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HTC Vive review roundup: Virtual reality gets real

Industry reviewers got their hands on the new HTC virtual reality headset, the Vive, this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The future of VR feels a little clumsy, but promises huge leaps forward in innovation.

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    HTC's Vive marks a step forward for VR.
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Ever want to be transported to another world?

With innovation revving up in virtual reality, tech companies are vying to be the best in the business. HTC is the latest to hop in, with its VR headset named “Very Immersive Visual Experience” or “Vive.” Though the competition is fierce, early reviews say this headset may actually be what brings virtual reality to reality.

Vive VR was co-developed by HTC and video game developer Valve, and seems to excel in two major areas: controls and scale of motion.

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Two wands held in either hand, sort of like Wii’s nunchucks, control Vive, explains the BBC’s Dave Lee. There are three controls: a click pad for the thumb, a trigger button for the pointer finger, and the ability to squeeze the grip. Though the Verge’s Vlad Savov says it was a bit “odd and unfamiliar” at first, once he got used to it, the simple system worked well with the demo games, such as Tilt Brush, which he describes as:

“It's basically like living in my very own music video,” he writes. “Everything gets darkened around me, I'm handed a color palette in my left hand and a paintbrush in my right, and then I can go crazy doing vibrant, beautiful light drawings in the space around me. Everyone apparently starts off by painting in 2D, and so did I, but I quickly realized that the square I'd made could be turned into a cube.”

The cube aspect? That’s where virtual reality diverges from the gaming systems we have seen in the past, Mr. Savov points out.

That’s just one example. Mr. Lee was impressed at the scope of actions the device recognized and reflected in the virtual setting.

“The [second] demo was perhaps the most impressive when it came to interaction,” he writes. “It was a kitchen scene, with food and utensils. Determined to see if I could catch the software out, I picked up a rolling pin and threw it across the room. It flew off - hitting a pan hanging from a hook before clattering to the ground. Then I found a ball of dough... and hit down on it with my virtual fist, and it promptly flattened.”

The demos continued with a virtual battlefield where players could both see far into the distance when standing and check out tiny details on soldiers when crouching down. Another demo had them interact with whales and fish in a sunken ship setting – when they waved a virtual hand in the water, small fish would scuttle away. Though reviewers could take steps forward to see further into the virtual world, if they got too close to an object or wall a grid pops up, warning of an impending collision.

With that being said, any nascent technology is bound to have its pitfalls. The major ones for the Vive? You need space – a lot of it – to get the full experience. Reporters complained of having to wear a waist harness so they wouldn’t wander off too far. HTC recommends at least a 15x15-foot room without any obstacles as the best way to use the tech. There also must be two laser-tracking boxes mounted in the corners of the room, as the device measures motion using tiny laser reflecting off glass plates. The screen may also need some work. Though it has a high resolution, several reviewers complained of distorted pictures, pixelated colors, and eyestrain even after using the device for just 30 minutes. This is just a demo model, so by the time it is released Vive could improve these functions.

With that in mind, PC Magazine’s Sascha Segan sees the tech as more viable in an education or business setting, than in gaming.

“Virtual art classes?” he writes. “Wandering through history? Seeing chemical reactions? Put these headsets onto a bunch of college kids in a room designed for the experience and it would be magic.”

Savov from the Verge sees it as a huge step forward, but not one without training wheels just yet. He found the kitchen demo to be the most indicative of where the tech is right now.

“This was actually the perfect demo for VR: the rudimentary and clumsy actions I was performing reminded me of those of a young child that's first getting to know the world around it,” he says of attempting to crack eggs and microwaving a tomato. “That's the stage at which virtual reality experiences are today. Their makers and their users are still figuring out what works, what doesn't, and how all the pieces fit together.”

HTC is set to release the Vive commercially by the end of the year. No price or launch date has yet been announced.

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