HTC Vive – the future of virtual reality
Virtual reality, or VR, is being hyped as the next big thing in gaming. These wearable headsets promise to transport you to fictional worlds where you could do almost anything. And one of the most promising VR headsets is HTC Vive.
First impressions of HTC Vive
Walking into a big empty space and finding a long cable snaking its way across the floor to a chunky headset left me distinctly unimpressed. I had come to try out the cutting edge of virtual reality, but it looked like HTC Vive was created from a ‘80s kid’s drawing of the future.
Then I stopped, looked a little closer and spoke to my guide from HTC. Vive is so chunky because it’s covered with sensors that work with two laser beacons in the corners of the room. Together, these track your movements, letting you walk around the virtual world. And the big cable is simply more consistent than an ultra-fast wireless connection.
Now I was starting to get excited to try it.
Putting HTC Vive on sapped that excitement again. I felt a bit silly with this gadget on my face as I waited for the demo to get up and running. But then everything started and I was suddenly in a room surrounded by TV screens, each one a portal into a different Vive app.
Looking down, I could see HTC Vive’s handheld controllers. In the real world they were sat at my feet and in the virtual world they were in the exact same position, only I had no virtual feet. When they were handed to me, it was a really strange experience to see them rise off the ground on their own – and it was even weirder to reach out and grab them. I could see the controllers but not my hands, yet I could feel that I was touching them. It was really trippy.
I hadn’t even started the demo yet and already my brain was completely invested in the virtual world as I walked around the room looking at each of the apps.
Finally it was time to kick off the main event. I walked over to one of the virtual screens, pointed my virtual controller at it and clicked. After a few seconds of loading I found myself at the bottom of the ocean, standing on an ancient shipwreck and surrounded by small fish. I could hear the wood creak with the current and could walk around the wreck and the fish to get a better view. I was even able to look over the edge of the ship and down the edge of an enormous cliff, which gave an incredible sense of vertigo.
Suddenly there was a loud whale call and a huge humpback glided up to the shipwreck. Everything was created to scale and in stunning detail. Walking around, looking up and down and generally trying to get a better look at the whale made no difference to the quality of the image – the graphics rendered smoothly and I was fully convinced I was eye-to-eye with one of the biggest animals on the planet.
As the whale moved on – presumably to investigate another person who had invaded its virtual world – the ocean faded out and I was transported to the next demo app.
This time I had the chance to be more creative and interact with HTC Vive, rather than sit back and admire its impressive graphics, using Tilt Brush. It was an app that let me draw in 3D. I have no artistic talent, but even my mindless scribbles seemed incredible as I walked around and through them to see their shapes from every angle.
If you are someone with even a modicum of hand-eye coordination, Vive will let you create some truly amazing art. The controller in your dominant hand is your brush and the other controller lets you choose colours, types of brush and more. Just look what happens when you let a Disney animator have a go:
After a few minutes creating weird 3D shapes I moved on to the third and final demo, a fully immersive game that felt a lot like Portal.
It kicked off in a small, futuristic workshop. A robotic voice from above (the directional sound was amazing considering I was just wearing a pair of headphones) told me I was there to repair robots and then told me to open a drawer. I was able to walk over to the drawers, reach out with my hand and pull it open – I was doing things in the real world that were being perfectly mimicked in the virtual game.
After a few funny warm-up exercises I let my first broken robot into the room. As it staggered towards me I felt I had to back away from it – it wouldn’t have made any difference if it walked straight into me, but my brain just wouldn’t believe that. Dismantling the robot revealed hundreds of parts, all spinning in the air. I could move them around looking for the right part and as I moved my head and circled the robot, I got a 360° view of them all. That might not sound impressive, but that means HTC Vive was tracking every move I made and rendering hundreds of images in 3D in real time.
Everything about the game felt unbelievably real. The animations always moved smoothly, image quality was perfect without any pixilation and all my movements were translated into the virtual world instantly. It was a fantastic way to finish off my time with HTC Vive.
My verdict on HTC Vive
Having used Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift, I wasn’t expecting to be amazed by HTC Vive – I knew it would be good, but I thought my virtual reality experience would have prepared me.
I was wrong. The screen quality is much better than that of Google and Samsung’s phone-based VR headsets, and the motion tracking and handheld controllers open up much more of the virtual world than Oculus Rift does.
When it goes on sale in April 2016, I'm going to be very tempted to invest the USD$799 (around £570) and get one. Virtual reality really does look set to replace games consoles, and who knows where it’ll go from there.