HTC Vive (2016) preview: An experience that’s out of this world

After years of betas, prototypes and demos, virtual reality is here. There are five main ways to enjoy virtual reality – or VR – at the moment. Each device is aimed at different markets, with a variety of different prices to suit different budgets, all the way from HTC Vive down to Google Cardboard.

HTC Vive sits at the top of the VR tree, above Oculus Rift in terms of what you can do out of the box. Both devices need a powerful PC to run them rather than a console or mobile phone, however Vive supports full movement within a specific space, offering a more comprehensive range of possibilities than many other units.

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We’ve been plotting the growth and development of HTC Vive from way before our first play at the MWC 2015 reveal in Barcelona up to the present day, with numerous demos in-between. We’ve climbed Everest, explored shipwrecks, and picked out supercars all from the comfort of a demo room.

So is HTC Vive something to be excited about? We’ve spent a lot of time withHTC Vive in all its guises so far.

The HTC Vive can be broken down into three distinct bits of hardware: Theheadset, the controllers, and the motion tracking sensors you place in the corner of the rooms. Outside the headset you will also need a PC to be able to run the software, as with out, the HTC Vive is really just a glorified hat.

Looking like a giant scuba diving mask, the virtual reality headset is worn over the face to fully immerse you. There is no glass to see out of, and the device holds in place via a hefty strap that you wear over your head. The headband, more akin to a gas mask fitting rather than skiing goggles, is very comfortable and reduces some of the front weighting of the unit.

The foam gasket is interchangeable, allowing you to change it to suit different heads, or those who wear glasses. Having experienced it first hand, we can confirm it is on the whole comfortable to wear, although we would be interested to see how we felt after more than 30 minutes, our longest VR stint so far.

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Part of the comfort in the latest design is a result of the headset being made considerably smaller and curvier than early editions, as well as adding new features like a camera, so that users can see the actual world while they are in a virtual one. In practice and we found it takes away some of the isolation that VR headsets bring with them.

Rather than display a live video feed through this camera, HTC Vive gives you a more of a “Predator” heat map interface. It takes you out of the game world, but not completely. It meant that in our demo we knew where to pose for the camera – something we’ve not been able to do in early versions of the headset- and enables a greater realisation of the world beyond the virtual playground you’re in. That means you’ll be able to see objects in the room too, like the chair you’re trying to sit in.

Key to the experience is the display, and although HTC aren’t fully detailing it at present, the company has confirmed that it has updated the screens from the original developer build. The latest iteration is brighter and crisper than before and features something called “mura” correction (from Japanese?) which deals with unevenness, irregularity, lack of uniformity, nonuniformity and inequality. It is the same technology that is used by some television manufacturers in their high-end TV sets.

One of the things we’ve noticed in all our testing is how smooth the experience is. Graphically there’s no sign of lag, no delay as you move your head, hands or body. The display runs at 90fps, which should keep it all clear visually. There’s no flicker and the headset is pretty comfortable too, with the soundtrack being completely enveloping – you simply plug in a separate pair of headphones that you supply.

In many of the demos we’ve almost forgotten that we’re wearing the demo rig – that’s how immersive the experience is, aside from the single bundle of wires that hang out the back of the headset to connect to your PC. HTC Vive headsethas an umbilical cord of cables coming out of the back that can be cumbersome at times, and while it is a vast improvement on what we experienced in early versions, it’s currently an inescapable constant.

The entire headset is scattered with familiar motion tracking points, meaning the rest of the Vive system can see exactly where the headset is, how it’s moving, whether you’re looking up, down left or right and so on. We’ve talked about motion tracking a little more below.

HTC says it is continuing to work alongside Steam to create the best VRheadset it can, regardless of price, so we suspect refinement to continue up until launch.

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The HTC Vive controllers have the same motion tracking that the headset does, meaning you always know where your hands are – you can see them, if they are hands, so they can play an integral part in the Vive visual experience, as well as providing a control interface.

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The Vive controllers are well balanced, come with 4-hour battery life, and have a number of buttons. There is a trigger that’s operated with a squeeze of your hands, and the controller features dual stage trigger support that works like the shutter button on a DSLR. A light squeeze and you can lock on to a target, a tighter squeeze fires.

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There is a circular sensitive pad on the top that you can use your thumbs to control, as well as a selection of other buttons. It feels natural and it is versatile, and more importantly easy to use without your eyes. The main “home” button is inset so you can find it quickly, while there is plenty of rough and smooth texture contrast to help your fingers find where they are too.

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That said, we would still like more emphasis of the all-important home button, and a more textured back panel for better grip. We are sure though with continual use the button location will become as familiar to us as the Dual Shock controller on the PS4 is.

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The HTC Vive lets you walk around the room by being able to map your every move. To do that you have to have two small base stations in two corners of the room you are planning on using.

The small black boxes are minimalist, wireless, and about the size of couple of packs of playing cards stacked on top of each other. Mounted up high on a wall bracket once installed you can forget about them.

These base stations contain the lasers, and when mounted on the walls, transect the whole space. The Vive headset and controllers are covered with detection points, so they know exactly where they are within that space. That sort of 3D motion mapping isn’t a new technology – it’s similar to how Hollywood captures movement that then underpins CGI models in blockbuster movies.

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But here it is used to let you roam in Vive’s “full room scale” virtual reality, meaning you have more freedoms than before. You can sit, stand, kneel, walk, jump, bob, weave, punch, skip, spin, dip, dive, duck, and dodge, as well as probably stand on your head, and Vive knows what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.

This makes it different to most of the other systems that offer a seated or static experience: HTC Vive is going to be about getting up, moving around and getting more involved.

This room mapping is also there to stop you walking into your walls if you get too immersed int the experience. Walk towards the outward perimeter and a blue grid softly appears in front of you.

That’s Vive telling you where the wall is, and akin to hitting the edge of the arena in The Hunger Games or the edge of the Holodeck in Star Trek. This is where the matrix ends. If you keep walking, you hit the wall. It’s as simple as that.

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If all that kit sounds expensive, that’s because HTC Vive is. It costs $799 in the US, £689/$1,033 in the UK. But for that you get a whole load of kit in the box, not just the headset.

Vive comes with the headset, two controllers, a microphone, two room sensors and all the connections and cables to hook it up to a high-end PC.

That is a lot pricier than the Oculus Rift, its main rival, which costs $600 (£500), but you do get more for the money. You also get three VR experiences bundled for free, for a limited period: Google’s Tilt Brush, Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, and Fantastic Contraption.

HTC opened its pre-order process for the Vive virtual reality headset on 29 February. It will ship on 5 April.

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Now that pre-orders have opened for the consumer model of HTC Vive, the company has revealed what kind of PC you ideally need to run the device at its best.

Many of the experiences might require less than the following high-end recommendations, but if you really want to make the most of your swanky, new VR headset, these are the specifications you should match in your computer:

  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970, AMD Radeon R9 290 equivalent or better
  • CPU: Intel i5-4590, AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better
  • RAM: 4 GB or more
  • Video Output: HDMI 1.4, DisplayPort 1.2 or newer
  • USB Port: 1x USB 2.0 or better port
  • Operating System: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1 or later, Windows 10

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Turn on Vive and you are instantly presented with a futuristic polygonal landscape stretching off over the horizon. There are some buildings a long way off and the shape of the ground keeps shifting around us.

It briefly reminds us of an Inception dreamscape, before we are asked to press a couple of buttons and a balloon appears out of the controller in front of us. This open world is a holding pattern designed to allow you to load further content. Think of it as the menu interface on your Xbox One, but merely in an environment that is three dimensional and that you can walk around.

From here you can load further content. HTC and Steam haven’t confirmed what software will be bundled with the final consumer ready units, but over the last year we’ve experienced plenty showcased either by HTC themselves, or other developers keen to show off what they’ve been able to create with the hardware already.

Here’s a range of the experiences that HTC Vive has taken us through in the many demos that we’ve had.

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“Next, I’m going to take you deep underwater,” a voice says quietly out of the tranquil darkness we’re standing in. Our ears tell us we’re underwater a fraction before the scene appears around us. “You’re standing on the deck of a sunken wreck.”

We look tentatively around the wreck’s foredeck. The waters are crystal clear and far above us we can see the sun’s broken rays refracting through the waters. There’s a blissful tranquillity, a sense of calm, as we gaze through scene surrounding us. The wonderfully enveloping soundscape matches the visual depths.

There’s a rail at the edge of the deck and we take a few steps towards it. Small clusters of fish scatter as we move. We reach out to grab some, but they dart away, the light glistening off their scales as they slip through the water.

As we look over the railing, we’re hit with a real sense of vertigo. With a sharp intake of breath, we look into the inky blackness of the depths beneath us, quickly stepping back from the edge.

There is no ship, no railing. The vastness of the whale that glides up isn’t real, but neither are there words to describe its scale as we turn around to look behind us.

But the vertigo is real. The emerging sense of wonder is real. The total immersion we’re fooled into believing is real. The feeling that the Blu:Encounter from WEVR is giving us a VR experience like nothing we’ve ever seen before is very real indeed.

TiltBrush is a painting demo which has been seen before in VR on Oculus and Cardboard but now appears here in a new format. It is one of three titles HTCis giving away with purchases of the Vive for an initial, limited period.

The experience gives you the chance to really put your hand controls to the test. Using the top pad of the right controller we can change the thickness of the painting tool we’re using.

A squeeze of the trigger and there’s a green light line painted as we scribble around. The left hand is much more exciting, however. A touch of the top pad and we’re looking at our tool palette, but it’s a carousel that rotates around our hand, letting us pick colours and tools. It’s ultra futuristic, like a holographic wrist tool.

It’s a special day when you get to paint your own rainbow across the sky. That compounds another eureka moment. We walk under our own rainbow and look at it from the other side. It’s painted in a 3D world, the boundaries of two dimensions don’t apply. We’re giggling as we fill the room with colour, and walk around to inspect our handiwork from all sides. It’s not art, but it is fun and it gets us thinking creatively.

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The zombie apocalypse is on us, and this time it’s in room scale virtual reality. That’s the premise of Arizona Sunshine. The game is a fully immersive virtual reality experience, and immersive beyond your imagination.

The premise is simple. You are holed up in various settings with zombies charging towards you from all directions. All you’ve got to do is shoot them before they get to you.

With an array of weapons, and a constant fear that a zombie is about to creep up behind you, this is certainly one for making you spin around on the spot lots of times.

It’s also a demo that shows some of the limitations of the Vive system, although you can walk around, the mechanics of that room confinement means you always have to be in a designated space, whether that’s with walls or with rocks. That said Arizona Sunshine is a blast.

Created by Nurulize, this demo allows people to see their customised McLaren before they sign on the dotted line. The demo is all about “object desire”, and like the Audi demo we’ve tried is all about seeing it as if it was in the room with you.

There are some jarring elements – like how you can’t touch the car, can’t open its doors, or can merely walk through it as if you are a ghost – but you can do things like sit inside it.

It is something we found ourselves doing almost without thinking about it. And yes, we realise that to anyone watching we must have looked stupid sitting on the floor in an empty room in a make-believe car, all so we could get a better feel of what the visibility out of the windscreen would be.

You could easily see car showrooms having a setup complete with a car seat to sit on to get the full experience.

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We’re on the hip Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris. It’s a sunny, breezy spring morning and you’re staring into the engine bay of your brand new, Ara Blue Audi R8 V10 Plus. As you move around the side of the car, you can’t help but wonder if you shouldn’t have got that split side blade in Matt Titanium Grey instead of Mythos Black.

Wonder no more. A wave of your hand and the side blades are re-rendered in the Titanium. Much better, now let’s go the whole hog and add 20-inch 10-spoke Y design alloys too. But hang on, do they clash if we get them in gloss anthracite…?

Soon, this fantastical world of kid-in-a-sweet shop car configuration will be available in a select handful of Audi brand stores. Virtual reality is the very latest way to allow the company’s customers to configure their cars, thanks to Vive.

Having already teemed up with Oculus in some stores to allow a first-gen VR configurator, Audi is now getting together with HTC and using the Vive for its next step on in the world of virtual configurators.

But why? Audi currently has – if you include variants – something like 52 models for sale. More car customers are shopping online. Big, out of town dealers aren’t places people love visiting, even if they’re architectural shrines to steel and glass, and serve decent coffee as Audi dealers tend to be. City centre brand stores are the way forward. The chances of a dealer having the car you’re shopping for in stock is actually decreasing. So how do you serve someone who walks in and has decided online that, yes, they’d very much like to spend £119k/$178k on a new R8, but needs to see if they like it better in grey or orange before ordering? Or can’t decide if they want a red or stone coloured interior. And just what those carbon trim options might do to change the cabin ambience.

VR is opening up opportunities for Audi to help the customer decide on these things, without needing to keep literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of cars in stock. Today, even if they kept one of every model at each dealer, they could never hope to showcase the myriad options modern premium cars offer, and which form such a critical part of the shopping experience.

With the Vive system, Audi can allow the customer to view the car just about anywhere. We checked out a Red R8 on the moon, which was a little surreal, but ultimately quite cool. The rendering engine and power of the technology means the car looks absolutely realistic: shadows, light, pressing of the metal all crisply rendered. And when you move your head to look around, no jerkiness. You can even crouch down and look right into the jewel like detail of the headlights.

A swipe of the iPad screen that your Audi assistant will be carrying, and his hand to guide you to sit down onto the bench, and you’ll be transported from outside the car to being sat in the driver’s seat, able to look around the interior and even lean in to get a closer view of details, materials, trim finishers.

Back to that Paris street, and the coolest part of the entire demo. Open the rear engine bay cover, and lean over to peer into the engine. As your nose approaches the virtual cam cover, the VR image changes from fully rendered, to holographic orange. Continue to dip your head and you’re now descending through a holographic engine. A valve, into the engine’s cylinders and a full inside tour of the internals of that utterly magnificent, high-revving V10.

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Virtual reality experiences work very well when you are in confined space, and this demo is completely from the perspective of you sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship. It doesn’t use the room tracking element of Vive at all, but still delivers a very good virtual reality experience.

Like the game, already available, you command a spaceship flying around the galaxy selling, trading, and fighting your way out of trouble.

The gameplay is enhanced by the fact that you can look around within the cockpit to see what’s going on and where those bogies actually are. As you can imagine banking hard left and looking up and behind you can be quiet nauseous, but that merely adds to the experience rather than take away from it.

Elite: Dangerous is probably the most “traditional” game experience we’ve played on the Vive to date, complete with pilot controllers. Although it lives up to the VR experience promised, it doesn’t show off Vive’s full potential.

Aperture, created by Valve, sees you in a workshop, being given instructions. They are pretty fast and we’re wondering if something is going wrong. We open the door and Atlas, the robot from Portal 2, staggers in. It’s time to run some repairs.

With a swipe of the hand, Atlas expands into an exploded component view across the room in front of you. It’s incredibly detailed as you try to figure out how to repair the damaged robot. The instructions keep coming so fast that you have no idea what’s been said. It’s exhilarating, it’s confusing, we’re lost in Valve’s world, puppets on a virtual string.

It’s this use of existing and familiar characters that has us excited, especially when you’re pairing the IP that Valve has, with a system that’s so capable and dynamic from HTC.

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Perhaps the most exciting demo we have experienced so far is called Everest. Created by Iceland-based Solfar Studios in partnership with Nordic’s leading visual effects and animation house, the experience starts with you floating above the world’s highest mountain. The computer-generated scenery is breathtaking.

For this demo, presented to us by Nvidia, the company took the immersive angle way beyond what you can expect to get in the box. Nvidia chilled the demo room, so much so we had to put on a heavy winter mountain jacket to keep warm, and the company added a wind machine to give us more reason to believe we aren’t in London.

It works. For a moment, we found ourselves stumbling for balance, as we struggled to take it all in. The cool air, the wind in our face, and the crisp visuals all worked to trick our brain – even just a spilt second – into believing we were somewhere else. This is visual stimulus on another level.

The demo, which lasted around 10 minutes, had us crossing a crevasse by holding on to a guide rope before climbing a ladder to get to the top. It was very good, but it does highlight an area for improvement: tracking your feet.

While the controllers can be replicated to look like gloves or guns or paintbrushes, VR doesn’t track any other part of your body at the moment. Look down, especially when you’re crossing a crevasse that in real life would have your heart racing, and you see nothing. It breaks the continuity of it all.

We are sure this could be solved with tracking stickers to pin to your shoes, but it is certainly something that brings you back to reality rather than allowing you to stay in the virtual world that little bit longer.

At the summit, all that was left to do was stare out across the huge vista knowing that we can now tick it off our list of things to see, even though we know we’ll never actually summit Everest.

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Another demo we’ve experienced is the ability to walk around a family room in an imaginary house. The Vive supports movement so walking around a room like a kitchen or out on to a veranda is really easy.

As with the car experience, we can easily see this being offered by architects, interior or lighting designers. It will give you the chance to see how something will look in your house before you build it. Forget model making, you’ll be able to walk around and see it first hand.

While this demo still has a “computer feel” to it when it comes to graphics, we can see this getting better over time. We expect that – within a couple of years – designing and buying a kitchen will involve donning a VR headset and walking around a virtual room instead of looking at some 3D CAD drawings on an ageing PC in a DIY superstore.

Clearly designed to look like a video game rather than a real life representation, the demo found us in a futuristic office cubicle left to our own devices. The demo really highlights how you’ll be able to, using the controllers, pick up objects in the game world by moving your hands in the real world. The demo lets you pick up everything from coffee cups to telephones – yes we clunked our head lifting the controller to our noggin – to pressing buttons to turn on computers or scan something on the printer.

It’s pointless, has little entertainment value and if you get a chance to play it will tire of it quickly, however it shows what huge potential VR experiences have beyond a “games controller” and one that the Vive will enjoy over non dedicated controller supporting devices.

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The Secret Shop is one of the Vive experiences we’ve tried so far that really shows the gaming potential of the headset. It is based on Valve’s hugely popular multiplayer game, Dota 2, and the experience is set in a magical wonderland that features spell locations that once found and enabled shrunk us down and placed us in different, often scary situations – including being faced by one of our major fears in the shape of a giant spider.

Where the demo was a magical as its theme was in its interactive denizens. A small, friendly dragon, for example, followed you around the room as you explored – recoiling when you approached directly. It made the whole room feel tangible and real, even with a heavily cartoon aesthetic. This is VR gaming at its best, placing the wearer into a detailed environment and giving them multiple options.

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HTC Vive currently has some real challenges before it will work in a typical home environment. As you’ve probably gathered, content is going to be everything and content is where VR currently struggles. We’ve seen demos or showpieces from Cardboard to Gear VR, through to bigger systems like OculusRift, and this needs to be more than being able to look around the inside of a car, or falling out of a plane.

Yes, we have played Elite: Dangerous and Alien: Isolation on Oculus, but even they felt like test demos at the time (mainly because they were). The real key is finding ways to make VR work in new ways.

How do we use Vive’s freedom of movement and what sort of play space will you need? Is this going to lead to people converting their garages into VR playrooms? Can we build a Holodeck in the garden?

But on the creative side, it’s not going to be about isolated demos. Virtual reality will need worlds that can use the movement. Many VR experiences are confined to a seat, so how do you make movement work in games? Head movements make perfect sense, but what about running and sidestepping? How does this become a first person shooter experience for the mass market?

Then we have the price – £689/$1,033 is a lot to risk on a new technology. With such bold ambitions, we have the feeling that the first experience you’ll have of VR via HTC Vive won’t be in your living room, but more likely in a car showroom or another commercial setting.

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First Impressions

We’ve been wowed by HTC Vive, that much is obvious. The demos we’ve played since our first experience in early 2015 show that it’s a very exciting space, and goes well beyond experiences of VR in the past. That serves as a great showcase for what can be done, but to make this into the home there needs to be a rich variety of engaging content. It’s going to be creative genius that makes a convincing argument for virtual reality at home, rather than the hardware itself.

Whether that is helping you see an underwater shipwreck or the view from the highest peak, the chances are you’ll be able to experience places you’ve never been before or will never be able to go to, all from the relative comfort of your own home.

But then there’s the other side of Vive, and whether that’s picking a kitchen or seeing what your new car will look like in hot pink, we suspect you’ll start to see VR pop-up in lots of places, many of which you hadn’t initially thought of before.

HTC Vive is hugely impressive and for any technology fan, something that needs to be experienced. It delivers an experience that offers the potential to go beyond its VR rivals, but that doesn’t come without challenges. Being able to take advantage of Vive’s technology in a practical way, with mind-blowing content, will determine Vive’s eventual success.

(pocket-lint.com)

 

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