BARCELONA -- "You can take the headset off now if you want," the product engineer told me. Of course, he was just being polite. My demo with the HTC Vive was over and, instead of plumbing the depths of the ocean for wreckage or repairing robots in a mysterious sci-fi lab, I had to walk back to a heavily-carpeted convention center where the biggest danger is losing your Wi-Fi signal. After experiencing the Vive's vibrant virtual worlds, the real one just seemed lame.
The product of a partnership between HTC and game publisher Valve, whose new SteamVR platform powers it, the Vive offers a completely immersive virtual reality experience that lets users walk around a 15 x 15-foot space and interact with virtual objects using a pair of handheld controllers. I had the chance to spend about 15 minutes using the hardware from the upcoming Vive developer kit, which will ship to carefully-selected programmers later this spring, and I'll never be the same again.
HTC is understandably cagey about its device. I was lucky to get a few minutes with the Vive, but was not allowed to take pictures or video of the experience. Before I could begin my VR journey, I had to suit up, putting on not only the headset but also a pair of headphones for sound. The headset was a little tight against my glasses and had a very thick set of wires attaching it to a desktop PC on the side of the demo room. Like other VR devices, the Vive has no window to the outside world, so, without the system powered up, you're staring into darkness.
I had to put on a special belt to help bear the weight of the wires, and had to step over them to avoid tripping. These wires were the worst part of the VR experience, as I frequently had to move my feet to avoid tripping over them during my session. A pair of laser sensors were mounted on the wall to track my movements around the room.
The engineer handed me a pair of controllers, which were shaped like large sticks, with capacitive dials on the side facing me and trigger buttons on the side facing away. Though I could not see the controllers, they appeared in graphical form in many of the worlds I visited.
The first environment I saw was a menu "room," where posters representing different applications appeared on the walls around me. The engineer told me to try walking to my left where a translucent wall with a green grid pattern appeared. He informed me that these walls represent the boundaries of the 15 x 15-foot environment and that they only appear when you come within 2 feet of them. If you walk beyond the walls, the system can't track you anymore -- and you also might walk into a real wall.
He invited me to press a trigger on my left controller in order to make a balloon appear. I was able to bat at the balloon and watch it float around the room. I was then transported to a very simple "walking" demo, where the environment was filled with hexagonal pillars, each of which lowered to form a path for me as I walked around.
Taking the Plunge
After that, he changed the environment to an undersea scene, where I was standing on the deck of a sunken ship. As I walked around the ship, schools of fish floated by me, including a large shark and a manta ray. Every time I turned my head or took a step, my perspective changed. When I walked over to the railing and looked down, I saw a crashed plane submerged on the sea floor; unfortunately, I couldn't jump down and explore the plane. I was able to see the back side of railing bars when I peered over and around them. Objects were quite sharp, but when I got very close to them, I could see some blur on the edges.
Next, the engineer transported me into the middle of a model war re-enactment where toy-sized soldiers in a miniature castle fought with invaders. I was not able to walk around much, as the field was small and all above my waist, but I got a pretty good look at the objects, including a blimp that flew right in front of my face.
My Own Cooking Show
After the battle had ended, the engineer loaded up a kitchen environment where there was a soup recipe written on a blackboard at the front of the room. A stove and counter stood in front of me with a pot, a rolling pin and several vegetables. The controllers appeared as hands in this environment, and I was able to pick up objects like the tomatoes and mushrooms and then drop them in the pot. I also had an easy time grabbing the salt shaker and turning it upside down to empty its contents in the pot and doing the same with a bottle of red sauce. At one point, I had to open the door to a refrigerator on my right side in order to grab more vegetables.
Drawing in Mid-Air
My next environment was a drawing application, so the environment was dark, except for a sign with the name of the app on one wall. By holding down the trigger button on my right controller, I was able to draw shapes in the air. Twisting the capacitive dial on the left controller rotated through some menu boxes where I could select a color, a drawing tool or program options by pointing at their icons with the left controller and clicking.
I thoroughly enjoyed tracing glowing shapes in the air around me and noticed with pleasure that the shapes remained at the depth I had created them, allowing me to put one circle behind another or draw a set of snowflakes above my head.
Robot Repair Shop
Finally, I was transported to a very detailed robot laboratory from the game Portal 2, which is a popular title developed by Valve. On my left side was a counter with various tools, behind me were a set of tools while bare metal walls sat in front of me and on my right side. A voice informed me that I was to begin robot repair training and asked me to open a drawer.
When I pulled open the first drawer, I saw some objects, and the intercom voice told me I had opened the wrong drawer. I opened another drawer where a society of tiny people at desks sat. The voice informed me that I had just contaminated a "pocket universe" and proceeded to incinerate the tiny people while telling me that opening drawers was no longer on my list of responsibilities.
The intercom voice then asked me to pull a lever near the front of the room and, when I did so, the metal wall slid open to reveal a two-legged robot, known as Atlas to Portal fans, which came stumbling into the lab. The robot had sparks and electric charges flying from his body to show he was damaged. I proceeded to tap an area near his single eye sensor and it opened up in front of me, revealing a bunch of cylindrical robot parts, including some with writing on them. I tried pressing some buttons that I saw or touching some of the cylinders, but the end result was that the robot broke.
During my work on the robot, I noticed some fuzziness on objects in my left eye. When I closed that eye and used only my right one, everything appeared sharp, but I'm not sure if the problem was with the Vive, the software, my astigmatism or, more likely, the huge smudges on my glasses while I did the demo.
After the robot fell apart, the voice told me it was recycling the lab, and opened the wall panel as moving floor boards carried the broken robot away into a disposal pit. Another robot with a female voice -- in the Portal game she is known as GLaDOS -- came down from the ceiling and berated me for being an incompetent human. She then told me that she would get rid of me and, after a few seconds, the room exploded and my demo came to an end.
Bottom Line: Hit in the Making
If you've ever seen a Star Wars movie and then felt like you didn't want to get out of your seat afterwards, because you'd have to stop picturing Tatooine and start looking for the bathroom, you know how I felt after the demo. If others feel the same way, the Vive could be a huge, huge hit when it comes out sometime this year.