Virtual reality is here, right now; but it comes at a price. Welcome to the Matrix, Neo.
HTC’s Vive is a relative newcomer to the virtual reality scene. Whilst Facebook’s Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have been talking a good game, Taiwanese mobile phone manufacturer and the folks at Steam have created a device that may just be the best VR experience yet.
The concept of virtual reality has been around for years. Participants place a headset on their face with an individual display for each eye. 3D images mimicking our eyes’ stereo vision allow you to feel inside the computer generated environment, moving your head moves your head inside the game, reinforcing the feeling of “being there”. It’s only now that we have the computing power in our homes to handle VR devices like HTC’s Vive.
The Vive offers users what is called room-scale VR- allowing players to walk about in VR, if you have the space. If not, the Vive can be used standing still or sitting down.
Two wall-mounted base stations track the Vive headset and the two motion controllers with incredible accuracy. As part of the set-up, you define your play space so as avoid walking into walls. As you near the play boundary, a holodeck-style grid comes into view.
The Vive’s headset is a bit weighty and takes a while to get used to putting on properly. Once you’ve mastered it, you forget that it is there. If you wear glasses (as I do), the headset easily accommodate your frames. The Vive lenses can also be moved back make space for your glasses.
It’s very difficult to explain the surreal experience that is virtual reality to someone that has not tried it. Imagine stepping in to other world. Putting on the headset on is like a door to another place.
Even the tutorial sequence, which is based on the Valve game, Portal, gave me shivers- placing me in a huge white room. Turning my head, I could see all round me. Crouching down I could examine the ground. Before long I was blowing up balloons and firing lasers from the devices in my hands which represented the motion controllers.
As amazing as the realistic 3D world of the Vive’s VR is, there are limitations to the technology. If you look hard enough you can see the concentric rings of the Fresnel lenses, a side effect of the need for thinner optics in the headset. Another artifact is the “screen door effect” caused by being able to see the individual pixels on the two 1080x1200 screens that are only a centimetre or so from your eyes.
These issues sound like deal-breakers, but they are not. You soon learn to ignore them as you become immersed in the amazing 3D VR environments.
The first thing that you notice as you look into the 3D VR environment are the two motion controllers in your hands, perfectly matching the two controllers visible in from for you. Bringing them together the real controllers touch exactly as their virtual counterparts.
In the hub area, the controllers are just that, controller, but in a game they could be guns, torches, or even virtual hands. With the Vive, you can look, move about and reach out and touch your virtual world.
The Vive is powered by SteamVR, the same Steam that 99% of PC games now call home and should be very familiar to all PC gamers. It is from the Steam hub that you can sample dozens of titles, many of them free, that are being added on a daily basis, designed specifically for the Vive.
The Vive used for this review shipped with some bundled software designed to show off the best of what is to come.
Job Simulator is a light-hearted look back from the future at early 21st Century jobs like a gourmet chef, office worker, convenience store clerk and automotive repairman. Each “job” has you performing tasks that usually result in a mess.
Fantastic contraption gets you building wacky machines to solve puzzles. It puts the motion controllers to good use as you plug components together to make devices like balloon carrying carts and watch them drive off into the distance (or not).
Google’s Tilt Brush is the Vive’s killer app, and one that will enthral anyone with an ounce of artistic ability. It’s a 3D paint/sculpting program. You can paint 3D pictures that you can walk around and through using regular paint strokes, neon light or even twinkling stars.
Your creation sits there in front of you allowing you to move around it add to it and examine it. Checking out some of the Tilt Brush art created by others in the gallery really shows off the power of this amazing program.
Another couple of bits of software that I’d recommend are Valve’s The Lab and the award-winning underwater experience The Blu.
The Lab is a collection of mini-experiences set around testing facility that will be familiar to fans of Valve games. Player get to try out archery, travel to a beautiful Icelandic mountainside, try and fix a robot and a host of other VR showcase experiences. Best of all, it’s free to download from Steam.
The Blu is probably the most convincing VR experience I’ve ever had. I really felt like I was under the sea. It’s pretty short, but totally worth the US$10.
The undersea experience has three “episodes”. The first places you submerge in glistening water on a reef, surrounded by fishes. As you move your controllers in front of you the fish react and dart way.
The second is an encounter with a huge whale as you stand on the deck of a sunken ship. The creature is huge and it'll have you duck as its tail just misses you.
The final part puts you on the sea bed in the pitch-black midnight zone the ocean floor. The only light is that from by your flashlight, which you use to highlight the creatures that inhabit these cold depths.
The Blu is the closest that you’ll likely get to experiencing the wonders of the deep up close and personal. It’s like an interactive documentary film and hopefully a sign of the wondrous things to come.
This sort of futuristic experience comes at a price. The Vive will cost Kiwis a massive US$949.00 plus another US$107.74 for shipping. That’s a total of US$1056.74.
You are also going to need the PC to power it. The recommended PC specs are an Intel Core i5-4590, 4GB of RAM and the GTX 970 GPU. That’s a pretty expensive outlay.
The HTC Vive represents the pinnacle of today’s VR technology. Stepping inside the devices room-scale VR and directly interacting with the environment is breath-taking.
VR has still got a long way to go but, right now, the Vive offers a rather magical experience that is unlike any other. If you got the cash and the PC to power it, now’s the time to make the leap into virtual reality with HTC’s Vive.