Vive Year One: HTC and Valve’s Gift To A New Medium

by Ian Hamilton • April 6th, 2017

One year ago HTC Vive started arriving for buyers. It was $200 more expensive than its chief competition, the Oculus Rift, but the headset also did a lot more than the initial PC-powered headset from Facebook when it first released.

At the heart of Vive’s leap is a fundamentally different tracking technology which involves mounting little boxes to the walls just like you would speakers. These boxes just need to be plugged into power to track objects with pinpoint accuracy across a 5 meter-wide space — for roomscale, it’s much cleaner than the Rift’s multiple USB cords running back to the PC. These boxes disappear when wearing the headset and you find yourself with the freedom to walk several steps around a virtual world and use your hands to interact with it.

The tracking innovation made by Bellevue-based Valve Software and manufactured by HTC gave the Vive headset and controllers a six month headstart on Facebook’s VR team in the roomscale race. In some ways this lead was actually quite a bit longer, because HTC and Valve started telegraphing to developers pretty early on that this was the plan. Oculus, however, went to market without hand controllers readied, supporting a single sensor for a forward-facing experience.

“We told [developers] there were going to be two sensors in the box and two controllers in the box,” said Dan O’Brien, HTC Vive’s top leader in the America’s. “That removed the guesswork for them.”

What’s more, HTC and Valve put these free developer kits in the hands of skilled creators spread across the globe. Oculus gets credit for kickstarting interest in VR with its 2012 crowdfunding campaign, and Facebook gets credit for convincing investors the technology was a sound bet for the future with its $2 billion acquisition, but these free Vive kits accelerated VR development in fundamental ways.

The Gift of Freedom

Vive kits were given free to programmers, artists, and eventually press. This giveaway of advanced technology helped accelerate VR development into a new phase with greater freedom.

The Vive Pre and the kits that came before it allowed for the development of groundbreaking software seen in apps like Job Simulator and The Gallery. Compared with Rift, Vive was offered with fewer restrictions imposed on developers for a longer length of time. Vive creators could share their discoveries with others for much of 2016 while Oculus largely locked down discussion of the Touch controllers for much of the year.

“We didn’t want to put any controls on people,” O’Brien said.

While Oculus was advising developers to focus on forward-facing VR experiences and shipping a Rift and gamepad to consumers, Valve and HTC were shipping this:

This moment taken from Valve’s launch video published one year ago captures the essence of Vive’s contribution to VR. It is a piece of marketing, sure, but in one second it shows the quality of the tracking, the freedom it allows, and the use of mixed reality to show exactly what a person is experiencing.

Given the Rift’s required USB cords to connect the sensors, it is reasonable for Oculus to assume most people will set up two of these sensors at either end of a desk to experience VR with Touch in a 180-degree configuration. So this simple act of turning around repeated in a Rift could easily block a controller from the view of the sensors, causing your hand to fly off or disappear. It is so natural as a human to move around as a way of exploring and interacting with the world around you, but in lots of Rift software the developers have carefully designed their worlds to keep visitors from wanting to do it. Oculus assumes that with its recent price drop to $600 for a Rift, two sensors and two controllers, that new buyers drawn in now will actually have less space allotted for VR than the earliest adopters. This might well be true but I think it glosses over something fundamental I believe about VR’s adoption long-term — something Vive got right from the get-go.

The Future of VR

holodeck-featured

Star Trek’s Holodeck was imagined in the late ’80s as a big room where you could run any simulation to practice for the real world, or indulge in any fantasy you desired as a way to escape the long monotonous trips between star systems. It was figured to trick your mind into making imperceptible corrections to the direction you were walking, turning a straight path into a curve so that you never reached the edges of the room. This is how a room turned into a vast forest in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first episode.

It will be a long long time before something as real as the Holodeck exists, but I see the premise of imperceptibly tricking your brain so you don’t notice the edges of a virtual world as a fundamental guide to the technology’s future. The saying goes that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all of the time. This is relevant for VR because even in some of the most expertly crafted virtual worlds like Job Simulator, where you stand in a cubicle or behind a convenience store counter playfully “jobbing”, occasionally people will remember the counter isn’t real and the walls of the cubicle can be walked through. Curiosity drives us. In well-made software, asking “What happens if?” rewards people. With limited hardware, though, asking that question too often results in a stern reminder that you’re in VR and not as free as you want to be in there. Wearing a Vive with its default setup, you’ll hit a blue wall if you go too far. In a Rift with its default setup, you might turn around and lose your hands.

Smart software design can make some people in a Rift not turn around, but developers can only do what the hardware allows them to do and people are curious animals ready to test their limits. The more freedom enabled by the hardware, the more times “What happens if?” will be answered by something exciting, and HTC enabled that greater freedom first.

The Future of Vive

Vive is readying for the next phase of hardware efforts as the headset is poised to become part of a much larger ecosystem of VR hardware with the $100 Vive Tracker shipping to developers.

Of its countless potential uses, these Trackers could be used for full body tracking. Instead of a soccer game like Headmaster that cleverly uses VR’s limitations to give you a game in which you can headbutt balls into the goal, a Tracker clipped to your shoe could enable a realistic soccer simulator that lets you actually kick the ball into the goal.

Guns, boxing gloves, baseball bats, cameras, firehoses and a whole lot more can be brought into a virtual world to make an experience more convincing. When combined with the upcoming deluxe audio strap, Vive aims to continue a lead it established in 2016 that expands upon the ecosystem that’s already there.

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  • HarleyNightster

    Im a happy rift owner but the vive looks pretty awesome as well. You can’t go wrong either way.

    • Tim Bates

      I have both, if you spend anytime with the Vive, you wouldn’t be happy with the rift, mine collects dust..

      • Ian Hamilton

        I find myself using the Rift a lot more lately with three sensors set up for room-scale.

        • Tyrrin

          I have both as well. I really never use the RiFT. It feels clunky in comparison to the VIVE.

          • NotARiftUserUnlessUnderDuress

            rift is garbage. pure waste of money

          • Get Schwifty!

            LOL right…. could we be maybe a LITTLE more objective…?

          • Mermado 1936

            For me Oculus is not a option… i hate the company and i hate the politics…

        • Danny Massey

          Same here. Used my Vive most of the time until I got my Rift room scale setup and now I almost never touch the Vive. The Rift is more comfortable to me but when I can get the wireless adapter for the Vive I’m sure I won’t be using the Rift for a while.

      • Justos

        As someone who owned both and sold the vive, I can safely say it’s a matter of preference and how much the internet influences your choice. They are both great and have pros and cons.

        • koenshaku

          Why did you sell it? You needed the money back?

          • Justos

            Didn’t see the need to keep both once Touch came out. I’ll admit i was on the fence with the recent patch, but once they fixed roomscale configs it was obvious to me which one I wanted to keep.

        • DeeHawk

          Do you guys care to elaborate why you prefer one over the other? It would be really valuable information. I only have the Vive, and reading the limitations of Touch shocked me.

          • Mourz

            Justos (aka paolo, his previous user name) has been on these forums a long time and is a die hard rifter and developer. Which I fully support.

            His claim to owning a vive is a recent phenomenon and probably is false.

        • Tim Bates

          I agree both are great, but only Vive has a rule room scale working in a optimize way..

      • Chris Mac

        Hi Tim

        Why does your rift collect dust? Am considering buying one or the other.

        • Tim Bates

          I prefer full immersion when using vr, that’s the only reason my rift collects dust.. I also prefer not having cords all over the place the rift requires 4 sensors plugged in to 4 usb ports and the HMD makes 5 to match Vive’s room scale.. I’ve tried 2, 3, and 4 rift sensors and 4 is the most optimal, which is crazy..

          • Chris Mac

            Why does the rift not give as good immersion – because of the room scale?

            I have read many reviews and the touch controllers with the rift seem to be a big vote in favour of immersion because of their ergonomics. Do you use the touch controllers?

  • Andrew Hally

    As a proud Vive owner the only things that the rift seems to do better are the touch controllers, which seem a little more intuitive than the vive wands and the headset comfort which I hear is a little better (although the deluxe audio strap will hopefully remedy this). The Vives improved tracking and lack of long cables running everywhere still makes it the superior choice form me although I can easily see this choice may not be for everyone.

  • dan bryant

    Another happy rift owner here
    Don’t believe everything you read
    The 3 sensor set up works great
    And works with Steam VR too
    so you get the best of both.

    • Justos

      Im sick of the fanboys. They are both amazing devices. There is a LOT of hate thrown at Oculus when their product is better in a lot of ways. The new pricepoint makes it a no brainer, but the fanboys are making it hard for newcomers to see objectively which device is better. I have a 3 sensor setup and tracking is flawless. The touch controls are better, the games are native and run better on Rift.

      • Chris Mac

        That is helpful info. – thanks. It is true what you say that it is hard to find any info about roomscale, tracking and so on. Seems that being first with these gives Vive an advantage in the market, even if it is just perceptual.

        Where do you think the Vive is better than the Oculus? I am sitting on the fence trying to decide which one to buy.

        -PRICE: The price is definitely a big factor in my decision, and oculus has the edge here, although if you want 3 or 4 sensors it jacks the price up a bit?

        -ROOM SCALE: Sounds like room scale is more or less the same on both

        – SPACE FOR GLASSES: I wear glasses, and I believe that the Vive is a bit more comfortable that way, although I have seen that you can get prescription inserts for both headsets.

        – VENTILATION: Did also wonder about sweating and ‘fogging’ – I have heard people say that you get sweaty in the Vive after a period of use, whereas the ventilation in the Oculus may help overcome the potential for fogging of glasses.

        – CONTROLLERS: a no brainer in favour of Oculus I believe, but have heard that HTC bringing out new controllers and other accessories as well, which could tip the scales again.

        Any other thoughts?

        Chris

        • Tim Bates

          No fanboy, just need tech that use full. i use VR for Automotive industry research, room scale has to be 16 feet x 10 feet, which the Vive can accommodate for our largest vehicle…

        • Tim Bates

          Chris, room scale is not the same, and cable management is upgradable/replaceable​ on the vive!, Which can extended to 20 feet, rift is not capable. Vive lenses can be replaced with eye-tracking lenses, and prescription lenses, Rift not capable. All rift exclusive games can be played on Vive with revive, this isn’t the same with rift. So if none are requirements today or in the future the Rift is fine.. Rift is a good product, Iive had a dirt since dk1 was number 65 on Kickstarter,with all the changes to turn it into a consumer like(Xbox/PS4) solution it’s not usable in a enterprise.

          • Chris Mac

            Yes I have also heard that about the length of cables. What is an eye tracking lens?

            What about games? Are there any decent big name games out there yet OR any games that are worth spending $1200AU on a unit. My son bought a PSVR and games are even extremely limited on that. Disappointing to say the least!

          • Tim Bates

            On the game side I would say “Wait”, VR Gaming in my opinion isn’t ready, its like buying a Nintendo Switch, and having no love for Zelda or Mario kart. In about a year better games will be out.. Most VR games are short, cheap, made by very small development teams, even the development platforms are behind.

          • Chris Mac

            Thanks Tim. That is more or less the perspective I have come to as well. With any luck, the price of the headsets may also come down a bit as greater economies of scale are reached.

          • Tim Bates

            Your correct, Microsoft is going to flood the market with a min of 5 HMD VR’s by 4th qtr 2017 which will work on any windows machine capable of running windows creative edition. A few of the Microsoft HMD’s will be below $299.

          • Chris Mac

            Sounds like it is worth waiting then.

          • Tim Bates

            Eye tracking is what Tony Stark uses in the Iron Man suit to make UI selections. So your Eye replaces your hand on a mouse.

  • Vive has certainly achieved so much for VR and looks like this will continue. Happy Rift owner but the Vive has better options for tracking especially for mixed reality. Hope Oculus develops something similar to the Vive Tracker Puck.

  • Chris Mac

    What about games? The tech is important but what’s the point without decent games!

    Can anyone identify any decent big name type games yet? This would factor into my decision more so than just the tech.

    • Tim Bates

      If games are the most important and you don’t mind playing with opensource code, go with Vive, since all Rift exclusives can be played on Vive with Revive, this is not possible with Rift.. and Facebook just announced a few days ago there will be no upgrades to the current Oculus for the next 2 yrs. Where Vive can be upgraded and upgrades are already available.