Lemons, limes, cantaloupes, and watermelons hurl in my direction as I stand in the middle of a Japanese dojo. I grip a samurai sword in both hands and slash without abandon, slicing the airborn fruit in two. A sign hangs in my field of view, tallying my score in real time.
Playing a “Fruit Ninja” knockoff in virtual reality feels like a fight scene out of “Kill Bill.”
Call me The Bride, because I am slaying.
I recently got my hands on a developer kit version of the HTC Vive, a virtual reality headset that’s currently blowing away expectations. It’s the product of a collaboration from phone manufacturer HTC and gaming company Valve, responsible for the immensely popular Steam digital distribution platform. People are particularly amped about the Vive because it introduces 360-degree room-scale motion tracking. What?! What does that mean?
Simple: you can get up and interact with the virtual universe around you, without bumping into real walls and real furniture.
Now, I should preface this by saying, I am not a gamer by any means. The last video game console I owned was a 1998 Atomic Purple Game Boy, and I alternated playing “Pokémon Yellow” and “Mary Kate and Ashley: Get a Clue.” That said, having spent a few dozens hours with the HTC Vive, I’m convinced that this virtual reality headset will make a gamer out of anyone — including me.
The HTC Vive is unlike any virtual reality headset
Most virtual reality headsets plant the user on a couch and allow them to passively take in the world around them. For example, the objective of Samsung Gear VR’s stunning puzzle game “Land’s End” is to manoeuvre giant boulders and connect patterns. You focus your eyes on a rock to select it, and swing your head to reposition it.
Here’s what the HTC Vive’s version of this interaction would look like: Physically walk over to the boulder. Grab it, and launch it over your head. It’s as simple as real life.
Valve advances the virtual reality experience with a system called Lighthouse.
These small black boxes send lasers across your gameplay space, up to 15-by-15 feet, and tell your computer the position and orientation of the headset and controllers within the zone. When the user risks bumping into a “real world” obstacle, faint blue lines appear. It’s reminiscent of the first down line you see when watching a football game on TV.
What’s most incredible about the HTC Vive is the sense you’re really there.
The first game I played was a demo version of “Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives” by Owlchemy Labs.
Like the game’s name suggests, it’s the year 2050. I enter what appears to be an ordinary-looking office. My cubicle contains a computer, a phone, and an assortment of paper aeroplanes. Upon closer inspection, I notice some things are off.
There are no humans, for instance. And my “boss” is a floating PC monitor that wears eyeglasses. Right.
Looking down, I see a pair of floating Mickey Mouse gloves that move according to how I move the controllers. When the demo prompted me to make a cup of coffee, I took a few hesitant steps in what I thought was the direction of my (real) kitchen counter. To grab a mug, I moved my hand in its direction and squeezed the controller’s trigger. I set it down under the brewing machine by releasing the trigger. It wasn’t rocket science.
Typically when I try playing video games that require first- or third-person movement, I become frustrated easily by my lack of coordination.
Steering through the woods in “The Witcher 3” or dodging zombies in “The Last of Us” seem like impossible tasks because I can’t wrap my mind around angling both analogue sticks at the same time. With the HTC Vive’s motion-tracking technology, the controllers felt like natural extensions of my hands. Movement was intuitive.
The system isn’t perfect, of course. Some design flaws managed to shake me into reality, such as when I accidentally hit the controller’s home button (which is poorly located just below the trackpad), or when my feet got tangled in the cable that runs from the headset to the PC.
I had to take a break after about 30 minutes of gameplay because I felt a little fuzzy. But I was mostly just winded. Here I am slicing and dicing in “Ninja Trainer,” in my pajamas.
I’m convinced virtual reality is the future
If you think strapping on a headset and plugging into the Matrix will turn us all into people incapable of interacting with each other in the real world, set your worries aside.
The HTC Vive shows what the gamer sees in a window on his or her PC. When my friend took a turn navigating a dark and scary crypt — a demo I did not have the courage to try — I could follow along and react as she descended the staircase and encountered an undead creature. When it was done, we talked about how we both almost peed our pants. It was a shared experience.
I can only imagine what kind of adventures we’ll go on in the future.
I want to know what it’s like to live in colonial times. I want to travel to foreign lands I can never afford to visit, and take a yoga lesson on the beach. And, in private, I definitely want to try VR porn.
Unfortunately, the HTC Vive left my apartment this week and was returned to its owner. It will be a long time before I experience any of those wish-list items, mostly because there’s no way I can afford it. The system is available for pre-order for $799, $200 more than Facebook’s Oculus Rift and $300 more than the PlayStation VR.
Still, the HTC Vive surpassed all expectations. It didn’t feel like I was playing a video game. It felt like I was living life.