Monday, December 5, 2016

Review: HTC Vive

I received my HTC Vive last Wednesday and as a person who had never experienced virtual reality before, I was both thrilled and nervous to try it out for the first time ever. I am one of those people who are very prone to motion sickness when playing first person shooters with horribly low field of vision - I always have to set it to 100+ to not get sick - so I didn't know how my body would react to being placed in a VR environment.

First things first however, I had to set it up to work with my Game Room, which has enough free space to accommodate room-scale VR. Getting the sensors up on two opposite corners of the playing space was very much a chore, plus it was a rather messy process. If you don't have tall cabinets lining up two opposite corners of your room, it's not going to be that easy. This process is made worse because proper drywall anchors were not provided in the box so you have to get them on your own. Instead of needing to have them plugged directly into a power supply, I wished they had rechargeable battery packs instead so that one could easily pull those out and recharge them somewhere else between uses. Hooking up the head-mounted display to the PC required plenty of wires as well, plus needing access to another electrical outlet but the link box that connects your PC to the HMD is so small and cute and you can easily set it in a forgotten space between things and out of your way.

The fusion of man and VR.

Once everything was set however, what came next was nothing short of mind-blowing. And no, I didn't get motion sickness at all*. I was literally stunned by the SteamVR tutorial. The virtual space looked real. Like convincingly real. Sometimes not as sharp but it felt like I was there. Without experiencing it for oneself, it's impossible to show how effective the VR experience provided by the Vive is but I believe the best way to describe it is that everything has depth and you can tell the relative distance of everything, whether those objects are moving or static. It's like you are really there and this illusion is further strengthened by the Vive's currently exclusive room-scale VR where you can walk around in VR space instead of merely standing or sitting in the middle of it. The HMD literally transported me to another place by replacing the view of my Game Room with a completely different, fully realized surrounding.

Yes, it is a living, breathing anaconda.

The one app that I tried on my first VR outing that left me with both a lasting emotional and physical impression was Google Earth VR. Since I am afraid of heights, the way the intro took me to incredible elevations that culminated into floating freely in space overlooking the whole entire planet was too quick and too overwhelming for me that I collapsed hurriedly on the floor trying to find my footing where none was available according to my brain. I must have twisted my toes at that moment and I had to suffer the consequences of the injury - my left foot was swollen for several days but it has recovered completely today thankfully. I blame this on my recent sedintary lifestyle. I even got some muscle pain and aches from doing the more demanding motion gestures while in VR.

You can measure incoming orb distance perfectly in Audioshield.

The one thing that is a minus about the VR experience is that the view inside the headset is actually smaller than I imagined. The view is framed with a lot of dark space outside of a circular area in the middle of your vision. Though what is being viewed is convincingly real, I did feel like I am looking at everything through a monocular attached to my face. Speaking of which, the Vive headset is very bulky and I could feel it clutching heavily on my face like an eager facehugger waiting to implant its seed in me. After a while though, I got used to the heftiness of what is being attached to my face and readjusting the top and side straps helped with the weight distribution of the HMD. Finding a sweet spot where everything is clear and sharp seems to be a recurring struggle so don't expect it to be always glasses on and go. The wires hanging from the top of my head took a little while to get used to and but they began to curl on the ground, I could feel them tugging on my head so it's always best to straighten them on the floor nicely before beginning a session of play.

I didn't believe in VR before I put the Vive on. Now, I am definitely a believer. VR will not work on all gaming experiences but I see plenty of appropriate application for it. Point and click adventure games is the perfect partner for VR marriage and that genre should definitely adopt the technology with open arms. The same can be said about the light gun shooter genre. I look forward to experience more of what this technology has to offer in the future.

VR EXPERIENCE: 5 out of 5


*Update Note: 12/06/2016 - Today, I tried playing a couple of VR games that required character movements using the controller instead of physically walking and that made me ill enough to stop playing them. This is why room-scale gameplay is important in VR. The most effective VR games I have played used clever tricks to get me transported to another location, limited sections of gameplay to a confined space, or provided me with a sense of spatial reference during moving scenes. Intentionally providing myself real-time movement without the use of my legs felt physically wrong. I will continue to try playing controller-based movement games and post an update if I get used to them.

- Noteworthy Software -

The Lab (Free) - Valve's tech demo showcases a variety of incredible, astute VR applications. This title should be the basis of what other developers should strive for when it comes to expanding the VR experiences. The shmup Xortex 26XX included within has a lot of replay value and looks stunning.

Audioshield ($19.99) - This is going to be the one game that will keep me using the Vive. You are given two shields to use to block incoming orbs that are synchronized with the musical backdrop and you can use your own music. It's more Tai chi than Tae Bo but it's both fun and a light physical workout. I have about 470 hours combined between the spiritual prequels Audiosurf and Audiosurf 2. There is no reason for me to go back to those games anymore.

The Body VR (Free) - Take a trip inside the human blood vessel. You can easily view this as a great educational tool or like me, who spent almost the whole ride crawling on the floor, a horrific, bloody thrill ride.

Google Earth VR (Free) - Be wherever you want on Earth whenever you want!

Bigscreen Beta (Free) - A collection of virtual rooms where you can sit down or float (ugh I don't like floating in the middle of space or high above the planet Mars) and have fun with your Personal Computer screen with the ability to invite others to socialize with you in the comfort of VR space. I was shy however, I left the room when a cute voice of a guy said hi.

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