Virtual Reality has been one of the hot topics at CES this year, and it’s really no surprise that there’s such a buzz about the subject. Being able to transport yourself in a virtual world has been a dream made popular by Science Fiction writers like William Gibson, and finally our technology looks set to be able to live up to these visions.
One of the most exciting VR prospects is the HTC Vive. It’s been created in conjunction with PC gaming platform Steam, and has been tantalising us for quite some time now. We finally got a chance to give it a try at CES this year.
Sitting down with the Vive
Our first experience with HTC Vive was a bit of a surprise. Everything we’ve seen of this VR headset so far has been focused around an experience where you stand up to play, using unique controllers. For the first part of the demo, we were sat down in a gaming chair, with high-end Saitek controllers in each hand, to play Elite Dangerous.
Put on the headset and the first thing you’ll discover is how light and comfortable it feels. A couple of moments later, the headset is calibrated, the controls are explained and we were launched into deep space combat.
The sense of immersion is quite simply astonishing. Elite Dangerous is already famous for its stylish cockpit design, and playing the game in the HTC Vive really brings out the attention to detail. For example, elements of the head up display now appear to hover in mid-air in front of you. As you move your head to look around the cockpit, you can see your arms in position on the throttle and joystick controls, the movements of your virtual hands synced perfectly with your real movements. Turn your head to the side and new menus suddenly open up, floating before you. It’s beautiful, and this is before you’ve even had a chance to take into account to incredible space dogfight you’re engaged in.
I’ve mentioned moving your head to look around briefly, and it’s important to note that all your movements feel completely seamless in the virtual world. There’s no delay between turning your physical head and the VR view moving – you move, and your view moves as you’d expect.
The Elite Dangerous demo took us through two missions and a chance to launch from inside a space station. For someone who grew up with the original Elite back in 1984, this is quite an experience. It takes you back to the days where you thought those wireframe graphics were the most realistic thing you’d ever see and that gaming could never get any better. In a way, HTC Vive creates the game that was going on inside my head all those years ago. It makes the future of gaming look very exciting indeed.
Standing up with HTC Vive
We were then taken through to a small booth for the second part of our experience. This would comprise of four very different demonstrations of the virtual worlds HTC Vive can create.
The latest Vive headsets have a front facing camera, and you’ll understand why from the moment you put one on. You see a shimmering world of outlines reflecting the real environment you’re in. In fact, the only things that appear real are the two Vive controllers, being held by the assistant from HTC. What amazed me was that I could actually see my hands, and they would respond and move as I wiggled my fingers in front of my face. The front facing camera is mapping the real world to give you feedback as you get set up to play.
I was then handed the HTC Vive controllers. You have one for each hand, and they feel very natural. You have a trigger by your index finger, and a little control pad surface you can use with your thumb. Just under this is a small button – double click it and the front facing camera gives you a view of the real environment around you.
I was then told to turn to my left and walk forwards. After a couple of steps, I suddenly saw a shimmering blue matrix wall appear before me. This is part of the HTC Vive chaperone feature, and is designed to stop you walking into real world objects or leaving the gaming area unintentionally. Coupled with the ability to have a glance at the real world, this gives you real confidence to move around the game world and keeps you safe from tripping over pets or running into walls.
The four virtual experiences were nothing short of mindblowing, and it took some time afterwards to process all we’d seen. The first demo took us deep underwater onto a sunken ship. Shoals of tiny fish swum inches from my face, flitting away as I waved my hands at them. The 3D effect here was brilliant, but the real convincer was the audio. The sense of being deep underwater was really enhanced by the atmospheric sound, especially when an enormous whale came to pay us a visit.
The second demo was a lighthearted look at office life. We were presented with a series of tasks by our boss, the computer. These included making and drinking coffee, operating a computer and selecting files from a draw. Every movement we made here was perfectly intuitive. Reach towards a mug and click the trigger to pick it up. Lift it towards your mouth to drink. Finished with the mug? Throw it over the wall of your cubicle.
I got a bit fed up with the boss computer when he asked me to start firing my colleagues, so I started throwing paper darts at him, then looked under the desk and discovered a pile of donuts in the bin. Sure, they had lots of green mould on them, but they looked delicious. I finished the demo by eating them and then projectile vomiting all over the boss.
The third demo was something quite different, and really shows the potential HTC Vive has for more than games. This was an art program, and we could select our brushes, colours and so-on with our left hand, while the right allowed us to paint.
Huge sweeping movements left beautiful curves in space. We could paint in full 3D, even moving through what we’d painted to create new complex shapes. Of all the demos, this is one you really have to experience. I think it was actually my favourite section and one I wish I’d had more time in.
The final demo was set in the now legendary Appeture Science lab from the Portal game. I’d been hired to help repair a robot, and over the course of the next few minutes managed to accidentally cause a small colony of people living in a drawer to recognise me as their god, before absolutely failing in my mission to fix the robot.
This demo is a real treat for Portal fans, and the cameo from the series’ antagonist, GLadOS, is a real highpoint. It’s a great chance to HTC to show off complex 3D environments, especially in the later part of the demo where the floor drops away and the walls are removed to reveal you’re in a much, much bigger chamber than you realised.
So is HTC Vive any good?
We loved our time with HTC Vive. The level of immersion is superb, and the “chaperone” features give you the confidence to explore the virtual worlds without fear. The headset and controllers are comfortable and intuitive to use.
We were particularly interested by the Elite Dangerous section of the experience. Up until now, most of the talk about Vive has been focused on the stand up / move around side of virtual reality, and it’s good to see that more conventional gameplay is also possible. We love the idea of being able to play other games from our Steam library on the Vive in the near future.
But it’s the art demo that really has us interested. This shows that there’s so many more possibilities for Virtual Reality outside of gaming, and that Vive is equiped to take them on. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see what the future holds…
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