My heart was racing.

The thunder echoed in my head.

I was standing on a beach as dark and ominous-looking clouds rolled in, unannounced. Off in the distance, a bell buoy swayed in the ocean.

I walked slowly up to an iron gate and swung open my backpack. I fished out an iron door handle, carefully reached out to place it on the door, and stepped back with a gasp. The door fell forward as I stepped into a dark sewer, wondering what lurked in the shadows. I inched into the darkness, both virtual and real.

That's right, for the past few days, I've been testing the final, shipping version of the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, a device that is about to put the "game" back in the word game-changing. I've heard a definition of the word "immersive" as anything that makes you think you are in a different reality in a way that's convincing but not so otherworldly that you know it's fake, ala the best video games.

The Vive goes a step further. Sure, it costs a cool $799, and I'll explain whether that's worth it for one of the first "real" VR headsets in a moment. It only connects to a high-end PC like the Digital Storm Vanquish 5 I used for testing and has some limitations, particularly in how much you can move around the room while wearing one, but the transportative nature of this device makes it incredibly compelling and ground-breaking. I firmly believe it will usher in a new age of VR experimentation in gaming, take over the classroom, provide a new way for companies to sell products and services, revive the lagging video conferencing market, and generate an entirely new industry for starting companies like we've never seen before.

OK, enough with the hyperbole, right? I'm supposed to be reviewing the hardware, but the truth is that the HTC Vive beats the  Oculus Rift headset in part because it is so immersive, which is mostly thanks to the included trackpads.

Here's a few examples. I can't quite explain what it's like to use the free Google Tilt Brush app while wearing Vive. You have to experience it for yourself. Imagine being able to paint a nature scene or some futuristic looking alien from inside a black box. It's effortless. You hold two trackpads that connect to two base stations placed on opposite walls in a real room. (I'll be using the word "real" a lot in this review, which is mostly due to what happens when you test one.) To paint, you squeeze a trigger and move your right hand. To pick a color, a brush, or some other option, you move your left hand and click with your right (virtual) finger.

In the game I mentioned at the outset, which is called The Gallery - Episode 1: Call of the Starseed, it's a bit jaw-dropping to pick up a sheet of paper in the game with one trackpad, then turn on your flashlight so you can read the inscriptions. It's also jaw-dropping to walk through a sewer and feel, for the first time ever, like a game character is standing right in front of you. You look up at the ceiling, glance over your shoulder, hold a candle up to the wall, and feel like you should shiver.

When I said my heart was racing, I meant it. Many of the demos seemed ultra-convincing. When a virtual whale appeared behind me underwater, I jumped in the real world. It passed by, pausing to look at me, then swam into the depths.

There's something about the 360-degree, room-scale, full immersion experience. I'm sure I'll write about the separation from reality and how that might become dangerous eventually, but for the most part, I never felt queasy or sick during my tests. HTC (and developer  Valve) use a technique called "reprojection" to make sure, when you look suddenly to one side, that you feel convinced the scene is real.

The possibilities here are endless. In one mode, I tried using my real computer and browsing the Web from within the VR world, although I'm not sure if that's as viable (some of the text looked a bit grainy). However, a few other "games" had me performing a virtual surgery and changing the oil in a car. It's amazing to think people could learn how to do those things in a virtual reality setting. In another demo, I stood in a conference room and felt like I cold reach out and touch the chair. (This was the one app that looked like it could support multiple users.)

I imagined being able to attend a conference, looking around the room and talking to other people who were also wearing a headset. I imagined having an avatar who could give a lecture to a classroom or interact with people in a maker lab. The HTC Vive is so utterly convincing that you lose track of time. During some of my sessions, I had to lock the door in my office. I didn't want anyone sneaking up on me while I was floating in outer space or inspecting art in a museum.

That said, the Vive is far from perfect. One of my early discoveries is that you have to be patient with the setup process. The two base stations need to point toward you from the side, and I had to reposition them a few times. You get used to the 15-foot cable coming out from the back of the headset (a.k.a., your head), but there were a few times when I managed to twist the cable around my leg. During the software install, I had to install a few drivers for my graphics card. I don't think any of this is too difficult, but inexperienced PC users might get a little confused.

Amazingly, when you play a game, you can roam around at will. My office is about 10-feet by 12-feet. If you move too far, a Matrix-like mesh of lines (called Vive Chaperone) appears as a warning so you don't bump into anything. Mostly, I was able to move freely and even darted quickly a few times without fear that I was going to hit the edge of my desk. (The Oculus Rift is intended for sitting or standing. Even though it costs $600, it doesn't not include the trackpads that make VR more convincing.)

Another minor ding: I wasn't as impressed with the video content. With the Samsung Gear VR headset, which uses your Galaxy smartphone and costs only $99, there are surround-view movies that seemed more convincing. I have yet to see a full-length Hollywood movie in VR, but I imagine that's coming soon. Eventually, you'll stand in the center of a storm or a twinkling galaxy and maybe interact with movie characters and become part of the story. You also feel a bit mute on the Vive; eventually I want to be able to speak out loud as I interact in VR.

In Vive Home, you stand in an empty museum with paintings. I could see how this could evolve. I want to be able to buy virtual cars and store them here, collect stuff, build my own mansion, and basically turn this into Second Life all over again.

For entrepreneurs, there's an emerging market here. The train is about to leave the station. I'm picturing companies that make VR rooms in your house, generate the content for videos and games, create experiences in training and education that we haven't even imagined yet, and even become involved from a hardware standpoint, making VR clothing and shoes or entirely new accessories. It's that much of a step forward, even if that step comes with a warning about what this might all mean.

I played the games for an hour or two, but I was struck by how I stopped perceiving the passage of time. I thought I had only gone into the VR world for maybe 30 minutes, not an hour or two. I must have looked ridiculous, scooping up paper from the ground and tapping on the floor.

What will "save" virtual reality from becoming dystopian is when it goes multiplayer. We can interact with other people in real-time in a virtual world and see the benefits of deepening a relationship, learning a new craft, or experiencing the same movie. For now, the one major detriment is that VR is a solo affair. You feel a bit isolated.

And yet, you want to go back. You think about the images and sounds after you're done, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. (It feels familiar--it's the same urge to keep trying out a new smartphone or a new bike you purchased for the weekend.)

It proves this is a unique, immersive device that lives up to the hype.

When does that ever happen?


Published on: Apr 5, 2016