On a very short notice, we were summoned to a suburban uber-luxury hotel to witness a slice of the future by HTC. Obviously, we were more excited by the proposition than a long weekend out and about in Goa and right we were. Behind a suspicious makeshift room in the bowels of the hotel, a product specialist enthusiastically welcomed us inside and without much drama, rigged me up with a prop straight out of Minority Report.
Yes, a couple of decades later, Mr. Spielberg’s vision is about to be confirmed by science and technology. The HTC Vive VR headset that was on my mug is one of the only three prototypes existing in all of Asia at this moment, so there was a ceremonious silence for the first few seconds after which, it was all giggles and awe.
Now by definition, VR means virtual reality and it should look like it. Having experienced wireless or mobile VR in various forms from Lenovo, Samsung, Oculus, Fibrum and others, I have to say this experience was unlike any other. It’s the first officially available room-space capable VR, which means it uses two base stations mounted high up in the corners of the room to track your every movement in your own environment. The army of 32 motion sensors and front-facing camera on the VR headset helps in continuously monitoring your movement and relaying it back to the base stations while the optics offer a 110 degree coverage with utmost comfort. It doesn’t really fill up your peripheral vision but the experience is immersive enough to forgive that.
The fit itself is snug and comfortable, even if you’re bespectacled like me, the foam lining around the edges helping to isolate you from the real world and avoid any external light getting in. HTC doesn’t bundle in any headphones nor are they built into the headset like the Sony PlayStation VR but a deal could be struck with Sennheiser to provide the final package. We had the luxurious, alcantara-clad Momentum on-ears as our VR partners and we started with Space Pirate VR, a game that involves simple point-and-shoot whilst avoiding being lasered. It’s the 360degree environment that creates the stickiness in these early days of VR, not the content itself.
Steam Valve, the partner to HTC in this project has about 8 fully functioning VR experiences but a ton of others are “optimised” to be playable on other VR devices as well. Space Pirates has you ducking, groaning and yelling as you go through the myriad of situations that seem as real as current VR can get. Armed with the two wireless controllers, your hands are promptly converted to laser guns when viewed through the headset and the accuracy is amazing, thanks to the 24 sensors embedded within each controller. These change to context-sensitive appendages of course so when you play Surgeon VR, they resemble a pair of chubby hands performing surgery on the dead corpse of an alien.
To keep you from heading out of the ’game-zone’, the base stations speak to the headset and create a virtual fence, depicted by a green grid that denotes the physical boundaries of the room, while you're oblivious to the obvious wearing the headset. Steam players would be familiar with the controller’s touchpad that works like a mouse, aided by two-stage triggers with haptic feedback. The design is ergonomic and fits well in the hand with excellent reach between the thumb and index finger between the touchpad and trigger. I can’t wait to see what game developers do next with the potential of the HTC Vive, it really is on the cusp of stardom.
There are a few experiences which are mere…experiences. Like the Underwater episode which puts you on the deck of a wrecked ship on the ocean floor, allowing you to appreciate the various species of fish swimming over and above you. The highlight being arms length away from an 80ft Blue Whale that brushes by the ship with an elongated eye contact, should you chose to stare back! The resolution of the optics is 2160x1200 which is strictly fine by HD standards but keeps you wanting a bit more in terms of clarity and detail. But in these early days of VR, everything is an experiment and almost a guarantee for improvement in the future. HTC claims to release the Vive VR officially in India by October 2016 so this really is an exclusive first look at a WIP system.
Although it has gone on pre-sale in some international markets, HTC India is tight-lipped on the final pricing although a tag of around ₹65,000 wouldn’t be misplaced. It does put the pressure on the consumer to have a top-end PC to support it, with flagship level graphics card and CPU to make the most of the 90Hz frame rate in the VR experiences. Add to that, a dedicated room that allows you to move around within the virtual perimeter, preferably with no furniture. Throw in a pair of good headphones or a Bluetooth headset to round of the audio and it won’t be a “budget” set-up but one that surely gives you bragging rights beyond any other gadget. Check out our video for getting up-close with the first proper VR headset in the country!