Posted 2015-04-21 16:03:30 by Dan Page
News of the HTC Vive headset came as something of a surprise to the VR community. Folks that keep an eye on all things VR had heard on the grapevine that Valve was set to announce a VR headset at GDC, but the fact it was a collaboration with the largely mobile phone-focused company HTC was shocking to put it mildly. Needless to say, it’s great to see such a large manufacturer getting on board with VR, especially as they so confidently announced a November 2015 release date for the consumer edition.
I was lucky enough to get a room-sized demo of the Vive from HTC at Mobile World Congress, and my word, it’s incredible; HTC and Valve have raised the bar significantly.
“We’ve solved sim sickness” said Valve. And indeed they have. Wow.
The HTC Vive works in collaboration with the Steam tracking system, which utilises two laser base stations placed in opposite corners along with 70 sensors, a gyroscope and an accelerometer in the headset. All this combined provides positional tracking accurate to within a millimetre, all in a space that can be as big as 15 x 15 feet. That is a holodeck right there!
Its two screens offer a resolution of 1200x1080 pixels per eye, a significant jump when compared to the 960×1080 pixels per eye I’ve become familiar with on the Oculus Rift DK2, though it is slightly lower than that of the 1280x1440 pixels of the Galaxy Note 4-powered Samsung Gear VR.
The device’s screens refresh at a level of 90 Hz (or frames per second), again comparing that to the Oculus Rift DK2, that’s a big improvement on its 75hz, and a massive leap from the 60 Hz of the Gear VR. Credit where credit is due though – the latest publicly demoed Oculus Rift prototype, the Crescent Bay, also runs at 90 Hz.
The SteamVR controllers serve as the sole input in the demo reels shown at Mobile World Congress, GDC and Rezzed; they’re held in your hands and offer a way to interact with the virtual world by moving your arms in an incredibly natural manner.
It’s not clear what technology is inside the SteamVR controllers but at a guess they’re likely using gyroscopes and accelerometers. What we do know is that parts of the outsides of the controllers are also covered in the same Lighthouse sensors seen on the headset.
The Steam VR controllers use the same high-resolution ridged circular trackpads seen in the forthcoming Steam controllers for precise selection with your thumbs, all aided with a little haptic feedback.
Behind the trackpads you’ll find a couple of buttons, a trigger, and a squeeze-detecting shaft for further interaction. For now, the controllers are wired but I was told by my demo host that the dev kit controllers will in fact be wireless. Watch this space for more news on that.
The demo room consisted of very little beyond the headset and its long thick wire, which disappeared off into a corner of the room, the controller and a pair of headphones. A separate unit in a corner allowed the host of my demo to monitor what I was seeing and guide me through the demos with a microphone. The mic was a nice touch and really helped ensure I made the most of my experience.
The very beginning of the experience put me in a large and empty space with virtual controllers very similar to the real ones in my hands. The intention of the section was clearly to get you used to the controllers, allowing you to blow balloons of different colours selected by spinning your thumbs around the trackpad and let them go in the air by pressing the trigger.
By this point I was eager to see more and the host quickly moved me onto the next section. The interface between demos was a large white room with portals to each experience; very Matrix-esque but a really clever way to utilise the advantage of space.
Selecting demos was completely controlled by the host but I suspect this white room will be the new SteamVR user interface when the Vive comes out this November.
The first experience on the demo loop I was placed on was a fleshed-out version of WEVR’s theBluVR. It’s wonderful, placing you on an underwater ship amongst the fishes to explore within the relatively large confines of the physical space you’re in.
“You can bat the fishes” said my host, which I of course did. It’s an epic demo in the real sense of the word. The sense of scale is incredible and the draw distance seemed huge, with all kinds of aquatic goings-on off in the distance.
I immediately ran around as much as I could; being an avid Oculus Rift user I’m so very used to accidentally going out of bounds and causing the horrible jarring tracking reset to occur by simply leaning a little too far forwards in my office chair. This was an opportunity to go way beyond, to really explore a huge virtual space, and it’s magical.
Any cares about field of view, resolution or screen door effect were immediately thrown out the window. I could run, jump and crouch! The only limiting factors were wireframed wall indicators that cleverly faded in when you reached the confines of the physical space and the cable from the headset I was always a little aware of being under my feet.
The presence of the wire is a bit of a shame but it’s not the biggest deal. Hopping over it becomes instinctive quite quickly but it’s a necessary evil at this point unfortunately. Eventually we’ll have rid of all these wires but the technology is a way off yet, especially if it’s to be even remotely affordable. The magic of the full-room experience was enough to make me not care much about the cable at all.
theBluVR demo comes to a close as a giant whale floats right by the boat and stares you right in eye with its person-sized peeper. Obviously meant to trigger a bit of an emotional response it unfortunately didn’t work too well with me. I’m not sure why but I think it could be because I’ve experienced similar eye contact-ey moments in demos like Kite & Lightning’s awesome Senza Peso. Still though, epic whale.
Next up was essentially a proof-of-concept alpha experience. By a pretty rough process of elimination I’m guessing this was from Steel Wool but I don’t really know. “The last demo showed you how big stuff can be, this one will show you the wonders of tiny things”, came the voice in my ears.
The demo was essentially a tabletop akin to a Warhammer set or Command and Conquer landscape, complete with tiny men going to war with each other. Some pretty distracting 2D explosion sprites distracted a little from the immersion of it all but as I say, it was essentially a proof-of-concept meant to demonstrate what can be done with this kind of room-scale VR.
Incidentally, the HTC Vive promises to eventually be a local multiplayer experience, and something strategy games will work brilliantly in VR or AR as I’ve said before. Beyond a few fun easter eggs around the map there wasn’t much more to this demo but it was a cool experience nevertheless.
Next up was Job Simulator from Owlchemy Labs, most definitely my favourite of the five demos I tried out. I’m a fan of their Fruit Ninja-esque mobile game Jack Lumber, and while that is a polished piece of work this next game about to impress me beyond belief.
Job Simulator places you in a friendly cartoon kitchen. You’re immediately talked to by a chatty robot and told to make a soup. Looking around, in one corner was a microwave, another a fridge, and straight in front of me a cooker. Pots, pans and utensils were dotted around and all kinds of bits of cartoon food were quite literally up for grabs.
A wave around with my controllers and I saw my cartoon hands. “Holy cow, I can just pick things up”, I thought. I went ahead and grabbed the steak and tried to shove it into the pan, missed and immediately caught the steak before it hit the floor. That was really special; it took no effort or conscious thought to catch that steak and it didn’t even hit the ground.
I then went to grab some more ingredients while the steak bubbled away on the hob. At this point I thought about how perfect the size and shape of the room were in this particular demo. The freedom to run around and pick anything up was incredible.
I suddenly felt like a child and decided that throwing things around would be great fun and proceeded to pick up plates and begin tossing them around the room without a care in the world. So. Much. Fun. And completely effortless.
On with the soup then, as my host reminded me of the fridge in the corner. I walked across a few feet and opened the fridge by pulling the handle and using the trigger on the controller. I grabbed a tomato and attempted to drop it on another surface, missed and once again managed to catch it before it hit the floor. “I can catch in VR!” I exclaimed. “You can juggle in VR” came my host.
I chopped a tomato with a nearby knife a little before my host informed me I was running out of time. Smashy smashy then! And I threw things around as darkness faded around me and the next demo began.
Next up was Tilt Brush from Skillman and Hackett, who were recently acquired by Google. It’s another ridiculously magical demo which I’ve personally been waiting for a go on for a long time.
A watch of the video above will give you a good idea of the kind of thing Tilt Brush entails; it’s a 3D painting program, and with the Vive allows you to create watercolour-esque sculptures. I ran around the room painting trees with animated trunks made of fire, graffitied SWVR in the air like a naughty schoolkid and pranced around like a fool.
“Normally at this point I have to tell people they can move around but I think you get it”, came my host as I skipped around. I’d been reading about the Vive a lot and I knew it’d be a long while before I got to experience that kind of freedom.
I look forward to having another go on this and seeing what some decent artists do with it in the future. My only worry is that the Google acquisition means we won’t see a proper release on the Vive. That would be tragic as making animated paintings the size of a room should be something everyone gets to do at some point in their lives.
Boom. There it was – Portal.
If you’re a gamer of any sort then you know that experiencing Portal in VR is gonna be very special. I don’t even want to give much away as it’d be a shame to spoil the surprise. Let’s just say it involved a lot of GLaDOS and exactly the kind of Portal-based humour you’d expect from the wonderful mind of Chet Faliszek.
Immersion, presence, whatever you want to call it; the HTC Vive is the next step up from any of the dev kits I’ve tried, and beyond the fact that I wanted to go back immediately I felt absolutely fine; 30 minutes and not a spec of a headache, sim sickness or anything of the sort.
The HTC Vive transports you somewhere else. You’re just there, and it’s spellbinding. Do yourself a favour and jump at the chance to have a go if you ever get one. It’s life-changing.
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