If you’d told me a week ago that HTC was about to announce a VR headset in partnership with Valve, I’d have thought you were mad. But not only is that exactly what’s happened at MWC 2015 - I’ve also been lucky enough to go eyes- and hands-on with it.
HTC is serious about secrecy around Vive (which is borne out by the fact that there were no leaks around it before MWC) so there were some specific rules around the demo. No-one but me was allowed into the secret room it was in, so we weren’t able to take photos of the working setup - the ones you see here were taken afterwards, using a mock-up of the headset.
But Vive is much more than a headset. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is the two laser pods on the wall. These are constantly monitoring the position of the 70-odd sensors that are built into the headset and controllers so that you can be accurately positioned in the space. It’s what makes SteamVR a step up from Oculus Rift - here you can physically walk around a virtual environment. It’s more interactive, and isn’t that the point of VR?
UPDATE: According to Valve's GDC 2015 press release, this tracking tech is called Lighthouse and it doesn't have to involve the sort of large, wall-mounted units I saw during the MWC demo - apparently the tech can be integrated into the likes of TVs and headsets for more seamless integration. Valve even says it will make Lighthouse available to interested manufacturers for free.
Donning the future of gaming
At the centre of the secret room at MWC is a mass of cables (so many, in fact, that you have to wear a special belt to keep them out of the way during the demo) but HTC assures me there will be just one cable on the final version - from the headset itself to the computer.
So the final version of the two controllers I’m handed will be wireless, but I hope Valve and HTC otherwise change very little. They look rather like embiggened Wii Nunchuks with a big array of sensors stuck to the type like some sort of tech icecream. Your thumbs rest on the same sort of haptic trackpads first seen on the Steam Controller, there’s a trigger button under your forefinger, and the whole controller acts as another button when squeezed. It’s immediately comfortable and natural to hold.
And then it’s on with the headset. It’s lighter than it looks, even with the dangling wires, and it feels very comfortable when in position. There’s soft padding around the eyes and the straps of the prototype strike a nice balance between being comfortable and keeping the Vive secure.
Entering the Matrix
There are 30-odd sensors on the headset itself and 20 on each of the two controllers
And then the two 1080p screens (actually almost square, 1200x1080 displays) burst into life and I’m in a perfectly white, perfectly square room. Graham Breen, the HTC engineer acting as sherpa on my VR voyage, encourages me to walk around to get a feel for the boundaries of the space before removing the virtual walls and plonking me in a world full of white isometric shapes.
I’m surrounded by waist-high hexagonal columns, but as I walk these lower to become tiles. The environment is huge, with pretty awesome scale, but obviously the physical room I’m in in the real-world limits my exploration - as I approach the edge a grid appears to warn me, and as I move away it disappears again.
Once I’m comfortable with movement the demo switches again. I’m on the deck of a sunken ship surrounded by thumb sized fish that swim right up to my face and respond to prods. I look up and see sunlight breaking the surface and a shoal of manta rays 30ft or so above. I walk to the stern of the ship and look over the edge into a gaping chasm that causes a frisson of vertigo.
The scale of the environment is amazing, as is the scale of my next aquatic aquaintance - a truly enormous blue whale that slowly swims right up to the ship’s rail. It’s breathtakingly vast and I feel like a tiny visitor in an alien environment. No game played on a traditional screen can match that feeling of scale and immersion.
The next demo is right at the other end of the spectrum - I’m looking at an army of tiny men and tanks attack a fortress defended by equally tiny men and turrets.
I step back a bit and realise this virtual battle is taking place on a virtual table, and suddenly I’m transported to a youth misspent playing Warhammer 40K - but here the soldiers are animated. I can move right around and through the table, getting right up close to the soldiers. The ground right at the tip of my nose explodes with an artillery shell. I walk forward and look over the fort’s wall and see a soldier taking a break from the battle to read a paper on the loo, and duck down beneath the table to see a couple of particularly sneaky chaps digging a tunnel underneath the fortifications. I never particularly considered the impact VR could have on real-time strategy games, but I’m now massively excited by the possibilities.
Getting physical with the virtual world
The headest itself is really only a part of Vive - the laser sensors and control pads are vital to the experience
Most of what I’ve seen so far has been relatively passive, but now it’s time for some interaction. I’m in a kitchen, and there’s a robot telling me to make soup. I see there’s a recipe on a board and ingredients on the counter. I pick up a tomato using the trigger button on the left controller and drop it into the saucepan on the hob. Then I grab two mushrooms, one in each hand like some kind of multi-tasking kitchen ninja. Last is the salt - I pick up the cellar and shake some into the pan, and lo and behold I’m rewarded with a can (yes, a can) of soup.
I realise I’ve been taking my responsibility as a robot’s sous chef a little too seriously - I’m a man, damnit, and it’s time to show the machine who’s boss. That involves hurling the salt cellar at its face, to which the robot responds with “thank you, sir. May I have another?” The guilt is too much to bear so I fill my final few seconds in the kitchen hurling knives and books around. The accuracy of the whole thing and the natural feel to the physics is pretty remarkable. I saw an image of Surgeon Simulator on one of the menu screens earlier and it dawns on me that Vive will elevate that to gory perfection.
Next up is a demo of an art program. You’re in a dark, blank space, and holding the trigger on the right pad allows you to draw three-dimensional patterns. It’s sort of like waving around a sparkler and painting with light.
Swiping your thumb across the touchpad on the left controller takes you to different menus, which pop up from the virtual pad on screen. Pointing at these pop-up menus with the controller in your right hand produces a laser beam that allows you to select different patterns, shapes and symbols, so you can ‘paint’ with fire or snow flakes or leaves. The effect is genuinely beautiful, and Breen says that in the final version you’ll be able to share your 3D artistic creations with friends, who’ll be able to not only move through them but watch them being created from the inside.
The massive surprise within a massive surprise
The prototype version we tried had a whole bunch of wires, but the final model will have just one from the headset to your PC
It’s fair to say I’ve been massively impressed by what I’ve experienced so far, but the final part of the demo is what completely blows my mind.
I’m in a square room that looks a bit like a lab. There’s a big door at one end, drawers set into the other, and along one side is a desk with a few odd tools and other items sitting on it. And what looks like a little robot. One that looks familiar.
“Wait a second… am I playing what I think I’m playing?” I ask Graham. He keeps tight-lipped, but as I perform some menial tasks for a robotic voice I become more and more convinced. It’s the setting, the wit of the dialogue, the sarcasm of the AI instructor. And then I open the big door and see Atlas standing there.
I’M PLAYING MOTHER-FLIPPING PORTAL 3*
Atlas is in bad shape as he walks into my lab, so close to me that I instinctively step back. I then have to open him up and attempt to fix the problem before he falls apart. I fail, he collapses into a mess of components, and then the floor opens up right next to my feet.
I’m looking down into a vast chasm as the bits of poor old Atlas tumble into the void, and that sense of vertigo returns. My physical body might be in a windowless square room in a huge hall in Barcelona, but as far as my brain is concerned I’m on the edge of a precipice.
And then she appears - GLaDOS herself. She mocks me mercilessly before mentioning something about recycling. The walls fall away. I see a huge factory, and then a room with a switch and a Companion Cube! And then I’m in a trash compactor, and then I physically recoil as it crushes me. So that’s what GLaDOS was talking about.
UPDATE: Having played Portal on Vive, knowing that Valve had an imminent event at GDC 2015, and having an embargo for this piece of after said GDC event, it seemed (at the time) that Portal 3 was about to get an official announcement. It didn't, and Valve instead announced a November launch for its Steam Machines, SteamLink and a price for Steam Controllers.
So what did I play?
It was a Portal experience, but perhaps it was nothing more than a tech demo. I find that a little hard to believe, though. This wasn't just a technical showcase with beautiful graphics - it had the hilarious, high-end script and acting of a finished article. If it was just a tech showcase, it's the most polished one I've ever seen, but I'm standing by my guess that this is a taster of Portal 3, and that the full game will finally get an announcement very soon.
The future of gaming
Two 1200x1080 screens make up the display
And that, to my great disappointment, is the end of my time with Vive at MWC 2015. I’ve been completely blown away by it. It’s just so immersive and so real, and every one of the demos has shown me a new application of VR tech in gaming.
There are things that need attention - I felt that objects blurred a little too much when viewed very close-up, and seeing as the tech invites you to move around and get your face right into the action that's an imperfection I'm really hoping gets ironed out. But the way you're immersed in the virtual world, the smoothness of the motion (the 90Hz refresh rate seems plenty to me), the interactivity and the awesome scale of everything has completely blown me away.
There are lots of questions that still need answering. For a start, playing in a perfectly square, furnitureless box is one thing, but what about the sofas, coffee tables, dogs and children of a real person’s lounge? What happens when a game wants you to reach a point beyond the physical confines of your room? Aren’t the Lighthouse lasers going to contribute to making Vive crazily expensive for the player? HTC isn’t answering any of those questions at the moment.
But that doesn’t bother me right now. Right now I’m still grinning from ear to ear, and I’d sell a kidney and throw out all of my furniture if that’s what it took to get Vive at home.
Because I’ve experienced the future of gaming, and it makes the present of gaming look rather dull and flat by comparison.