Hands on with the HTC Valve Vive virtual reality headset

When people put on a virtual reality headset for the first time, they almost always try to do two things: look at their hands and walk around. It’s a natural impulse, but an ability VR headset makers have shied away from because of the technical challenge and potential to make people sick.

If HTC and Valve proved one thing with their new Vive headset, it’s that the technology is here to move around a whole room in virtual reality. The Vive’s key is two joystick-like controllers, two boxes that hang on the walls and the sensor-studded headset.  They all work together to place your location in the room, whether you’re walking, crouching or waving your hands around. During a demo at this week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I didn’t feel any of the vertigo that came standard with my early VR walking experiences. My steps and hand movements were always represented perfectly in the virtual world.

HTC Valve Vive virtual reality headset

The HTC Vive headset, controllers and sensor boxes.


Compared against the Oculus Crescent Bay and Sony Project Morpheus headsets, Vive looks the bulkiest. It sits on your head with a stretchy strap that makes it feel similar to Crescent Bay. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but nothing unbearable. The controllers, which have a trigger and touch pad, are attached to a little fanny pack you wear around your waist, but they will eventually be wireless.

The Vive’s 1200 x 1080 pixel display looked good, but didn’t feel quite as crisp as Sony’s Project Morpheus. There was still a little bit of screen door — the effect where a fine grid appears to lay over your vision — going on, but it was barely noticeable once I got into the content. The 90 frames per second refresh rate and 22 millisecond latency was enough for the viewing experience to feel comfortable and natural.

HTC Valve Vive virtual reality headset

Vive is covered in sensors that help place your location in the room. 

I did just one demo in the Vive: WEVR‘s theBlu, a mostly passive experience that places you on a shipwreck in the ocean. I used the controllers to wave tiny fish away from my eyes and then walked around the ship’s deck, which had rails and debris corresponding with the walls in the real room in which my body stood.

I turned just as a life-size blue whale began gliding past the ship’s bow. I was tempted to reach out and run my fingers along the deep ridges in the mammal’s belly. It paused for a moment as its eye came in line with my body and we stared, considering one another. Then the whale swam away, its tail slamming into the deck in the process.

A blue whale floats past in WEVR's theBlu.

A blue whale floats past in WEVR’s theBlu.

I didn’t jump or shout during the experience, partially because it’s getting harder to surprise me in virtual reality. But the main reason is WEVR isn’t going for the cheap shots (Sony’s The Deep demo, where a shark attacks you at the bottom of the sea, comes to mind). I caught up with CEO Neville Spiteri and senior vice president Anthony Batt after checking out Vive and they explained how the company prefers content that draws people in through empathy or awe than shock.

“It’s really hard to get a sense of how big a blue whale is,” Spiteri said. You can go to a museum and see a skeleton and it begins to dawn on you, but being there next to one in virtual reality is a totally new level of understanding. That whale and I had a moment together.

The Vive's controllers track the position of your hands and recreate them in virtual reality.

The Vive’s controllers track the position of your hands and recreate them in virtual reality.

I went into the Vive demo expecting a lot. I’ve been talking to people all week about their experience with the headset, and the phrases “mindblowing” and “next level” have been thrown around generously. Vive has definitely set the bar for movement in VR, but its screen wasn’t good enough to convince me that Sony or Oculus are necessarily behind on other factors.

I’m interested to see more content developed specifically for the headset. It’s a powerful new option that will build on our most natural instincts when we step into virtual reality: interacting. I felt naked when I did the official Oculus Crescent Bay demo at GDC; without a controller of some sort, the experience was lacking. Interactivity is the new norm.