I thought I'd already seen the best of what virtual reality had to offer. But 20 minutes with the HTC Vive changed all that. It changed everything.
I'm surrounded by the sounds of what I'd probably call a busy auto body shop if my eyes were closed. But the room I am standing in doesn't have any large machines that I'd normally associate with these sounds. It's a fairly small room, some kind of repair station by the looks of things. A vaguely familiar voice comes in over the speaker behind my left shoulder and instructs me to charge the power tools I am holding in my hands. I look down and, sure enough, there's a pair of identical tools I don't recognize in my hands. As I turn around to face the source of the audio, I catch the infamous Aperture Laboratories logo stamped on one of the many blueprints strewn across my station. Over to the left of the long surface that makes up my desk, a P-body figurine stares back at me.
The next few minutes are spent familiarizing myself with the tools in my hands, using them to open drawers and pull levers. Eventually I'm instructed to open the large garage-style door on the far side of the room. I do as I'm told, walking over and opening the door to discover a seriously malfunctioning Atlas robot staggering its way into the room. A machine drops down and holds it in place, and the voice returns to tell me I need to fix this Atlas unit before it explodes. The instructions speed up, and it becomes increasingly apparent I am not going to figure out what is wrong and repair this robot before time runs out. Instead of exploding, the Atlas robot falls to pieces. The voice returns to the intercom to explain that I am no longer needed for repair services, and sections of the floor slide away to dispose of the many pieces that are now all over the place.
Suddenly, the walls are pulled away, and as I look around it becomes clear I am in the center of Aperture Laboratories. GlaDoS, in all of her might and sarcasm, comes down from the sky to inform me I'll be contributing in a new way now. You know, for science. The walls are replaced with the all-too-familiar walls from the original Portal game, and a puzzle cube is thrown down in front of me. Before I have the opportunity to move towards the block, the room is crushed to pieces and I become yet another casualty in the insane maze GlaDoS has created.
I know how her story ends so I'm not too upset about dying.
The headphones and goggles come off, the controllers are set down, and my first experience with SteamVR and the HTC Vive has come to an end. When I walked into that room, only 20 minutes before, I thought I was ready for this experience. After clocking so many hours on things like Google Cardboard, Maelstrom VR though Epson Moverio, Pinc VR, Samsung Gear VR, and two different versions of the Oculus Rift, I didn't think a VR experience could surprise me. I've already done the weird weak in the knees feeling when staring over a virtual cliff that looks real enough you body reacts before you mind can remember it's not real. I've already sat in a large semi-truck and driven for miles as though I was actually in the vehicle. My VR experiences include concerts, space exploration, underwater travel, and more roller coasters than I care to admit. It's not that I'm jaded or bored by the tech at this point, it's that my expectations are thoroughly managed based on my experiences to date. I figured I had already experienced everything the current generation of VR tech could offer, at least when it came to generating actual shock and surprise from me.
I was so, so wrong.
My past VR experiences are just that — in the past. What I saw here was the future.
A lot of what makes SteamVR special is the way Valve and HTC have decided to handle head tracking. Where most VR hardware relies on accelerometers and gyroscopes mounted close to your head, SteamVR is all about lasers. A pair of light boxes in the corners of the room I was standing in offered additional data points for my movement, and that extra data has a lot to do with how accurate my head and hand tracking was during the demonstration. The empty room was effectively my playground, and if I got close to the walls, blue bars would glow through whatever I was doing in VR space to let me know I was too close.
The freedom to move around an open space added a unique level of realness, but the controllers are what really drove the experience home. Being able to look down and see something where my hands should be made everything seem a lot more real. The controllers themselves are fairly simple. You get a trigger in each hand and a touchpad where your thumbs go. Whatever the game decides you are holding with those controllers is where things get interesting. Swinging a sword, painting a canvas, even navigating complex 3D interfaced in the most Tony Stark of fashions becomes possible with these controllers. It's not as natural as being able to just reach out and touch something, but for gameplay especially it's going to be a hugely popular mechanism.
If you wear glasses, you're going to be pleasantly surprised with the Vive experience.
While none of the hardware I used was in any way a final design, another big part of making the experience feel better for me was the design of the headset itself. Unlike any other VR gadget I have put on my face, the HTC Vive let me wander around and play with my glasses still on. No more tweaking the focal point until I get something that is almost clear enough — I could see the same way everyone else can when using this headset. It's a tight fit in there, sure, but it genuinely felt like most prescription frames would be comfortable enough to enjoy, which is huge.
It's going to be October before we hear any of the important details about owning one of these headsets. Things like pricing, spatial requirements, minimum hardware requirements, launch content, and of course the finished designs. They're are still being decided. That spatial requirement is a big one, and it's clear neither Valve nor HTC have that one totally figured out yet. The current demo setups require a decent-sized room to move around in, and while that experience is amazing it's simply impractical for most folks to rope off a section of their house so it can be nothing but the VR area. In a brief chat with HTC's Jeff Gatiss, it was made abundantly clear the company is currently looking for the right way to ensure folks who can only really use the Vive at their desk aren't left out in the cold. At the same time, HTC and Valve also plan to make it so the Vive can be deployed in a room with obstacles like couches and chairs, and have the interface work to make sure you don't collide with your surroundings.
My brief experience with the HTC Vive returned some much-needed excitement about VR into my day to day life. If you find yourself in a position to try this hardware out through HTC's US tour, I suggest taking the day and doing so. And UK folks, before you get too upset, I hear the company is working on demo stations outside the US as well, though nothing official is being announced yet. I'm surrounded by apps for Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, and while I'm still excited by the experiences offered in those mobile platforms it's clear SteamVR is aiming at an entirely new kind of gameplay. We've only begun to capture the idea of being immersed in an experience, and the HTC Vive is going to push the entire industry into a deeper understanding of that concept.
A second opinion
This isn't our first time immersing ourselves in the virtual world of the HTC Vive — and it certainly won't be our last. Check out Android Central Editor-in-Chief Phil Nickinson's first look at Vive back at Mobile World Congress. Click here to read about Phil's experience