10 Things Parents Should Know About VR and the HTC Vive

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Mike dressed in swim gear, wearing a HTC Vive headset and snorkel, with a background shot from 'theBlu" behind him.
Here I am in ‘theBlu’, where the VR is so good I don’t want to come up for air. Thanks to Wes Ratliff for the VR Snorkel concept! Image: Mike LeSauvage

Having had my hands on a HTC Vive for a few weeks now, I’m finally done with the honeymoon phase and am ready to start talking about my everyday experience with virtual reality. While I could review the Vive at this point, it’s a less interesting discussion than you would think. Let me quickly summarize basically every Vive review:

  • The headset is surprisingly light, but not as comfortable as the Oculus Rift.
  • The screen door effect is real, but depending on your eyes, you may not notice it, or you’ll stop noticing it when you get absorbed in the virtual world.
  • You’ll wish you had a better solution for audio.
  • Room-scale brings more presence to everything; hand controllers appear exactly where you would expect and the effect is incredible. It may be hard to find the space to set up for room scale.
  • Virtual Reality is amazing.

With that out of the way, here’s ten things I’ve learned about VR as a geek and a parent. If you haven’t had a chance to try out a Vive for yourself, make a friend with a Vive owner and do so. You won’t regret it!

Technology

1. It works perfectly, but takes effort. This is not like buying the original Wii. There are base stations to position and install. You have to configure your room/play space for movement. You have to train SteamVR, a utility you run before running your VR app, to recognize your room, and redo that training if you make any changes. And just getting a game running is a process of firing up SteamVR, ensuring all devices are communicating, checking your audio settings, and then launching the game. But, once that is done, it is like you have brought a device powered by magic into your home. When you raise your hands up in the virtual space, and they perfectly track your movement, it is jaw-dropping. I’m able to see the very minor shake in my hands when I hold the controllers; the system really is that good.

A closeup of an HTC Vive base station, mounted to a vertical shower pole.
I use shower curtain rods and camera pipe mounts to make my Vive base stations (Lighthouses) quickly movable from room to room without having to drill holes. Image: Mike LeSauvage

2. It may interfere with your television remotes. The Vive’s Lighthouses are those cool boxes that allow for sub-millimeter tracking of your headset and controllers in the room-scale space. They work by sweeping the room with infrared lasers vertically and horizontally, and as I mentioned, they work perfectly! However, it turns out that our audio/video receiver does not care to share the infrared spectrum, and will often fail to register inputs on the remote control.  You may find you want to unplug the Lighthouses when you’re not in the metaverse, depending on what devices are sharing the room with the Vive.

3. Just setting up the room space is super-cool. Part of using the Vive is teaching the system the layout of your gaming space: where the objects are, the height of the floor, and the position of the Lighthouses relative to each other. Watching the system draw the shape of your room in real-time is surprisingly compelling. And while it does start to get old after you do it for the 20th time, it’s still pretty fun.

Animation of walking around a room while dots are drawn on a computer screen showing the room space being defined.
The dots aren’t in a perfectly straight line because of how I’m walking, not because of the Vive. Image: Mike LeSauvage

4. You’re going to want to hook it up to your TV. Given the current VR headset and computer cost requirements, plus an initial dearth of multiplayer experiences, virtual reality can feel like a lonely space, especially if you prefer multiplayer gaming. Also, part of the fun of VR right now is seeing people’s reactions: joy, surprise, and excitement, but all of that is more engaging if you can see what the user sees. Many games render another view of the action on your desktop display; mirroring that to your TV so you can hang out in the living room and share the VR experience makes for a fun group activity.

Parenting

5. Your kids can use it. OK, technically the product safety information from HTC states that “The product was not designed to be used by children”, so everything past that is on you. There is precious little research on the effects of VR on young minds, but my personal opinion is to make sure my kids are in a safe place and supervised; the rest is just down to human vision. The real limiting factor may be that the inter-pupilary distance (IPD), the distance between a user’s eyes, can only be adjusted down to about 61mm on the Vive. My kids’ eyes are about 56mm apart, so it’s a bit of a stretch. Happily, it hasn’t caused the same issues it did to me when I wore a headset configured much wider than my IPD at a demo at PAX West; in that case I lost the ability to focus in the real world for five minutes after I took it off! Both my kids (9 and 11) have had a blast, painting in Tilt Brush and doing “work” in Job Simulator. While we haven’t seen any ill effects so far, they do buy into the virtual world faster and more deeply than adults, and their experience seems to stick with them for longer. My son tried to pick up a glass by tapping it with his hand and contracting his index finger shortly after a VR session!

Family sitting on a couch watching a girl with a VR headset playing the HTC Vive, with Job Simulator on the TV behind her.
Family VR time with ‘Job Simulator’. Image: Mike LeSauvage

6. VR will have problems with harassment. I saw some early discussion on harassment in VR and found myself wanting to dismiss it as sensationalistic. I was actually hopeful that the mere fact that you would be the actor in the virtual space would mean that people would bring many of their real-world manners and curbs on extreme behavior with them into VR. However, my first evening in AltspaceVR, a social gathering app,  showed me that this may not be the case. The room I joined had a few people behaving lewdly with the female avatars that were present, pretending to grope, and so on, and it was clearly not appreciated. I then saw what amounted to a bullying discussion where someone decided they were going to harangue someone else about what country they lived in. That aggressor was very loud, and stood very close to the their target, who was stammering out quiet responses. While the idea of standing too close and being intimidating may sound a bit silly as we have no substantive form in VR, my experience is that you maintain your sense of personal space in virtual reality. When that same aggressor turned his attentions to me I had to back away and block him. It was a disturbing introduction to AltspaceVR, which is unfortunate, as I went on to have a blast there, meeting some very cool people and sharing fun experiences with them.

As a parent, as with all online experiences, you’re going to want to monitor and gate what your children are allowed to do.

Presence

7. VR feels real. When you start reading about VR, the term presence shows up almost immediately. I like the definition from the ResearchVR podcast: presence is the subjective perception of being there. The effect varies based on the person, technology, and game/app, but I find I quickly and deeply buy into VR experiences on the Vive. In the office of Final Approach there is a wooden desk. At one point I needed to adjust my headset, so I began to place my hand controllers on the desk , thankfully realizing my mistake at the final moment: it wasn’t a real desk and I wasn’t wearing the wrist straps (I always wear them now). Given that start, it was only a matter of time until I basically fell over: I was reaching over a counter in Hover Junkers to put a robot bartender back at his post, and failed to realize that the virtual counter had no substance. In my family, it’s not just me: my children have tried to manipulate virtual objects with their elbows and legs. More surprisingly, my wife, who is not a fan of darting fish, thought she would have no issues with them in the underwater experience of theBlu. However, very soon into the experience she was waving her controllers and exclaiming: “not cool, fish!”

8. Fear. I enjoy a good scare, and it turns out that VR has the ability to be a terrifying place. The enhanced sense of presence means that relatively tame scenarios can have a much larger impact than you expect. With the ability to know where you’re looking at any given moment, games or even interactive movies will be able to time the appearance of scary elements at the perfect moment: when you weren’t looking in their direction. The Sisters teaser was one of the first scary experiences I tried, and it had me shriek a few times, but even action titles like the Budget Cuts demo have the ability to get me to yell out.

I tried to find another word to use instead of “shriek” but really, that’s what I did. Check out the video to judge for yourself. I would be terrible at fighting the supernatural.

Games for the Vive

9. There is a lot of content. Surprisingly, for what amounts to a new consumer medium, there are a lot of games out there. However, in some ways it feels like the early days of the Wii: there is a lot of experimentation going on with the room scale, so many of the games are physical in some way. I’ve had a blast playing Cyberpong VR, Fantastic Contraption, and Audioshield, but sometimes you just want to sit down to play a game. Here, Elite: Dangerous can do the job, but there is a definite lack of seated experiences for the Vive. There may be plenty on the Oculus Rift, but many games don’t cross platforms at this time, and Oculus is actively working to make that harder, having recently taken steps to shut down the ability to play Oculus-exclusive titles on the HTC Vive.

Opposing player in Hover Junkers waving, then shooting himself in the head.
This player caught my attention in ‘Hover Junkers’ by waving, and then put two rounds into his own head. Disturbing! Image: Mike LeSauvage

10. It’s ridiculously fun. Every time I put the headset on I feel a smile appear. Stepping into virtual worlds doesn’t feel like it’s going to get old anytime soon, especially with new experiences being released all the time. And I haven’t even found the time to explore 360o photos and videos yet! Whether you’re building insane machines in Fantastic Contraption, shooting ships in Elite: Dangerous, or defending against attacking beats from your music library in Audioshield, there are amazing games to be found in VR. Now add in social experiences like AltspaceVR and artistic worlds like Tilt Brush and you’ve got more content you have free time!

If you’ve got something cool to share in VR, let me know on Twitter or post in the comments!

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