BARCELONA –– “My God.”
Those are the only words I manage to stutter as I take off HTC and Valve’s new Vive VR headset.
I’ve been wearing the alien-looking headgear for about 30 minutes, and my demo has come to an end. An HTC representative has taken the VR helmet from me, and all I want to do is snatch the Vive and jump back into the immersive world that HTC and Valve have crafted.
The Vive, which will make its way to developers this spring and consumers later this year, is the most advanced virtual reality headset I’ve tried, thanks to the captivating experience realized by the combo of quality hardware and the Steam VR operating system.
HTC surprised everyone by introducing the Vive during a press conference at the Mobile World Congress here in Barcelona. It’s a collaboration with the popular gaming company Valve, which is responsible for such megahits as Dota 2, Half Life, and Portal. There’s no pricing for the headset, but chances are it will cost a good amount –– more, at least, than the $350 for the competing Oculus Rift headset.
The Oculus Rift “Crescent Bay” prototype, which debuted at CES 2015, offers some movement functions, but it’s far more restrictive than the Vive, limiting you to only a few steps.
The Vive tracks your movement and replicates that it in the game. It will still need to be plugged into a PC, and you’ll also need to set up two light boxes in your room to enable it. The light boxes bounce signals off the Vive’s various external sensors to help orient the headset within the space.
The result is a kind of virtual fence that kept me from bumping into the room’s walls while walking around the virtual space. In one part of the demo, I was able to explore the deck of a sunken shipwreck, while another allowed me to walk around a tabletop strategy board game between two miniature armies.
With other headsets, you would have to stand still or sit and move your character with a traditional gaming controller. Others afford you a relatively small range of movement.
Physically moving around a room and having that movement translated into movement before your eyes is an intriguing, and rewarding, gaming experience for virtual reality headsets.
When I ducked down, I was able to see underneath the battlefield, where tiny skeletons lay undisturbed. Dropping farther to the floor let me see below the game board itself, revealing the wooden table that supported this Lilliputian world.
In addition to giving you the ability to walk within a computerized environment, the Vive comes with two handheld controllers that let you interact with what’s around you.
The controllers — which were wired in the demo but will be wireless when the Vive ships to developers — were incredibly lightweight and featured clickable thumb pads and trigger buttons.
During one demo, I was tasked with whipping up a soup in the kitchen of a restaurant.
Moving the controllers corresponded perfectly with the motion of the cartoonish white gloves floating in front of me, and pressing the triggers allowed me to pick up different ingredients and place them into a pot.
At that point, I decided to test the freedom afforded the player in this virtual space, so naturally I grabbed a plate and threw it across the room. I then did the same with eggs, carrots, and slices of bread. Making a mess in the kitchen was never so much fun, or so easy to clean up.
From the kitchen environment, I moved to a painting game. Here you stand in a virtual room and, using the left controller, select different paint colors and patterns. The right controller governs your brushstrokes and speed.
I chose to paint a large-scale picture using blue flames, rainbows, and green stencils. This isn’t just MS Paint on steroids, though. Each of your brushstrokes adds not only color and form to your painting but real-time lighting effects, too.
By the time I was finished, my painting had a ghostly glow that reflected off of my virtual brush and palette.
The kicker, though, was that everything I painted existed in three dimensions, so I was able to draw a circle and stick my head through it. Or paint a landscape and step behind it. Artists can literally walk into the worlds they create. It’s genuinely breathtaking.
The pièce de résistance of the demo, however, was when I was able to enter one of Valve’s most beloved games, Portal.
Gamers know Portal for its ingenious puzzle designs, its computerized antagonist GLaDOS, and its subversive sense of humor. All three were on display on the Vive VR demo. I was able to pull open drawers to reveal micro-universes of stick figures that, upon seeing me, dropped to their knees and began worshiping me as a god.
Apparently, the game didn’t approve of that and told me to close the drawer, at which point it incinerated the stick figures’ world.
Throughout the demo there were references to Portal’s various characters and features. Aperture Science logos lined the virtual walls.
Console and PC games may have incredible graphics, but you still have to imagine what it’s like to walk around their worlds. With the Vive, though, I was able to experience one of the most incredible gaming environments firsthand. For a brief time, I was part of a game that was originally only immersive in the mental sense. Now you can physically transport yourself into this brilliant world.
Despite the incredibly immersive experience it offers, the Vive does have some shortcomings. The light boxes that allow you to create the virtual fence that keeps you from bumping into walls will probably be tough for some gamers to set up in their homes, especially in places where space is at a premium.
I’m also not sure how the Vive will work with games that require a lot of forward motion. You can only move in one direction in your home so much before you hit a wall.
The headset is also a bit bulky, though not heavy enough to be uncomfortable. I actually wore it with my eyeglasses on without issue.
And for now, the Vive has to be tethered to a PC with wires, which leaves plenty of opportunity for you to trip while exploring your favorite game.
To be honest, though, I’d be willing to break a hip (figuratively) for the chance to experience in my own apartment what I did in HTC and Valve’s demo. It shows that much promise.
As I lifted the Vive from my head and handed it back to the HTC representatives running the demo, all I could do was smile and chuckle like a giddy child.
It was at that point that I realized what my biggest problem with the Vive was: I don’t own one yet.