Since a few weeks back I’ve had friends ask me what I think about the Rift and Vive as I’m in the lucky position to own both headsets, each arrived exactly one week after their individual launch date which is probably a better experience than most have had with this launch. You really do have to wear them yourself to decide which one is for you due to how different they feel depending on your physicality, because of this I’m writing this article mostly from my subjective point of view, even though I find myself trying to be objective even then.
Comfort & Quality
To me either headset is fine to wear for prolonged sessions, that is for an hour or three.
- The Rift is a bit easier to put on due to the integrated headphones, the Vive is a bit easier to keep on due to the integrated front facing camera.
- The Vive is a bit softer on my face with the thicker and larger facial foam interface, the Rift feels a bit lighter on my head due to the sleeker construction.
- The Rift has a hard head strap that can make for uncomfortable pressure points, the Vive has a soft head strap that can require more tightening to keep the headset in place.
- The Vive has a bulky cable that can be felt pulling on your head but it’s also longer for more tracking freedom, the Rift has a single slimmer cable that weighs less but is also shorter.
- The Rift has sharper optics but they generate quite some flaring for me, the Vive has more blur towards the edges but also less flaring.
- The Vive has a hard outer shell that seems able to take a beating, the Rift has a minimal mesh covered housing that feels more premium but also more fragile.
- The Rift has tracking integrated in the back of the head strap so it can use a single external reference point for 360 tracking, the Vive needs two reference points but on the other hand doesn’t have the head strap as an additional failure point and it can easily be replaced.
As you can tell these are mostly side-grades if anything. I can’t say that one headset is definitely better than the other because there are so many things that will depend on you as a person, what you prefer, how your head is shaped, your vision. For this reason I’m going to look past most of the hardware for the moment and focus on the entire experience instead.
The short description would be that Rift is the system that is effortless to setup and run which has a solid but limited feature set, this while Vive is the more complex system to setup and run which has a rich feature set but some occasional glitches. Allow me to elaborate.
The Rift comes with a single camera that you put on your desk, then you connect the camera, headset and controller dongle to your PC and install the software, Oculus Home, which act as both the underlying software and storefront. Done, you can put on your headset and it automatically boots into the store so you can buy and download games and experiences to run.
The Vive comes with two laser emitters that are meant to be mounted to your walls in opposing corners of the room and connected to power, next is the link-box which takes cables from your PC on one side and from the headset on the other, finally you have the controllers with chargers. After hooking that up you run the Vive setup and install Valve’s storefront Steam and the SteamVR software. You have to start SteamVR manually in the Steam client to activate the headset and then you can buy and download titles in VR.
Both systems have a few additional steps if you are a new user, like updating graphics drivers, creating a store account and adding payment details. There is also a desktop app for both systems so you can buy stuff, manage friends and do other things using your monitor.
Home, while fully functional for what is is, is also quite simplified and lack a lot of expected features that are readily available with Steam: things like chat, VoIP, forums, refunds, demos, DLC, cloud saves, download settings, UGC, family sharing and probably more things. Not all of these features are available in VR but in the desktop app, like the forums.
Oculus are working hard on adding more features to Home, they just recently made it possible to install on another drive than C, this while Valve are working hard on making Steam with all its already existing features work well with VR. Both stores will certainly work better and better in VR with time.
For me the Oculus store has just worked, no issues, this while SteamVR has had a few various issues like calibration going bonkers and virtual keyboard not taking input. From the reply to my support ticket it seems most issues with calibration I had were caused by having the Rift still attached to my system, so this might not be representative of what an ordinary user would experience. And stuff like the virtual keyboard and friend chats are still features that the Rift interface lacks completely, so there the choice is between occasionally glitchy functionality or none at all.
I’ve had some tracking issues with both systems. In the Rift I get a noticeable shift of my view when I turn around so the camera is using the back plate for tracking. In the Vive I’ve had my controller fly away or a complete loss of tracking, covering up windows and glass door cabinets has greatly improved that though. There are certainly some extra precautions to take to improve your experience with the Vive.
While you are in VR in both headsets you have general underlying systems that will provide various features when called upon. It has to do with the software that runs in the background whenever you are in the headset, or at least whenever you start software through the respective stores.
The Rift actually automatically starts its store whenever you run software that is going to use the headset, even if started from another launcher. If you want to use software outside of the store you have to tick a checkbox in the settings to allow for that. In addition to the store you can when you are inside an experience press the Xbox button to bring up a system menu. Outside of obvious stuff like seeing the time these are the things you can do in the interface:
- See notifications for system messages like finished downloads or disconnected devices.
- See friends list with online status and pending requests, only possible action is to accept or deny requests.
- Set the device volume.
- Reset camera orientation, where you are relative to the virtual world.
- Change lens spacing, a guide to get the correct value using the physical adjustment.
- Toggle DND mode.
- Exit the currently running title so you get back to the store/library where you can browse owned titles or buy and download new things.
For the Vive you need to start SteamVR through Steam to get access to the specific features SteamVR adds, otherwise you’ll just straight off get the game in the headset, which works but it makes it a hassle to go between titles unless you have a different solution for that. If you have started SteamVR and put on the headset you will be in the blank starting room, if you then press the system button you get a large virtual monitor that is basically Steam Big Picture, the mode made for TVs. The list below are not exhaustive, but it will give you an idea of the available functions you can use while in the headset:
- Change VR settings: DND mode, reset orientation if in seated mode, Chaperone appearance, play area appearance, environment, controller and base-station customization, headset camera features and appearance.
- Set the device volume.
- Toggle room view using the headset camera, can also be done by double-tapping the controller system button or headset button.
- Access Steam Big Picture mode which includes access to your entire Steam library, launch games (screen games will launch into a virtual theatre), access friends list with chat and VoIP, read community news, browse the store and buy and download games, read reviews, watch trailers, check notifications, integrated web browser.
- Access the desktop view, this will show what is on your actual displays, even multiple monitors, and you can click around with a laser from your controller, scroll with the touchpad and type using a virtual keyboard.
- Access the Vive quick launcher if you have that installed, it’s a list of all only your VR software and can launch the Vive Home application which I so far have not really used.
- Exit the currently running title.
Outside of these user accessible things there are automatic features. A currently unique feature of the Rift is something called asynchronous time-warp which should reduce judder and ensure consistent low latency. This is a nice feature to have for a VR system, and for me personally the Rift does feel like it has lower latency than the Vive. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it but that’s what it feels like.
The Vive has something that helps keep you safe when walking around your entire room, it’s called the Chaperone system and it basically is a grid, pattern or camera view (setting dependent) that appears when you move close to one of your defined boundaries. This is to hopefully prevent you from smashing into things while in VR, but even then games can be immersive enough for the user to miss it. I know this as I’ve actually broken one of my monitors while trying to slay a skeleton with a sword swing, I was engaged enough to disregard the Chaperone grid that appeared and struck through it.
Both these last two features can be implemented for either system, it is software, this is just how things are right now.
Range of Experiences
Here I will try to describe why I paid a lot of money for the Vive even while I got the Rift for free as I was a Kickstarter backer of the original devkit, DK1. This section might be the most subjective of all since I have almost three years of experience with VR by now. Time for some storytelling.
Consumer VR Dreams
My Rift DK1 arrived in May of 2013, other people had gotten it before me and because of that there were already demos available to download and try. As I had kept my eyes on the scene I had even before the Rift arrived bought and received a Razer Hydra, because getting my hands into VR seemed like an obvious upgrade, it also enabled ad-hoc positional tracking of the headset. Experiencing this already back in the DK1 days got me dreaming about limitless headset and hand controller tracking for what was to be the consumer version of VR.
The Rift DK2 arrived in July of 2014, here half of the dream I had was partially fulfilled. Positional tracking was an integrated feature of the system and it let me walk outside of the car I was driving or stand up to get a better view of the environment the tiny character I was controlling inhabited. I walked as far as I could in the virtual world, stretching the headset cable until it was taught between me and the PC, which in the end wasn’t more than a few steps. The sense of freedom multiplied compared to DK1, some of my best VR memories come from standing VR in the DK2.
When HTC in March of 2015 announced that they were making the Vive system with Valve and that it had full tracking freedom in a room and included tracked hand controllers it was hard not to get excited. In June, just three months later, Oculus announced that the Rift would ship with an Xbox One controller as the official input device. As you can imagine my disappointment was severe, they did continue with announcing their Touch hand controllers that would be sold separately but as of yet they have no other release date than the second half of 2016 with no announced price.
From my experiences with the Hydra and the dreams they created coupled with the Rift DKs I just knew I had to get the Vive, Oculus helped give me the dreams and expectations of what consumer VR could be, what it should be, but HTC and Valve were first to deliver on those dreams. To me personally a tracked or matched controller (like a fixed steering wheel) in VR adds so much, it’s a presence multiplier, as they say. Oculus are coming out with their solution at some point later this year, that will be the time when a comparison will make more sense.
The Rift probably has a higher degree of fleshed out games that take more hours to complete than what is available on the Vive for the moment, the majority of the Rift games use the included gamepad while some use the remote.
Even if the Vive do get mostly shallow arcade titles right now that still has me more excited than a longer gamepad game for the Rift. Having my hands in a game just connects me to the world on a different level and that’s hard to forget about.
As a relative VR gaming veteran gamepad games almost feel like normal screen games for me now. During my years with the Rift devkits I’ve been a beta-tester of numerous gamepad games and as such I have played almost half of the Rift launch lineup in some shape or form already, which does contribute to me not being overly excited by it.
There are still games I play in the Rift and there are a few titles on the store that I do want to get at some point, but in some games I now find myself missing my hands when using a gamepad, to me it feels as if they really should make a tracking add-on for the controller. On a side note, the only system with a tracked gamepad now is PSVR which I’m not even covering here as it’s released in October, it is also on console which I’m not sure if I will get into again.
That said I understand that I’ve now become a jaded VR gamer, for anyone completely new to VR the Rift library will most likely be very exciting. I know from myself that I bought anything that came out with VR support during the devkit days and mostly everything was played with only a headset and gamepad. If you are a new Rift owner I’m sure you’ll get some great moments with the titles available now.
On the other hand, even if the Vive games engage me on a different level, because most of them are quite intense arcade experiences I do long for more slower narrative experiences. There has been a few, but as they can be finished in two hours or less I’ve already finished most content I have. The Rift has the benefit of having existed longer in the minds of developers, also shipping with a control interface developers are already very familiar with, this while the Vive has only been public knowledge for little more than a year and it ships with an input system that few developers have even ever considered.
Conclusion / TL:DR;
The Rift is probably the most user friendly and integrated system for now, the hardware is polished and feels premium, it works out of the box without much hassle. The software is stable and jumping in only requires you to put on the headset and flip down the headphones. The store is perfectly functional while lacking a number of basic features, but they’ll hopefully add those soon enough. It is the headset that currently has the deepest/longest games. All this considered, to me it is currently only half a VR system, it will be complete when Touch has shipped. But, if you are satisfied with gamepad games or plan to sit in a virtual plane, car or spaceship Touch matters little.
The Vive while being sold as a finished a consumer product does feel more like a devkit 2.5 to me. Mostly I think that’s because it reminds me of the Rift DK2. A slightly bulky headset with a hard plastic shell and a some quirky software issues. The software is updated quickly though, and the last few days I’ve had no issues except for a few controllers flying away. In the end I still find myself looking for new Vive software in specific because the experience is so compelling for me, having tracked hand controllers makes a world of difference. There are also a number of convenience features in the Steam and SteamVR software that is hard to ignore, like built in chat, VoIP, desktop view, room view and the Chaperone safety system.
It has to be said that SteamVR and the Steam store does have support for the Rift, you can buy games on Steam right now that play in the Rift, which would mean the most sensible choice is to get a Rift and use Steam. Then you have hardware compatible with both Home and Steam and your games reside in a library that supports both Rift and Vive, as such you could migrate in either direction later on. But, because of my experience so far I have mostly been using the two headsets in their respective stores, the last time I used my Rift with Steam I ended up in a bad place: When I pressed the Xbox button it would switch between the Steam store and the Home store, I had no way out except taking off the headset and fix things on my desktop.
As for which headset to buy, I’m working on a purchasing guide of sorts that will try to match unique features for the systems with what you want, look forward to that if you are currently indecisive! And if you are unsure if you should buy anything at all, this guide could still be helpful. In short I would still say that this generation of consumer VR is for early adopters and enthusiasts, like with most first generations of consumer hardware the experience will quickly become better with hardware revisions and the amount of content is quite limited this early. The Rift comes close in convenience and ease of use but still misses the mass market price point, I think.
Oh, you noticed that the system logos are reversed in the top banner image? Yeah, it’s mostly a fun thing that the back of the headsets quite well matches the competitor logo, sorry if it confused you :)