Hands-on with the HTC Vive VR at Pax Prime 2015

We live in an amazing age. We all carry computers in our pocket which have more power than they took to the moon, and give us access to the sum total of all human knowledge at the touch of a button. Such things have been in the realm of science fiction not simply since I was a kid, but since my parents were young. 

Virtual reality is another sci-fi dream that's close to becoming actual reality. While most of the early press on the VR front has been given to the Oculus Rift, there’s another VR option on the horizon which is going to give Facebook's Oculus a run for it’s money: the HTC Vive powered by Steam VR.

Move your feet

This past weekend at PAX Prime I got to spend some quality time with the HTC Vive running through several tech demos as well as a demo for an upcoming game. What sets Vive apart from the competition is that it is not a stationary experience. While headsets like the Oculus gives you the ability to look all around and see the environment, the Vive actually lets you walk around that environment on your own two feet and interact with objects using your own hands.

The movement part is accomplished via laser position sensors which can create a physical space, up to a 15 foot square, for you to move around. The interaction part is done with a wand-like game controller in each hand which can be used to simulate hands in order to pick up items, open drawers, and more. Add in the cameras for tracking your head movement and you have a true virtual reality space you can move within and explore.

Over the course of the PAX weekend I was able to try a Steam VR demo loop as well as Cloudhead Games' The Gallery Ep1: Call of the Starseed. The demo loop began with TheBlu by WEVR. This was a simple look and explore demo which had you standing on the bow of a sunken ship as marine life swam around you. It culminated with a close encounter with a blue whale which a fairly exhilarating experience.

The Job Simulator by Owlchemy Labs put you in front of a kitchen counter with numerous ingredients and a recipe for soup. Here you used the controllers as hands to pick up the tomatoes and drop them in the pot, as well as pick up a salt shaker and shake it over you base. You could also walk over the fridge to grab anything that wasn’t on the counter.

Demo 3 was Tilt Brush by Skillman & Hackett (now owned by Google). This turned one of your wands into a paint brush and the other into your palette. You select the color and type of design you want and then create three dimensional art. I’m about as far from an artist as you can get so my creation ended up being an abstract mess, but it was very colorful. Somebody with skill can likely do some very special things with this.

Finally, Valve’s own Aperture Robot Repair drops you into the Enrichment Center in an experience that any Portal fans need to see. You get up close and personal with Atlus and the demo culminates with a face to face lecture from GLaDOS. I was excited and terrified at the same time.

Call of the Starseed and technical challenges

While each of the smaller demos dropped you into a closed room, forcing you to stay within the bounds of the laser sensors (the calibration was dead on, whenever I had to interact with something on a wall I felt my hand bump up against the wall of the room I was in), Call of the Starseed by CloudHead Games was a VR adventure game that allowed you to truly move throughout a virtual world.  Since you can’t walk in a straight line forever, as you’ll hit the walls of your own room eventually anyway, their game includes the “blink system.” By holding down a button on one of the controls a location reticule appears. Then you simply look to the location you want to move to and release the button. The world briefly blinks out of existence and an instant later you are standing in that location with the walkable space around you.

While the Starseed demo dropped you into the action without much explanation, the game has pretty standard adventure game mechanics with items to pick up and use to solve puzzles in order to progress. Actions included picking up items and throwing them, reaching behind you to pull your backpack full of items to the front, using both hands to cause items to interact with each other, and firing a gun. Each action felt smooth and simple.

There were only a couple of issues which prevented the HTC Vive experience from being perfect. One was cable management. The wires that connect the rig to the computer were plenty long enough to connect, but this meant that depending on how I moved I was stepping on the cable if I needed to back up or possibly getting slightly tangled in it depending on how I turned.

Secondly, the game’s location sensors are so well tuned that the game knew that I was a shorter-than-average human male. As such, tables during Call of the Starseed were taller for me than for other players, making the items on them slightly more awkward to obtain. It’s a potential problem that might limit accessibility of this technology for some players.

It feels utterly amazing to say that VR is a real thing that’s so close to being available to the public. While nobody was willing to quote a firm release date for the Vive, a rep did tell me they hoped to have the Vive available this holiday season which, if it happens, will give it a jump on the Oculus, which is not expected until 2016.

Price points are another issue entirely and are an utter mystery at this point. Vive has the potential to be a “premium” option compared to Oculus or other competitors, as it will have more parts, but the added capabilities will likely make it a product worth considering.

Welcome to the future.