VR: HTC Vive hands-on

The Vive from HTC:  a VR headset developed with Valve

The Vive from HTC: a VR headset developed with Valve

On Sunday, March 1st, HTC held a presentation on the eve of the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona. During the course of the event, they revealed a new VR headset they’re developing in partnership with Valve.

I pulled together news on the announcement from a variety of sources a few hours after it was made. Since then, more information has hit the media, the results of numerous opportunities for hands-on demonstrations. And going by the feedback, it would appear Oculus VR has some very series competition on its hands.

The big thing everyone has been pointing to as being the real secret sauce for VR is a sense of presence. With so many different systems in so many different states of development, how this will be properly achieved has perhaps been hard to judge. Some headsets are managing it in part, some third-party peripheral makers are looking at various means of providing it with room sensors, body kits, etc. However, from all the hands-on reports, it would seem that HTC are the first to nail it in one fairly straight forward package.

“With the original Oculus Rift and things like Samsung Gear VR, that sensation of really being somewhere else is present, but fleeting,” Carlos Rebato says, writing for Gizmodo. “Those can’t track your body, so as soon as you lean just slightly, the illusion is shattered. The Oculus Rift DK2 did it better, with a motion tracking camera that at least let you lean, but you were still a sort of an armless half-body. Sony’s Project Morpheus improved it further by using controllers keep track of your hands.

“But the Vive? It’s like nothing that’s ever come before.”

The HTC Vive headset with a pair of "base station" scanner below and to the left of it, and a pair of the hand controllers in the foreground (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

The HTC Vive headset with a pair of “base station” scanner below and to the left of it, and a pair of the hand controllers in the foreground (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

Gareth Beavis, over at Techradar, is equally gushing. “There’s a TV show from the early 1990s called Red Dwarf that depicted the last human (and a group of humanoids) that were lost in space in the future, desperate to get home. One of the big ways they stayed entertained was with a holographic headset that let them play in hyper real worlds, like they were living in the action sequence … I always thought that idea, that experience, would never be real.

“But with the HTC Vive I took my first steps into that world.”

Both reports – and others in a similar vein – point to the distinguishing factors that make the Vive the complete package: the laser “base station” scanners and the dedicated hand controllers. Details of both of these were rough at the time of HTC’s announcement, but the various hands-on demonstrations taking place at the MWC and, under the Valve banner, as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, more information on them has filtered into the tech media.

The scanners are small, box-like objects designed to be mounted on wall at 90-degrees to one another. As noted in my original article ion the Vive, these can then scan a square area up to 4.6 metres (15ft on a side), accurately tracking multiple sensors on the headset, and the motions of the wearer’s body and recreating them within a virtual environment, allowing the wearer to move around “inside” a virtual space. To reduce the risk of collisions with physical objects, the scanner also map the location of walls and furniture, and the system fades these into the wearer’s field of view should they get too close.

A closer look at one of the "base station" laser  scanners used with the Vive (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

A closer look at one of the “base station” laser scanners used with the Vive (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

The hand controllers are wand-like devices with large sensor heads at one end. They can be used to manipulate objects in a virtual space – open doors, select menus, shoot guns, etc., while the sensor heads allow the scanning system to accurate track the user’s hand movements and translate these into the virtual environment as well, allowing the user to “see” their “hands” in order to manipulate things.

Thus, the Vive system is able to create a complete sense of immersion in a virtual environment, and total sense of presence. One so real, many of those taking part in the demonstrations have been surprised by their own reactions.

“At one point I dropped a knife,” the BBC’s Dave Lee notes, while describing his experience with the “kitchen” demonstration, which required the preparation of some food. “And instinctively hopped out the way before picking it up. My guide laughed – I wasn’t the only person who was instinctively keen to keep the virtual kitchen tidy.”

The Vive hand controllers (obviously prototype units), provide independent hand tracking via built-in sensors and allow virtual objects to be manipulated and handled by the user (image via Gizmo)

The Vive hand controllers (obviously prototype units), provide independent hand tracking via built-in sensors and allow virtual objects to be manipulated and handled by the user (image via Gizmodo)

In terms of how the Vive compares with the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype, Wes Fenlon, reporting for PC Gamer, rates the Crescent Bay as potentially having the clearer image resolution and perhaps a wider field of view. However, in every other respect, he places the Vive well ahead of the Crescent Bay, noting both its superior positional tracking and the freedom of movement it allows a user.

Much is also made of the hand controllers. However, it’s worthwhile remembering here that Brendan Iribe, Oculus VR’s CEO has repeatedly said that the company is also striving to solve the issue of interaction / input / virtual object manipulation. In conversations towards the end of 2014, he seemed to suggest that this becoming more of a focus for the company in the lead-up to the release of any consumer product. At the time he made his comments, he wouldn’t speculate whether or not the company would ship controller with their headset, but HTC / Valve’s offering may well give them further pause for thought about doing so.

Another view of the prototype hand controllers showing the sensor heads (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

Another view of the prototype hand controllers showing the sensor heads (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

There is still a way to go for the Vive; much of the system has yet to become fully wireless, the headset itself apparently has some further refinements to come, it has been suggested the consumer version will be a premium product featuring a brush aluminium form rather than using plastic.

Even so, the Vive’s arrival marks 2015 as being a very interesting year for VR development as products start to properly mature and come to market. Quiet where things will go and what might happen is anyone’s guess; but from the reviews provided from both the MWC and GDC it would seem that while Oculus Rift has until now set the bar in terms of VR experience, HTC may have significantly raised it.

So, game on, one might say.

Sources

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