Forgive me virtual reality fans, for I have sinned. It has been eight months since my last VR session. My faith in it as the future of gaming and connected entertainment has wavered. I’ve lost interest. I can’t be bothered. My HTC Vive has languished on the floor under my desk, gathering dust and I barely noticed. Perhaps it’s time that changed.
But what can a lapsed VR fanboy do to excite himself about virtual reality once again? I could buy a new headset. There are some exciting new options in the form of the Oculus Rift S and Quest, the HTC Vive Cosmos, and Valve’s high-end Index.
But those are expensive, all-or-nothing options that do a disservice to the Vive I already own. It’s hard to justify buying a whole new headset and any necessary sensors and controllers when I don’t use the ones I have. Perhaps instead, some VR accessories and upgrades for my existing Vive could do the trick.
With that idea in mind, I reached out to HTC and was furnished with a number of intriguing options for a better HTC Vive experience. Can a few new toys and games kick-start my interest in virtual worlds ones again?
Falling out of love with VR
If you look back at my coverage of VR in the lead up to, and shortly after, the launch of the original HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, I was incensed. Excited. I was a true VR evangelist, sure that it would become a dominant new medium of entertainment enjoyed by gamers young and old within a year or two.
Having owned an Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2, and eventually the consumer release Vive and a Rift (I later sold the Oculus headsets), the progression I saw in just a few years was enormous. From static, seated experiences with no positional tracking, to motion controllers and roomscale experiences. I went from nausea-inducing, blocky roller-coaster rides to AAA experiences like Alien: Isolation and polished mini-game extravaganzas like Valve’s The Lab.
It’s easy to see looking back why I expected the pace of development to continue. For the interest that I’d built up over the years to spread to a much wider audience once commercial hardware arrived. But it never happened.
Yes, virtual reality today is more popular than it’s ever been, with several millions of high-end headsets out there in the world. But with just one percent of the entire Steam user base running any form of VR headset, it’s still an incredibly niche hobby. Upcoming games like Half-Life: Alyx could help change that, but not yet.
But whether it was the slow pace of adoption, the types of games I was playing, or burnout from all the writing and testing I did near the launch of those headsets, somewhere along the way I lost that spark of interest in the platform. Until this article, I’d used my Vive a handful of times in the past couple of years.
This project of discovery was an effort to change that.
The HTC Vive is no longer the cutting edge piece of virtual reality equipment it once was. Newer headsets are higher resolution, have different lenses and display technologies, have improved tracking solutions, and better audio options. While the Vive I own will never quite be able to match them spec for spec, there are some upgrade options for it which could help make it easier to use, more comfortable, more portable, and more capable.
Deluxe audio headstrap
The first upgrade HTC released for the Vive was the Deluxe Audio Headstrap. A slightly-modified version of the headband that would become the base headstrap on the Vive Pro, it features a solid band around the back of the head, rather than the fabric strap of the base Vive. It improves the ergonomics and weighting of the headset to make it more comfortable and sturdy during use, and it has built-in headphones, so that users no longer need to run a separate headset or earbuds from the 3.5mm connector on the Vive.
At around $100, it’s not cheap, but could make the overall experience that bit better.
HTC Vive Wireless
Wireless VR was a technology that many suggested wasn’t possible when first-generation headsets were being developed, but following the release of the third-party TPCast wireless transmitter and receiver, HTC ultimately released its own version, known as the HTC Vive Wireless. It uses an Intel WiGig 60Ghz transmission technology to untether the Vive from its link box and gives the wearer free reign inside their tracked play space, with only a battery pack limiting their play time (around three hours for most use cases).
At $300, it’s one of the most expensive upgrades you can make to the Vive, but it could be a transformative addition to the Vive’s play style.
The most affordable accessory I looked at, the VrnChill is a multi-platform version of the original ViveNChill IndieGoGo project. It places two small fans on the headset which blow air wherever you point them. They’re designed to help keep the wearer cool during more intensive VR sessions, which could be a useful addition for virtual reality workouts, sports titles, and combat games that require a lot of movement or effort, like VR boxing.
At $32, it’s a very affordable upgrade, but its effectiveness and usefulness is questionable.
HTC Vive Pro headset
More of a medium upgrade than an accessory, the HTC Vive Pro is a slightly-improved version of the original HTC Vive. It features higher resolution displays (1,440 x 1,600 per eye, rather than 1,280 x 1,200 of the original Vive), a built-in audio headband with “HD certified” headphones, dual front-facing cameras, and a modified fitting system.
At $600 for the headset alone ($1,000+ if you include second-generation base stations and motion controllers) it’s an expensive way to improve your VR experience and is the closest I got in my testing to a full new VR system.
The verdict – comfort and ease of use were a major change
One of the major reasons that VR fell off the map for me in the intervening years between the commercial launch of major headsets and today, is that it was a pain to use. The cables took up a huge space on my floor, the headset itself wasn’t super easy to put on and take off, the earbuds would always fall out. It just wasn’t convenient.
In that respect at least, both the Deluxe Audio Headstrap and the Vive Wireless upgrades were a noticeable, and tangible improvement.
The headstrap upgrade for the Vive (much like the Vive Pro’s) makes for a much more accessible experience. Putting the headset on and taking it off takes less time, and it’s easier to adjust when in place. It’s more comfortable, and having audio that you can easily pop away from your head is welcome for when you want to maintain some contact to the outside world; Great for keeping an ear out for the baby monitor or dog while you’re exploring virtual worlds. The audio quality is pretty good too.
The wireless upgrade was a nice touch as well, in that it removed the tangle of cables from my floor. While I wouldn’t suggest spending $300 to remove a bit of clutter, ditching the cable does make for a far more streamlined VR experience. The wireless sensor worked almost perfectly in both my at-home tracked space of 2m x 2m, and in a larger space I tested in an AirBnB of 3.5m x 3m.
I was even able to extend the wireless sensor by another 2m with a coaxial extension lead, which meant that I could use the VR system at a greater distance from my desktop PC. That opens up a lot of options for changing VR play space without moving the entire PC to do it. An exciting prospect for anyone hoping to play VR games in a space away from their desk.
As for the VrnChill… it’s fine. The fans are a little noisy, though you can’t hear them if a game is even moderately loud, and they do provide a steady stream of air across your head or wherever else you aim them. It helps a bit in sweatier games like Thrill of the Fight and Beat Saber, though didn’t prevent fogging entirely; if there was a way to get just a little air to cross the lenses, that might help.
It was the least expensive and least effective of all the upgrades for my Vive. I won’t take it off now that it’s installed, but I don’t know it’s worth buying unless you focus mostly on hotter and heavier VR experiences. It certainly won’t make you use VR if you didn’t already.
Freedom beats detail for added immersion
On paper at least, the Vive Pro headset was the grandest of upgrades I played with during my test time. It combined its own higher-quality headband and headphones with a higher resolution screen and modified ergonomics. The headset itself is comparably comfortable to the base Vive with the Deluxe Audio Headstrap, although it feels a little heavier and more susceptible to wobble during quick movements.
The visual upgrade is nice, reducing the screen door effect and adding more detail to text and distant objects. It’s far from dramatic though, and in games with darkened environments isn’t particularly noticeable. Beat Saber is near indistinguishable between the Vive and Vive Pro, though games like Arizona Sunshine make it more apparent.
The fact that this headset is so much more taxing on your PC hardware for not a major improvement is a little hard to stomach, too. With a heavily overclocked and undervolted Vega 56 I ran into a few performance issues with the Vive Pro that just aren’t there with the Vive. That wouldn’t be the case if you have a heftier graphics card to bring to bear, but it’s an important consideration if you’re skirting the borders of the Pro’s recommended specifications.
Far more impactful in terms of immersion was the Vive Wireless sensor. Without cable entanglement, twisting, or range limitations, reminding me of the real world periodically, I felt far more part of the virtual worlds I was exploring. When combined with the Deluxe Audio Headstrap, trialling the headset on various friends and family members was far easier too, as I wasn’t forced to cable manage while they explore.
I did occasionally flail an arm into the USB cable that connects the battery pack to the headset – a black screen will quickly kill any and all immersion – but for the most part it worked flawlessly and was easily the most impactful upgrade I played with during my time re-immersing myself in the virtual reality scene.
I spotted no difference in visual quality either.
New games help a lot
With any gaming platform, virtual or otherwise, hardware is only half the story. Playing new and better games definitely helped rekindle my interest in VR. Beat Saber is a fantastic improvement over earlier rhythm games like Audioshield, and it’s wonderful to once again explore Alien: Isolation in virtual reality thanks to the efforts of the MotherVR modder.
Advancements in Google Earth VR make it a near-endlessly intriguing experience, and I loved the quirky weirdness of A Fisherman’s Tale. Experimental experiences like Awake: Episode One and Reiko’s Fragments show intriguing opportunities for new capture techniques and crowd-play mechanics. Boneworks shows a whole new level of potential for experienced VR players and in-game physics.
When I stopped actively exploring virtual reality a couple of years ago, wave shooters and wonky demos dominated. The landscape is still burgeoning in 2019, but there’s much more to do. And with Half-Life: Alyx offering what may be one of the first true AAA experience in the new year, virtual reality is much more varied and intriguing today than it was in years gone by.
Wireless is a new lease on virtual life
Virtual reality is an expensive and niche gaming hobby. That’s as true today as it was when the first commercial headsets launched. But if you already have a first-generation Vive headset and it’s been sitting idle for some time, there are some things you can do to make it a more modern virtual reality experience and rekindle your interest in the medium.
For me, making VR easy to access was a key point and the Deluxe Audio Headstrap made a difference there. It’s expensive for what it is and seems to be increasingly hard to find in stock, but it makes for a small, but noticeable quality of life boost.
The greatest improvement though, was the HTC Vive Wireless sensor. It made the Vive not only more immersive to use, but easier to pick up and play, with a reduced physical footprint and less clutter. Keeping the battery charged is a pain and without extras, you’re limited to 2.5-3 hours of play at a time, but that was more than enough for me.
At $300 it’s a pretty expensive upgrade, but it turns your PC grade VR headset into one that’s as mobile as some of the new standalone headsets, even though the Vive’s screen door effect does date it a little.
The Vive Pro and VrnChill upgrades are nice touches, but are very much dependent on the types of games you play. The Pro in particular is expensive for what it offers and for its price, you’d probably be better off buying one of the newer-generation headsets instead.
If you want a tangible upgrade to your Vive headset right now though, the HTC Vive Wireless will do that. It gave this writer a newly rekindled interest in VR and one that I hope will last this time around. If it doesn’t, there’s always the next-gen of headsets to look forward to.
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