Of the three competing headsets, I don’t think it’s particularly hyperbolic to state that the HTC Vive is by far the closest to realising the fantasy of Star Trek’s Holodeck. To fully immerse yourself in a world, you have to be able to get up and walk around, lean in to get a closer look at things, pick things up and interact with parts of the world in a fairly tangible fashion. The Vive lets you do just that.
It starts with the menu system, and just as there is a version of Steam’s interface designed for use within a PC screen and another that’s more easily navigable on a TV screen with a controller, there’s also one for once you’ve put the headset on and picked up one or two of the unique SteamVR controllers. Even here there are little elements of playfulness, as you can use the clickable circular touchpad on a controller to blow up a helium filled balloon, before being able to bat it around as it floats up into the ether.
I’m initially a little nervous to walk around this sparsely populated area, wary of the long and thick bundle of cables that drape down the back of my body to the floor behind me, but I soon learn that this is a relatively minor concern. Just by virtue of being behind me and heavy enough to lie flat on the floor, it’s not much of a tripping hazard, and that makes not stumbling into a wall all the easier, especially as approaching the edge of the VR area brings up a series of floating blue squares to say that this is as far as you can go.
The necessary set up for room scale VR has two base stations that define opposite corners of the rectangle in which you wish to play – up to 15 foot squared – emitting lasers that are then picked up by the sensors on the headset and at the top of the two distinctively angular SteamVR controllers. It’s this alongside the usual cocktail of gyroscopes and accelerometers that allow for the absolute accuracy and tracking of your motions within whatever world it is that you’re visiting.
It’s only once I actually wander over to the virtual computer console that I could trigger the first of the VR demos – The Blu – placing me on the deck of a sunken ship at the bottom of the sea. It lacks a degree of interactivity, but allows me to wander around and get up close to the environment. This isn’t a dead ocean, though, with stingrays swimming past, schools of fish and even the visit of a blue whale, who stops to take a very close look at me before arcing off into the murky depths, with a very convincingly close flap of its tail that had me instinctively moving my head back.
But as the demo came to the end, it was clear there was work to do. For me, that is, as I was transported to the open plan offices of Job Simulator. It’s the year 2050, and given that robots are more than capable of doing all the jobs in the world, JobBot is there to teach humans what it is “to job”, without truly understanding what a job is. It’s a quirky and fun concept in the first place, but it’s brought to life in fantastically surreal fashion thanks to VR tech and Vive.
From the outside the player looks like they’re in an odd piece of performance art, but within the world it all makes perfect sense. For the office job, your day starts with a cup of coffee and a doughnut, so you pick up a cup, get yourself a brew and bring things to your face to eat and drink them. Then it’s down to business, as I spin around to face the computer, before discovering that all of the cables are unplugged. So I reach out, pick them up and stick them in the sockets – thankfully, they snap into position – the computer itself, however, needs me to stoop down and reach under the desk.
And here’s where it starts to feel strange, because my brain tells me that there’s a desk to reach out and balance my weight upon as I look at the PC tower. There is, of course, no such desk, and my friendly PR guide gently teases me, saying that it’s surprising how many people instinctively reach for the desk.
The rest of the working day passes by without too much incident, as I throw paper airplanes, open up the filing cabinet and get my rubber stamp out to fire (robot) people – some of whom may have been the highest ranking people in the company – chill out at the water cooler with (robot) fellow workers and so on. It’s a gorgeously realised take on some of incomprehensible banality of the working day, but also an impressively fluid and flexible play pen that’s just a lot of fun to mess around in.
The third and final world on my visit had me gunning down zombies in Arizona Sunshine. After the decline of the arcades and excess peripherals in the gaming world, light gun games have also faded from view, but Arizona Sunshine shows that VR might just lead to a renaissance of sorts.
The traditional first person shooter has a number of hurdles to overcome, from simply moving through the world to the potential of motion sickness when doing so. Arizona Sunshine solves this by giving you a small space in which to stand and walk around in, letting you pick up a gun or two – wielding an SMG and a shotgun at the same time is particularly amusing – and then sending zombies your way.
I quickly came to realise that aiming down the barrel of the gun was not the way to go, but that I should rely on the red laser instead. Before I knew it, I was nailing headshots and then painstakingly trying to line up two shambling zombies simultaneously, to try and take them both down at exactly the same time. It’s not too much of a stretch in my mind for this brief demo to quickly start heading down the route of House of the Dead, or even evolving to feature enemies that shoot back at you, requiring you to physically take cover and pop out to fire back, as in Time Crisis.
Where Oculus have the initial burst of awareness and PlayStation VR has the ability to tap into the immensely successful PlayStation 4 market, I can’t help but feel that the direction the HTC Vive is taking VR has more latent potential. Certainly, both Oculus and Sony can do certain things in 3D space, but it’s the Vive which has truly embraced that notion of getting you to move around in the world and not be sat down – of course, Vive is more than capable of letting you play racing games and space sims as well.
Above all, these demos and the ones that I wasn’t able to see, show that VR has an awful lot of potential yet to be tapped. It’s not just a case of the manufacturers creating a system that works, but of developers looking at what each system can do and coming up with games and experiences that manage to get the best out of them, starting to truly place you within the game world like never before.
You can also check out our interview with JB McRee, Senior Manager of Global VR Product Marketing for HTC, and for more on the system and how it works, you can head to htcvr.com and follow the HTC Vive social media channels.