Page 1: I First Experienced VR In Barcelona
Page 2:The Hardware And Demo Setup
Page 3:The Demos
Page 4:Exploring The Ocean Depths
Page 5:(Virtual) Art School Confidential
Page 6:Kitchen Nightmares
Page 7:Let Them Eat Cake
Page 8:What Is Valve And HTC’s Secret Sauce?
Page 9:It’s For More Than Just Games
Page 10:The Wrap-Up
I First Experienced VR In Barcelona
I recently tried HTC's and Valve’s Vive VR headset. I cried. And grinned. And laughed. And had one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had in my life. I was also in Barcelona (at Mobile World Congress) for the first time, and while it's definitely an amazing city, sadly (or not) my memory of that week is probably going to be of it being the one when I lost my VR virginity.
Up until this experience, I considered myself a VR virgin. I've used Gear VR, and although it’s a great experience, in the world of VR it's really just like getting to second base. There have been a few opportunities for me to use the Oculus Rift DK1, DK2 and Crescent Bay, but a combination of circumstance and not wanting to have a suboptimal experience meant I haven't used anything I'd consider full blown VR.
So if the Gear VR was second base, then my time spent using the Vive was akin to hitting a home run. Scratch that, it was like hitting a grand slam and having the ball smash the stadium lights. I should also note that in the process of losing my VR virginity, I’ve gone from being mildly interested in the technology to now being a full-blown VR fanatic.
The Hardware And Demo Setup
For the demonstration, I was taken into a room devoid of anything but the equipment needed to use Vive. There were no cameras allowed in the demo room, and the only hardware I could photograph was the headset itself, which you can see pictured.
The headset is connected to a gaming PC that I was told was running a single graphics card, probably a GTX980 or R9 290X – they wouldn’t divulge any additional details. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of the Vive prototype I tried was that it was connected to the PC with a lot of wires. The picture below shows that the prototype Vive is connected via HDMI, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. I was told that future versions of the Vive will be connected with only one cable, but we are not sure if that is referring to the developer edition or only the full retail version. In order to keep the wires out of the way, I wore a harness around my waist that helped keep them manageable. While there were a few times in my demo where I did feel them getting in the way, it was only for a split-second until the developer running the demo moved them out of my way.
The other hardware that the Vive uses is a pair (to prevent occlusion) of laser-emitting "lighthouse" base stations that were positioned in the opposite upper corners of the room. Like the rest of the hardware, these were big prototype units that will shrink in size when the retail Vive is launched. These base stations work in conjunction with the 25 or so sensors on the headset to track its position. There are also additional sensors such as accelerometers in the headset that provide additional positional data.
The real star of the Vive’s show, and part of what makes it so special, are its SteamVR controllers. Unlike the currently controller-less Oculus Rift, the Vive’s controllers are integral to its experience. They are Wiimote-ish devices for each hand with a large hexagonal-shaped sensor array on top so they can be tracked by the same laser lighthouses that track the headset. The units I used in my demo were fairly rough prototypes with what looked to be 3D printed components, but more finished versions were shown at GDC (which we unfortunately did not photograph).
The controllers also have a clickable circular trackpad that sits under your thumb, a trigger for your index finger, and buttons on either side of their handgrips. These are activated by squeezing, though for the demos I tried I did not have to use these buttons. They also feature subtle haptic feedback and utilize the same advanced feedback system as the Steam Controller uses, with motors that can simulate difference forces, rather just having the controller simply vibrate. As mentioned above, they are wired into the headset, which is then wired to the PC, but I was told that the final release version of the Vive will have wireless controllers.
The sensors on the headset and controllers both work with the base stations to determine not only your head’s place in the environment, but also where your hands' and body's, and you can freely move around in the environment. This is what Valve and HTC are calling “360-degree room-scale VR.” For my demo, I was limited to a 15-by-15 foot space, which may seem small, but in the world of VR it's positively huge.
Since MWC, Valve has also clarified that the Vive is not limited to 15 x 15 feet, and the "room-scale" VR Valve is referring to is flexible and can be configured to fit different room sizes.
While you are in the virtual space, the Vive indicates when you are about to get close to the edge of the physical playing area, so you don’t walk into a wall and hurt yourself. It does this by throwing up a glowing grid-like representation of your boundaries that subtly reminds you of your limits without being too distracting from the virtual experience.
The headset itself goes on like a scuba mask, with three stretchable straps. Because I haven’t had any experience with any other VR headset apart from the Gear, I can’t comment on how comfortable the Vive is in comparison to others. There was no discomfort for me while I used it and it was light enough that I soon almost forgot that I was wearing it.
In the headset you look through two Fresnel lenses, which are lenses that can be made with a wide aperture and short focal length without taking up as much space as a traditional lens. This is important when designing a headset to be a compact as possible. There are what looks like two cameras on the headset, which you can clearly see in our photos. We were told that they could potentially allow elements of the real world to be added to your virtual experience, or possibly used for depth sensing.
The last part of the hardware used for the demo was a set of over-ear headphones. These are not an integrated component, but just standard headphones that plug into an audio jack on the Vive headset. For me, the weakest link in the demo was the audio, because in the rush to get things going I don’t think they were put on my huge noggin properly. Because of this, the audio throughout my demo experience was sometimes muffled. I was not told if the final design will incorporate built-in headphones, and I did not learn anything about whether the Vive has 3D positional audio.
The Vive uses two screens (one 1080 x 1200 screen per eye for a total resolution of 2160 x 1200) that refresh at 90 Hz, which also then requires the PC hardware to maintain a constant 90 fps. Although this last feature isn’t controlled by the Vive itself, you can be sure that the minimum hardware specs recommended by Valve and HTC will be high enough to ensure that it can push that framerate in every SteamVR title.
Although Valve and HTC have not disclosed the Vive’s field-of-view, from my understanding, its horizontal FoV is equivalent the latest Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus. However, one major difference between Vive and other solutions is that the screens for each eye are taller than wider, being portrait-orientated.
The screen-door effect of the Vive’s resolution was also noticeable when I first put it on, and I was worried that it would impact my experience. However, as soon as the demos started and all the other aspects of what makes Vive so great came online, such as the hand and body tracking, the lack of peripheral vision and resolutions issues were no longer noticeable. The sense of presence and the immersion level of Vive is so great that it overpowered any other technical issues that may exist in the prototype.
I will say that the statement by Gabe Newel that no one using the Vive gets motion sickness is mostly likely accurate. Due to its 90 Hz refresh rate and incredibly accurate motion tracking, at no time during my demo did I feel any nausea, and I am someone who often gets motion sickness in real life.
Although its specifications are already very good, between now and the release of the final consumer model HTC and Valve have the chance to improve the Vive’s hardware. That means there’s a chance we’ll see improved specs, such as screen resolution and FoV, in the consumer model.
Let’s move on to the actual information you most want to hear: a description of the actual VR demos that I experienced. There were seven demos in total (if you count the short tutorials), but I’m only going to talk about the four that impacted me the most.
Before I could dive into the full Vive experience, there were a number of short tutorials that I experienced. These orientated me as to how to use the SteamVR controllers and how to move around in the 15 x 15-foot space. One important thing to note is that your hands are graphically represented in the virtual space, either as variations of a controller or, in one demo, as actual hands.
The amazing thing about the Vive is that the learning curve, at least for me, was very shallow. Within a matter of seconds, I acclimatized as to how to interact and navigate within the environment and what my limitations were. Every move I made, both hands and body, was translated precisely into the virtual space and felt natural, despite all the technology involved. That’s a testament to how well the Vive’s different components all work together in harmony.
Exploring The Ocean Depths
In this demo, I found myself standing on the deck of a sunken ship. Initially, my mind questioned how I was able to be underwater and still breathe. While I soon suspended my disbelief, I do think it would have felt even more realistic if there was some simulation of wearing scuba gear. Your vision when using the Vive already has that appearance, so why not add some audio and visual cues to this one demo to further that illusion?
In spite of that, I still found myself in awe of the virtual world in front of me. There were fish swimming by, and I was able to reach out and swat at the smaller ones in front of me, which caused them to quickly dart away from my hand. The graphical fidelity of this demo (which was the TheBluVR: Encounter VR demo by WEVR) was very good – almost photo-realistic, which you can see in the screenshot below.
I was also able to move around the deck of the ship, and while the space available was dictated by the 15 x 15-foot playing area, I didn’t feel constrained in the environment. The area available to me made sense within the context of this demo. I walked over to the railing of the ship and looked down into the depths and could see a crashed airplane below. I then turned around and walked back along the deck until I reached some broken deck machinery, which blocked my way since it was the edge of the playing space.
One thing that did seem off to me, and did briefly break my suspension of disbelief, is that when I looked straight down I had no body or feet (flippers?). However, in order to incorporate an accurate representation of your body when you look down, the Vive would have to somehow track your feet, too, so they appear in the digital space where they are in reality. Perhaps the camera on the front of the Vive could help achieve that.
It was then that my VR Master (the HTC demo rep) suggested that I turn around so as not to miss what is the star of this demo’s show. I did, and found myself face-to-face with a huge whale that was swimming by way too close for comfort. As it swam by me, I found myself staring it to its huge, extremely life-like eye, and it was at this moment that I was completely sold on this demo. It honestly did feel like I was looking at a living creature staring right back at me, and it was slightly unnerving.
As the baleen behemoth continued to swim by, one of its massive flippers passed over my head and I instinctively ducked. Then as it was about to leave, it flicked its humongous tail down which caused me to jump back out of the way, both in fear and awe. The sheer wonder of just this one moment had me laughing with joy. By the end of this demo, I was already complete sold on Valve’s and HTC’s VR vision, and I wasn’t even halfway through was I was going to see.
(Virtual) Art School Confidential
The next demo was a much-enhanced of Skillman & Hackett’s Tilt Brush VR painting application that is already available on Android (for Google Cardboard) and for Oculus Rift. You can see a screenshot from that version below (but note that the UI for the Vive version is substantially different).
I found myself standing in a dark space, and the controllers became my painting tools – my right hand was my brush and my left was my pallet. I was able to touch the brush to a color wheel on the pallet to change the color of the paint, and I could also use the trackpad on the left-hand controller to scroll through different brush types. Because my time was limited, and I was already so overwhelmed by the experience, the only thing I could think to do was draw my name, which hung there in three-dimensional space.
On the suggestion of a colleague who had tried the Vive before me, I then changed my brush and paint color and tried to paint over the same strokes I had just made. What I wanted to see is how accurate the depth tracking of my hands was and to see if I could reach out to the very same spot in space again.
It turned out that I could. I was able to precisely paint over both the front and back of the strokes I initially made. As I was doing this, I was walking around my painting without even thinking and was able to lean in closer so I could precisely apply the second layer of paint.
Throughout the demo, I never once had to consciously think about how to move to where I wanted to be, or how far to move my arm to paint where I wanted to. I just did it, and my real-world actions were perfectly translated to the digital world.
Now it was time to put my virtual culinary skills to the test. The next demo was Owlchemy Labs’ VR game Job Simulator, and the job I was going to be simulating today was chef. Of all the demos I tried on the Vive, this one had the most things that you could do.
I found myself standing in a kitchen, and while the graphics were a lot less realistic than the preceding demo, the experience was just as impressive, but for different reasons. For the demo, I was instructed to make some soup in a limited amount of time, following a recipe displayed on a screen on the wall in front of me. Of course, I started off by completely ignoring the instructions.
In this demo, there was a cartoon representation of my hands, and the first thing I did was pick up the rolling pin with one and throw it as far as I could. I then picked up bottle of wine, accidentally dropped it, then bent down to try and pick up the broken glass (which I sadly couldn’t do). Next, I put another bottle of wine in the microwave behind me and zapped it, which turned it into a smoking pile of goop.
With time running out, I went back to trying get the soup made and started tossing ingredients into the pot. There weren’t enough mushrooms on the tablet, so I had to go in the fridge (that had a time-saving automatic opening door) to grab some more. As the clock ticked down, I started panicking that I wouldn’t get it done in time. In my haste, instead of figuring out that you can pick up the hot sauce and shake it over the pot to season the ingredients, I simply tossed the bottle in the pot. This still worked, and my ingredients were magically transformed in a can of soup that I quickly put on a tray at the pass to be whisked off by a robotic waiter.
Even though the graphics in this demo were a lot simpler than any of the others, my level of immersion was just as high because of the freedom of movement and level of interactivity this demo allowed. It didn’t matter if the tomato I picked up didn’t look like a real one. The fact that I could simply reach out with my arm and pick it up in virtual space the same way I would in meatspace meant that subconsciously I felt like I was actually there.
Also, the 360 degrees of movement that the Vive allows for meant that I could effortlessly navigate the game space with both of my hands, my feet and my body to get the task assigned to me done.
Out of all the demos I played, I’d have to say that I had the most fun playing the Job Simulator demo because it was the most interactive of them all. As we all know, gameplay always trumps visuals, even in VR.
Let Them Eat Cake
This was the last demo I tried and was Valve and HTC’s pièce de résistance. As soon as the demo started, I knew exactly where I was. I was inside a Valve game, inside Portal, in a robot repair room at Aperture Science.
The fidelity of the graphics in this room where beyond anything else I had seen before, and a robot voice started giving me directions as to what to do. I was instructed to open a drawer, and, of course, there was more than one, and I wasn’t directed as to which one I needed to open. The wrong ones contained some funny Valve Easter eggs – one had a half-eaten moldy cake, and another one contained a miniature world of the black 2D stick-figures of the Portal 2 promotional videos.
I was then told to turn around and pull a lever to open a large door, and behind it was a robot – Atlas, the round robot from Portal 2, to be precise. He looked to be out of order, but he suddenly sprang to life and moved through the doorway into the room, in an ungainly fashion due to his state of disrepair.
The sight of this huge robot that was as tall as me (and much bigger-looking in person than he looked when playing Portal 2) coming towards me was a little unnerving. I backed away as he entered the room.The sense of scale that you get when using the Vive is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. No matter how "big" something is, when you view it on a 24- to 32-inch monitor, it just isn’t the same.
The Atlas before me was incredibly detailed and realistic. I was told to pull another lever on him to start the robot repair, and all his internal components sprang out and were suspended in space in front of him. The detail on each of these individual animated parts was incredible. Later, I found out it was because this demo was running on Valve’s new Source 2 engine. You can see a short video clip from the demo over here.
I was then instructed that I had to repair Atlas, and I had a limited amount of time to do it. I don’t remember how long it was, but it felt like a minute at most. As I struggled to work out what to do, which I figured out involved rotating parts of the robot, the timer was ticking and the disembodied robotic voice’s instructions became more and more complex. I was destined to fail, even though the HTC rep walking me through my experience assured me that there had been only four people who did successful repair Atlas. (That could have been a lie though!)
And fail I did. The timer ran out, and Atlas’s parts fell to the floor, and the robot slumped down in a state of disrepair. Suddenly, the walls of the room began to fall apart around me. I guess failing this task wasn’t a good thing, and my electronic instructor began to berate me for my poor performance.
It was then that GLaDOS (Portal’s main antagonist) appeared. As her enormous robotic armature moved towards me, her robotic eye’s glare burning into me, I jumped back again in fear and awe, just as did when I encountered the whale. Again, the sense of scale was unparalleled. You can’t imagine how large GLaDOS until you actually (virtually) meet her.
It was this demo where I cried. Not because it was immeasurably better-looking (though it was) or more interactive than the others, but because it was the first time that the magnitude of what the Vive would allow hit me. Valve’s Half-life/Portal universe is one that I’ve be able experience for almost 20 years of my life, but it has always been as an outsider looking through a window into that world. I currently game using a triple monitor setup, headphones, and an insistence that I only play when there is nothing else to distract me to maximize my immersion into the game world. However, my current setup can’t hold a candle to the level of immersion I got when playing this demo.
For the first time, I felt like I was actually transported into a universe that I know and love. Being able to actually walk around and interact with a room in Aperture Science, rather than view it through a monitor, or (if I was using a competing VR solution) just look around it from a fixed position was absolutely mind-blowing. It felt real. I was there. Never for a minute did my subconscious doubt that. At the moment GLaDOS confronted me, I wasn’t experiencing a demo in Barcelona, Spain. I was there in a room with her, one of gaming’s greatest villains, staring down at me, wondering if I was about to live or die.
As GLaDOS was talking to me in her incredibly creepy monotone voice, the world was disintegrating around me, exposing the scale of the huge facility I was in. There were other platforms and areas off in the distance, both on the same level as me and above and below me. I was almost freaking out at the HTC demo rep, asking him to reassure me that the floor wasn’t going to drop from under me and I was going to fall to my death. I don’t think I could have handled that. There’s even a chance I would have lost control of some bodily functions -- it was that intense.
Thankfully, GLaDOS decided to spare me, and with that and the appearance of a Companion Cube, my time with the Vive ended.
What Is Valve And HTC’s Secret Sauce?
Quite simply, when using the Vive, the level of immersion is unparalleled. It is the first VR system to offer the feeling of what is termed "constant presence." The more senses a VR system can completely fool into thinking that you’re somewhere else, the more your brain subconsciously perceives it as reality. From what I understand from others who have used them, competing VR systems are also able to provide the same level of presence that the Vive does, but it is often only fleeting. Restrictions in the range of movement or issues with the accuracy and latency of head tracking quickly snap your mind out of this feeling, back to the reality that you are just wearing a headset and staring into a screen.
When I used Vive, this didn’t happen to me once. From the moment I put on the headset and was handed the controllers until the end of the demo, I simply felt like I was somewhere else at all times. This is what I mean by constant presence. Vive can achieve this is due to a combination of a number of factors.
To start, the Vive’s head tracking, using the laser Lighthouse base stations, is incredibly solid. It didn’t glitch once in the time I demoed it. They are also able to track 360-degrees of movement because there are two at opposite corners of the room. Along with this solid head tracking (which, from what I understand, the Oculus’ Crescent Bay is also capable off), the Vive adds the just-as-solid 360-degree tracking of your hands’ movements by precisely tracking its controllers. In addition, their advanced haptic feedback adds another layer of immersion.
On top of that is the freedom of movement that the 15 x 15-foot space offers you. Being able to move around the game space with your body as you would in reality instead of having to push a button on a controller or keyboard makes a huge difference as to how your mind perceives the virtual space you are in.
Finally, the Vive instills a sense of confidence in you with the precision of its tracking and the way that it controls you movements within the virtual space to make sure you don’t actually walk into a real wall.The glowing grid that appears in front of you in the virtual world when you are near a real wall lets you know when to stop. Knowing the system is monitoring your position like this gives you the confidence to freely explore the virtual space without any fears.
Right now, the only impediments to total immersion are the cables that tether you to the system, but in my time with the Vive I hardly noticed them. The final developer version will only have wireless controllers, with just one cable from the headset, which should be a lot easier to manage.
It’s For More Than Just Games
As soon as the high of using the Vive began to wear off, I started thinking about all the use cases for VR. While I've heard the party line from so many VR companies and evangelists before that VR is for more than just gaming, to be honest, part of me until now thought they were full of it. Facebook's PR for Oculus after they bought them was full of the fact that it was these big ideas that made them buy into VR in a big way.
However, after trying Vive, I have seen the light. There are so many applications for VR outside of gaming, and the immersion level that Vive brings to the table means that these experiences are going to be just as amazing as playing Portal 3. One of the use cases I thought about was using VR for therapeutic purposes. A soldier suffering from PTSD could work with a therapist in VR to relive the experiences that led to their trauma and explore ways to help them heal. Moreover, what do you know, when I was researching for this article I discovered that there is already a start-up called Psious developing ways that therapists can use VR to help their patients.
There are also less live-saving non-gaming uses that can also be imagined for Valve and HTC’s vision of VR: virtual conferences/meetings, virtual tours of real estate, 3D content creation, non-interactive entertainment, and a lot more. After trying the Vive, I could now see why I perhaps would want to look at some potential property in VR. Instead of just being able to view a room in 360-degrees, with the Vive I could actually walk around it and get a much better sense of the space. For content creators, designers and engineers, the Vive could be used to present their work in a much more immersive way. A designer could show off their latest furniture design to a client, who could then walk around it and examine it from multiple angles.
On the non-interactive front, imagine being able to experience your favorite television show by stepping into the scene and becoming an extra in the background. Clearly Valve and HTC are thinking along the same lines, as both HBO and Lions Gate Entertainment were mentioned as partners when the Vive was announced.
Before trying the Vive, a colleague told me about his Vive experience, so I did know what to expect, and I was worried that I had spoiled the impact of my experience by doing this. However, I had nothing to fear. No words, mine nor anyone else's, no matter how good, can come close to describing the experience of Vive. It is often said you have to try something to truly appreciate it, and Vive is that times one thousand.
Even though I had not used any of the other VR solutions prior to Vive, I wasn’t a skeptic. From everything I had read, I knew VR is real, amazing, and here to stay. But now that I’ve lost my virginity, I’ve moved my enthusiasm to the next level. I want to experience VR as much as I can, and I then want to grab the nearest person and passionately tell them why it is the most amazing thing ever. I’ve gone from being a Christian that doesn’t go to church to a full-on evangelist!
I remember when I got my first home computer as a child, turning it on for the first time, and being in awe at the potential that was in front of me. After trying the Vive I felt that same level of wonder, and I haven’t felt like that about any technology for a very long time. As a long time science fiction fan, I never thought I’d be able to experience in my lifetime the kind of virtual world written about in books like Neuromancer and Snow Crash. While the experience of the Vive is still far removed from what William Gibson and Neal Stephenson described in their books, I now know that it won’t be too long before VR technology will be at that level. That both excites and scares me!
I hope that this article has at least given you a small taste of what it's like to use the Vive. While it’s unknown if HTC and Valve will allow the public to try out what they're are showing now, I’m sure there be a chance for others to experience Vive sooner rather than later [Editor's Note: there actually was such an event in L.A. just recently at the VRLA Spring Expo]. For me, it's jumped right to the top of my must have list, and its release date later this year cannot come soon enough.
You can learn more about the HTC Vive and sign up for updates on the official site here.