One minute I’m sat in the cockpit of a space ship, inching my way to my allotted docking port, the next I’m on a bizarre tennis court playing (tennis) with myself. Then I befriend an adorable little robotic concertina dog, throwing sticks off the side of a mountain for it to fetch, before stepping into the cockpit of a race car. None of this is surprising for people with even the vaguest familiarity with video games, but what virtual reality gives us is the ability to trick yourself into believing that you’re really in that space. As the SteamVR background proudly states, “This is real”.
Having come out at the start of April, hot on the heels of the Oculus Rift, it’s taken a while for us to get our hands on the HTC Vive and start to put it through its paces. Where Oculus and the upcoming PlayStation VR are relatively stationary experiences that tend to restrict you to a seated position within a camera’s field of view, the Vive invites you to get up and walk around, crouch to peek under a desk, and reach out into world in which you’re stood.
Getting there, however, can feel like having to catch a replacement bus service when the trains aren’t working. It’s not that setting the whole system up is difficult, but it takes time and you just wish it could be a bit quicker.
The Vive comes inside a huge box that’s more than big enough to hold a PC. Taking off the lid, you see why. The head mounted display, the two uniquely designed controllers and the two lighthouse base stations are safely ensconced in large foam inserts. It’s only upon removing those foam inserts that you uncover the unholy mess of chargers and cables that are needed get the system up and running.
Unless you’re starting from scratch with a dull grey padded cell somewhere in your mansion-esque house, you need to clear space for the system. You can use it in “standing mode” which restricts everything to you staying in one place, but you need at least 2m x 1.5m for the system’s signature Room Scale VR. That’s bigger than it sounds; stick your arms out to either side and walk forward 3 paces for a very, very rough idea.
I’ll admit, I’ve fudged the definition of this for my play area. The lighthouse base stations aren’t high enough and are too close to the play area, and I’ve even lied when tracing the area, but hovering just a little over the edge of my bed in order to get the 2×1.5m box to fix. It just about does, but I’ve had to remove an awful lot of stuff from my room to get there. Thankfully, the chaperone system which places transparent walls around the edge have stopped me from bumping into things even though I lied to the system.
Even the software set up has a few too many, but ultimately necessary steps to it, but when you’re finally able to put the headset on and start playing, it’s all worth it. The Vive was developed in tandem with Valve and their SteamVR platform, and it’s Valve that get to do all of the introductory legwork as a consequence. There’s a whimsical joy to how they’ve brought their infographic silhouette people to life within a space akin to the Aperture Science facility, using this as a backdrop to a number of small demos.
Though you can walk around your small play area, you can teleport around The Lab by pointing and clicking in the controller’s touchpad, interacting with objects by reaching out and picking them up with a pull of the trigger – the squeeze button is used in other games. It’s in this way that you can pick up a number of pocket universes and drop them on your head, finding yourself with a bow and arrow trying the defend a gate one minute, stepping into an arcade bullet hell shoot ’em up, moving your little ship and dodging incoming fire in full 3D.
The Lab’s a perfect example of the kind of love and care that Valve can lavish on a game when they put their mind to it, but it leaves you with a bittersweet yearning for more of their games, which are so few and far between.
So it’s a good thing that the burgeoning market is full of other games try look to pick up the slack. There’s those that try to drop you into other places, such as theBlu’s underwater experience and Realities, while games like Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption and #SelfieTennis take the otherwise pedestrian and shake them up in delightfully compelling ways. They’re not big budget blockbusters or involving character studies, and the latter three feature chunky, simplistic art styles, but all show glimmers of the potential that VR holds for pure immersion.
And then there’s the games that have been there through the more experimental phases of virtual reality. Elite: Dangerous and Project Cars have had support for the Oculus Rift since the days of the first development kits, and both provide that easy seated position that all three VR systems can handle – there’s hopes that they might spread to PlayStation VR, as a consequence.
Unfortunately, that also means they don’t feel like they’re making the best use of the Vive and can be rather awkward to set up. Aside from spending far too long not understanding that the laptop – a beastly 17″ MSI GT72 Dominator Pro leant to us by Nvidia for this – was in a reduced power setting, just the fact that these are more general purpose PC games and not able to target a “one size fits all” means that there are a number of hurdles to jump through with settings.
Elite: Dangerous currently has a bug that requires you to launch it from the PC and not within SteamVR, while Project Cars places a huge version of its main menu in front of you, right up until the point it can drop you into the car. Both of them have issues with centring your head onto the in-game torso, requiring you to map a specific keyboard or gamepad key if you find yourself not centred. Not only that, but these are both games that most highlighted the grid of pixels on the screen right before my eyes, especially when trying to make out in-game text or peering off into the “distance” as I race around a track.
Even with those quirks and foibles, VR has the potential to take these games to the next level, with a fantastic sense of presence that made driving around a miserably wet Nurburgring Nordschleife feel, well, abjectly normal. We’re still waiting for technology to catch up with the dream, whether its with more powerful and more cost effective GPUs or the need for greater and greater pixel density, but even what we have right here and now can be pretty bloody amazing at times.
This has just been a first look at the HTC Vive and some of the VR experiences it opens the door to. There’s plenty more games to play, things to talk about and more to experiment with, which we’ll be doing later this week.
Our thanks to Nvidia for loaning us a VR capable laptop for the purposes of this content.