Virtual Reality is set to become a major new sector in the very near future, with commercially available headsets landing in early 2016. And I just got eyes on with one of the leading models, the HTC Vive.
VR is something I’ve come across before, most obviously in the much publicised Oculus Rift. The couple of demos I’ve experienced to date have been simple things, with basic graphics and limited interactivity. Well I’m pleased to say that the Vive is a different matter.
I was introduced to the new headset by Graham Breen, who is the EMEA programme manager for HTC Vive. He’s been touring with the device for the last few months, hosting showcases for the technology ahead of its commercial launch next year.
On first impressions, it’s a headset – similar in size and design to the Rift. The version we’re using is one of the recent dev kits, so it doesn’t have the polish which the final release will have. It mostly looks functional, which is no bad thing. The eyemask area is slipped onto the front of the face, while a strap keeps everything in place at the back. You can definitely tell you’re wearing a headset and prolonged use could get a little warm but it was comfortable enough during my session.
The pack for consumers will consist of the headset, two base stations (which define the dimensions of your ‘room’) and two wireless hand controllers. It’s the combination of these three elements, plus some extra technological advantages, which might put Vive ahead of the pack when it comes to virtual reality.
You can walk around with this headset, thanks to the base stations. They sophisticated trackers to determine where you are in the room, which translates to your position in the virtual world. The edges of the space are defined by clearly marked visual barriers though I did manage to crash into something – that was a uniquely strange experience!
I donned the headset and was given headphones and looked around a stark white menu area. The images were sharp and well defined right to the edges and moving my head quickly produced no blur, thanks to the low latency and high refresh rate of the Vive.
Then two objects started waggling in front of me, looking something like PlayStation Move remotes. These were the hand controllers, and they were actually being held by Breen, who had stepped into my world to set them up. I grabbed them and instantly felt rooted to this totally virtual world, with the controllers providing a point of focus and a sense of where my virtual body was.
Even waiting in menus is fun with the Vive, a quick button press and tap of the left trigger creates a balloon in any shade you want. You can even play with the result by batting it around with your ‘hands’ and a small amount of haptic vibration feedback lets you know when you’re interacting.
The first proper demo was called The Blu and conjured up the deck of a sunken ship. Moving your hands created bubbles and you could swat at tiny fish. I walked to the edge of the ruined prow and spied a drowned airplane below, before a sound drew my attention and a blue whale cruised effortlessly by.
This demo is an amazing introduction to the scale the Vive can present. I had to take a step back to see the entire creature as it drew close, tracing its path until its eye came level. Then I moved closer to inspect the detail and the gigantic orb blinked at me before moving on, its massive tail causing me to duck to avoid it.
That was a great introduction and the second demo was even more interesting. Tilt Brush is a tool which allows you to basically draw in VR – you choose your brush and colours from a rotating menu on your off hand then get to creating. It sounds simple and it is instantly accessible but there’s more to it than that – you can actually paint in 3D.
So create a line, then take a step forward and to the side and you can start to add depth and move around in space to get the effect you want. Create bursts of rainbows, dashes of watercolours or trace patterns of light into thin air. You can even take a screenshot to share and this will keep a 3D file so other users can walk around your creations and also trace each and every stroke in a replay.
There were flashier moments in the demonstration but nothing which showed the real world application of the Vive like Tilt Brush. The physical controllers and the ability to walk around in 3D space could be useful for all manner of creative arts and also medicine, design and more. And it’s also just fun and really intuitive. Here’s the kind of results you can get when you’re a world class animator like Glen Keane (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin).
The next demo was a real treat for the gamer in me, with a trip to Aperture Laboratories – the setting of the Portal games. I was tasked with fixing a faulty robot and… well I didn’t do a great job but the presentation was excellent, with a real feel for the Valve universe – which isn’t surprising as they’re one of the companies behind the Vive.
I got to use my hands in the virtual world to manipulate objects in a more on the rails experience, but the quality of the animation was stellar and the hilarious tone was a delight, complete with a cameo from GLaDOS herself. Moving around the workshop, I felt compelled to duck and weave around tools and bots despite my brain knowing they weren’t real.
Technically that was supposed to be the end of my time with the Vive but I’d heard of a demo which let you shoot zombies in the face, and simply had to ask if I could give it a go. They relented, and I got to experience Arizona Sunshine.
It was certainly the most fun I had with the Vive – you materialise in a desert next to a box with a gun on it. Pick it up with accurate real-life movement and you’ll be armed, then shoot all the zombies until they are even deader.
The one to one accuracy of the guns was amazing and the vibration feedback of the controllers really added to the experience. I didn’t have to move around much and the game wasn’t challenging but pulling off headshots felt earned and I got to play with a couple of other weapons until the very short experience ended. I could have blasted those undead freaks for many more hours.
And so I had to step out of the Vive, and there was definitely a moment or two of adjustment needed as I got used to the real world again. That’s a testament to the immersiveness of the headset and to how quickly my brain decided to accept that other virtual reality.
A previous experience with the Oculus Rift had left me a little nauseous so I was pleased to note no ill effects this time and that’s partly down to the much higher refresh rate of the Vive at 90 hertz. Low latency is also highly important – that determines how blurry things appear as you move your head – and it wasn’t an issue in my demo.
Virtual Reality is definitely coming and for the first time I can understand the groundswell of interest from some of the biggest tech players on the planet. If it’s done right, it could fundamentally change everything about our digital world – from browsing the internet to watching enveloping news reports and creating incredible works of art.
In the short term, the first mass appeal and adoption of the technology is going to come from gamers and those experiences are going to be utterly mind blowing. This isn’t the awkward gimmickry of the PS Move or even the Kinect, the combination of sophisticated controllers, headset and cameras give you a really tangible presence and also, importantly, let you move around the virtual world.
The Vive has a distinct advantage in this first step – with the involvement of Valve they not only have a company with years of experiences in creating games but also deep links to Steam, an online service which provides access to thousands of titles. It’s incredibly exciting to imagine what that partnership could deliver over the next months and years.
Make no mistake about it, Virtual Reality is here and by Christmas 2016 it could well be the must-have gadget for the techy ones in your life. Right now, it’s exists just a small way into the future and from here the possibilities are practically endless.
The HTC Vive will launch in early 2016 with prices to be confirmed. Expect official details from HTC before Christmas.