TR's VR journals, part one: setting the stage

— 5:33 PM on July 13, 2016

Over the past couple months, I've been places. I've dangled from the side of a rock wall hundreds of feet above crashing waves. I've set foot on a shipwreck deep beneath the ocean and hung out with a humpback whale. I've laid waste to pallets of unsuspecting fruit with a pair of katanas. I've led a research mission on an alien world full of exotic life forms. I've been to Taipei to look at a bunch of new PC hardware. (OK, that last one actually happened.) No, I don't have a holodeck or transporter pad installed in my office. Consumer virtual reality gear is here now. I've been spending lots of time strapped into the big two virtual reality headsets that came out this year: Oculus' Rift and HTC's Vive (built in partnership with Valve Software).

Since dedicated VR headsets require powerful gaming PCs to do their thing, both AMD and Nvidia are betting big on VR tech, too. AMD's latest graphics card, the $200-and-up Radeon RX 480, is priced specifically to make VR-capable graphics more affordable, while Nvidia's Pascal architecture even boasts a couple of VR-specific features in its silicon. Nvidia's VRWorks and AMD's LiquidVR both help developers to address the specific progamming needs of VR titles on Radeons and GeForces. Even PC companies like Zotac and MSI are thinking about how VR is going to change the personal computing experience. This is just a tiny slice of the vast number of software and hardware companies making a move into VR. If you hadn't already guessed, this technology is a Big Deal.

All that buzz has arisen for good reason. VR headset makers often talk about "immersion" and "presence," the sense that you're really inhabiting the virtual worlds viewed through these headsets. At their best, VR headsets really do create a feeling of being transported to another place, whether that's the seat of a Group B rally car or the bowels of Aperture Science. That immersion becomes especially deep when one can actually reach out and touch virtual environments in a room-size space, like one can with the Vive. I often find myself saying "wow" when I enter a new VR experience for the first time, and I imagine I've looked like the clichéd image of the guy below more often than I'd like to admit. When you put on these goggles for the first time, though, it's easy to understand why Oculus relies so heavily on this image to convey what VR is like.

Now that the Vive and Rift are on the market, though, one could be forgiven for thinking that some of the shine has come off. There are some fully- fleshed-out gaming experiences available on both platforms, but many of today's VR games are experimental and rather short. Valve's The Lab demo is typical of the breed: a collection of mini-games that's a fun, if not particularly deep, introduction to VR. While it's easy to understand that developers aren't yet committing the full force of triple-A resources to either headset, that approach might go some way toward explaining the apparently tepid response to these technological wonders a couple months in.

Recent Steam hardware survey results report that vanishingly small numbers of respondents on the platform have bought into either VR hardware ecosystem. While not every Rift user is going to have Steam installed, the numbers still aren't large. Even when people do buy into VR, it seems like they travel to virtual worlds less and less. Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan recently conducted a Twitter poll regarding the frequency of VR headset usage, and of 2,246 respondents, 50% said they don't even use their VR hardware any more. Another 33% use their headsets "just once in a while," and only 17% claim to strap their head-mounted device daily. Those are potentially troubling numbers for systems that cost hundreds of dollars—and that's before we consider the $1000 or more needed to build a compatible PC. More likely, we're just seeing the slow development of a nascent platform.

Another obstacle to getting folks to buy into VR may be that describing what it's like is incredibly hard without actually strapping a headset to someone's face. (Valve's clever augmented-reality setup, as seen above, comes close, though.) Words, pictures, and video are all abstractions of reality to begin with, and it's really hard to talk about something that promises to whisk you away to another world using them. I imagine many people I've told about VR feel sort of like families did when our parents used to pull out slide projectors and show off vacation photos. "You have to be there" may be true, but it's ultimately unsatisfying for the folks that haven't yet shared the experience.

Judging the Rift and Vive is also challenging because these are incredibly personal pieces of equipment. No other computing device of late straps on to one's head and blocks out the world, so it's important to get some face time with both devices instead of relying on one reviewer's sweeping proclamations. To give just one example, I have a huge head that stretches the Rift's strap adjustments to their limits. Its ring of face foam also doesn't make even contact with my skull, so the headset creates uncomfortable pressure points on my forehead. The Vive's strap system may not be as slick as the Rift's, but its generous foam donut and broad range of strap adjustments lets me get a much more comfortable fit. Other people find the Vive unbearably heavy and clunky. Since we all have different heads and musculatures, I think trying on the Rift or Vive before plunking down hundreds of bucks is mandatory.

Given those challenges, trying to review these headsets in an open-and-shut manner as we do with cases and graphics cards just isn't going to work. Along with the need for individual test-drives and the rapidly changing software landscape, not all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place yet for us to really issue a verdict on the Rift or Vive. For example, Oculus just finished fulfilling its pre-order backlog for the Rift, and it has yet to release its Touch hand controllers. Those controllers are going to massively change the way that Rift users interact with VR, but for now, they're only in the hands of developers and conference demonstrators. Every day brings new software for the Rift and Vive that could change the value proposition for either platform.

Because of this rugged new frontier, we're not going to write one review of each headset and call it good. Our conclusions now may not have anything to do with the way VR plays out on the Rift or Vive months down the line. Instead, we're going to be writing a series of articles—TR's VR journals, if you will—that chronicle our journeys through virtual worlds and the hardware we're using to get there. This way, we'll be able to talk about VR as it stands right now while we map out the broadening VR universe over time.

In the coming weeks, we'll talk about the Rift and Vive hardware, the process of setting them up in various spaces, and the different types of experiences each platform offers. Later on, we'll examine what's inside each headset's shell, the hardware and software magic that makes them work, and the challenges and methods involved in measuring VR performance. We'll try and intersperse that coverage with brief reviews of new games and experiences as they arrive so that you're up-to-date on the places you can go with your own Rift or Vive. We'll also be examining VR experiences that don't even require a PC, like Samsung's Gear VR, and what they mean for this burgeoning space. We expect it'll be a wild ride. Stay tuned.

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