The Vive is incredible, but you don’t need it just yet

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Right now, precisely none of the big Virtual Reality headsets is available in South Africa. The PlayStation VR is set to launch in many territories on October 13 – but those of us here at the Southern tip of Africa will have to wait until next year. Worse is that the already available PC VR head-mounts aren’t available here either.

You can’t just head down to your favourite tech retailer and pick up an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive, which makes it tempting – for those with heavy wallets – to consider importing. But is it worth it? After spending quite a bit of time with a VIVE setup (thanks, very much to MSI, who sent it along with a VR-ready laptop), I’m left in two minds.

The VIVE itself houses some pretty impressive technology – as it should, considering the set retails for $799. The box is huge, and its perfectly packaged contents just scream high quality. You’ve got the head-mounted unit itself, of course – which has a nest of unfathomably long cables coming out of the back of it that all plug into a link box. That, in turn, gets plugged in to your computer, sucking up an HDMI or Display port, along with a single USB port. While the Vive doesn’t have a headset built in to it, it does ship with a standard set of ear buds, which you plug in to the headset. Because it’s a standard 3.5mm jack, you can use your own if you prefer. The box also comes packing two things that make the Vive special – a step beyond the Oculus Rift.

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It comes, firstly, with two infra-red base stations which not only help it track the headset (which has its own camera, too), but also the controllers – which I’ll get to in a bit. The base stations both require their own power and also need line of site of each other. It sounds like it’s a lot of set up, but it’s really not very complicated. Within half an hour of opening the box, I was ready to go.

It is worth noting that if you do end up with a unit, you’ll probably want to fix the base stations somewhere, in opposite corners. The Vive comes with the necessary screws, bolts and brackets to do just that. The base stations allow the Vive to use something called Room-scale. It allows you to measure a set area of your play space, so you don’t end up walking in to walls and hurting yourself. It doesn’t even need the greatest area. My set up – in what I consider a tiny lounge (and what the system measure at 2m x 2.1m) worked perfectly for most games and experiences.

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But it’s the controllers – those wonderful controllers – that make it special. The Vive’s set of wands are remarkable. They’re separate plastic sticks, with some buttons and an open loop on the top of each one. You’d hold them as you’d hold a gun, or an umbrella. The most important button on each controller is probably the trigger on the underside, which lets you do all sorts of natural motion stuff like picking objects up. Each stick also has buttons on the side, which you trigger by squeezing your palm. The face of the controller also has a magical trackpad, which not only senses where your thumb is touching, but can also be used as a button. Or many context sensitive buttons – depending on the game or app.

They’re tracked like magic, and rendered in real time when you have the headset on, so you can always see where they are. In some games, they’ll magically become hands, or swords or guns – but you’ll always be acutely aware of where they, and your hands are. It’s incredible.

And from the very first time I put the headset on, I was blown away. It’s mesmerising, and completely immersive being whisked away to setting you’d never otherwise be able to go to – and have your brain feel like it’s real. But, after a week and half, when I packaged the VR setup back I wasn’t really sad to see it go. It’s because, right now, there’s not a wealth of content. What I did play and experience was pretty magical, I’ll not kid. There are experiences, like Waltz of the Wizard that really let you feel like you’re able to cast fireballs, and control furniture like you’re Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. It’s even free.

There’s stuff like TheBlu, which places you at the bottom of the ocean, watching the undersea creatures swimming past as an odd feeling of dread envelops you. You should be drowning, struggling to breathe – but you’re not. While it doesn’t look all that immersive when you watch it in a video, it really feels like you’re trapped under sea with the headset strapped to you.

There are plenty of experiences just like that, which kept me enraptured while I had the Vive. A Virtual museum that let me get close up to the Mona Lisa, the Statue of David and other significant cultural works? Incredible. An experience that let me feel what it was like to be a prisoner in a tiny cell in Alcratraz? Spellbinding.

Where it’s fallen short for me, is in the game department. There are highlights, of course. Like Audioshield (which I still think is the Vive’s “killer app”), a game has you blocking pulsating, coloured orbs to the beat of any music you’d like. It sounds simple and silly – but I could play that for months.

Space Pirate Trainer is the gamey game to play on the Vive. It’s a game that recalls the arcade shooters of yore – only in first person. You’ll go up against wave upon waves of drones – and shoot at them, trying to get a high score. There are many, many games like this – switching out drones for zombies, or spiders or whatever other horrible things people might want to shoot at. They all start becoming a bit similar too.

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I tried other things, like the incredible Budget Cuts, a super clever game that has you sneaking about in an office populated by robots who want to kill you. It’s one of the only games that had me ducking about in virtual space, trying to peer around corners.

But honestly? There’s not really much else. There are, of course, a handful of other games and great experiences – but not really enough of them to warrant the asking price. Throw in the full cost of importing a Vive, and you’re looking at around R19 000, or close to $1400. And that’s beyond the cost of the hardware you’ll need to run it. It’s understandable, really, that VR sales have flat-lined.

I’m sure that’ll change. I’m certain that PlayStation VR will help re-ignite interest in virtual reality, especially as it’s at the right price point to break in to the mainstream. It also has several blockbuster developers making games – something that the Rift and the Vive are struggling with.

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On top of that, the technology still isn’t quite where it needs to be. The screen door effect is still noticeable – though after a while it stops being something you really even care about. Fast head movements can still lead to nauseating judder, limiting the types of games and experiences available.

That all said, my time with the Vive has me excited for the future of VR. As more people start developing games and things to do in Virtual Reality environments, somebody’s going to crack the code and deliver something that makes people not just want VR – but need it.

And I can’t wait.

Last Updated: September 30, 2016

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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