Let me cut to the chase. VR is real and it’s amazing. If you’re one of those people who can’t see it, or who despite the fixes in place still get sick from it, I’m so sorry but you’re missing out. I honestly hope if you’re in that small subset of people that the geniuses who make these things figure out how to fix it for you.
I first had my eyes opened to VR way back at some age I can’t even specifically remember with the Virtual Boy by Nintendo. It was SUPER basic and low power but it was stereoscopic 3D when the only other option to do that was in the pages of Popular Mechanics or happened to have access to some MIT or Silicon Valley lab. This amazing technology disappeared(not entirely but at least in popular culture) until recently when it was announced that it was finally time and that a kid out in California figured out that modern technology is ready for that. The Occulus Rift was born and I got to try a pre-DK1 unit at Quakecon 4 years ago. Let me expound on that experience for a moments to give some better context.
The booth was in the back corner of the exposition area just in front of the big Dishonored booth. They had you stand(in hind site this was a bad idea) and play a version of Doom 3 BFG Edition in VR. The headset required a bit of adjustment once it was on the user and there was a somewhat wonky calibration to the game world. Despite the headset being adjusted and the game calibrated it still threw your equilibrium off a bit. I would catch myself subconsciously adjusting for the slight disconnect between the angle of the floor in the game and what my brain was sensing of gravity by shifting my weight back over my heels. This seemed to be pretty common as they had spotters who would keep a hand behind you incase you started to fall backwards. The fidelity was fairly low and the graphical processing required was apparently high as there didn’t appear to be any AA or other graphical polish techniques when driving the game. Despite all the rough edges it was clear that this was the future. Being properly inside a world not our own.
Between now and this last weekend I’ve only touched a friends DK1 to play a very small amount of Star Citizen’s hanger demo. It wasn’t much better than that first Quakecon demo. I was seated which seemed to stabilize the experience but there was virtually no noticeable increase in resolution or image quality.
The Future Is Now
Fast forward to this past weekend 23 October 2015 and the Big Android BBQ. As myself and my friend/co-worker are riding up to the hotel we are very surprised to see the HTC VR Experience truck pulling up in front of the conference center. Definitely not what we were expecting to see at an Android Smart Phone conference. HTC does make smart phones however so it’s not uncommon to see them or their gear around the conference. Let me think out loud for a moment, this is pure conjecture with no factual evidence but…Does this hint at some kind of link between Vive, considered “Steam VR” and possibly some kind of phone delivered experience on the kit? Back on track I got to try a 20 minute demo of HTC Vive in a room with some pretty legit controllers as pictured above. I’ll break down each of the demos separately.
The first most notable thing is that the Vive demos are free standing in the middle of roughly a 15’ x 15’ room which is what the Vive spec says is the minimum for standing up and walking around. You are fully “jacked in” with the headset covering your eyes and a set of headphones covering your ears. It’s very much a sensory deprivation experiment which makes sense since it’s about replacing reality and feeding your senses something new. The controllers are a pair of sticks, similar to a Wii remote but with a few notable differences. They have a weird sort of octagonal platform with pointy bits on top and round touch pads just above your hands where you would find a Wii remote’s A button. Right away it’s obvious that something is different. There was no adjustment of lenses or anything on the headset like those early Occulus headsets required. It was primarily slip it on and go and the only instruction I was given regarding adjusting anything was simply the head strap. There was a very quick sort of tuning step in a sort of virtual lobby but this seemed to be more for ensuring head tracking was in fact working with a quick look left and look right and then a step forward to show you that the physical wall is represented by a blue wireframe wall in game.
Glub Glub I’m A Foo Goo Fish Charlie
They immediately jumped straight in to demos. The first was being instantly transported in to a location that most of us, except those who scuba dive, will probably never get to see. Standing on the deck of a wrecked ship like something out of a pirate movie. Small fish swimming all around including right up in your face. The attendants voice comes across the headset to let you know you can shoe away the fish with your controller. In this demo the controllers aren’t represented in the 3d world but the effect of interacting with the fish is accurate and immediate. They scatter as you often see real fish do when humans are around. Sting Rays swim by in small groups of two or three cautiously coming close but always just out of reach. Then there’s a large booming noise from over my shoulder. Eventually a large whale swims right up next to the boat. Giant eyeball parked right in front of me. Drifting close and then away as if the oceans currents are still bigger than the whale itself. It’s beautiful and unnerving as the sense of scale is conveyed perfectly by the fantastic stereoscopic 3D that this world is constructed in. With another booming whale sound the whale slides away with it’s huge fin barely clearing your head. The world blinks out briefly.
I find myself standing in a goofy looking cartoon colored kitchen. I begin looking around and taking in my surroundings. I realize I have large white almost Mickey Mouse looking hands where I expect to see my hands and controllers. The attendant explains that left and right triggers work the opening and closing of my funky cartoon hands. A large recipe board hangs out in front of my workstation. Cutting board in front of me on the counter and a post sitting on the stove to my right. The mushrooms were in the fridge which was to the left which required some movement. The attendant points out that there’s a timer next to the recipe board and that I should get to work putting things in the pot. Putting the right ingredients in the pot turns them in to a can of soup that I’m supposed to take out and put on the service plate and ring the bell for service. This is Cooking Mama VR and it’s just as fun as the non-VR version.
A Happy Tree Lives Over Here
Next I’m standing in a very dimly lit room. There’s some basic instructions in front of me showing the controllers but the attendant chimes in to explain before I have time to decipher what the images mean. There’s a box surrounding my left controller. The box has art tools on each side of it and you can spin the box using the round touchpad on the controller. The tool or color can be selected by pointing the other controller, acting as a sort of pen/paintbrush, at the box and pulling the trigger to select what you want. Once you’ve picked your “brush” and color you’re ready to paint. Now the brushes aren’t just different real world types but you are able to paint with fire, stars, rainbows and all manner of crazy effects. Each can be changed at will by the color wheel. The painting isn’t done on any particular surface but is fully 3D. You can reach out and paint in arcs over your head and make swirls that you can step in to the middle of. It’s a beautiful and serene experience that I could find myself getting lost in possibly for hours.
I’m once again whisked away to find myself standing in a brightly lit room resembling a cross between a hospital and a mechanics shop. Some lights on extending arms over head like the dentists office, a small garage door to my left and a stack of drawers to my right.
A voice comes over the PA and asks me to open the drawer containing a tool. I note the drawers have lights to their left and that three of the drawers have green lights while the rest have red. I decide to start at the top. I open the drawer and it’s empty. The voice over the PA chides me for being a stupid human. I try the next drawer lower. The voice points out that I’m a failure. The third drawer contains what appears to be a little illustrated office with the familiar portal example silhouette people in it only it’s in the third dimension and it’s moving. I’m informed it’s a “pocket universe” and I’ve disturbed it. At first the portal people seem disturbed and confused. The voice over the PA narrates that I’ve startled them and that they are amazed by me and now consider me their god. The portal people run around the office and raise their arms in praise. A few start to bow. The PA voice informs me I’ve disrupted the pocket universe and it must now be cleansed. I close the drawer as instructed. I can hear what sounds like fire and muffled screams.
As if this first few minutes of this demo wasn’t fan service enough now the real demo starts. I’m instructed to open the pod bay doors. I kid. I’m instructed to pull the lever and open the garage door. Behind the door lays what appears to be a 1950’s waiting room. Two portal robots, one short round one and one tall skinny one, straight from Portal 2’s co-op are waiting. The tall skinny one is thumbing through a magazine at the far end of the room sparks emanating from his joints. The shorter round robot is sitting right next to the door and gets up barely staying upright on it’s broken, sparking, leg. It makes it’s way in to the room where support arms and lighting come down around it. The robot’s parts get extruded out in front of you with a frame of holographic controls surrounding the parts. An alarm starts going off and a voice says something about a melt down. No indicators are given what is failing or where to look for it. Holographic controls over the robot parts look like something I can manipulate. I spin the parts several times looking for whatever may be wrong but I can’t find it. After a weird minute or so of the alarm and failing multiple times to identify the source of the problem that alarm shuts off and the PA voice informs me that I’ve failed and the room must be decontaminated. The robots parts fall to the floor and the tiles flip sideways to let the parts fall through in to what appears to be a bottomless abyss. The stereoscopics make this feel as though you’re suspended over some kind of bottomless pit and it’s a little disconcerting. The room begins to be taken apart around you. Panels whisked away by robotic arms. Finally a new voice comes in. Instantly recognizable it’s GLaDOS. Of course she tells you how worthless she knew you are as she looms over you scaled properly for the massive size she is from the games. Only now she’s in your face and it’s a bit stunning and a little scary at the same time.
This demo seems to be the best example of how existing game franchises need to be re-thought to do VR rather than shoe horned in to it. But it does show that there’s plenty of room and a ton of amazing experiences to be had with existing characters.
VR is real, it’s coming and it’s easy to see that there’s a new level of emersion for video games. It also nearly instantly makes you start thinking of all the neat ways it could be used outside of just games. I can see virtual cooking schools, therapy for chronic stress, and watching an 80 foot TV you don’t actually own. You can see just some of this coming to fruition here. I’m going to be owning at least one VR headset if not multiples because the future of reality is virtual.