As recently as last week, the phrase “virtual reality headset” was, for me, a guaranteed ticket to a midday nap. I’d grown up amid the fizzle of projects like Sega VR and Virtual Boy; I’d seen several variations on more modern smartphone-powered visors; I’d tried out an Oculus headset. While I enjoyed the latter experience, I also forgot about it pretty quickly. With its ungainly hardware, nausea-inducing graphics, and limited mass adoption, VR has never topped my list of fun things in tech.
So when HTC brought us to Barcelona for a briefing on its new virtual reality device, I was skeptical. A lifetime obsessing over handheld gadgets had me more excited for the HTC One M9 and HTC Grip the company had already shared with us. With no hardware to show at that first Vive briefing, all we had to go on was one big announcement –a partnership with respected game developer Valve– and vague promises of a virtual reality experience like no other, offered under the brand “HTC Re Vive.” What’s it like? we asked. You need to experience it to understand it, they said. Could we try it? we asked. No, not yet, they said. Wait till Thursday, they said.
I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. My colleagues from Android Authority and Mobile Geeks were equally underwhelmed when we met for our pre-MWC podcast, less than ten minutes of which was devoted to HTC’s mystery product (skip to 1:11:05 for our early thoughts):
Contrast that with the very next podcast recorded less than a week later (after we’d all tried the Vive) and … well, you don’t need to look much past the thumbnail to see how everyone felt about it. No timecode necessary either, since basically the whole show becomes an HTC Re Vive love-fest:
How could a single hands-on experience lead to such a dramatic shift? How could something as ho-hum as a VR headset make ten-year MWC veteran Sascha Pallenberg call it the most exciting product he’s ever seen at the show? I’ve spent the past four days trying to find a way to explain it. And the only way I can do that is to take you through my own HTC Re Vive experience, step by step.
The demo starts at MWC 2015 in a nondescript white room at HTC’s booth, roughly 20 feet by 15 feet and almost completely empty. The only objects in the space are a computer in the far corner, two fist-sized sensors on the walls faintly glowing with red laser energy, and the HTC Re Vive headset itself resting on a small pedestal in the center of the floor. The man running the demo, a tired but friendly engineer named Graham, walks me to the center of the room and asks me to put on a “belt” of sorts. It’s a harness that wraps around my waist and gathers all the cables streaming from the HTC Re Vive headset, which is still a very early version of the developer hardware (the final consumer version should limit these to a single cable running from the visor to the computer).
He peels off the Vive’s hygienic plastic wrapper and hands the unit to me, and I get my first hands-on with HTC’s take on virtual reality. The Vive is big and bulky, but not as heavy as I’d expect. It’s black trimmed with dark gray and dotted with pits and ports and equipment bays of all kinds, looking more like a prop from some dystopian future movie than an actual, real-world product. Graham tells me to put it on like a SCUBA mask: face first, then the elastic strap around the back of my head. He follows a second later by clamping a pair of headphones around my ears, and suddenly I’m no longer in the same room.
Learning the rules
I’m in a white expanse of space, similar to the image above but with the far wall replaced by a distant and vague horizon. Floating around me are tiny crosses spaced at regular intervals, forming a kind of three-dimensional grid of reference points, a cloud of plus signs that I now exist within. I’ll find out later that the image comes courtesy of two 1200×1080 displays (one for each eye) refreshing 90 times every second. The image extends beyond the periphery of my vision; as far as my brain is concerned, my body is now standing at the center of this ethereal white room, which I can see more of by moving my head.
Graham’s voice clicks into my earphones to ask if the focus needs to be adjusted (it doesn’t), and then he tells me he’s passing over the two hand controllers I’ll need to interact with the environment. I’m about to ask how I’ll see the controllers with the rig on my head, when they suddenly appear in the lower-left corner of my vision. Actually it’s not the controllers themselves, but 3D representations of them that correspond in virtual space with the locations of the real ones in the real world. Neither Graham’s arms nor mine are reproduced in the virtual room, so the handhelds appear to float in the void as I take hold of them and put my fingers on the controls: a trigger, a trackpad, and a thumb key on each.
Graham has to prepare a few things on his computer, so he tells me to mess around a bit. “Walk around and get a feel for the place,” he urges. I do, stumbling slightly over the cables in the process. After a few steps in one direction, a blue grid appears in front of my face. “That’s the edge of the environment,” he says; “go any further and you’ll walk into the real wall.” I reach out my hand and find he’s right: the actual room ends here in cold sheetrock, so I walk myself back to the center. “Go ahead and pull your left trigger,” he says. A red balloon inflates at the tip of my left-hand controller as I do, separating when full and hovering right in front of my face. “You can bat it away if you want to,” he says; sure enough, a light whack with one of the handhelds sends the balloon sailing off into the ether, complete with the dull thunk of a palm on rubber. It’s fun in a simple kind of way, enough to put the kind of goofy smile on my face that might come from a particularly engrossing video game, but it’s nothing mind-blowing.
Then Graham says “okay, we’re going underwater now,” and my whole world comes apart.
Exploring the infinite abyss
There’s the briefest flash of HTC/Valve branding, IMAX-sized in front of my eyes, and suddenly the white holodeck grid dissolves into a blue-green expanse of seawater. A half-mile above my head, the sun shines through the waves as a group of manta rays swims languidly along. As their shadows fall across my face I look down to discover that I’m standing on the rotted deckplanks of a sunken ship; I turn around to see its wheelhouse rising above me. Graham tells me I can shoo away the small fish swimming around me with my controllers, but I’m not good at it: the fish are too small and my movements too clumsy, and all I succeed in doing is whacking my headset with one of the controllers (again, it’s a big device). So I give up on the fish-fighting and move to the deck’s edge to see what I can see. Keep in mind that every move I’m making in the virtual space is a reflection of actual movements in the real world, so I’m physically walking around the demo room as I step to the “ship’s railing.” I look down to see the sea floor dropping out beneath me –the ship apparently rests on a precipice– and the true scale of this virtual world opens up before my eyes.
As if to underscore the point, a large form gradually materializes out of the corner of my left eye. As it swims closer I realize it’s a whale: massive, ponderous, filling my field of view as it glides to a stop right in front of me, its eye slowly blinking as it watches me watching it. I back away, overcome with a sudden unease, and I realize I’m breathing more rapidly. My knees are shaking and a part of me –the part that believes it’s two thousand feet underwater staring down a whale– is straight-up scared.
“If it makes you feel better,” a voice in my ears says, “the whale isn’t aggressive.” Graham to the rescue.
I grow more accustomed to the virtual world as the demo opens up into a series of different environments that help me hone my skills in this alternate dimension. The ocean gives way to a playful cartoony kitchen, where a snarky robot guides me through picking up various ingredients with my “hands” and dropping them into a pot. I follow the rules for a bit before Graham, presumably bored after three days of watching people cook virtual egg sandwiches, urges me to misbehave a bit. I put an egg in the microwave and make it explode; it’s a good time. Then the demo moves on: in a fun inversion of scale, I’m hovering over a card table with legions of warring miniature figurines. Crouching brings my head down to their level and reminds me of playing with action figures and miniature vehicle models as a kid – only these move of their own volition, are armed with “real” weapons, and they “really” explode when shot. Then we’re on to the next thing: I’m given a palette in my left hand and a paint brush in my right, and I spent a few minutes painting – not on a canvas, but in the open air right in front of me. I walk around my three-dimensional masterpiece –tripping over the damn cable again– and immediately understand the opportunities for engineers and hardware designers, the advantages of visualizing a design in 3D space before building a prototype.
As if reading my mind, Graham drops me into the final demo of the session. It’s a fully realized rendering of an Aperture Science laboratory from the Portal game series, and my mission – after the requisite ribbing and prodding from wisecracking computers – is to repair the malfunctioning Atlas robot. It stumbles through a door and immediately unfolds into an exploded service configuration, its thousands of components hovering and spinning in mid-air as a disembodied voice talks me through an impossibly complex repair procedure. Of course, my ineptitude is preordained by the Valve software: the timer runs out, Atlas tumbles into a useless heap at my feet, and GLaDOS (the Portal franchise’s main villain) appears in all her terrifying mechanical glory to “recycle” the laboratory I’m standing in. In a final flash of spectacle, the floor drops out from under me to reveal a miles-long drop into the Aperture machinery below. While I’m too accustomed to the virtual environment by this point to jump or yell in fear, it turns out the long fall is an appropriate metaphor for what followed.
After about twenty minutes, pulling off the Vive headgear feels like coming down from an incredible high. Even without an active program in place, the warm white nothingness of Valve’s default environment was much more appealing than the stark reality of the cable-strewn demo room I suddenly found myself back in. Graham divorces me from the system, taking custody of my harness, headphones, and the Vive itself in the process, and kindly but firmly kicks me out – my time is up, and there are more demos to be done. The reality of MWC comes rushing back along with the din of the show floor: there are more smartphones to photograph, more accessories to film.
But after my time with the Vive, all that just seems so … inane.
When I try to explain the experience to my colleague Jaime Rivera, the conversation that staggers along is a familiar one: “How was it, dude?” / “I can’t explain it. You need to experience it for yourself.” / “Can I try it?” / “Nope.” / “But what was it like?” Trying to convey the essence of Valve’s virtual world is so frustrating that I actually get teary-eyed in the attempt. After a couple years in this business, I can tell you what it’s like to use a Galaxy S6 or an iPad Air 2 or a Moto 360 … but even after 2000 words, I can only just begin to describe what it’s like to use the HTC Re Vive.
That’ll be one of HTC’s biggest challenges as it pushes to deliver the Vive in time for its stated “Holiday 2015” consumer deadline. Slick promo videos aside, it’s really hard to properly encapsulate the experience without some very clever marketing – and frankly, product advertising has never been HTC’s strong suit. Even the branding is confusing: the Vive is the headset itself, while the Re is a prefix denoting non-smartphone products – so technically both “Re Vive” and “Vive” are correct. Then there are the engineering challenges of converting the wired controllers to wireless, consolidating the headset’s many remaining cables, and streamlining both the Vive itself and its wall-mounted laser modules. After that, the whole thing needs to be condensed into a retail-friendly package affordable enough for the hardcore gamer to find attractive. Considering how simple products like the second-generation Oculus Rift and Sony’s forthcoming Morpheus seem by comparison, the Vive faces a very real potential pitfall here. (Disclaimer: I haven’t tried either of those competitors myself. Yet.)
That’s not even considering the added cost of the computer needed to run the thing … or the added cost of rent when you decide to devote a full room to the Vive experience. I’m only half joking: you can set your own boundaries for the size of the gaming environment, of course, and HTC says it’s working on a way for the Vive to adapt to transient obstacles like pets or other humans … but I’ve got a feeling the best and safest way to experience the Vive will still be an empty room. I’ve also got a feeling I’m going to be buying one, no matter what the cost ends up being (I’m already referring to other living beings as “transient obstacles,” after all).
The HTC Re Vive is the future of gaming. More importantly, it’s the first product ever to make me care about the future of gaming. In the realest sense imaginable, it’s a portal to another world. Toss in the potential applications in education, engineering and design, and you’ve got a formula for something truly earth-shattering … as long as HTC and Valve can figure out how to sell it.