We’re going to be blunt – there are no words to describe just how impressive the HTC Vive is as an experience. There is nothing quite like stepping into an entirely new 3D world without leaving the room.
But we’re going to try.
Virtual reality is no longer an unobtainable toy; confined to development labs, theme parks or the sets of sci-fi movies. Thanks to the likes of Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Samsung Gear VR and the more basic Google Cardboard, VR headsets are already creeping into homes, and this will only increase.
Then, at Mobile World Congress in March, HTC fired up this trailer.
Now, you might ask what’s the difference between this and any other VR headset? The key is the partnership creating it; HTC and Valve. This is the gaming studio that created Half-Life and Portal. Not to mention the guys behind the Steam platform. No other headset can call on such graphical and visual experts arguably, and so when we were offered the chance to test drive Vive, we couldn’t get the headset on quickly enough.
This is it. As a physical headset there isn’t a huge amount you need to know, but note the amount of sensors on the front of the device. More on why those are important to come. For now it’s time to dive in. It’s worth pointing out that we couldn’t film the demo as things are still very much in development.
The first thing you see is a white, open space with tiles that rise and fall on the floor as you walk towards them, as if making room for your movement, reacting to you. It’s a nice way to get used to this virtual world you’ve entered.
The Vive can track even the slightest movement (this is where all those sensors come in) within a 15 by 15 foot area, and should you get close to the edge of it, a faint border will appear to tell you you’re close to leaving the area. This is tracked by two laser sensors on either side of the grid, and these translate your moves into the environments you see.
Not that leaving the grid is something you’ll want to do, and frankly we were rooted to the spot when our first demo began. It’s a deep sea diving experience called theBlu, and it’s been developed by WEVR Labs. The experience places you on the deck of a sunken ship, one that is perched on an underwater cliff. Schools of fish glide around you, and using the controls you have in each hand (which will be wireless) you can bat them away, as well as walk to the edge of the deck and peer over.
The immersion is stronger already that any other headset. It’s a combination of the lighting and the graphics. The fact that the Vive has a 1200 x 1080 pixel screen in front of each eye helps show off what the Steam platform can do in VR too.
The show-stopping point of this first experience comes when a blue whale appears, gliding past, before stopping just feet in front of you, one eye fixed upon you. Depending on how curious a person you are, you’ll either take a step forward or back, but you can’t help but react either way. The headset suddenly feels like scuba goggles, and you feel as though you’re having a real encounter. A confession at this point: we were terrified.
But we can’t dwell on it as we’re now being moved on to the next experience, which turned out to be a wonderful change of pace. It’s called Quar VR and is table-top war strategy game. And when we say table-top we mean it literally – this game plays out on a 3D table you can walk around, through and even crouch under. But on the table is where the real joy is, as hundred of tiny figures are taking part in an attempted siege of a castle.
In animation terms think Clash of Clans but turned up to 11; as you can move right in and be inches from the landscape and the characters, as well as moving around and constantly seeing the battle from different perspective. It’s all those sweeping battlefield shots you’ve seen in movies like Lord of the Rings, but you’re doing it yourself.
What came next was perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole experience. It’s an art app called Tilt Brush, and the entire thing is shaped entirely by you. It’s similar to the real-life experience of waving a sparkler on Bonfire Night; move it fast enough and you can write in mid-air – except here you actually can write and draw in mid-air. One controller is your brush while the other is your palette (you can even point the brush at the palette to change the colour you’re using like a real artist would).
The video above gives you a rough idea, but the version we saw was already more polished than this.
The other stunning thing about Tilt Brush is that everything you create is 3D; so you draw it and can then walk around it and admire it from every angle. It’s an unparalleled experience, and a very simple one, yet it leaves a lasting impressions because you get to create the environment around you; the world becomes a blank canvas.
From one art form to another, we also entered a virtual kitchen as part of an app called Job Simulator. This showed off the interactivity of the Vive really well, with both controllers needed for virtual hands that pick up items, chop vegetables and open fridges and microwaves. Or, as we did, throw things at your robot instructor…
The Room has been a popular puzzle game on mobile for some time, and considering it’s been able to translate great atmosphere to players on a mobile screen, you can imagine what it looks like when you’re dropped into it fully. Though only tantalising glimpses were given of different rooms, it was enough to show that come the full version this could be one of the highlights of the Vive.
Finally, we paid a visit to a robot care factory in an experience called Aperture, where it was our job to repair the injured androids who came in. Again, this was a great way to show off the use of your hands within Vive, and the detail on each component of the robots involved were incredible.
There’s also the show-stopping moment when the sarcastic A.I. overseeing our failures in the factory strips away the walls of our workstation to reveal an enormous factory, millions of square feet in size. The scale of the environments you can enter using Vive suddenly becomes apparent; you can tweak the minute on animated battlefields and kitchens, but also experience huge landscapes and worlds, all within the 15 by 15 foot area in which you’ve never left.
And that is perhaps the most potent tool the Vive has at its disposal; the level of escapism it offers is unrivalled, and we have been fortunate enough to sample Oculus, Morpheus and Gear VR in the past.
For the twenty minutes or so we were wearing Vive, it was almost impossible to remember this was in fact taking place in an office in Slough on a rainy afternoon.
If Oculus Rift was the watershed moment for the creation of the modern generation of virtual reality – HTC and Valve’s partnership on Vive looks as though it could mark the beginning of version 2. Try it, and any thoughts of the platform being a novelty or even how silly you must look using it vanish in an instant.