Last week we talked about why we think the Oculus Rift is currently the best of the big three VR headsets showcased at CES. Now that the dust has settled and CES has been over for a while, let's revisit this Oculus Rift vs. HTC Vive thing to expand a bit on why the Rift was and is our top VR recommendation.
Update: For our most current look at the two big PC virtual reality headsets, you can check out our HTC Vive vs. Oculus Rift features and specs comparison.
We used all three of the big VR headsets at CES: the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR. As we said last week, none of them suck. PS VR is a few steps behind the other two on a visual level and on a motion controller level, but even it would make a great first impression for someone who's never tried VR before.
This year many media outlets raved about the Vive, picking it as the best VR of CES because of its new front-facing camera and Chaperone system, which keep you from bumping into things while walking around a room inside VR. And we were impressed with the updated Vive too, using words like "awesome" and "smart." If you're doing room-scale VR right out of the gates, this is a brilliant feature to add.
Yet when we take a step back, we still think the Oculus Rift is not just the best VR headset right now, but the best by a significant margin. This isn't because we think room-scale VR is unimportant or that HTC and Valve have a crappy product on their hands (on the contrary, it was one of our favorite demos from the entire CES week). It's more about keeping things in a broader perspective. When we visit HTC's demo room and when we visit Oculus' demo room, we still walk away feeling like the Rift is a complete, polished, consumer-friendly package and the Vive is a very cool tech demo.
When you go to tech conventions, talk to other folks in the tech industry and rub elbows with other tech reporters, there's a mental tendency to get carried away with stuff like this (trust me, I've done it myself plenty of times). Yes, the Vive showed us the coolest "neat new thing" in VR at CES. It confirmed that Valve and HTC are doubling down on room-scale VR, going all-in on this aspect from Day One.
And that isn't a bad way to sell your product against a rival whose brand is almost ubiquitous with virtual reality. From that underdog position, you need a clear point of differentiation to market your gear, and HTC and Valve have settled on room-scale from Day One as the Vive's killer feature. It's a smart marketing move, supported by some extremely smart engineering.
But when we talk about which VR headset is best, which one we'd recommend to a friend or someone on the street, we have to see these tech demos as merely part of a whole widget.
Much of the Rift's whole widget advantage comes from its games. Valve knows games, Valve works with plenty of developers and the company is going to have some content announcements between now and the Vive's April launch (there's a SteamVR Developer Showcase scheduled in late January, where most or all of these will likely happen). But we can't call something "the best" based on something we haven't yet seen.
On the Rift, we've seen not just an impressive quantity of games, but we've seen games with an unusual amount of iconic, generation-defining potential. Inspired or seemingly "magical" games that remind us of the feeling of playing NES classics in the 80s or experiencing PC gaming in its indie-driven 80s and 90s golden age. It's rare to see many games like that anywhere today, much less an entire collection of them in one place. Yet it's become a defining through-line with Oculus' titles, especially the self-published ones.
We can't just assume that Valve will come out with a lineup that matches or surpasses that two or three months before the headset ships. It could happen, and if it does we'll be the first to revisit this conversation. But it doesn't strike us as extremely likely, and it isn't a blank we're willing to fill in so casually when handing out accolades.
We already know the Vive will have cross-platform favorites like Owlchemy Labs' hilarious Job Simulator (above) and Frontier's space sim Elite: Dangerous. We wouldn't be surprised to see CCP's Eve: Valkyrie show up there at some point too (in addition to shipping with the Rift, it will also show up on at least PlayStation VR). But given the choice between a headset that has those cross-platform games along with Day One room-scale VR vs. those same games along with Oculus exclusives like Edge of Nowhere, Chronos, The Climb, Dead and Buried and Lucky's Tale, we'll take the latter every time.
Oculus' exclusives are a smart business move, just like the Vive's room-scale focus is a smart marketing move. Especially since Oculus has been instrumental in working with many of these developers, throwing money at their projects, nurturing their potential and helping them solve the mysteries of VR ... it's common sense. Why wouldn't you want many of them to be exclusive to your own platform? You may see exclusives as hostile towards gamers – and I get as annoyed as anyone when I feel like I have to own multiple gaming consoles just because of them. But you could also see exclusives as Oculus' rightful reward for its investments of time, thought and money.
Back to the room-scale thing, we've gushed over this ourselves and think it's going to be crucial a few years down the road, after VR is more established in the eyes of the regular consumer. But the same Rift you can pre-order today is going to be able to do room-scale VR just like the Vive can.
Oculus' motion tracking does use a different technology – optical sensors connected directly to your PC vs. the Vive's non-optical "Lighthouse" laser emitters which can simply be plugged into a wall outlet. But the Rift's optical trackers are no less capable of room-scale stuff: we've walked around roughly a 5 x 5 ft. space in Oculus Touch demos and it's exactly like a more compact version of a Vive demo in a 15 x 15 ft. space. To take it up to that large a space, the Rift just needs a second positional tracker (and an extra USB port on your PC), which will apparently be bundled with the Oculus Touch controllers.
This quote is from Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, right after last June's Rift launch event (in an interview I was part of, along with four or five other reporters):
We're really big believers in optical tracking, in camera sensors. That is the bet that we're making. And that's the future of sensor tracking. If you look at things like the Kinect, or any of these different kinds of infrared structured light sensors, or any of the stereo camera sensors, they're all based on cameras. And cameras continue to get better.
If you want to see your full body in the game, if you want to see your fingers and your fingernails ... not this generation, but, eventually, if you want to see all of that, that's going to be done with camera sensors. That's not going to be done with any other kind of sensor. That's an optical sensor, and that's the investment we're making.
He didn't use the words Vive or Lighthouse, but the implication is clear: Oculus is thinking longer-term than some 2015-16 race to see who can say "I crossed the room-scale finish line first." The company is looking far past that, to the point of being able to see virtual versions of your entire body in the virtual world (and beyond). You aren't going to get there with Lighthouse sensors, cool and smartly-designed as they are.
The Vive does now have that optical sensor on the headset itself, but time will tell if the camera on headset approach can eventually lead to those same (presumably) external camera destinations Iribe was talking about.
Ultimately we think what Oculus is doing is great, and we think what HTC and Valve are doing is great. Customer choice is a beautiful thing, and VR early adopters are going to have it. And the media outlets that are declaring the Vive the best VR are entitled to their unique opinion, just as we are ours and you are yours.
But the Rift is now up for pre-order and the Vive should be next month. This stuff has moved past the point of theoretical future of VR debates and into the realm of "where do I put my money?"
As cool as those Vive demos have been, we simply don't want to recommend products based only on the neatest new demonstration. It's one factor and it's a factor that gets lots of buzz at places like CES, but it's also only one piece in a larger puzzle. And in our opinion, so far the Oculus Rift looks like the premium, complete, consumer-ready platform that we would recommend to anyone interested in VR with the money to spend on it. Whereas the Vive still looks like a really cool prototype with a largely unknown content lineup and a marketing angle consumed with one aspect of VR.
Can the Vive get from the latter to the former in just three months? We'll see, but we aren't going to make that assumption and base a recommendation on it. This stuff is always in motion, though, so stay tuned.
For more on each headset, you can revisit Gizmag's CES 2016 hands-ons with the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. And for the least impressive of the three, but the one that could have the smoothest road with adoption, there's also the PlayStation VR.