The Hardware And Demo Setup
For the demonstration, I was taken into a room devoid of anything but the equipment needed to use Vive. There were no cameras allowed in the demo room, and the only hardware I could photograph was the headset itself, which you can see pictured.
The headset is connected to a gaming PC that I was told was running a single graphics card, probably a GTX980 or R9 290X – they wouldn’t divulge any additional details. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of the Vive prototype I tried was that it was connected to the PC with a lot of wires. The picture below shows that the prototype Vive is connected via HDMI, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. I was told that future versions of the Vive will be connected with only one cable, but we are not sure if that is referring to the developer edition or only the full retail version. In order to keep the wires out of the way, I wore a harness around my waist that helped keep them manageable. While there were a few times in my demo where I did feel them getting in the way, it was only for a split-second until the developer running the demo moved them out of my way.
The other hardware that the Vive uses is a pair (to prevent occlusion) of laser-emitting "lighthouse" base stations that were positioned in the opposite upper corners of the room. Like the rest of the hardware, these were big prototype units that will shrink in size when the retail Vive is launched. These base stations work in conjunction with the 25 or so sensors on the headset to track its position. There are also additional sensors such as accelerometers in the headset that provide additional positional data.
The real star of the Vive’s show, and part of what makes it so special, are its SteamVR controllers. Unlike the currently controller-less Oculus Rift, the Vive’s controllers are integral to its experience. They are Wiimote-ish devices for each hand with a large hexagonal-shaped sensor array on top so they can be tracked by the same laser lighthouses that track the headset. The units I used in my demo were fairly rough prototypes with what looked to be 3D printed components, but more finished versions were shown at GDC (which we unfortunately did not photograph).
The controllers also have a clickable circular trackpad that sits under your thumb, a trigger for your index finger, and buttons on either side of their handgrips. These are activated by squeezing, though for the demos I tried I did not have to use these buttons. They also feature subtle haptic feedback and utilize the same advanced feedback system as the Steam Controller uses, with motors that can simulate difference forces, rather just having the controller simply vibrate. As mentioned above, they are wired into the headset, which is then wired to the PC, but I was told that the final release version of the Vive will have wireless controllers.
The sensors on the headset and controllers both work with the base stations to determine not only your head’s place in the environment, but also where your hands' and body's, and you can freely move around in the environment. This is what Valve and HTC are calling “360-degree room-scale VR.” For my demo, I was limited to a 15-by-15 foot space, which may seem small, but in the world of VR it's positively huge.
Since MWC, Valve has also clarified that the Vive is not limited to 15 x 15 feet, and the "room-scale" VR Valve is referring to is flexible and can be configured to fit different room sizes.
While you are in the virtual space, the Vive indicates when you are about to get close to the edge of the physical playing area, so you don’t walk into a wall and hurt yourself. It does this by throwing up a glowing grid-like representation of your boundaries that subtly reminds you of your limits without being too distracting from the virtual experience.
The headset itself goes on like a scuba mask, with three stretchable straps. Because I haven’t had any experience with any other VR headset apart from the Gear, I can’t comment on how comfortable the Vive is in comparison to others. There was no discomfort for me while I used it and it was light enough that I soon almost forgot that I was wearing it.
In the headset you look through two Fresnel lenses, which are lenses that can be made with a wide aperture and short focal length without taking up as much space as a traditional lens. This is important when designing a headset to be a compact as possible. There are what looks like two cameras on the headset, which you can clearly see in our photos. We were told that they could potentially allow elements of the real world to be added to your virtual experience, or possibly used for depth sensing.
The last part of the hardware used for the demo was a set of over-ear headphones. These are not an integrated component, but just standard headphones that plug into an audio jack on the Vive headset. For me, the weakest link in the demo was the audio, because in the rush to get things going I don’t think they were put on my huge noggin properly. Because of this, the audio throughout my demo experience was sometimes muffled. I was not told if the final design will incorporate built-in headphones, and I did not learn anything about whether the Vive has 3D positional audio.
The Vive uses two screens (one 1080 x 1200 screen per eye for a total resolution of 2160 x 1200) that refresh at 90 Hz, which also then requires the PC hardware to maintain a constant 90 fps. Although this last feature isn’t controlled by the Vive itself, you can be sure that the minimum hardware specs recommended by Valve and HTC will be high enough to ensure that it can push that framerate in every SteamVR title.
Although Valve and HTC have not disclosed the Vive’s field-of-view, from my understanding, its horizontal FoV is equivalent the latest Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus. However, one major difference between Vive and other solutions is that the screens for each eye are taller than wider, being portrait-orientated.
The screen-door effect of the Vive’s resolution was also noticeable when I first put it on, and I was worried that it would impact my experience. However, as soon as the demos started and all the other aspects of what makes Vive so great came online, such as the hand and body tracking, the lack of peripheral vision and resolutions issues were no longer noticeable. The sense of presence and the immersion level of Vive is so great that it overpowered any other technical issues that may exist in the prototype.
I will say that the statement by Gabe Newel that no one using the Vive gets motion sickness is mostly likely accurate. Due to its 90 Hz refresh rate and incredibly accurate motion tracking, at no time during my demo did I feel any nausea, and I am someone who often gets motion sickness in real life.
Although its specifications are already very good, between now and the release of the final consumer model HTC and Valve have the chance to improve the Vive’s hardware. That means there’s a chance we’ll see improved specs, such as screen resolution and FoV, in the consumer model.