Testing the HTC Vive at the 2015 Austin Film Fest
When I walked out of the Vive demo trailer after trying their virtual reality system at the Austin Film Fest, the folks from HTC handed me a business card that says “I tried the HTC Vive (and life won’t be the same again).” That’s a bold statement, especially after someone has experienced the product! Is HTC’s confidence in Vive justified?
After playing with Vive I went to a drive-thru, had an allergy doctor appointment, and came home to feed my cat. But I also posted about Vive on Facebook and Twitter, texted two friends about it, and emailed the HTC people to try to get a second demo so my wife can see what I saw. I don’t know if the page has turned to a new chapter in my life, at least not yet, but as of this afternoon I am a believer in the coming virtual reality era.
I didn’t have expectations going into Vive. I haven’t tried the Oculus Rift or any other VR systems. My gold standard is the holodeck from Star Trek: can I visit a place and a time, feel like I’m really there, interact with the environment, and have a little adventure? The four scenarios I experienced in Vive convinced me that I can… almost. There are still hardware and software challenges to overcome, areas that need improvement, but we’re closer than you might think. And when Vive or something like it is in a certain threshold percentage of homes and offices, then life and business and education and entertainment will be different — for everyone.
HTC’s Vive is a front-heavy set of goggles and two vertical controllers, one for each hand. The goggles feel big on my face, and breaking into a full smile might have been difficult with them pressing down on my cheeks, but I was certainly grinning throughout the demo. I didn’t get a great look at the controllers before putting on the helmet, so I hardly know what they look like in reality, but I saw many of their virtual manifestations floating in front of my eyes. The image in the virtual worlds is sometimes grainy, which is probably a factor of the pixels in the goggle-screens being so close to your eyes, but I was never conscious of looking at a screen; there was no noticeable lag when turning around, no motion blur that I could see. I was in the virtual worlds — they just happened to be a bit granular.
Another minor hardware issue is the power cord that’s attached to the goggles; it drags behind you on the ground, but you can’t see it or your feet in the virtual worlds. You can look down, of course (you can look anywhere), but you’ll only see the virtual ground. So you have to feel for the cord with your feet and be sure not to trip over it as you move around.
Speaking of movement, that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome before Vive and the holodeck become one. You can move forward and backward and side to side within the virtual worlds, but they’re no bigger than a typical living room. The trailer was something like ten by fifteen feet, near the “maximum.” When you get near the border of a world, which at my demo corresponded pretty closely with the walls of the trailer, you see transparent blue squares appear in the air in front of you. Sometimes there are cues on the floor of the virtual worlds, too, like a platform surrounded on all sides by nothingness. I wanted to explore the places I was in, though, and in principle I suspect that some combination of hardware and software ingenuity could help me do that — if the Vive could sense that I’m walking or running in place, then perhaps the world could zoom toward me, essentially moving me forward. That desirable aspect of VR was not on display yet, at least not in the programs I saw.
So what did I see in Vive? I’ll describe each scenario I experienced and rank them according to what I found coolest and most potentially life-changing.
5. Vive’s “start screen”
You’re standing in your living-room-sized space, you put on the goggles, and suddenly you’re standing on a gray plain that recedes into the distance in all directions. If you walk too far in any direction, you hit the blue squares that signify a barrier. Not much goes on here — it’s just a loading screen. When a program is about to begin, its name and the name of its creator appears floating in front of you. I wonder what else could go in this space. Could you customize it to look like a study, perhaps? Fill the sky with stars? Populate it with little pets?
4. Robot repair station
Before VR can start to take the place of games, movies, and television, it needs to get good at narrative. Without narrative it’s still quite cool, but won’t really challenge those media formats. This was the only program I experienced that tried to tell a story. I was standing in a room full of scientific implements and heavy steel drawers. I moved one of my controllers toward the drawers, opening one after another as a robotic voice told me what I was looking at. (Incidentally, for demo purposes my audio came through a headphone set that was separate from the goggle unit; I was told that Vive’s goggles will soon have integrated audio.) Without giving too much away, I soon met a couple of robots who acted out a little sci-fi drama with me as a participant. What I saw made me want to do more, to explore more of this world that was clearly much bigger than just one robot repair bay — but, again, space limitations. In real life, after all, I’m standing in a dark trailer, and VR will need to tell compelling stories that are confined to small spaces until it can accommodate virtual long-distance walking. The “adventure” part of my holodeck fantasy is still lacking.
3. Kitchen simulator
Life simulators speak to my heart as a gamer. I’m fanatical about the classic farming simulator Harvest Moon (now called Story of Seasons), which also includes cooking, so finding myself in a cartoonish VR kitchen was a little thrilling for me! The controllers in my real hands now appeared in the virtual world as large gloved hands, which I used to pick up ingredients for a soup. I found ingredients and implements all over the kitchen, some behind me, some in the refrigerator. This is the VR equivalent of a casual browser or mobile game (except that you can literally walk around the kitchen), but it was cute and satisfying. Oddly enough, the only time I felt motion-sick was in this fairly static kitchen simulator. The world disappeared just as I was reaching for the dinner bell, and suddenly I was back in the gray expanse waiting for the next program. The suddenness of the transition gave me a bit of a lurch, but I recovered in an instant.
2. Sunken ship
This is the kind of program that I’d use all the time if I had a personal VR system. It’s simulated travel; realistic escapism. I’d love to be able to come home in the evening and instantly transport myself to a place I love, like the town I lived in when I lived in Japan, or a place I’ll never go, like a sunken battleship surrounded by fish and stingrays. There wasn’t much to do here, just watch the sea life and admire the wreck, but a real or fictional locale that means something to you would be fantastic therapy and recreation.
1. Google paint
Google didn’t make this program, but they bought it, and I think they’re backing a powerful horse. This is one that I think could revolutionize art, business, and collaborative projects. At first it’s nothing: a blank space, pretty similar to the “start screen.” You look at your controllers and they’re a techie version of a brush and palette (perhaps a downloadable skin could make them look like a classic brush and palette?) Just start drawing, like MS Paint, but in three dimensions. Your work takes shape floating in front of you, and you can walk around it to look at what you’ve painted from any angle. Change colors, change brush types — even change the background of your work space! I found an option that filled the background with stars, as if I were a spacewalking Picasso. The paint program prompted me to ask if Vive can be multiplayer; you’d want to bring friends and colleagues in to see your work, to help you with it, to brainstorm together. I can imagine whole business meetings taking place in this virtual studio while new products are sketched out, or art classes meeting here (no need to come to a physical classroom!) to examine a 1:1 copy of Michaelangelo’s Pieta from every angle. Unfortunately, the Vive employees told me that multiplayer functionality isn’t available yet. I hope that’s only a matter of time. However, your work in this program can be saved and shared with others so that they can view and edit it using their own Vive.
Vive, and VR systems like it, will change your life. If not at a demo, then soon, when the product is out in the world. Trying it out has me super hyped about the possibilities, and optimistic that they’re going to be [virtual] realities in the near future.