When Roger and I talked about what episodes we were going to review in November, I had a thought: with Black Friday coming up and people looking for holiday ideas, maybe we should have a look at something that ties in with Doctor Who that our readers might find useful, too.
We’ve recently reviewed The Lodger and Amy’s Choice. Both episodes feature the notion that we can’t always trust our senses. The Lodger depicts a two story house that… well only has one story. In this episode, the second level is the result of an alien ship using its own chameleon circuit to disguise itself. The “pilot” of the ship changes appearance to lure people in to use their life force to recharge the ship: a little girl looking for her mommy, an old man whose wife needs help. People walk into the house and are never seen again. It didn’t use mind control but rather alien tech that tricked the neighbors into an untimely demise. That tech might seem futuristic but we are not far from that level of technology ourselves. It’s something a bit more prosaic and slightly less advanced than what we encountered in the episode. We call it holograms. And with a bit of non-alien tech (unless we pulled this from Roswell; have at it conspiracy theorists!), we too can trick ourselves into seeing what isn’t there.
I recently had the ability to test two pieces of VR hardware: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. I had looked at many online reviews and both got pretty uniformly great results. Understandably. But by the end of each review, each said that the Vive costs more. This could be a show-stopper since many of us live paycheck-to-paycheck. But at some point, the HTC Vive dropped in price and can now be obtained for about the same price as the Rift. Great; you’ll roughly drop $600 on either now. So with the financials out of the way…
- The HTC Vive’s headset is a heavier headpiece. Supposedly it’s only about 1lb heavier, but I noticed it.
- The HTC Vive’s ear buds can be detached, but they are earbuds – they go in your ear. I like this, as I use earbuds for phone calls too, but the Oculus sits gently over the ear and is attached to the headset; they cannot be removed, but they can be shifted. Know your own preferences. Both can be played through computer speakers so it does not have to be a deciding vote.
- The HTC Vive’s controllers are bigger but charge via USB. They do feel great though and I preferred the style. If you’re an Xbox gamer, you may prefer the Oculus controller. The Oculus requires batteries per controller. I saw no indicator for the Oculus, but there is a 5 button icon for the Vive to let you know when they are fully charged.
- The controllers have to be purchase separately for the Oculus (called Oculus touch, but I included that in the $600 price tag, above; the headset alone is about $400). They are part of the package for the HTC Vive.
- I found the physical setup about the same but The Oculus was easier as far as placement of the sensors. The Vive needed to be at opposite ends of the room and the sensors had to see one another. It does come with adequately long cables which makes it easier. The Oculus, by contrast, could be place a bit more comfortably around the room and did not run the risk of creating a “cable nightmare”.
- Both require a bit of space. I’ve smashed my hands into my desk on numerous occasions. The Vive offered a room setup option that offered a standing only option – this may limit some games that require some movement but not substantially. (If Oculus has this, I could not find it.) The room setup allows you to map out the perimeter of your room and will display light blue bars to let you know if you’re close to a wall. (I had to cheat to meet the minimum space requirements, so my room goes wall-to-wall, but I couldn’t tell it where the couch was, so I just walk very slowly… because it hurt when I walked into the couch the first time!)
- Here’s where I started noticing the big differences: Oculus has a proprietary app for launching games. I’m a PC gamer so I already use a Valve product called Steam which is how I launch every game I already own. I don’t want to use another app for that; lest we forget, games have been around longer than VR! I have a handful of games, like Star Trek: Bridge Crew, that work on both devices but I had a great deal of difficulty launching the game for its first run on the Oculus. By contrast, as HTC Vive is also created by the Valve Corporation, so the integration process is seamless. (And the variety of games is greater on Vive – for now, at least!)
Here’s what you’ve been waiting for…
- When I set up the Vive, one finds oneself in a default environment. Users can go into an environments tab and download many more. I’ve been in a Rancor pit with the monster, skied down a slope, even teetered over that drop that Luke plunged down after losing his hand to his dad! And I’ve now experienced setting the TARDIS in motion from within Capaldi’s TARDIS. Complete with switches, dematerialization sound, bookshelves… I mean, I might have lost my mind out of sheer joy when I first realized some of the controls moved! I found myself repeatedly trying to touch the console with my hand too. (Yes, it’s that immersive). And best of all: the user can select their “home” environment, so every time you start up: TARDIS TIME! (Or something else, should you choose… but why would you?!) When I tried changing the environment within Oculus, it said I had to exit and restart. Some 50 restarts later, and I still cannot change the opening environment. For that matter, I can’t even look at any that are available. *NB: I’ll have to return to my review once I’m in front of the Vive again so I can credit the creator of that environment – it is well deserved!
- On the subject of availability, the free games that you can get with the Vive offer a range of movement (as in moving around the rendered environment). Valve released something called The Lab which gives you a range of things to play with (take a look: http://store.steampowered.com/app/450390/The_Lab/). It allows you to be inside a video game, be an archer against some visitors to the planet Marinus (they’re flat Stanley’s…) and take apart a robot, among other things. The free options on the Oculus have been stationary (presumably because the Touch is bought separately). With Oculus Dreamdeck (the nearest equivalent to The Lab that I could find) I’ve watched a T-Rex walk past me, examined a microbe up close, and stood face to face with an alien. (Check that out here: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/rift/941682542593981/) I also tried to “Face your fears”, sitting in a bed while a terrifying little Gollum-like character moved around my darkened bedroom. While extremely unnerving, the most movement I could do was with my head. (check it out here: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/gear-vr/1168200286607832/)
- I did get Google VR to work on the Oculus, and could not do that on the Vive. This was a letdown! With Oculus, I went back to the Doctor Who Experience (and yes, it’s there and I found it) and it made me almost as happy as when I was there in person. Almost! But I hope to be able to do that with the Vive eventually. For now, that only worked on Oculus.
Both devices are truly incredible. I mentioned Star Trek: Bridge Commander – it plays flawlessly on both after a rough start in Oculus but being at the helm of a starship is breathtaking on both devices. Being able to move around the interior of the TARDIS or go skiing is just a bonus, but it’s a really nice bonus offered only on the HTC Vive. After dropping $600 one might need a few free apps for a while and for that, I’d go with the HTC Vive. I want my TARDIS landing page. I want those free apps that allow me to move around. You won’t go wrong with either but since the price is now the same, my verdict rests with the HTC Vive.
And through real technology, we can all travel to other worlds without leaving the comfort of our own homes. I can see a time when Roger and I can get together from across the pond without having to leave our home country. Science fiction is becoming a reality!
Just be careful you don’t trust your senses too much. You might try sitting in a chair that isn’t there… ML