I’ve been waiting over twenty years for the Virtual Reality revolution to finally catch up to the lofty expectations Snow Crash gave me, and in that time barely a handful of overpriced, puke-inducing headsets have made their way into my test lab. Yet in the space of the last couple of weeks, I was able to go hands-on for an extended period of time with both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The good news is they’ve come good on the promise of comfortable, affordable and – most importantly – enjoyable VR experiences. You can read in-depth reviews of each product elsewhere on Gizmodo; this is a direct head-to-head exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each. It turns out that they both have unique advantages compared to each other, which makes your buying decision that much harder.
Before we begin, I should point out that my Vive testing was actually done on the Vive Pre, which is functionally and ergonomically identical to the Vive consumer release, bar a few logos and power-saving features in the lighthouse base stations.
Setting up the Rift couldn’t be simpler. Requiring just a couple of USB cables and a single HDMI cable, I had Facebook’s answer to VR up and running in less than ten minutes, and that included downloading the 842MB Oculus software (NBN FTTH FTW). There is one rather silly oversight with the install process though, as the software and games can only be installed on your C drive. Mercifully a patch is due in the next week or so to fix this.
One of the Vive’s coolest features is its room-tracking ability, but this makes it a royal pain the butt to set up. You’re going to need at least 2m by 1.5m of clear space, and ideally this will have a bit of free space around this; my area did not, and I managed to smack the wall several times. If you’re living in a warehouse, feel free to expand the play area to the maximum supported size of 3.5m by 3.5. The twin Lighthouse base stations have to be mounted diagonally opposite each other on a corner of your playing area close to ceiling height, angled downwards. If your rental owner is cool you can use the permanent wall mounts included in the box, which need to be screwed into place. If not, a camera tripod will suffice. Each base station requires a power supply, adding to the already lengthy run of cables required by the Vive kit.
Thankfully the software side of the Vive setup process is much simpler than the physical installation. Calibrating your play space is as easy as walking around the edges whilst holding a controller. However, I noticed that I had to redo this process every so often, as my playing area seemed to drift over time. If you don’t have any spare room in your gaming den, the Vive can operate in seated mode. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Vive games require the player to walk around, so it’s not really an option with the launch line-up of software. Hopefully we’ll see more seated gaming experiences coming to Vive, as many gamers don’t want to jump around a room for several hours at a time. Winner - Rift
Comfort And Ergonomics
Despite the Vive weighing a mere 85 grams more than the Rift, it definitely feels like the heavier of the two, likely because it seems to be more front-heavy. It’s also less comfortable over time – I noticed the rear straps cutting into the back of my head more so than the lower supporting straps of the Rift.
As a bespectacled gent, the Rift was the easiest to mount whilst wearing glasses, as the straps extend a few centimetres as you put it on. It’s possible to wear glasses with the Vive as well, but it is much more of a squeeze putting the headset on, as the straps don’t have any give in them.
The Rift has a small amount of open space at the bottom of the lenses, so you can still peer downwards at your feet. The Vive encloses your eyeballs entirely, with no gap at all, so I was quite surprised to see that the Vive seemed to suffer from more breath-fogging. This also makes the Vive the sweatier of the two – you’re going to need a sweat-rag and bucket when passing it around a group of friends.
Rift’s integrated headphones are a cinch to wear, as you simply fold them down into place when you’ve got the headset on. Vive instead uses earbuds that are joined to yet another cable, so they’re a bit fiddly to put in once the headset is in place. Finally, there’s the issue of the tethering cable. It’s much easier to get tangled in the Vive’s cable as you wander around the playing area, whereas Rift’s seated position means this isn’t really an issue.
Winner – Rift
On paper, both headsets have identical specs, but in reality the image I perceived looked quite different. They both claim to have a field of view of 110 degrees, but it’s immediately obvious that the Vive has a much higher vertical field of view. This helps to remove the feeling that you’re peering at the world through a diving mask, leading to a more immersive experience, but this comes at a cost. Both headsets pump 1080 x 1200 pixels to each eye, but as the Vive spreads them over a wider area, the pixels appear to be larger. Known as the screen-door effect, this makes it harder to read fine text and appreciate detail, though it’s not a massive difference to be honest – both headsets would benefit from a huge increase in resolution. Currently both headsets aren’t very good at rendering fine detail or long distances as a result of their relatively low resolution.
Both units also suffer from a halo-effect when looking at bright objects on a dark background, which the VR community has nicknamed God-Rays. They’re much more noticeable on the Rift, and this could be because the Rift appears to have a brighter display than the Vive. I’d say that the contrast and colour performance of the Rift also seems a little more vivid than the Vive, though not by a huge margin.
It’s hard to declare a clear winner here, as many will be happy to deal with the Vive’s screen-door issue in return for a wider field of view and fewer God-Rays.
Winner – Tie
When it comes to tricking the player into thinking they’re in a different world, there’s simply no contest here – the Vive is by far the most engaging of the two. The inclusion of the Vive controllers mean you’re actively interacting with the virtual world, in the most natural way possible – with your arms and hands. With the Rift’s Touch controllers delayed until later in the year, we’re stuck using an Xbox One controller, or the even more simplistic Rift remote. You feel like you’re inside the world, but you can’t reach out and touch it. Make no mistake, Rift experiences are still mind-blowingly cool, yet the Vive feels next-level in comparison.
The ability to walk around the Vive play space not only increases the immersion even further, it also helps to remove the dreaded symptoms of simulator sickness. I was able to play the Vive all day long with infrequent breaks without the smallest sign of discomfort, while I had to take a break every hour or two when using the Rift. First person experiences are especially improved when you can walk through them; using an analogue stick instead is a sure-fire way of feeling queasy after extended periods of time.
Winner - Vive, by a country mile
Value for Money
Neither platform is exactly cheap, but at least they have basically identical PC requirements, with a minimum of an NVIDIA GTX 970/AMD Radeon R9 290 GPU and an Intel i5-4590 CPU. Most serious PC gamers won’t find these to be exorbitant, though it’s a huge barrier to entry if you’re not already into PC gaming.
Despite costing US$200 more, it’s obvious that you get a hell of a lot more for your money with the Vive. I have no idea how much the Rift’s Touch controllers will cost - nobody outside of Oculus does -but I doubt they’ll be less than US$200. Even then the Vive still has the advantage of room-sized tracking; the Rift’s motion control is good, but a single sensor simply can’t handle the same volume of space as the Vive’s twin base stations.
Winner – Vive
And The Winner Is…
In an ideal world, I’d love to be able to marry the Rift’s comfortable and clear headset with the Vive’s motion controllers and room-tracking. It’s a crying shame that Oculus wasn’t able to release its own motion controls in time for the headset’s launch, as this really removes a crucial component of the all-encompassing VR experience. As such, if you want the most immersive, powerful and revolutionary way to play games, there’s really no competition here – the Vive wins hands down. Or should that be hands-up, which is where they’ll be when you’re waving the wands around? This is true even if you use the Vive in seated mode, as being able to reach out and manipulate virtual objects with your hands is such a moving experience.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the improved image quality of the Rift might make it a better fit for certain seated game genres. Flight sim and car racing fans in particular are an obvious market, though I’m not sure the low-ish resolution will be up to snuff when it comes to reading intricate avionics panels or judging far off corners. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the Rift’s Touch controller is finally released – many gamers don’t want a non-seated gaming experience, as it’s frankly exhausting after a few hours. Until then, the Vive is your only option if you not only want to see around the virtual world you inhabit, but also be able to reach out and touch it.
Credit – Massive thanks to the Aussie VR specialists at www.merkava.com.au for letting me play with their Vive for a couple of days.