The virtual reality revolution is approaching - and we're busy tooling up for it.
Over the next six months or so we'll see a host of the big VR devices hit the market, with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift leading the charge.
We've used both before but never in such quick succession as we did at Gamescom yesterday.
Here's how we think they're shaping up.
What they’re like to wear
The new Consumer Edition of the Rift is pretty stunning, it has to be said. It’s light and comfortable and the visible pixels that marred the realism of the developer kits are gone. The headphones feel a bit like those you get on an aeroplane, but they’re Premium Economy. For light and plasticky headphones, they seem to have pretty decent sound, but light and plasticky they are, because large, heavy, sound-isolating headphones would be too cumbersome and you wouldn’t hear your mum offering you a cup of tea.
Although HTC says it will be on sale before the end of the year, the Vive is definitely more of a developer kit: it’s larger, heavier and less finished. After about 15 minutes I got an itchy eyebrow, which may have been down to the foam around the goggles, or it might have been my eyebrow just taking a moment to be annoying. It does that sometimes.
What they’re like to play
The Vive is more immersive, by a long way. If the Oculus is a fancy new kind of display, like a super-amazing 3D TV, then the Vive is a holodeck. Well, sort of. It’s a limited, experimental-feeling holodeck, but standing up and walking around, even just a few paces in each direction, adds another dimension.
In the Oculus demos, I mainly looked forward, but the Vive demos were a full 360° experience. That goes for the sound, too: the Oculus games were more conventional game soundtracks, while the Vive demos had me leaning in to listen to tiny machine guns and cocking my head to better hear a small cartoonish octopus.
Oculus has more games, but Vive has Valve
While much of the fanfare around Oculus has concentrated on its on-yer-face hardware, the company has been quietly pumping money into game development, funding more than 20 titles that will be absolutely crucial to its success or failure when it launches.
This was evident in the demos I played: while the games on Vive are thus far largely just small pieces of software used to show off the kit, on Oculus I saw previews of proper games.
And some of them look pretty amazing: Edge of Nowhere was a hugely atmospheric adventure through a haunted frozen waste, although it did give me a hint of motion sickness. EVE: Valkyrie is also absolutely brilliant, and this far-future space sim could well be one of the standout launch games. Esper was fun, although it felt like a bit of a Portal clone, minus the writing and imagination.
Chronos looks promising – a visually impressive third-person RPG that puts you, like Edge of Nowhere, in the position of a floating camera, and makes the most of the VR perspective with huge enemies and interesting camera angles.
HTC, for its part, says the Rift titles will all be playable on Vive. More importantly for some sections of the gaming community, Vive will also be the best headset for Valve games, be they the hugely popular but hugely nerdy DOTA titles or beautiful, brilliant but once-a-decade games such as the hopefully upcoming Portal and Half-Life threequels.
Which is best which is best which is best?
The Vive is the more futuristic device, and when a lighter, more comfortable consumer version arrives – especially if it’s wireless – it could prove truly revolutionary. On the other hand, it may be too futuristic for its own good. It could well be that completely immersive, world-changing VR isn’t what people want; I have a feeling that the games which make VR popular will be the ones in which you’re driving or flying a small vehicle, seated on your sofa. VR needs to sit before it can run, if you like.
That said, while the Rift can make you a fighter pilot, the Vive can stand you on the bridge of a starship, controlling a battle in all directions. The choice may come down to which style of game you prefer. We'll take both, please.
Oculus Rift CV1 price, HTC Vive price. Jonathan Pryce?
Obviously price will be a major factor, because these are two objects people will pay money for and most people will want to pay less, because that’s how money works. Given the futuristic nature of the Vive and the fact that Oculus, as its founder Palmer Luckey exclusively told Stuff, is planning to sell the Rift at cost price, we’d guess the Vive will be more expensive.
The good news is, you can’t buy either of them yet, so you can go back to Sellotaping an egg box to your forehead and making vrooming noises for another six months while you save up.