HTC Vive: Your Own Personal Holodeck, Pre-order February 29th

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HTC Vive Pre

News that the HTC Vive will be preordering February 29th, with an April release, rekindled memories of my most substantial experience from PAX Prime 2015. GeekDad’s Michael LeSauvage did a VR roundup from PAX so I had not written up a my experience with the HTC Vive. With the preordering news, however, it is time for me to share my awe-inspiring experience that was truly like no other gaming experience I’ve had.

Nvida booth at PAX Prime 2015
Thanks to Nvidia for the HTC Vive and other product demos. We’re in the future. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

While I loath lines and avoided most anything at PAX that had one, the HTC Vive is one that is worth the wait. When I arrived for my demo at the Nvidia booth they led me to a room where two techs placed the goggles and headphones on my head. They fired up their demo machine and a white 3D grid appeared around me. It’s as close as you’re going to get to stepping into a Holodeck from Star Trek at this time.

Holodeck - Screen Capture from Star Trek The Next Generation: Hollow Pursuits.
Holodeck – Screen Capture from Star Trek The Next Generation: Hollow Pursuits.
GeekDad using HTC Vive
While I look like a dolt using it, what I experienced within this room was utterly amazing. In this picture you can see the head-gear and the two controllers. Picture of me provided by NVIDIA.

I could look around the room, my view of the grid changing appropriately. Before donning the rig I had observed two controllers on the ground. Looking down with the headset on I saw them there in the virtual space. The HTC Vive was tracking the controllers’ positions and representing them in my view. As instructed, I reached down and picked them up, my view of the 3D Space changing smoothly all the time and the controllers now in my hands.

HTC Vive controllers
HTC Vive Controllers. Photo from HTC.
HTC Vive Lighthouse Sensors
These are the sensors placed on either end of the room. They detect the position and orientation of the headset and controllers. Photo from HTC.

I was in a space about 15′ by 15′. The HTC Vive tracks the user within that space with a system called “Lighthouse” that consists of two banks of infra-red sensors in opposite corners of the space. The sensors track the position and orientation of the headset as well as the controllers.

The technicians controlling the demo oriented me and had me walk around the room. As the system detected me getting close to the edge of the space, a blue line would appear in my view to indicate that I should not go beyond that mark.

They fired up the first demo, which was an underwater environment. When it began I was standing on the upper deck of a sunken ship represented in superb 3D. I could step forward to the an edge and look twenty feet down to the rest of the ship. The visual cues had me hanging over a drop off, and since I felt like I was standing on a ship, not floating like one would in water, I was carefully leaning over the side to look down. I gazed around in 3D space, looking at fish, up to the surface, back at the pilot house of the ship. At one point I turned around and was shocked to see a huge whale passing feet from me. The rig they placed on me included earphones, so all the sounds of the sea were there as well. I was able to walk around on the deck of the ship to see around the whole awe-inspiring scene.

theBlu: Encounter
‘theBlu: Encounter’ put me in an underwater scene that was simply amazing. Photo From HTC.

They started the second demo that presented a bow and arrow range. If I remember correctly it was mostly a white grid with targets, two burning torches to my sides, and a bow. I reached out with my right hand and picked up the bow, then realized that I shoot with the bow in my left hand, so I set it back down and picked it up with my left. All of this was intuitive and easy to do with the controllers in my hands. To fire the bow I just reached over my shoulder with the controller, pressed a button, and an arrow would attach to my hand as if I had drawn an arrow from a quiver on my back. Then, I placed the arrow on the bow and could draw it back as you’d expect, allowing me to release arrows at various targets. In this simple yet fun experience I was even able to light my arrows on fire by holding the tip of the arrow in the torches’ flames and managed to shoot a balloon out of the sky that must have been fifty virtual-feet up in the air as it was drifting away. This earned me a, “Nice shot!” from the Nvidia folks.

Next, they put me in a 3D drawing program. Selecting colors and pen styles, I could draw objects within the space, and then move around, viewing the art from different positions, adding details. I selected a planet from the intuitive menu triggered by the controllers and placed it in the air in front of me, and then proceeded to draw on and around it. There are hours of fun potential here. At PAX they had a drawing competition using the HTC Vive. The following may be from a similar competition. It certainly wasn’t done by me!

Image of skull by Drew Skillman
These 2D images can’t hope to portray what is seen within the system, but this picture by Drew Skillman gives you some idea of the physical depth possible. Image from HTC.

Last they put me in a Portal demo that had me interacting with elements within a room. Working on a robot, opening a drawer, pulling levers and performing other actions. Again, it was like I was there, avoiding objects as they moved near me and at one point as the floor was collapsing away (it did not go well for me in the Aperture Science Labs), I naturally backed away from the expanding chasm appearing before me. The Portal demo was awesome, but really, more of an experience to take in, like the undersea scene I started with. I got the impression there was not much I could do to change the outcome of the scenario, whereas with target practice, the drawing program, and the game I mention below, the player is in total control of how the game is going to move forward.

Sadly my experience with the HTC Vive came to an end at that point. If you want more though, check out the review by GeekDad’s Michael LeSauvage of the HTC Vive and other devices for his experience on some different demos, including Final Approach, a perfect game for this system. In this game numerous planes are trying to land at airports on your play field, and you have to select the paths in 3D space they will follow to get there.

A plane lands on a runway, it's port engine on fire.
‘Final Approach,’ sure, it looks bright and a bit cartoonish, but the verisimilitude when you’re interacting with the space is deceptively strong. Text by Michael LeSauvage. Image: Phaser Lock Interactive

The ability with the HTC Vive to see in all directions coupled with the ability to physically walk around objects was simply amazing. The space available for moving is just a ten to fifteen foot square, so this puts some interesting limitations on games. Just like with other VR options out there, something like Skyrim would have to use controller-based movement. The HTC Vive, however, could add physical movement as well in some hybrid form of control. How cool would it be to be able to physically search a space in an RPG like Skyrim by looking under and around objects. The system would work perfect for games where you’re limited to a small area like the bridge of a spaceship. But, both of these examples are thinking within a pretty closed box, forcing this amazing system to fit in existing ideas of gaming. It’s the games I am not thinking of that are going to be the awesome ones. The HTC Vive offers unlimited possibilities for puzzle games and games like Final Approach as experienced by GeekDad. I am ecstatic to see the ingenious ideas that are introduced due to the new capabilities of this system.

“When we first announced Vive ten months ago we had an ambitious goal of fundamentally changing the way people communicate and interact with the world – forever,” Cher Wang

I think they have accomplished that. I tested one other popular VR rig while at PAX 2015, and while I need more eyes-on with other VR options available, the HTC Vive seems to offer an experience like no other.

The Game
Seeing all the different VR booths with large numbers of people entranced in some simulated world, totally oblivious to their surroundings reminded me of that one episode ‘Star Trek The Next Generation: The Game’ where Wesley had to save everyone (again!) from a mind controlling video game. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

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