Blown away: that was my reaction after demoing HTC’s new virtual reality headset – the Vive – at Mobile World Congress. It will be available to consumers later this year, and depending on price, could absolutely change the game. To say it left me speechless would, well…
Explaining the HTC Vive experience is like telling a friend about a dream you had last night… it’s nearly impossible, but you try anyways, and fail miserably. There is no substitute for its visual immersion or interactive experience. If a picture is worth a thousand words than I think the HTC Vive just exploded my brain.
The 15-Minute Demo
I was given a 15-minute window to demo the HTC Vive…. here is what happened.
My time with the HTC Vive was short but epic. I entered a small room and they suited me up in the gear which, for now, is quite cumbersome, with a lot of wires held up by a belt and connected to the main computer system. The consumer version, HTC ensures, will be wireless- including both the Vive headset itself and the two handheld controllers that act as your virtual arms.
The front of the Vive has sensors all over it, which communicate with sensors placed in opposite corners of the room on the ceiling. How will this work for the version sold to consumers? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m guessing HTC has some tricks up their sleeve.
After strapping on the headset, I saw two handheld controllers floating towards me, quickly realizing it was the HTC representative walking over and handing them to me. It was surprising how natural the process was of identifying the controllers, realizing I was to take action, reaching out, and grabbing them.
The controllers were Wii like in nature but with a trackpad for each thumb, trigger for each pointer finger, and grip buttons on the left and right of each controllers base. For the purpose of this demo, I only used the triggers and trackpad.
Training in the Matrix
The start of the “training” truly felt like the Matrix:
Everything in the HTC Vive starting scenario was like the scene above. Just one big, white, endless sea of nothing. Before walking around, I had to learn to use my arms. We did this by blowing balloons.
Holding down on the left trackpad would inflate a colored balloon from the tip of the (graphical representation of) the controller. You’d hear that *gkwwwoooooosh* sound while inflating it and just as you let go of the trackpad it would complete. Then there it would sit- a bright, cartoonish yet lifelike balloon on the tip of your controller in a completely white room.
“Try to send the balloon off,” the HTC rep suggested.
So holding the balloon with my left controller, I tapped it with my right controller, and off it went! It floated away in such a beautiful and natural way, slowly disappearing into the distance. After getting the okay to continue with more, I was soon looking every which direction, inflating balloons, sending them off, and spinning in wonderment at how awesome it was that I felt transported to a completely different place.
Little did I know the fun was just starting.
Learning my boundaries
Most virtual reality headsets let you crane your neck to explore the virtual world around you, but the HTC Vive takes that one step further. With the Vive you’re able to physically walk around in real life, and while doing so, you’re visually exploring the virtual world shown in your headset. This really helps the Vive make the leap from being a voyeur to being an active participant.
But you’re in a room, wearing a headset, and you don’t want to run into a wall and fall down. The HTC Rep vocally guided me to walk towards the wall, pointing out that as I approached, I’d see dotted warning lines on the ground. Just after that you could see virtual walls. Two feet beyond that were real life walls, basically meaning I had 2 visual warnings/indicators before crashing.
Walking around seeing one world but knowing I’m in another was a bit… disorienting at first.
Spoiler: I survived
After tiptoeing around a little bit I was placed in a room of vertically protruding white geometric blocks. While walking around the room they would recede into the ground before my eyes, almost predicting my steps before I took them. The room was reacting to my every movement.
After a couple minutes I was ready for the big leagues… and by leagues I mean unit of measurement, as in 20,000 leagues under the sea.
Walking on the deck of a sunken ship
Ready for my first full adventure, my headset lights were first dimmed to black. When they raised up, I was standing on the deck of a sunken ship in the middle of the ocean. As I wheeled my head around I felt surrounded by a living, breathing world around me.
The colors and shadows were rich and dynamic. Small schools of fish snuck from behind me, zipping past my head, through my legs, and jetting into the distance when I reached my arms in their direction. Then suddenly I realized… I have no clue where I am in the physical world. In only a few short minutes I completely lost my sense of direction in the physical world in favor of the virtual world I was experiencing. I truly felt like I was in a different world.
I felt like Finding Nemo. And I was Nemo. And then the whale came.
That’s exactly what happened next. In the distance, I spotted a whale majestically maneuvering in the distance. Then it got closer. Then a little closer. Then closer. Then CLOSER. Before you knew it, the monstrous creature was swimming directly next to the rail of the ship. I was, quite literally, looking directly into the eye of the giant beast.
I can’t truly explain how lifelike it was to see the whale swim, watch it gradually approach, then walk towards it as we met eye to eye. I also can’t explain the feeling when it swam away, seeing its powerful tail slither, wondering if one quick whip would blow me and my virtual ship clear out of the water. But it didn’t… it calmly swam away and I was left to peacefully explore the edges of the ship once again.
Up to this point an ear-to-ear smile was strapped to my face and I was pretty much left in awe… but pretty soon I’d exclamations would be pouring out of my mouth.
Symphony of Painting
Back to a blank canvas. And this time, I literally mean blank canvas, because in the next demo I became an artist in a 3D world with magical paint. My left hands was the palette, my right hand was the brush, and the rest was up to me. Using the trackpad I could scroll through a 3D cube of options, changing paint colors and types of paint/features, and dipping my right controller into the left palette to make selections.
Now… to paint!
While painting with the HTC Vive I felt a bit like I was Mickey in Fantasia. You know, the part right after he dozes off, paints the sky, and controls the heavens with his magic wand.
As you swiped your brush around the sky it left a trail of textures in colors that looked amazing. It was one thing to be creating 3D art but to walk within it, through it, simultaneously creating it was pretty magical.
HTC has said they’ll allow you to save and share your masterpieces, letting you load and experience the 3D art that your friends and others create. I know there are some outrageously artistic and creative people in the world and I can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with… the HTC Vive is an artists dream and will push the boundaries of what we currently consider “art”.
I wrote my name – ROB – at different angles and levels, then painted a blue fiery arrow blasting through the letter “O”. My 3rd grade art teacher Mrs. Wallace would be proud. But mostly proud of HTC.
My virtual ink didn’t run out but it was time to change subjects, jumping to something a little more scientific.
Shop Class in Robot Land
I was transported to a workshop of sorts after finishing my masterpiece and was led through a series of puzzles. I was using my hands/controllers to open and close various drawers to find what my audio host suggested he needed me to find. Every time I completed a puzzle, the story would further unfold. I couldn’t help but think, “this would make the perfect setting for a murder mystery!”
At this point my mind was so firmly blown that – like a dream – I’m having trouble piecing together all the details and parts of what unfolded in those 15 minutes. The walls collapsed, huge rooms beyond the boundaries of my area were exposed, and I saw gigantic robots toiling around.
One of them was thrust into my immediate vicinity, its ribcage slid open, thousands of mechanical moving gears and parts exposed, and I was tasked with fixing its broken interior.
It was a mini-game.
If I’m being honest, it took me way longer to figure out the mini-game than I would like to admit. Perhaps that’s because my mind was still wandering, thinking of all the applications that the HTC Vive could excel beyond just entertainment and gaming.
How amazing would it be for medical students to explore the human body and practice various types of surgery using the HTC Vive? How about a mechanic in training, learning all the parts of a vehicle and following a tutorial before diving in on the one directly in front of him? How about an educational tool to teach physics? Or how about physics based drawing/puzzle games?!?!
And my time is up…
My time with the HTC Vive had come to an end. The 15 minutes had flown by so quickly, yet somehow, I felt like I saw and experienced so many incredible things. They were vivid in my memory, but because I felt so connected to the experiences themselves, I found it difficult to explain them in a way meaningful enough to let others appreciate it.
As predicted, I’ve probably failed at helping you appreciate how awesome the HTC Vive truly is. You’ll have to either take my word for it or buy one for yourself; they will, after all, be available later this year.
The HTC Vive was the single most exciting thing at Mobile World Congress 2015 and when it’s all said and done, it’s very possible that the HTC Vive could be the tech product of the year. We’ve been served up so many subpar VR “experiences” but none of them have touched what HTC has created. It’s the most immersive, vivid, and entertaining VR experience on earth. And it will be available later this year.
In a world where mobile manufacturers have over-hyped and over marketed every little incremental improvement, customers have grown wary of outrageous promises and claims.
Usually I’d say the above is marketing jargon and the below is an overhyped promo…
But after actually using the HTC Vive, I can tell you it’s the real deal, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m already sold… I’m just hoping I’m able to order one before they sell out.
Excited about the HTC Vive? Join thousands of others in our HTC Vive Forum!