SEATTLE – The HTC Vive isn’t like any computing device I’ve ever placed in a home. This “room-scale” virtual reality system is on the edge of what I’d call “suitable for the home” – meaning it’s pretty dainty and complicated, but not so much that you have to dedicate an entire lab or office space to it.
Although you might assume that. There’s a lot of question marks hanging over the burgeoning VR industry right now, thanks to things like high cost, computational power requirements, sickening potential, and an unproven field of early software. The Vive takes it a step further by also asking its buyers to free up some serious space, so they can walk across a room feeling completely transported into the impressive virtual space of a game or app. The demands Microsoft made of Kinect buyers a few years ago are tame compared to the cleared floors and mounted motion trackers of HTC’s dream future.
The demand for space is easy to shake off after nearly a year of expo and convention demos, where game developers have done the prep work for us. We at Ars spent less of our HTC Vive preview time figuring out the logistics and more time dropping our jaws on the floor. When it hits all cylinders, the SteamVR vision of room-scale VR is insanely immersive. But what happens when VR dreams collide with the reality of installing and using one of these things in a home?
Thanks to early access to an HTC Vive Pre-kit ahead of the retail hardware launch next month, I found out. I was surprised to learn that my assumptions about both the setup process and the resulting shared experiences of a full-room VR system weren’t quite right.
Make room, kick your cat out
As a reminder, the HTC Vive Pre consists of “almost final” hardware. Every component of the system that showed up in the home offices of a few Ars employees last week may differ in minor ways from the retail edition that ships in April for a pre-order price of $800.
We don’t expect many changes to the hardware halfway through the installation process, as the kit that arrived at my house is very similar to the hardware we’ve seen time and time again at press events. Our first impressions report from last week described everything that came in a Vive Pre-shipment, but it failed to mention that the system shipped in a giant 15-pound box, which itself contained four smaller, neatly positioned boxes. The whole thing was nicely padded and seemed designed to withstand the wear and tear of shipping all over the country.
As Kyle wrote, the box includes a head-mounted display (HMU), two motion-tracked controller wands, and two tracking stations with matching mounting hardware. Valve has confirmed that retail Vives also come with small mounts that can be drilled into a wall or ceiling or glued in place (and they should be superior to the ugly but functional mounts we got with the “almost final” set).
HTC and Valve didn’t have an instruction manual; instead, they refer new Vive Pre owners this online manual, which describes much of the required physical process. What it doesn’t do is walk new users through what I’d call the personal logistics of making space in your home for room-scale VR.
The manual suggests that you use a room that is “at least 2m x 1.5m”, “free of furniture and pets”, and has “some free space”. That only scratches the surface of the elements to consider when choosing and decorating your VR space. In my own case, I had two potential VR spots to choose from: the living room (right at the entrance to the house) and a remote office in the basement.
At first, the basement office seemed ideal, as it housed all the powerful PC I needed to run the Vive and there was no bulky furniture. However, my office also has relatively low ceilings. That’s not a big deal for storage or sitting in front of a computer, but it can be a big deal for games like Selfie tennisallowing you to bang your controllers against the ceiling for jumping shots.
So, before choosing your own VR room, make sure it has enough space to hop around and return a fake, high-flying tennis ball without feeling cramped. Even if most HTC Vive games don’t cross these vertical limits, you can bet that at least one person who introduces you to VR will lose their way and try to test the detection limits within minutes.