We Are VR Troopers: A date with the HTC Vive

Wandering though my local mall, I strolled past the Microsoft store and for once saw reason to go in.

 

A man was waving his hands in the air, like he didn’t care, swiping and shooting at something I couldn’t see with a black object strapped to his head. He was using the Vive. Specifically, Microsoft was demoing the Vive, and all the appropriate branding was in place. HTC, Steam, Windows; they wanted to make sure you knew who was bringing you this cyberpunk dream. They wanted to make sure you knew it was coming soon. They wanted you to know it could be yours, for a price.

 

But frankly, I was surprised that I was the second person in line.

 

Granted, it was a lazy Sunday afternoon and perhaps the masses were out and about enjoying their day, but the people that were crowded around seemed less interested in trying it, and more interested in watching. As I stood in line, a Microsoft employee handed me a tablet and asked me to sign a waiver, ensuring that any and all injury sustained while using the Vive was my fault, and asked me if I was uncomfortable underwater or was scared by oceans. I said no, and asked if that had really been an issue. The rep assured me that it wasn’t a big deal, but that they had a few people underestimate the realism of one of the “experiences” (what they were calling the 3 demos) that took place underwater. One thing about the demo space they had set up that surprised me was that they had attached the Vive’s sensors to the ceiling. Not unheard of, I’m sure, but I still thought it was an inspired idea after hearing so many others discuss uncertainty about where to put said sensors. The wait for my turn was largely uneventful, save for a man coming up and asking to preorder the kit without demoing it, but explaining that his son wanted it. I was pleased to see the rep kindly begin to discuss PC specs with him to ensure that his hardware at home was up to snuff with what the Vive needed to run. The man, however, didn’t seem interested in her questions and made some dismissive comment about having a great computer at home.

 

He then proceeded to kick his leg under the stanchion, dangerously close to the man currently “experiencing” the Vive’s genitals, and asking me if I thought it would be hilarious if he got kicked “in the balls” at that moment.

 

Which brings me to my first, minor, point about VR:

 

Don’t be a dick to anyone using VR.

 

I told the man I didn’t think it would be that funny, as the woman running the demo asked him to please stop doing that with more than a little annoyance in her voice. The rest of it went off without a hitch, and after the Microsoft rep took a moment to thoroughly clean the foam padding around the inside of the headset she asked me to step into the square.

 

The process of putting the headset on was deliberate, and a little slow, but understandably so. The rep asked me to please grab the straps on either side of my temples, and pull it tight (but not too tight) so the headset was snug. She then placed a pair of headphones over my ears and asked me to adjust them as she plugged them into a cable running down my back and into the PC being used for the demo. This was where one of my complaints about comfort and the Vive comes into play: it was difficult to set the headphones to a comfortable place. This could easily be the style of headphone, or a number of other things, but no matter how I adjusted I could only reach a point where my audio device felt “good enough” and not comfortable. Not a huge issue, and I stopped noticing after a few minutes in the demo, but still worth noting for anyone looking at investing into VR of any kind: make sure you’ve got some comfortable headphones in the event of long sessions.

 

Also those cords running down your back and coiling around your feet? Not great. During my 10 minute demo I found myself either hyper-aware of where my feet were in relation to the cords, and therefore pulling myself out of an otherwise great experience; or forgetting where they were and almost getting caught once or twice. I wondered if proper placement of your sensors, PC, and how you move about your VR space might remedy this, but frankly the three demos I experienced didn’t offer much in terms of space so I couldn’t do much to move the cords naturally with my own movements.

 

As the rep handed me the two motion controllers and asked me to bop some balloons around the virtual space I saw, the calibrations were complete and I was about to have my first taste of modern VR. I was placed onto the bow of a wrecked ship far below the surface of the water, and I have to admit that for a moment I held my breath. Not out of fear but out of my brain’s natural feeling of “Oh, you’re underwater. Hold your breath.”

 

The sensations quickly passed, I have to admit the sense of wonder did not. The ocean rippled slightly around me as I walked about the space, fish swam up and around and without thinking (despite being warned that there was no touching involved in this experience) I reached out to various things around me. This demo was certainly the visual spectacle. Looking up I could see more schools of fish, and sunlight streaming warmly down on me. Eventually a large whale emerged from the depths towards me, and even knowing it wasn’t really there; I was impressed with the sheer scale the digital creature simulated. I felt small, insignificant, and a little helpless for a moment, next to such a thing as it stopped and examined me with one large eye before swimming away.

 

This demo was entertaining to be sure, but it quickly lost its grandeur once I had seen its visual tricks. I wanted something more, something interactive. Thankfully, Space Pirate Trainer was up next. I had watched the guy before me play this on the screen that showed what the person was seeing inside their headset, and thought it looked like a piece of cake. The demo loaded up, and I grinned a little at the neon lights and Ghost in the Shell style city in the distance. This game was a wave-based shooter, where I was given two laser guns that could be set to various rates of fire (single shot, burst, and I believe automatic, but I only used single shot because I wanted to feel like an action hero). If I held one of the controllers behind my back I could swap between a gun and a shield, allowing me to block incoming shots from the drones I was supposed to be shooting. I will say one thing about this game; it doesn’t waste any times making you feel cool. I could fire in two different directions, and it felt damn good to hit some target you weren’t directly looking at while ducking under an incoming bullet from the enemies. Of course, I got a little over zealous and let myself get killed for the sake of feeling cool, but I think there’s a metaphor for video games somewhere in there. While Space Pirate Trainer was an excellent showpiece for the potential of fun to have with the motion controllers, I noticed that it didn’t look nearly as sharp as my previous demo. Enemies that were farther away were sometimes almost hard to see, and it was hard to tell if I had even hit enemies sometimes. Thought the colors were bright and certainly more varied, I don’t know if I would take that over having a clear visual experience for technology like this.

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The last demo was a sort of multimedia art studio by Google, letting me paint with various colors of ink, watercolors, fire, and patterns of stars on various canvases. This demo seemed to be a marriage of the visual fidelity of the ocean experience and the interactivity of Space Pirate Trainer, as I could create some streaks of art or make shapes in the air before me, then walk through them to literally get a new perspective on my work. This experience made me thing of the more practical, non-game, uses for VR, as one of the canvases for this was an empty dress mannequin that I imagine would be useful for fashion designers, costumers, and all other manner of clothing professionals. Or you could be like me and make shapes in space to cast shadows of eldritch terrors onto the moon.

 

At the end of my ten minutes, the screen suddenly flashed back to a Tron-style grid and I froze in place, partially because I was surprised with how abruptly it ended, and partially so the rep could get the headphones off my ears. As I exited the space the rep informed me that it would be on sale later this year and that I could pre order now, but was not pushy about taking an order from me. And as I gathered myself a little and left the store, I understood. I understood why people online had said seeing this thing was believing, I understood why I would someday want this, I understood why this might very well be not only the future for some video games (and I do mean some, not all) but many other things as well.

 

What I still wasn’t sure about was the cost. I like VR, sure. I want to play more. But for the Vive specifically (priced at $799, the greatest of the 3 VR competitors, and that’s not considering the staggering cost of a PC that can run its hardware) there is an uphill battle. I appreciate Microsoft, Valve, and HTC’s willingness to let people try this so they may understand what it really is, and I think there is a future where we all have some affordable form of VR headset, the way many of us now have some form of affordable smartphone; but as it stands even if I like the Vive, I can’t afford it. Which makes the PlayStation VR still the most attractive of the three to me, because not only is it the cheapest, but I already have a PS4 and know without a doubt that as long as I purchase PS VR, I can play it just because I own a PS4 and won’t have to worry about upgrading anything.

 

Even in a perfect world where we all might have the ability to own such wonderful technology (and I do truly think it’s wonderful) one thing kept sticking in my mind before, during, and after my time with the Vive: is the space to walk around in really necessary?

 

The person before me hardly moved at all, and at one point the rep even reminded him that he could walk around the space. I tried to walk as much as I could, but none of the demos seemed to make much use of this ability. It was amusing to literally walk through my work in the art demo, or peer over the edge of this ship into the abyss in the underwater demo, but nothing about any of the experiences make me see why I would want to pay the extra money to get that kind of experience. This was made doubly poignant when I realized that only the last demo made use of multiple buttons on the controllers, and that the track pads that rest below your thumbs on top of the controllers didn’t feel entirely accurate.

 

I know that there has been plenty written about VR and how it feels from sources who have been able to use the technology long before I have, but I thought I would add my voice to the crowd to not only say that I think there’s really something here, something that could be big and not just a Wii-style gimmick for one generation. Whatever is here is something that will have to be well groomed, tempered, and perhaps even given some kind of pricing plan like smart phones have if companies want it to stick the way I feel it should. I also wanted to write this to let average consumers who might not have seen this stuff yet in the wild know what their experiences may be like, and how showing an interest in this can send a message. Get out there and give it a try, even if you have a passing fancy in it. The worst that could happen is you rip off the headset and realize that you’re back in actual reality.

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