I’d seen videos of the Vive before - watching unsuspecting users stumble around with big childish grins painted on their face – but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to experience.
I was so psyched to test this bit of kit out that I turned up to the demo almost an hour early, and after being led into a 5x5 black room I was quickly briefed - then fitted with the headset, some headphones, and was passed the controllers.
THE BOX THAT ROCKS
With a solid background in mobile technology, HTC are pretty well briefed in the hardware that goes into VR tech. The current developer’s edition comes equipped with a resolution of 1080x1200px split across both eyes, coupled with a 90Hz refresh rate.
The actual headgear is moderately sized, with a number of sensors stuck all over the front to avoid you bouncing your face off walls, with a set of cables trailing over the top of the headset and down the back of the user.
Whilst the Vive’s framerate at 90fps is sat just below Oculus Rift’s and the PlayStation VR’s 120fps, it should be noted that it’ll likely be improved upon its consumer release date – and said lower framerate was barely noticeable during the demos.
The Vive uses ‘Lighthouse technology’ for its motion tracking, comprised of a gyroscope, accelerometer and a laser position sensor to keep track of head movements. Unlike the Oculus Rift or the PlayStation VR, the Vive’s main feature is its ability to allow you to move around the room, which is made possible thanks to the ‘base stations’ – two sensor boxes that you stick in the corner of whichever room you’ve designated as your new VR play area.
The controllers for the Vive far outrank any of the other existing controllers for current VR headsets. Bearing resemblance to a satellite on a stick, the trackpad-slash-TV remote hybrids were ergonomic, simple to use, and were found to be infinitely more accurate inside the virtual world than the PlayStation VR’s Move controller, for example.
TAKING THE RED PILL
I was greeted by a 360-degree menu, of which I assumed each option would lead to a different demo. However I entirely forgot to read the options presented to me, as my tiny man-brain found more pleasure in inflating and smacking around balloons, which I quickly discovered could be spawned from my left controller by pressing a button with my thumb. Neato.
The instructor proceeded with a short tutorial on how it all worked, showing me what each button does, and how if I walk too close to a surface a grid will pop up to prevent me from bro-fisting my newly attached mask against the wall.
INTO THE DEEP
Excited, the first demo was loaded up, and I was quickly transported from my comfortable surroundings to somewhere below sea level. Stood on the bow of some giant sunken vessel, I soaked in my surroundings, which consisted of little fish, manta rays, and ocean. Lots of ocean. The scale was mind-blowing, and the immersion unparalleled to anything I’d ever experienced. Thalassophobia tipped his cap as my brain-soup tried frantically to remind itself that in reality, I was safe and sound inside the meeting room of some hotel.
After about a minute of growing somewhat accustomed to my new aquatic surroundings - prodding fish and trying to punch manta rays¬ - a visitor looms out of the blue to pay me a greeting. An absolute giant of a blue whale floats right up to the bow, and leers at me with a big ol’ beady eye about twice the size of my head. As I stood there mouth agape for a good thirty seconds, the massive mammal swam off with the flick of its tail, and the next demo was quickly loaded up.
AN AI FOR APPETISERS
I’m in a kitchen. Which is ironic because IRL I can just about make toast. Regardless, my cooking skills seem to be adequate enough for this establishment, and I am soon addressed by a chirpy robot across the counter who explains that we’re going to be making soup. Excited by the prospect of being a robot chef’s assistant, I promptly pick up a slice of bread and launch it at his face.
Unfazed by my outburst, my newfound robo-pal proceeds to guide me through the process of making a delicious appetizer. After combining various tidbits in a saucepan, the meal was complete, and after serving it we swiftly moved onto the second recipe – which unfortunately required the very bread I’d bounced off robo-chef’s face. When peeling the bread off the floor proved impossible, I spent the rest of the demo throwing food around and bashing things with a rolling pin. Health and safety would have a field day in this restaurant, but that’s okay, as shortly after I was booted into the next demo.
BRUSHING UP ON MY ARTSY SIDE
Demo number three had me placed inside a black, empty space. It was briefly explained that this room was my canvas, and I was the artist. Pressing down on the right trigger acted as a paintbrush, allowing me to walk around the room drawing and painting 3-dimensionally. Swiping the touchpad on the left stick brought up a sort of cube-shaped palette, on which I was able to select different effects, colours, patterns and symbols.
The next few minutes were spent running around doing my best to avoid making lurid 3D drawings, and instead painting giant rainbow spirals, writing my name in flames and laying down big curtains of sparkles left and right. Whilst my brief time spent inside said 3D canvas was pretty unproductive, the possibilities presented by such a program were made immediately evident, and once the ability to share your creations has been implemented in the final version - you can be sure to see some stunning works of art.
Cue the last demo. Hey, this looks somewhat familiar. Is that an Aperture Science logo? I was stood inside a small, square room. On my right, a wall of draws, behind me a workbench, and to my left, a large metal door. It took mere seconds after my robot overseer opened his mouth to confirm my suspicions. I’m in Portal! Complete with notoriously sarcy script, quick wit and smart aleck-y goodness, I set about following the AI’s instructions. Apparently, I’m here to repair robots.
After giggling like a child at the script for a minute or two, I open up the metal door to be greeted by Atlas, who’s not in too great a shape. As he stumbles out of the door, I instinctively recoil as to not get sideswiped by a rather large, flailing hunk o’ metal. In the next couple of minutes, I proceed to pull him apart, trying to find out what the problem is so I can put old Atlas back together. Unfortunately, I’m merely a journalist, not an engineer, and the poor robot crumbles into a mess of components at my feet. The floor tiles open up, gobbling up what remains of Atlas as I press my skinny frame against the workbench so as to not be sucked into the void.
All of a sudden, there she is, everyones favourite villainess. Down swings GLaDOS from the ceiling to taunt me relentlessly for my failures and to tell me I’m going to be recycled. No ‘A for effort’ badges around here. The walls peel away, revealing an enormous factory as I’m promptly transported into a typical Portal-esque room with a button and an- what’s that? A companion cube! Unfortunately, I had all of half a second to get excited as a giant hydraulic ceiling swiftly stomps me into the ground.
BACK TO REALITY
And just like that, my time with the VIVE was over. The headset was removed, and I re-entered the real world much to my dismay. My brief spell with the HTC and Valve’s VR effort was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Even having tested out the upcoming PlayStation VR, and a brief spin on the Oculus Rift, the VIVE was an entirely new kettle of fish. It was just way too real. In the best way. I wasn’t even playing proper games and I could’ve stayed on it all day, chilling with manta rays and making soup with robots.
The only qualm I can think of is the problem it presents in having enough space to set it up come release. Whilst it may be easy enough to shove all the furniture to one side for a quick sesh, I feel as if it might require a permanent 5x5m space to have the VIVE function to its full potential. However, that definitely wouldn’t be a deciding factor in the purchase. For something as cool as the VIVE, you’d make space. Heck, I’ll play with it in the front garden. Let the neighbours watch, I’m too busy flying spaceships or building robots to care.
HTC VIVE INITIAL VERDICT
All that being said - you can listen to someone ramble on all day about how awesome the VIVE is, and you can watch all the videos you want. But until you try it yourself, you it’s difficult to truly understand what the future of gaming holds.
HTC have cleverly spent the past several months taking the VIVE out on something of a world tour, which has allowed them to get the technology literally in front of gamer’s faces. A move that will surely help convince many that their lives will be incomplete until they have an HTC Vive as part of their gaming arsenal once it ships in 2016.