Being in the virtual reality industry makes work feel like play, 100% of the time. Yesterday was no exception – by way of my awesome friends over at Convrge, I finally got to go hands-on (literally!) with the HTC Vive, the VR headset under development from HTC and Valve.
Hands: The Missing Presence
I’ve been fortunate enough to try several different types of VR input devices over the past year, but the controllers with the Vive were an entirely new experience that helped improve presence immensely when paired with the Lighthouse tracking system. The caveat with the controllers was that they didn’t always get picked up properly – it took almost an hour to get the system up and running before the tracking was working consistently – but when they did work, it was a mind-blowing experience.
I absolutely love this picture, because it represents the sensation of being able to look at something in a virtual space and have it map to your physical environment. In the headset, it was exactly like I was looking at the physical controllers in my hands – something I didn’t quite realize I had been missing until I had something easily tracked. I’d tried the Sixense STEM system in the past, which definitely helped, but the Vive controllers added a degree of control that was more nuanced than anything I’d tried previously.
With the controllers, it was hard to completely judge things like battery life, but I did notice that throughout the course of the evening, one of the controllers kept disappearing and kept needing to be restarted. A series of rechargeable batteries were on standby, and I think at least once (maybe twice?) they had to be replaced. Without being able to test a headset of my own (hey Valve… *wink wink*) it’s hard to judge the overall use time on a single charge, but a quick search seems to indicate that this experience is fairly typical.
A Whole New (Series of) Worlds!
The first demo that I got a chance to play with was one where one controller was a bow and the other allowed you to notch and shoot an arrow at a series of targets. I had a blast lighting the virtual arrows on fire and attempting to shoot down balloons, and I was amazed how the feedback from the controllers made it feel like I was actually using a physical bow and arrow set. The feeling of accomplishment with completing tasks in VR with the Vive was equally as strong as it was for completing the equivalent task in the physical world – there’s a lot of potential here for researching and evaluating our neurological reward system through VR environments.
The second demo was more passive, and involved floating underwater while a huge blue whale swam past amongst schools of smaller fish that could be batted away with a swipe of a controller-wielding hand. I don’t think that anything up until that moment had truly captivated my understanding of scale in VR – it was immensely disconcerting in the best possible way to see a massive virtual creature like that just an arms length from where I was standing. When I took the headset off, I instinctively looked up again for the whale.
Demo #3 was one that I’ve been dying to try for ages: Tiltbrush! This application allows you to paint in 3D space around you – there’s an excellent demo of the app used by a Disney Animator that showcases the technology. I immediately became enthralled with the different brushes and was hard-pressed to hand over the headset: I felt like I could stay in there forever. One of the most impressive things for me was how natural the user interface was – one controller served as the paint brush, while the other was the “palette” that contained different brush strokes, a color chooser, and utilities. The way the menu was designed for the Vive’s controller was exceptionally executed, and I found myself able to switch between the various controls with ease after just a couple of minute’s in the app. After drawing myself a beautiful night sky, I sat on the floor surrounded by color and took in the simplistic yet exceptional environment created by glowing light.
After Tiltbrush, we got a chance to play with a little scene that was inspired by DotA, inside a small cottage filled with little nooks and crannies to explore. This one was immensely impressive from an asset standpoint, and I found myself jumping quite a bit when facing a Liv-sized spider and hungry frog. My eyes tightly shut when faced with the arachnid, I didn’t spend too long in this demo before switching it out for something a little friendlier.
I had heard folks talk about Job Simulator before, and to be perfectly honest, I had never quite grasped why the idea of virtual reality cooking was so appealing – but after giving it a try, I definitely got it – it was one of my favorite demos! The idea behind the Job Simulator demo is that you are in a kitchen and given a series of instructions for “cooking” various recipes from a robot overseeing your progress. Hilarity ensues as you grab different ingredients and make meals, throwing a bunch of them around the kitchen and dropping eggs. At one point, I was so engrossed in the experience, I almost dropped the controllers when I went to place them on the virtual counter top! The overall experience was the definition of ‘delightful’. The only downside was that the level of interactivity provided made it more noticeable when elements in the scene couldn’t be moved.
Last up was a Portal experience – and full disclaimer, I haven’t played the actual game yet – where you were part of a Human Diversity Initiative and told to repair a robot. It was oddly disquieting, and I walked away engrossed in thoughts of AI. It was amazing how vividly the experiences stood out in my mind – a lot of the memories are as clear as if they were physical experiences.
I was impressed with how light the headset was, and it was a little more comfortable than my DK 2 is – I think I ended up wearing the headset on and off for about an hour and a half, and while it didn’t quite fit as snuggly as my DK 2, it wasn’t ever registering as being heavy on my face, which was nice. The controllers were a great combination of comfortable and sturdy, and the limited haptic feedback was enough to feel extraordinarily realistic in a lot of the different scenarios I played around in.
Room For Improvement
There were a few things that I noticed that prevented the “full immersion” experience with the Vive, but they were few and far between, and I’m sure they’ll improve as it gets closer to launch time.
The chaperone system that prevents you from running into walls (in theory) seemed to be a little off from the full placement of the Lighthouse system, though without a way to test this over a period of time, I think that this might be a result of the setup I tested in. I would often find the chaperone grid popping up even when I was pretty close to the center point between the tracking stations, and it didn’t quite seem consistent between demos (though it’s hard to know how much ground I was actually covering when I was wearing the headset). I noticed when another person was in the demos, he tended to ignore the chaperone system entirely and walk straight into the wall – though I suppose it speaks to the level of presence provided that he thought he was getting haptic feedback from the controller rather than feeling an actual wall! Depending on the full size of the space allotted, though, this may be less of an issue.
The second noticeable aspect of the headset was the cording – while this actually worked to add immersion in the Portal demo, it definitely inhibited free movement in the Job Simulator and Tiltbrush demos. I was fortunate enough to have someone “babysitting” to untangle me before I ever got too wrapped up in the wires, but I could see it taking some getting used to in order to walk around comfortably without yanking anything out.
I get to try a lot of virtual reality technology, and the afternoon spent testing the Vive was hands-down one of the best times I’ve had since I started working on VR development. I desperately can’t wait to add the Vive to my own collection of devices, and I’m looking forward to seeing what new content starts coming out for the Vive when it becomes more widely available. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I might get selected for a developer kit (think of the kittens!) but either way, I’m now entirely sold that hands are a “must-have” for VR experiences that excel. The presence is unmatched, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the Oculus Touch controllers compare (hopefully at Oculus Connect)!
I cannot WAIT to see how this technology improves over the next several years: It’s already pretty mind-blowing, and it’s only going to get better.