When was the last time you burst into laughter because something you’re experiencing is abso-freaking-lutely amazing?
This happened to me on Wednesday when I tried the Vive, a virtual reality headset made by HTC and gaming platform company Valve, for the first time.
I’m now convinced the HTC Vive and similar devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift are the next biggest thing for computing.
In fact, when you think of the Vive’s endless applications, it could be one the biggest things to happen not just in tech, but in the modern world.
In a darkened room cleared of its furniture, HTC product marketing manager J.B. McRee stood with the Vive and two posts positioned diagonally opposite each other in stood in two corners. The posts were holding small cubes high up above my head that emitted invisible lasers, which helped the Vive and the multiple sensors all over its exterior recognise where I was standing and moving in the room.
I put the Vive onto my head, and my obsession with virtual reality began.
The demos were actually very similar to most VR demos I’ve seen on the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google’s Cardboard. I could look around and marvel at the digital surroundings that were limited only by the imagination of those who designed the scenes.
The key differentiator that took me from an excited state about VR to total obsession was the fact that I could move around fluidly and intuitively throughout the entire experience. (Most VR demos make you sit or stand still.)
The first demo brought me to the front deck of a sunken ship underwater while fish swam around me. The amount of detail was incredible. With the controllers in both hands, I could swat the fish, and they’d swim away in response. Silhouettes of stingrays gliding above me broke the sun’s light coming through the water’s surface, and then a huge whale cam for a swim-by.
It looked so good. The depth of field was spot on. It was clearly digitally animated, but the image was the sharpest I’ve seen on a VR headset, and it was extremely responsive to my head’s movements, which closed the gap between reality and virtual reality.
And the sound was stellar, too. I was completely immersed. The sound of a scuba gear allowed me to think I was scuba diving, and the sound of the water was intensely realistic. The notion that I was not actually underwater on a shipwreck was present in my mind, but it was distant enough to make me feel like my body was in that scene. All that was missing was the feeling of the water.
Even though I could have walked around and looked over the side of the ship, I only took a couple steps around me because I was in such awe of what was surrounding me.
But the next demo would encourage me to move around a little more. From the ocean floor, I was taken to a cartoony kitchen setting where I had to walk forwards to get to a table. White gloved hands appeared when I held the controllers in front of me, and a robotic voice instructed me to put ingredients on the table into a pot. So I did. With incredible ease.
I was picking up tomatoes and mushrooms and placing them in the pot, and I had to open the fridge next to me to get more ingredients, which I also had to walk to. I did all of this as easily and seamlessly as I would do it in real life.
I never felt that I needed to adjust to the game’s own spatial dimensions. The distance of one of my foot steps in reality felt the same in the virtual world.
I had to push the trigger button instead of clenching my fingers around vegetables and fridge handles, but it was completely intuitive, easy, and accurate. I had experienced other devices that let you use your hands to interact with your computer, like the Leap Motion, for example. The difference with the Vive is that it worked well. Very well.
Another demo let me draw with various tools. I could draw in thin air and walk around what I had drawn to inspect the 3D image I created. It was beautiful. The applications are endless for art, design, architecture, and even science and medicine.
In other Vive demos, I could walk around entire span of the room, and I never bumped into a wall as I completed tasks. I was confident I wouldn’t because the lasers I mentioned earlier create a virtual barrier that warns you you’re about to hit a wall in the real world.
So far, the size of the room needs to be under 15 x 15, or 225 square feet. But that’s bound to increase over time. And until wireless models of the Vive become available, you’re not going to want to move around too much as the Vive is still connected by some cabling that leads to some very expensive and high-performance computers.
Jeffrey Gattis, director of emerging devices marketing at HTC, told my colleage Dave Smith (who came with me to the demo) that the scenes are responsive. They adapt to the size of the room where you’re using the Vive, and each scene is designed to let you use the Vive in a very small space.
It’s the closest thing we currently have to Star Trek’s “Holodeck.” And if you’re not familiar with the Holodeck, then think of the Vive as a tool that lets you plug in to the Matrix. And like in The Matrix, the real world looks bland, decrepit, and sad when you take the Vive off. I have post-Vive depression right now, but it’s now just a matter of time until it becomes a reality.
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