS is your desired framerate, that's 124MP/s). Because VR is so inherently sensitive to framerates, frametimes, and fluidity, the throughput is closer to 450MP/s (3024x1680 * 90FPS). Without this high framerate, users can become nauseated and jarred by slight visual latencies, timewarp, and stuttering frametimes.

Head movement latency is also critical. To ensure the user doesn't become sick from disjointed response-to-input (where input is physical head tracking), the latency between the 'input' action (movement) needs to land at or below 20ms. That's a small response window and has been a major technological challenge for Valve and Oculus VR as their devices have matured. Both teams have largely overcome this hurdle.

NVidia also spoke to the render demand of VR. High resolutions and high framerates force VR developers to sacrifice graphics fidelity – textures, shader/lighting FX, other post techniques – or require higher-class systems. Looking at some of our 1440p and 4K benchmarks will illustrate just how few video cards can achieve 60FPS output at such resolutions, let alone the 90FPS demanded by the Vive or Rift. The rig running “Everest” was 'just' running a Titan X and 5930K, other systems were on 980 Tis or similar. Some of this raw graphics horsepower requirement can be mitigated with rendering techniques, like nVidia's “multi-res shading,” which effectively decreases peripheral image quality – where the lens warps the perceived viewing space – in favor of accelerating gameplay. This technique works in a screen-warped situation because of the way the eye interacts with the lens, so perceptible impact to the experience is almost non-existent, but frame fluidity increases.

NVidia says it'll apply badges to partnered PCs and GPUs that meet minimum specifications of a GTX 970, i5-4590, and 8GB of RAM (and HDMI 1.3) as part of its new “VR Ready” program. This will mostly be applicable to SIs for pre-built machines.

More on VR through the week. Stay tuned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for our AMD coverage in a few days.

Writing, Co-Host: Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke.
Additional Reporting, Co-Host: Patrick “Mocalcium” Stone.
Video Editing, Film: Keegan “HornetSting” Gallick.
Photography: James Vincent.

Last modified on January 05, 2016 at 1:00 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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