I probably look like a dang fool to the person conducting this demo, but I don’t care. With HTC’s gigantic Vive headset strapped to my face, I’m slowly walking around a small dark room off the main drag of downtown San Diego.
At 1 p.m. on a Thursday, instead of swimming through crowds of delighted Comic-Con attendees, I’m at the bottom of an ocean, watching beautiful marine life float by. I stick one hand out, and, using the Vive’s new wireless controllers—they’re like two Wiimotes, but have touchpads where the d-pads should be—disturb the water in front of me. A small school of fish swimming nearby quickly scurry away, and I laugh.
I laugh because I feel ridiculous. I also laugh because I can’t hardly believe how convincing the experience is. Even though this demo is only mildly interactive, Vive gave me the true impression of complete immersion. Although I wasn’t physically standing on the deck of a sunken ship, mentally I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I was there? And that wasn’t even the best part.
As the fish begin to scurry away, an immense object moved in my periphery, casting an ominous shadow. I look over, and I’m startled to find that I’m face-to-face with a blue whale. I quickly take a step back, unsure how to react. It just sits there, looking at me; it gives me the perfect opportunity to inspect the majestic creature more closely. Not just look at it, but really get up close. With Vive, you can move toward objects, just as you would in real life. So I lean in; it’s peaceful, and remarkably lifelike.
I just stare, as one might at a beautiful sunset. It was a supremely moving moment, one achieved thanks to the Vive’s arrangement of sensors, hardware, and thoughtful direction. I wasn’t really underwater staring at a blue whale, but for a moment it sure felt like I was.
While most people will be standing in Oculus’ corner over the coming months, HTC has created a worthy competitor. If a simple demo can so affecting, imagine what an entire game could do. If, say, a game like Silent Hills was suddenly built specifically for Vive, I don’t think my poor little heart could handle it. There’s such a deep sense of immersion that you forget for a moment you’re peering at a digital world through goggles strapped to your head.
The demos HTC showed us this week were the very same we saw back at Mobile World Congress, but this time the controllers were wireless—a big distinction. That might not seem like a major milestone in VR development, but it’s bigger than you think. It means the controllers in your hands are no longer inhibited by thick cords. Now you’re free to swing your hands at fish, or put vegetables in a pot, without a series of wires tangling at your feet.
That gives the Vive a wonderful sense of freedom. Although there are a series of wires connected to the back of the headset (for now), you can walk around like you normally would, your hands free to do as they please. When I was on the ship, I was able to approach the railing and peer over the edge; in the cooking demo, it let me walk around the kitchen as if I were at home, clumsily grabbing at utensils.
However, as freeing as that experience is, I tend to agree with Oculus when it says people will mostly stand still when playing VR. The demos I tried were perfectly suited to what HTC wanted me to see and do; the digital rooms matched the physical demo room I was in, but anything beyond that and the VR experience would’ve been broken. It’s likely you’ll use a controller to move your character forward, just as you would in a traditional first person experience.
With the sense of being there nailed down, the real success of something like Vive will come down to how much developer support it gets. HTC partnered with Valve to build the technology, and that’s a good start. But without solid content, there’s really no point to Vive at all. It’s like having a car with no roads to drive on. I’m hopeful something as good as this isn’t fated to just fade away.
HTC was predictably vague about what kind of gaming experiences we can expect when Vive launches later this year, and it also didn’t provide many details about the final hardware, like how much it’ll cost and when it will be available. The company claimed it simply didn’t have the answers to these questions, but I have a feeling it was playing coy.
These are details it has to get right, and details other companies, like Oculus, have already shared. For what it’s worth, HTC still seems confident it can deliver a consumer version this year, giving the company a solid five month to show us what it’s made of.
HTC has proved the hardware is more than capable of providing an experience consumers will love. Now it just comes down to whether or not it can provide the content to match.