Back in January, we predicted important tech innovations for 2016 would include Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Several products are leading the VR market, and we’ve had an opportunity to evaluate one of them, the HTC Vive, firsthand. One of our software engineers, Will, recently acquired the Vive and volunteered to write this review. Below is Will’s personal history of gaming and his impression of the Vive.
As a child of the 80s, I missed the initial revolution of video games. Classics like Pac Man, Joust and Zork were already antiquated by the time I was old enough to beg my parents for that fancy new Atari system every time we went to the mall. But they never would buy it, and they also stopped taking me to the mall.
I was unfazed. Getting in on the video game bandwagon was paramount to my spirit. I felt it in my bones. So, after what felt like thousands of painstaking hours of saving nickels and dimes from various chores, my mom finally took me to the mall with one purpose: to buy the ticket for this video-gaming ride and get that Atari 5200 I had been dreaming about for years.
Upon arrival, however, I found out that video games had surged ahead from the clunky graphics of the 5200. The Nintendo Entertainment System, soon to became a proprietary eponym of video gaming, was now where it was at. I was short $20 though, as I had been saving for the cheaper system. Disaster! There was no way, though, that I was going home without it. Thankfully, my mom saw my desperation and loaned me the last bit. I was playing Mario by that evening.
It took twenty years of development to bring us from the very first video game to that Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This timeframe might surprise the casual onlooker considering how rudimentary the NES appears to us now, but video games push the technical limits of our consumer devices more than any other piece of software. Even in the beginning, there were hundreds of technical hurdles to jump just to get to 8-bit graphics.
As household video games became more common, improvements to the underlying components did come at a quicker pace. Even still, it took thirty years from the initial days of the NES to get technology powerful enough to create a virtual reality experience real enough to truly be called VR.
Here we are then, once again at the beginning of a revolution…the VR revolution. I dove into this revolution by purchasing the HTC Vive. There are a number of components that come together to create a VR experience and I’ll review the system by commenting on each of them independently:
The displays: Two high-resolution displays needed. 1080×1200 each. And the computing power to drive both displays at the same time with two different rendering passes each at 90 times per second. Graphics had to come a long way to make this possible, but even still, there are noticeable artifacts that remind you that you’re still seeing the world through a fake display. It’s good, it’s even good enough, but it’s not yet great. Just like the original NES.
The headset: Surprisingly comfortable. Many complain about it being too heavy, but I find after just a few sessions your neck muscles get stronger and you don’t notice the weight. My biggest discomfort with the headset is that it tends to get sweaty. The HTC Vive promotes action: be it dodging arrows, flinging bombs, attacking orcs with a broadsword, whatever… if you’re not dancing around like a fool, you’re not appreciating everything the Vive has to offer.
The controllers: Meant to be simple, with essentially just a couple of buttons, the controllers match the experience of the Vive well. Using lasers that are splayed out like an invisible light show, the Vive uses sensors in the controllers to essentially triangulate its position a couple hundred times per second. This gives you sub-millimeter accuracy in position and rotation.
While you’re using the system, you exist in a space where physical controllers become a hindrance: you can’t see them… you can only feel them. And think about it, we don’t use controllers to interact with the real world. Sure we have things like keyboards, but here’s the beauty of VR: those controllers can be created virtually, and you use the simple real world controllers to interact with those. The next huge leap in VR will be gloves that can track the motion of each of your fingers. But that is still a long way off. What we have now is good, good enough, but not yet great. Just like the…well, you get the picture.
The games: Because most games come from small companies and hobbyists, they are fairly simple. They work based on one or two key ideas, and then play out in much the same way as the old arcade games of the original video game era. They’re experiences and they’re fun, but they tend to lack the long-term appeal that games with more resources can provide. This will be a slow hill to climb though, as it will depend on VR systems remaining popular enough for long enough to allow the user base to grow.
Currently there an estimated 93,000 HTC Vive owners. That’s a lot, but it’s not enough for big studios to want to put in the effort to make a game that could only make them a small fraction of the money that they would make releasing a game to the billions of PC and Play Station 4 owners of the world. The good news is that, during the last 10 years, systems like Unity and Unreal Engine have made the barrier to entry on high-quality, 3D gaming much, much lower. So all those kids who became a part of the video game revolution in the 80s now have experience and passion to provide the Vive with its much needed content.
The environment: Setup for Vive wasn’t terrible, just a matter of screwing a couple little boxes into the ceiling. The hardest part is having a big enough room to safely use the system. That might require an addition to your house or a second apartment. In all seriousness, while a big space adds to the fun, the system tells you where your real-world borders are while you’re in the game. Unless you get so lost in that universe to outright ignore them, running into the walls is never a problem. The cables are annoying, and get in the way sometimes, but you learn to work with them.
All in all, the components come together to create a pretty impressive experience. So what does it cost to enter into the virtual reality world? The Vive itself was $800, which I’d say is peanuts compared to the excitement of being on the forefront of the next video game revolution. However, this gamer also had to buy a new computer to support the rig, which was another $1600. Was it worth it? Well, let’s just say I didn’t spend the last 34 years of my life saving my nickels and dimes to NOT come home with it.
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