It’s been rearing its goggled head for a few years but virtual reality is finally almost upon us. 2016 will be the year of VR as all the heavy hitters finally get their headsets on shelves for consumers. But which one will succeed? We’ve been demonstrating Oculus Rift for several years now, we even hopped over to console and sampled PlayStation VR, but after a demo with the SteamVR HTC Vive, it’s only now that we’re truly convinced that this can be the future of gaming. This is the Holodeck made real and it’s amazing. Not a Star Trek fan? Well, consider it the future.
Looking at the Vive’s stats, it’s an impressive set up. Each eye gets a crisp 1080 x 1200 resolution share of the OLED screen and the field of view is a satisfying 110 degrees. While these – and a partnership with the Valve corporation – are selling points alone, there’s also the small matter of a full 15ft by 15ft space to play in. The Vive uses room tracking technology to hand over a full 360 degree gaming experience in your living room. Yes, this means literally wandering around inside games using sensors on the headset and on the controllers. Best move the Ikea furniture. You’re going to need space.
Before you even don the headset, the first thing you’ll clock is the unique controllers. HTC has developed a pair of custom SteamVR sticks that have a haptic scroll wheel in thumb position and a trigger on the underside. The interesting shapes at the end of each stick are on tracking duties as these controllers are, in essence, your hand replacements when your head’s in the game. Not only do these need to be tracked as you stand still, but the fact that you can move around the room means the miniature satellite dishes are probably warranted.
The images below are of the prototype model that we used but an updated final set will be revealed closer to the April 2016 release date. Even in this early version, the controllers are light and tactile in our hands, and comfortable enough that the fact that you’re holding anything at all quickly disappears when the headset is on.
An Underwater Paradise
Our first demo with the headset took place underwater and was instantly staggering. From standing in a white loading room, we were suddenly on the deck of a wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean. There was nothing else but endless blue and looking up, we could see the sun and dappled surface of the sea. Fish were swimming overhead and we instantly had a giddy grin as we took in the view. The quality of the visuals on offer here and high refresh rate (90hz) means you won’t be admiring the graphics, you’ll be trying to convince your brain that you don’t actually need to hold your breath.
Wandering around the deck, we gazed over the edge and down to the seafloor before retracing our steps and walking in the other direction. There is a slight awareness of the wire as the set-up still very much needs plugging into your PC, but it’s a fleeting concern. Another handy mechanic means that when you get too close to your real live walls, a clear grid pops in front of you to indicate that you’ll end up wandering into something very solid if you keep going in the same direction. By the time an enormous blue whale swam past and eyeballed us slowly, we were fully convinced that we’d seen the future; the immersion on offer here is ground-breaking. But that wasn’t all.
3D art? Yes please!
Our second demo was a drawing simulator. While on paper that might sound far less dramatic than a giant blue whale to dodge, in reality it was even more impressive. Using the right – or indeed left – controller to draw in mid-air, we created real shapes in the virtual world. Want to draw a full size Batman to stand next to and walk around in a 360 degree space? You got it. Want to draw him entirely in fire or multi-coloured stars? You’ve got that too. This isn’t Microsoft Paint. This is every creative tool in one virtual space.
While the whale demo was impressive for immersion, it was the controllers that shone here. Not only was the tracking consistently perfect but using the buttons in game with the clear virtual controller was a breeze. The fluidity on offer was staggering. One hurdle VR needs to overcome is the ease of interaction in these non-existent worlds and the SteamVR controllers manage this seamlessly.
Zombie shooter gore-fest
Our final game was the least tech demo-like of them all and far more like the games that will sell VR. We were taking on hordes of undead in a zombie shooter but this wasn’t on rails. You could pick up your guns and walk around before taking on the brain-hungry pack. This is the perfect mash up of the previous demos. Instant immersion and slick tracking technology coming together to create a fully realised world. Try convincing your brain you aren’t taking on the undead and it’s a difficult task. From buzzing gun feedback from the controllers to 360 degree sound, this is a world of gaming potential that once tapped by big publishers will change the face of gaming.
Our Minds: Blown
So whales, zombies and drawing. That was all it took to convince us that the HTC Vive has everything VR needs to take over the world. A comfortable and impressive headset, excellent controllers and the small matter of working with Valve all combine to make an irresistible package. Bring on April 2016. Things are going to get interesting.
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