Hands on with the HTC Vive
The HTC Vive is a virtual reality headset designed by HTC, with two controllers that can be used to manipulate objects in a virtual world.
Paris: HTC Vive, the virtual reality headset from smartphone and tablet manufacturer HTC, is a cracker. But is it as good as its main rivals, the Sony PlayStation VR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, and Samsung’s Gear VR?
I tried it for 15 minutes in four different environments at HTC’s booth this week at Paris Games Week.
The HTC Vive VR headset.
It’s a little top heavy and not as comfortable as the PlayStation VR (I wear glasses and it was weighing down on them quite heavily, leaving behind a red mark on my nose that later disappeared), but the visual experience it provided was just as good, if not slightly better in some instances. This is largely thanks to the two specially designed controllers made for it that offer slightly more functionality and freedom than PlayStation’s Move controllers (those glowing coloured orbs on a stick).
Now, the Vive isn’t a controller that connects to a games console like the Xbox or PlayStation. Instead, HTC has teamed up with with game company Valve, maker of the Steam platform, to bring you their VR experience, meaning you’re going to be tethering this piece of kit to your PC (and don’t think you can get by using it on some laptop you bought in 2010. It’s going to need to be a powerful one).
In one demo, called The Blu, I was transported to a place deep in the ocean atop a shipwreck that small fish were swimming around. With the two controllers I was able to wave my hands about to shoo the fish away. I could then walk freely around the ship.
Close up: The HTC Vive VR headset. Photo: HTC
Shortly after shooing away the fish, a large whale appeared and I approached it cautiously. This demo really gave me a sense of scale. Unless you’ve gone diving before, not many people in the world have probably been able to approach a whale or any animal that lives in the sea larger themselves. So as I walked up to the whale and looked at its huge eye, it gave me an appreciation for just how large whales are. It was much better than looking at a picture of one, that’s for sure.
Unlike The Blu, another demo, zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine, features gameplay. Sold as a game set during a zombie apocalypse, you’ll supposedly be able to bash, slash and explode your way through hordes of undead once its final version is out. But for the time being, you’re only able to shoot at your enemies. Still, it’s a fun experience.
Another demo, Job Simulator, was a little weirder than the other demonstrations, but showcased the full potential of VR. As the title suggests, you’re an office worker tasked with completing a series of mundane tasks: Eating doughnuts; firing employees using a large “fired’ stamp after grabbing the employee’s file from a filing cabinet; making a coffee; plugging in PC and printer power cables; and logging into a computer to print out a photo.
The whale in The Blu demo. Photo: HTC
The last demo, which doesn’t have a name, is like Microsoft Paint but 1000 times better. It enabled me to draw in midair using the controllers and walk around what I had just created. Artists are going to love this. This demo showed how the controllers built for the device are more sophisticated than others. One controller was turned into a colour palette while the other was able to be used to select the colour of my choosing. Additionally, I could rotate the one with the palette to select other brushes or textures.
Apart from the fun games, the Vive also has a pretty nifty feature that I haven’t seen in any of the Sony’s PlayStation VR demos I’ve played so far that prevents you from running into walls. It essentially allows you to set a virtual perimeter prior to putting on the headset using the specially designed controllers. As it was told to me by the HTC representative demonstrating the Vive to me, all you need to do is walk around the edges of the room you’re in with one of the controllers and press it several times to draw the perimeter. Then, once in the game, if you walk too close to a wall in the real world then a virtual representation of it is overlaid on top of the virtual world you’re in to prevent you from a collision.
Another unique feature concerning the Vive is that you can actually see a virtual representation of the controllers in the virtual world. Some of the demos of Sony’s PlayStation VR games I’ve played have the ability to show a gamepad, but I haven’t seen it implemented with motion-controlled gaming sticks as well as it has been done in the HTC demos with the Vive. It’s really useful being able to see the controllers in the virtual world, especially given this was one of the complaints I had about the PlayStation VR and not knowing which button I was looking at, or not being able to find the controllers in the real world if you’ve put the headset on first without putting them in reaching distance.
A screengrab from Job Simulator. Photo: HTC
The two cameras that track the controller and Vive headset movements need to sit up high at either end of the room you’re in. Meanwhile, Sony’s utilises the PlayStation Move camera strip that sits on top of a television cabinet. Having two cameras for the Vive probably makes it far more accurate, but for some people this is going to make the experience too complicated. It’s unclear exactly how the cameras will work in the final consumer version, due out in the first quarter of 2016.
Now for the other bugbear of virtual reality: the cable attached to your head and whether we could ever see it disappear. J.B. Mcree, HTC senior manager of product marketing, said it was unlikely for some time due to the fact 15-20 gigabits per second of data is currently being fed to the Vive headset, and wireless technologies aren’t fast enough to deal with that just yet.
One can only hope boffins can make wireless go faster sometime soon, or VR headset engineers can find some magical compression algorithm for the video, and a way to have low latency, wireless gaming.
The two HTC Vive controllers. Photo: Ben Grubb
The cable do turn into a bit of a tripping hazard as you’re walking around the room. And that’s the final thing I wanted to point out about the Vive: all the demos I tried were all about walking around, whereas the demos for most Sony games required you to be sitting. While sitting games are the safer option for less motion sickness in VR, I think ones that allow you to walk around are more fun. Here’s hoping they can just find a way to get rid of the cable.
The writer travelled to Paris Games Week as a guest of Sony