A working prototype of the Vive is on show at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, with HTC scheduling demo slots for those who book early enough.
Sadly no photos of the prototype are allowed, as HTC doesn’t want to give the wrong impression of how its tech will shape up against its competitors.
Cables that connect the headset, controllers, and room laser sensors to a PC will likely be replaced by wireless connections, for instance. The controllers and room sensors will also probably look different when they are launched, we’re told.
Hands-on with the HTC Vive
After I step into an almost empty room, the demo operator helps me don the Vive headset and holds the two controllers up for me so I can see what they look like in the game world.
My first attempt at taking them from him misses, but not the second. Each controller has a trigger, a directional pad, and buttons on the grip, though I’m told that for this demo the grips will not be active.
Lastly, a set of headphones get put over my head, blocking me off from the outside world completely.
I am inside a white room with grid lines indicating where the boundaries of the world are. It reminds a little of Tron, and The Construct in The Matrix.
This is essentially a tutorial level. A way for my demo operator to see whether I grasp the idea that I can move through this world by physically walking around the room.
Whenever I get too close to an edge, the gridlines will appear, so I shouldn’t be afraid that I’ll walk into something.
This is thanks to the more than 30 sensors in the front of the headset that pick up the lasers being beamed around the room by three boxes mounted just out of reach on the walls of the room.
Before me is a console showing a play button. “Maybe you can push it,” my operator nudges.
With the operator in my ear, guiding me to use computer-like terminals in a virtual world, I can’t help but be reminded of first-person games such as System Shock 2 and Doom 3.
My first instinct is to reach out and try and touch the console. “Use the controllers,” my operator says.
Sure enough, as I hover a controller over the console, a dot indicator appears on it and the controller to suggest that interaction is possible. I duly oblige, and the demo begins.
HTC Vive virtual reality demos
I am transported to the deck of a sunken ship. All around me are tiny fish.
As I walk around admiring the environment, a manta ray appears in the distance and starts swimming towards me.
The ray is followed by a whale, and even though my brain knows I won’t be able to feel anything, I reach out to try and touch it anyway.
It swims by me, then suddenly speeds away, slapping a chain running upwards from the deck of the ship, causing the chain to shake and signal the end of the demo.
Next was Job Simulator from Owlchemy Labs, my first real taste of interactivity with the HTC Vive.
The game asks you to prepare various meals in a virtual kitchen by following a recipe.
Delightfully silly, and a great introduction to how different interaction can be in games when you are able to change your perspective by actually moving your body.
Other demos included a 3D painting program that not only demonstrated how one might create differently in a 3D environment, but also how the two controllers can interact with one another.
The d-pad on the left controller switches between palettes of tools, while the right controller is used to make selections and then paint with the tools and colours you’ve selected.
Next up was another passive demo showing a battlefield with little creatures marching towards a fortress, while little creatures in the fortress are trying to fend them off.
“Try getting close to them,” my operator advises.
What a novel idea for zooming on a VR map: crouch down and stand up in the real world. Might we even play VR real-time strategy games like this in future?
The battle between the cute creatures rages for a few minutes, then I’m taken to the grand finale: a demo from Valve itself for a “robot repair centre”.
Could it be?
I look around the room and almost cheer: a model-sized version of the turret from Portal sits on the desk in my “workstation”.
The computer (not my operator) instructs me to do a few tutorial-like tasks, then lets me usher in a broken robot: ATLAS from Portal 2.
After failing the task set before me, GLaDOS taunts me and the floor begins to give way. For a moment I am convinced that I am going to fall.
This is quickly replaced by a desire to step off the ledge to see what would happen, but I am just too late: GLaDOS changes the environment around me, then drops me in a test chamber.
For a moment I believe that I may be given a chance to solve Portal puzzles in virtual reality, but then it ends, and I am back in the room where it all started.
The Virtual Reality battle begins
HTC is in a bid to be a serious contender in consumer electronics, and is squaring off against some big names over a technology with a fraught history.
VR is hardly a new concept and while the technology itself dates back further, consumer VR devices have been around since the early 90s.
Many will remember Virtuality, a line of VR products from UK-based W Industries which offered fully networked, multiplayer entertainment systems from as early as 1991.
Then, from about the mid–90s until 2012, VR all but vanished as a mass-market technology.
On a comeback
Thanks in part to the successful Kickstarter campaign of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset in 2012, VR has made a comeback as an industry buzzword.
However, the Rift remains in the domain of developers and enthusiasts, while Oculus’s commercially launched device, the Samsung Gear VR, is made to be used with the Galaxy Note 4.
This is set to change, though, as Oculus said it wants to launch a consumer version of the Rift before the end of 2015.
Microsoft announced a similar window for its HoloLens device, an augmented reality headset which it unveiled in January.
Sony also recently announced that its VR headset, Project Morpheus, will launch in the first half of 2016.
HTC, which from all accounts is a fairly late entrant to the VR game, has announced ambitious launch windows that compete head-on with those of Oculus and Microsoft: a dev kit in spring (before May 2015), and a full commercial product before the end of 2015.
Though the demo of the HTC Vive at MWC left me impressed, it also left me with a number of questions.
There is no doubt that being able to physically walk around in a virtual space is a significant differentiator for HTC, but would the requirement of an empty space – however small it might be – be a deal breaker?
Developers would decide how to handle varying sizes of rooms, HTC told me. Perhaps one day we’ll see “room size” on the recommended specifications list of games?
One also has to wonder how HTC can be so confident to announce such short timelines for it to move from prototype, to dev kit, to commercial launch.
Asked about this, HTC’s head of global marketing for connected products Jeff Gattis said: “This is what we do. We make things.”
Gattis said they have all the design and technical expertise to build the Vive in-house, and will be doing so at their facilities in Taiwan.
With Valve on board, they can be sure to not only deliver a great VR system, Gattis said, but also a good selection of content at launch.
If HTC delivers on its promise, it is possible that we will not just see the rebirth of VR, but also the emergence of another consumer electronics giant.
Jan Vermeulen was a guest of HTC at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.