“Sorry buddy,” I remarked as the robot fell to pieces in front of me. I had been given an impossible task, and poor Atlas was doomed. The floor panels below him moved to drop him into the abyss, the entire room around me falling away to reveal a massive facility. And then, I heard a familiar voice, one that made me grin and grimace at the same time. It was her, the malevolent machine running this place. But maybe I should start from the beginning.
Early this year, HTC surprised the gaming community by announcing that they were working with Valve to create a virtual reality headset to rival the Oculus Rift. Furthermore, they announced that it would include sensors that would allow you to actually walk around the room to which the virtual space was mapped, allowing greater immersion. Members of the press who got a chance to try it marveled at the realism, some proclaiming that it made them believe in virtual reality. A large part of this was the Portal-themed demo that blew everyone away. I knew I had to try this technology for myself. Fortunately, HTC is bringing the Vive on tour, and I had my chance. What I saw, or rather experienced, was every bit as amazing as others have said, and then some.
Interest was high, to the point that arriving to the tour stop at Chicago’s Navy Pier after work meant that the line was already too long and that they had closed it off. Fortunately for me, they would be traveling to another Chicago location during that weekend. I knew I had to arrive early, but with no information about when the demos would actually start, I had to guess. I arrived around 8:30 AM on Saturday morning, and found HTC’s tour truck. I was about the 10th person to get in line for an event that we learned wouldn’t start until 10:00 AM. The tour truck unfolded into three demo rooms, along with a demo station for HTC’s new phone and camera. They set up some umbrellas (more for sun than rain) and bean bag toss games as well. They made the wait as enjoyable as it could have been, with giveaways and free water bottles.
Finally, after a few hours, it was my turn to go in. My guide instructed me to stand in a certain spot in the room, and set me up with the headset, headphones, and two motion controllers. the controllers featured a round touch pad and two trigger buttons each. This all added up to a lot of wires behind me, though I’ve heard that the final controllers will be wireless. After some brief technical difficulties, I found myself in a white void with a grid on the ground. I was told to walk around, until a grid in front of me warned that I was near a wall. It felt like I was actually in that space, which was amazing. The headset covered most of my peripheral vision, and there was very little of the screen door effect. In fact, once I got to the main demos, I didn’t even notice it. In this void, I could see the controllers, which I used to create and bat around some balloons. Soon, though, it was time for the demos to begin. And if you think you might be able to visit one of the tour’s stops, I suggest that you stop reading now; it’s better if you’re surprised.
The first demo, which my guide said was designed to show the scope of virtual reality, was called TheBlu. It put me on a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea. Again, everything felt real. I didn’t see the scene, I was there. I could walk around, touching the various fish with the controller. It truly did show the scope of things; if I didn’t know the size of the room I was in, I would almost think that I could walk off the shipwreck to the rays in the distance. After I experienced this serene scene, something less serene showed up. A gigantic whale began to swim up to my position, and though it was friendly, the size and proximity were enough to scare me. I actually had to close my eyes and remind myself that it wasn’t real.
The next demo was a Job Simulator. I was in a kitchen the size of the actual room I was in, and the graphical style was something more cartoonish than the realistic TheBlu. A friendly robot told me to make soup. This is where I learned how important it is to recognize the full space around you in VR. Using the controllers to grab and drop ingredients, I tried adding a big steak to the pot, which got stuck. Only then did I turn around to see the ingredients listed on a blackboard. The controllers worked very well; grabbing and dropping the ingredients felt very natural, even if it wasn’t always perfect. I had some trouble judging how close I had to be to an item to pick it up, but that may have come down to my own resistance to embrace walking around. Either way, the controllers worked wonderfully for this kind of experience.
The third demo also demonstrated the functionality of the controllers. It was an art program, with a 360 degree three dimensional canvas all around me. The controller in my right hand was my brush, and the other was my palette. Mapped to the left controller, a menu appeared that allowed me to select my brush type and color. I pointed to what I wanted with the right controller to select it. After a bit, I was told that I could get even more options by rotating the left controller; the idea never even crossed my mind.
But finally, after that, it was the big one. The person giving the demo knew I was a Portal fan, given the shirt I was wearing (by pure coincidence, I’m not even kidding), so she seemed excited for me to try the final demo. There was no explanation from her after that, though; all further instructions came from the Portal 2 announcer voice in the demo. I was in a small room at the Aperture Science facility, very clean and well organized. I had apparently been hired for robot repair. So, after failing my drawer opening test (and dooming a pocket universe in the form of an office full of stick figures who began worshipping me as their god), I was told to open the door on one of the walls. Behind it was Atlas, one of the co-op robots from Portal 2. He was in bad shape, and he began lurching towards me. This was the second scary moment, after the whale. He was a lot bigger than I thought, just a tad shorter than me, and he looked like he could explode. Fortunately, some machinery grabbed him. I was instructed to perform repairs, given instructions too complex and fast for anyone to follow, leading to the vignette at the start of this post. Yes, GlaDOS herself appears in the demo. She berated me for failing in robot repair, and the room became a test chamber, which was soon destroyed.
I then took off my headset, and I was back in the small dark room. I was frantically excited. I have never seen anything like that before. I’ve used virtual reality before, but not like this. When I thought back to each demo, I didn’t think of the events happening in front of me; I thought of them happening to me. I understand if you don’t share my excitement; I was disappointed when I got mild reactions from my friends as well. But it makes sense: this is so different from everything else available that you really have to experience it to believe it.
Obviously, most games won’t use the room sensors. With such limited space, those are better for “experiences” like these demos rather than full fledged games. But that’s ok; the headset on its own worked perfectly. It covered enough of my vision and had so little visual imperfection that the illusion lasted the whole time. I can’t wait to see what Valve and other developers do with the Vive, with or without the sensors. It’s pretty close to perfect, especially considering that it isn’t completely finished yet. The future is looking to be a wonderful place.
If you have a chance to try out the HTC Vive, take it. Wait in line for four hours. There’s really no substitute for experiencing it for yourself. I really hope that, in addition to another tour, HTC gives some units to museums or arcades, because the hardware will not be cheap. There is no price or list of required PC specifications available yet, but HTC hopes to release the Vive by the end of the year. For a full list of tour dates and locations, check here.