The hype is real.
I just tried HTC’s virtual reality headset Vive, and I’m certain we’re on the precipice of a major change in computing. This is going to change the world as we know it. Really.
The HTC Vive was born out of a partnership with Valve, one of the most important gaming companies in the industry: Valve runs the Steam store, which is the biggest distribution platform for online games, and the company is also famous for making several critically-acclaimed games, including the “Half-Life” series. HTC, of course, makes consumer technology products, including the gorgeous HTC One smartphone line.
So when Valve and HTC introduced the Vive at Mobile World Congress in early March, the response wasn’t just “good.” It was overwhelmingly positive. Just look at these headlines from around the web at the time:
Having just experienced the HTC Vive first-hand, I can tell you that the device truly lives up to its expectations, and then some. And this was just an early version of the headset. The final version launches later this year.
Here’s a quick rundown of what I experienced:
- I’m ushered into a hotel room in Manhattan to test out the Vive. The windows are covered with a dark shade and all of the reflective surfaces were covered, too.
- J.B. McRee, HTC’s senior manager of product marketing, explains that the final consumer version of the HTC Vive won’t require you to turn the lights off or cover all your reflective surfaces; they simply did this to ensure a stable VR experience for all the demos throughout the day.
- I don the Vive headset and McRee throws some headphones over my ears. I’m suddenly standing in a white room with a ring of applications for games and demos floating around me.
- McRee holds two symmetrical controllers, and I can see them in my white environment, just floating in the air. I instinctively grab them, and I can hold them now. The two symmetrical hand controllers are now wireless (they were wired when the Vive was introduced in March). Both controllers have small touch-sensitive pads, and triggers on the back.
- The demo starts, and I’m suddenly standing on an underwater shipwreck on the ocean floor. Fish are swimming around me, and I see the shadow of a manta ray cross the boat. I look up and see a small school of manta rays swim by. I turn around again and see a giant blue whale approach the ship and slow down, just to greet me. We have a small staring contest. I’m pretty sure I win because the whale swims away.
- The next demo begins. Suddenly, I’m in a colourful Italian kitchen. I see a cutting board, a rolling pin, a full stove, and tons of ingredients in front of me: mushrooms, tomatoes, sriracha, and more. In the background, I see instructions to make some kind of tomato stew. So I use the trigger on my hand controllers to grab the ingredients and throw them in the pot. I’m dropping some supplies occasionally, but all in good fun. I need one more mushroom, so I open the fridge and get one. Turning around in that tiny kitchen made me feel like I was actually a chef in a restaurant, not just playing a game.
- Next, I try a painting application. The environment actually looks like our hotel room, but very dark, so as to highlight the activity. A flower appears in front of me and I start using my hand controllers to paint: The right controller is my brush, and the left controller is my palette. I use the “brush” to point to the colour I want on the palette, and begin painting. I draw a bunch of squiggly circles, but then I look around my drawing only to realise it’s in 3D, not 2D. What looked like a simple 2D ball now actually looks like a spiral strand of DNA. I’ve never painted in 3D before, so this felt like an entirely novel experience.
- Finally, I’m dropped into a familiar setting: The scientific testing grounds of Aperture Labs, home to Valve’s “Portal” series, one of my favourite games. I walk around a small white and beige room, which looks like an office for a scientist or tinkerer. I’m asked to flip switches, open drawers, and fix a broken down robot. At one point, the walls of the room fall away and I’m standing in the center of a giant factory. It was awe-inspiring.
Following my demo, I had a chance to sit down with Jeff Gattis, HTC’s executive director for marketing and emerging devices. I had tons of questions about my experience, and how HTC and Valve hope to get this product into people’s homes. Here’s a brief synopsis of what I learned:
- HTC and Valve are aiming to release the Vive before year’s end. That said, it’s not certain if only pre-orders will be available by that time, or if the companies intend to ship the first batch of products out to customers before the start of 2016. We will learn more in October at an HTC event, apparently.
- As McRee previously told me, lights and reflective surfaces won’t be much of an issue for the final consumer release. HTC and Valve are taking into account that most people’s living rooms also have tables and counters, as well as televisions, so they’re building in smart ways for Vive users to navigate those spaces safely without bumping into furniture, or even stepping on a cat.
- Vive content (games, demos, and more) will be available through the Valve VR store, but considering many developers for Facebook-owned Oculus Rift will also want to build applications for the HTC Vive, it’s likely there will be other ways to download virtual reality content.
- Many brands have reached out to HTC to start building applications for Vive. All the big car companies, including Mercedes, want to use the Vive to create immersive virtual reality experiences for their customers, but plenty of other huge companies, like Nike and Coca-Cola, are also getting involved early.
- HTC and Valve will soon announce the PC requirements for the Vive, but both companies want to offer this experience to as many people as possible. So as HTC and Valve work on lessening the requirements for Vive to work — it’s mainly about having a capable graphics processor — Gattis insists Vive will work on Windows PC, Linux, and Mac.
The biggest takeaway from my talk with Gattis, however, was that Vive’s potential is almost limitless.
Virtual reality experiences, or the ability to transport a person to any place at any time to experience anything you could dream of, have tons of applications in almost every major industry you can think of.
Kids love visuals, and with virtual reality, you can take them on a field trip without ever leaving the classroom. You can also teach them things like animals, biology, and history, just by taking them to those places in virtual settings.
Games are a popular application for virtual reality, but imagine being able to sit courtside at a Los Angeles Lakers game without needing to visit the Staples Center. Imagine being able to watch a live concert, in perfect 3D, without needing to stand in a mob of people.
Doctors, researchers, and patients can learn more about the human body, particularly with regards to conditions and treatments, to improve internal practices and patient care. Plus, spending time in virtual reality I imagine is extremely therapeutic; for a period of time, you forget you’re in the real world, and that immersion is helpful as a means of distraction.
Shopping online isn’t always easy, but trying on virtual clothes, or being able to see and manipulate a product in the virtual world could be a helpful tool for making purchase decisions.
Simulation is an important part of training, and military groups have long used virtual reality for things like flight and vehicle simulation, as well as battlefield training. As these tools improve, our soldiers will be better prepared for what’s out there, and they won’t need to spend money on using expensive physical tools to do so.
As Microsoft showed off in its HoloLens demo, being able to create and manipulate 3D objects in real-time — and potentially even print out those 3D objects from a nearby printer — could have massive implications for the maker community. With fewer barriers to creation, more people can design and construct systems large and small — it could even help engineers create houses, or new forms of transportation.
Right now, the Vive is more or less a solo experience. But Gattis said HTC is certainly looking into making the virtual reality experience a social one, where you can meet and chat with people in a virtual environment, even if those people are on the other side of the globe. Some companies have even created these kinds of applications: A company called AltspaceVR, for instance, once showed me how multiple people’s avatars could interact with each other in real-time, exploring virtual spaces or even just watching YouTube videos together.
Many of these virtual experiences are in development right now, but after my brief 30-minute demo with HTC, I’m convinced of VR’s limitless potential. It’s immersive, it’s functional, it’s intuitive, and it’s addictive. Taking off the Vive was, dare I say it, sad. My colleague Antonio Villas-Boas tried the Vive after I did, and his reaction upon taking off the headset summed up the experience perfectly: “Well, thanks for ruining reality for me!”
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