There’s going to be a lot of talk about virtual reality technology (VR) over the coming weeks. Some may say VR is making innovations that normally most consumers would shy away from because they feel it’s a bit ahead of its time. Is that truly the case, or is the general gaming public ready for the future of gaming? I dive in hands on and give my take on not just the subject of the future of gaming, but also the experience that VR brings to the table. This is my written impressions however, if you would like a full breakdown of the specs and added information you can listen to my interview with Josiah who is one of the VR reps I had a chance to hang out with during the EA conference and we had a great discussion.
To begin with, here are the primary specs of the PC powering the HTC Vive device during the demo:
- Intel i5 CPU
- 16GB RAM
- MOBO (unknown)
- 2 x Nvidia 980 TI with SLI
First off the bat I want to talk about product packaging. This is the most sleek case I’ve ever seen. When I opened the box, it almost felt like you were opening the garage door to a Ferrari. There were custom foam inserts that held the visor, 2 sensors, as well as the 2 hand remotes. I thought this was very nicely done since in most packaging you find mostly cardboard and cheap plastic wrapping. There was careful attention to detail as the foam inserts seemed to have a tight mold around the product once placed in or removed. The case is rather bulky so taking this thing on the road may not happen unless you get a second smaller case. The unit also came with a download code for 3 games from the Steam store.
Set up wasn’t much of a task. It’s basically plug and play once you install the drivers for the unit. The sensor boxes are the only real setup you need. You can make your VR area as small or as big as you want. I believe the minimum recommended space is 4 meters x 4 meters. Also, when setting up the sensors you want to make sure they are as high as possible. According to Josiah, if sensors are not placed high enough, any time the Vive controllers go above the sensors, you will lose all vision on the HMD (head-mounted display) and the world is reset. So take the extra time to place the two sensors as high as possible in your play space.
Before I had chance to try the HTC Vive out myself, I watched a few people play some games on it. I just wanted to observe and see how others interacted with it. Our first tester Jake, went on a VR shooting gallery experience. He was in a Tron type of world shooting a bunch of Robot drones and enemies. It was hilarious to see him interact with the real world and VR world. Watching him look around the room pointing and shooting, let alone the ducking and dodging he was doing was highly entertaining. It kind of surprised me just how immersed he must have felt at that time. I was thinking to myself “is he just over reacting or was it really that immersive?” Josiah was walking him through the game when he said to reach behind him and act like you are pulling another gun out. Jake did the motion, and a blast shield appeared that helped him block drone shots. His reaction when it happened was priceless. He was in the VR world for maybe about 15 minutes.
Up next was Justin. He’s a bit of a survival horror genre type of gamer so he was loaded into this game called A Chair in a Room. It’s almost like a SAW type of game, you know the movie where folks are locked in a room trying to get out? Now here’s where VR really blew my mind. Justin is exploring what looks to be a jail cell looking to get out. He has clues as to what to look for and he has to try to figure out the puzzle. What really got me about his time exploring the room is that he was literally on the floor crawling around looking up and down, exactly like how it was on screen. It was capturing all his movements. I was blown away at this point. Not only was it getting his movements but the way he was interacting with things was impressive. I was expecting some type of input lag or large increase in difficulty in grabbing the VR world items, but this wasn’t the case. He had zero issues interacting with the environment.
Now it was my turn to give it a whirl, and I was sooooo ready. Josiah walked me through the basics. He first mounted the headset visor on me. I was very impressed by how light the visor was. I was expecting something heavy and bulky but it felt very light. Even when I tilted my head down to my chest raising my head to look forward, I didn’t experience any type of heavy weight while lifting my head. It all felt very natural. The wand remotes are also super light as well and the best part about them is that they have built in batteries and all charge via USB (the charge time is approximately 1 hour).
As the demo starts, the world is pitch black while I wait for the software to boot. When it fully boots you find yourself in this infinite plane of nothingness with a grid below you and what appears to be a north symbol indicated by a single arrow at your start point. I’m assuming this is north but I don’t know for sure. In this world you are standing inside of a red grid. The grid is your HUD to separate what’s real and what’s not. When you go beyond the red grid you are basically hitting real world items, walls etc. As you look around in this infinite plane you can see where the motion sensors are mounted. You can also see the wands in virtual space. The wands also have different skins you can choose from in the Steam marketplace. Josiah asks me if I’m ready to play and the screen fades to black and now my adventure begins.
I decided to play Chair in a Room. Like Justin, I’m a huge survival horror fan and who doesn’t mind a few jump scares. The screen starts showing a small glimpse of light and all of a sudden it looks like is almost snowing, then the credits seem to be falling from the sky as I look up into the distance. The screen turns to black again and now I’m inside of an elevator. The creepy music and ambient noise in the background keep immersing me deeper and deeper into this world. If it weren’t for Josiah talking to me from the background I would have no clue that I was in a room with a VR head set on and holding wands in my hands, it really does immerse you that much. Even when I try to interact with the environment the wands have this vibrate feature that makes it feel like I’m bumping into things. Grabbing things felt a bit awkward at first but pressing the hand trigger to grab felt so real because of that added feature.
While navigating the virtual world, you can press a pointer button to move the character to a point with in the VR space without having to walk to it in the real world. You can also physically walk around but if you get too close to the boundaries, you will see the red grid appear to warn you of physical obstacles.
The game was rather interesting trying to figure out how to get out of these puzzle rooms. There are times where the AI interacts with you and asks you to do tasks like move a ball in a cup which was cool but what really got me was the physics. I took a ball and threw it at a wall for it not only to bounce back at me, but I was able to grab it out of the air mid bounce. This was mind blowingly impressive. I spent the next few moments playing handball, or wall ball like we like to call it here in the States. In the next level, I was in a cabin in the woods trying to figure my way out of this mystery that was unfolding. I was literally on my hands and knees on the floor crawling around looking for clues, trying to move floorboards in this cabin environment. No matter what angle you looked or even if you laid on the ground and crawled under the bed and looked up underneath, you are constantly in this world. I didn’t notice any screen tears, lag or any type of glitchy polygons in the world. It was sharp and full of detail.
I begin to notice my phone ringing in my pants pocket and I tell Josiah it’s time for me to get off. I ask him “So how long was I playing? How long was I in there for, like what 15 min or so?” He’s response was “No bro, you were in for almost a SOLID HOUR!” I could not believe it. It only felt like 15 minutes. He then shuts down the system and takes the visor off of my head. This is when things start to feel a bit off. I didn’t feel dizzy or nauseated, but I did have a slight head ache for a few minutes. In addition, I felt like a bit ‘off’, like my mind was still partially in the VR world. I had to go to the bathroom and splash some water on my face like in the movie, Inception. I’m not sure if it was due to the prolonged exposure however according to Josiah I had the longest time in the VR world that he’s seen.
The VR experience does play with your mind which leads me to my question. “Will prolonged exposure cause effects or even cause damage to your brain?” It may or may not. You are still going to have hunger and the needing to go to the bathroom sensations but seriously though, will extended exposure cause you to become like one of those folks in Inception that are in the basement hooked up to VR and “this is the only way they are awake” type of deal?
I was a bit on the fence but after trying it out, VR is awesome. However, the price point for something like this is still beyond the average consumer to afford. The HTC Vive costs a whopping $800. That’s not including the PC needed to push it which can cost a pretty penny. Even if you can push a solid 60 fps it’s not enough to give you the experience you want to have. Slowdowns and frame drops can make you sick and cause your brain to have a hiccup according to Josiah. So it’s best to have a constant 90 FPS or higher. Even with his monster set up with the Nvidia 980 TI in SLI, there were frame drop issues when trying to stream or add another type of recording to the experience. This is why I wasn’t able to live stream with it. AMD is making the VR experience a bit more affordable with the beastly ATI R9 480, but even if you use Crossfire, not all the games available support it. This is the same even with Nvidia cards as far as games go. The Steam library has over 200 games for VR right now and most of them are free but like most games, the games you want to play are the ones you need to fork out some money on but they are all very affordable topping off at $15 from what I have seen.
So is the world ready for VR? The companies are and I think that a certain portion of consumers are as well. VR and Augmented reality (AR) are the future however the price may push the future a bit further into the distance rather than around the corner for the average consumer.
I want to give a huge thanks to Josiah for allowing us play with the HTC Vive as well as Justin for hosting us at his place to demo. Thank you guys so much for your help on this.