Sunday, June 5, 2016

HTC Vive hands on

I've long been a huge fan of Virtual Reality.  I was turned on to the subject during the first VR boom of the early 90's.  This was spurned on by a visit to Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center where I was able to check out a public test of what would become Disney Quest.  The technology was the best at the time but the results were still primitive.  After pulling on the huge head mounted display (HMD) that was so heavy it was supported by a ceiling mounted pulley system I was treated to the streets of Agrabah and chasing Iago to the castle on the Magic Carpet.  After that experience I stuck around to speak to one of the Imagineers.  He turned me onto a book called "Garage VR".  I poured over that book many times and still have it to this day.  Unfortunately I didn't have the ability to make my own VR headset as per the instructions (holy crap were LCD screens expensive back then! A 1"X1" screen was over $150!) it was something I kept following.

Years later I heard about the Occulus Rift.  I had hoped this would catch on.  The project kept dragging on and only development kits were being released.  I promised myself I would wait until the technology was done before I would try it or even buy it.  I've yet to have the opportunity to try the Rift, but to my surprise the Microsoft stores are running a demo of the HTC Vive.  I was able to spend 10 minutes in their demo and get a feel for this headset.

The experience was beyond my wildest expectations.  I was immediately reminded of a few things from my experience with the Disney Quest system but I could see how the new Vive was a light year beyond.  The old Disney Quest HMD and others of the time had a point of view that was very narrow.  On top of that processing power at the time wasn't where it is now.  It's easy to forget that the GPU we all know and love in PC gaming wasn't a thing until the late 90's or early 2000's.  The Disney Quest systems were powered by Silicon Graphics rendering servers.  The best way I could describe the experience to you would be to have you hold two paper towel rolls up to your eyes, blink very fast, and try to walk around your home.  These were the primary issues that caused VR to stall out in the 90's.  They had to wait for display technologies and computing power to catch up to the idea.

There were good points to these experiences.  There were two VR experiences at Disney Quest that I was able to try.  The "Magic Carpet Ride" and a scifi pirate raid.  The magic carpet ride had you jump on this very oddly shaped chair that felt very weird until you put on the headset.  Once it was on and you looked down you saw the Magic Carpet from the movie and suddenly the odd feeling of the chair translated to you holding onto and riding Aladin's magic carpet.  In the pirate experience there was a stick you held that in the game appeared to be a "laser sword" (Disney didn't own lucas arts at this time!).  The Aladin experience worked well as the "Chair" controller was largely stationary and didn't need to be tracked meaning that there wasn't a slowdown in the game introduced by having to track the controller in space.  The laser swords however made the pirate game chug to 10 frames per second or less.

The Vive demo was the culmination of this technology growth.  Instead of two tiny CRT displays like what was used in older VR headsets they use one large(ish) LCD panel similar to that in many cell phones.  The point of view is very good and when paired with a computer meeting the recommended specifications everything flows well.  The best analog I could give you is to get a pair of safety goggles, use black tape on the sides and remove the plastic lens.  This was about the viewing angle I got.  After a minute I was able to ignore the "goggles" viewpoint and I felt like I was there.

The Vive controllers were probably the best part of the demo.  Google them if you don't know what these look like.  They track in real time just like you do.  The tracking is so accurate that they feel like natural extensions of your hand in the environment.  They also can be inserted into each other in both the real world and in VR showing how perfectly these are tracked.  They can be used in a number of ways in applications ranging from paint brushes, shields, weapons, or hands.  Honestly the only way this could be better is if HTC builds the VR gloves we all saw in the 90's.

Right now there are VR experiences out there that are pretty cool and some games that have been retrofitted to work with this system.  I do believe that if you have the money and the interest it is a worthwhile investment.  For those of us who don't have $799 for the Vive and a $1000 - $2000+ gaming PC to drive it I would suggest waiting for the new Google Daydream specced phones and HMD system that's coming out this fall.

1 comment:

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