SEATTLE — I played the HTC Vive virtual reality headset with a full set of near-finished games at an event held by Valve, the creator of the Steam VR system that the gear uses. And the verdict is that it’s a good simulator of an immersive experience, and it can provide you with a good way to interact with the VR worlds that you visit.
HTC plans to release the PC-based Vive sometime in April, but it hasn’t disclosed its final price or how much the games cost. Valve said the hardware wasn’t final yet, so consider this more of a preview than a final review of the system, which will come later. But this hands-on experience in Seattle was a treat, as Valve and HTC have been much quieter about showing off what the Vive can do than rivals Oculus VR’s Rift (coming in March) or the mobile-based Samsung Gear VR, which launched in November. I’ll have individual descriptions of each game coming in later posts.
I played a dozen games with the Vive yesterday. A number of them are expected to debut with the headset’s launch, but a few of them aren’t coming out until later in the year. The system has come a long way since I saw it in May, in terms of playable content that works seamlessly.
I enjoyed some of them, and all of them showed that developers had put a lot of work aimed at delivering a console game-like experience. You’ll find some of them appearing on the Oculus Rift headset, a rival VR headset from Facebook’s Oculus VR division that will hit the market on March 28.
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“HTC and Valve have finally shown us a lot of serious content that can be considered full games and that cover a pretty broad spectrum of gameplay,” said Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “The Vive likely has even more and better content coming down the road. So far what we’ve seen is just some of the most mature content. Most of the titles we saw were launch titles and the pricing of roughly $30 for most seems pretty reasonable for indie game titles on Steam.”
One of them made me seasick. The spaceship sim Elite: Dangerous has a mode where you could drive a rover-like vehicle over a rocky planet. It was bouncing around, and I was shooting at some “skimmer” vehicles and driving in circles as I was chasing them. It was too much motion, and it showed that even with a high-end PC-based system such as the Vive, you can still get motion sickness.
But that was the only game that tried to do that much motion with six degrees of freedom, and it was the only one of the 12 that made me woozy. The space combat part of Elite Dangerous, which resembles the interstellar flight sim action of Eve: Valkyrie (a game Oculus uses to show off its Rift — and is part of the headset’s commercial package), didn’t make me sick.
My wooziness runs counter to what I thought about the Vive last May, when Valve representative said they had designed the system to reduce seasickness as much as possible. For the most part, the imagery of the simulated world keeps up with the movements you make. The precision of the system — designed by Valve and implemented by HTC — is purposely designed to minimize motion sickness, Valve game programmer Jeep Barnett told me last year.
Nevertheless, the quality looks so good in the room-scale, 360-degree view experience that it remains the technology to beat in virtual reality. The only thing missing is force feedback in the controls, which could theoretically make you feel the things that you touch — or hit you — in VR.
The top Vive experiences
Some of the other games were just pure fun. Google’s Tilt Brush, which I saw a year ago, has come a long way as a virtual painting experience where you can be inside the 3D painting that you are creating. While Oculus VR created a sculpting app dubbed Medium, Tilt Brush is all about painting with your hands. You can use the hand controls to select different kinds of brushes. You can even paint with colorful bubbles. It was a wondrous experience, and something that you can do only inside an immersive, 360-degree virtual reality experience.
Another awesome game was Final Approach, a throwback to the days when you played around with toys in a room and imagined flying airplanes and helicopters in difficult situations. One of the first things you notice is that it plunks right in the middle of an imaginary island with two airfields. Planes fly around you in the sky. You use your finger to point at one of the planes and then trace a path with your finger for where it should fly. You can take it down on a circling path to make a perfect landing through a series of circles onto a runway. You can also guide a helicopter through a city and drop a load of material on a skyscraper under construction. Or you can stand in the middle of the battle of Midway and command your aircraft to land on aircraft carriers or avoid enemy fighters.
The cool part of this experience is that it makes you feel like you are immersed inside a world of toys or miniatures. I can imagine real-time strategy games where you can point to a menu and deploy groups of soldiers to fight for you on a battlefield that is right before your eyes.
More game impressions
The other games were Audioshield, a music experience where you block balls coming at you from all directions using shields that you hold in your hand controls. I did this to a Beastie Boys song, and I was exhausted at the end of the 3-minute tune because I had to keep holding the shield in different directions. Space Pirate Trainer was a similar experience, except I was holding a shield in one hand and a gun in the other, firing back at the floating objects shooting at me.
I also played Budget Cuts and Job Simulator, which used humor along the lines of The Office television show and Valve’s Portal games to make fun of everyday life. Each was a tactile experience, where you perform tasks in VR to get things done.
Fantastic Contraption is a puzzle game, and I built contraptions to get through different virtual spaces. VR Minigolf is a miniature golf game, and I held a putter in one or two hands and swung it to hit a golf ball. Each hole was more and more elaborate, like multilevel fairways that you would never see at a real mini golf place. It was hard to get the strokes just right, but it really did sound like you were hitting a golf ball.
And there was Call of the Star Seed: The Gallery. I got started in this game where you could move from one place to another by holding up your hand and designating the spot where you wanted to go. But instead of moving there, you simply blink your eyes. That’s right, you blink. Then you move to that spot. It took a while to figure this out, but once I did it, I could see how you could make it happen with a lot of speed. This demo showed the start of a narrated experience that looked like a pretty cool adventure game on rails.
I’m looking forward to spending more time with all of these games. They were all clearly high-end experiences, though Elite: Dangerous felt more like a port of an existing PC game than the other ones did.
Not everything is going to be easy when it comes to setting up the Vive. You’ll need to mount the two sensors high in a room, either on a book-case or on a special shelf you put up high. And you’ll have a pretty thick wire coming down from the back of your head, connecting you to the PC. If you kick out that wire, the simulation you see will come to an abrupt stop. At least the hand controllers are wireless and very responsive.
It’s easy to trip over the wire coming down your back as you turn around, so it’s best played with someone else in the room. But you don’t have the problem of bonking into your furniture as much with the Vive. That’s because the sensors can detect the objects in your room in real-time. Then they build a safe zone around you which represents the area of the room where you can safely move. You see this safe zone at all times while you are playing games.
SteamVR is different from the better-known Oculus VR. SteamVR uses timing sequences in a PC along with the laser light from spinning lasers in two separate Lighthouse base stations (or laser boxes that are plugged into outlets and are placed in two different places in a room). These lasers hit the different sensors that are embedded in the headset. Depending on the timing of when the lasers hit the sensors, the PC figures out the position and angle you are facing with the headset.
The PC then shows you the view that you should be seeing, given the position of where you are facing. The lasers are not acting like Kinect cameras in the Microsoft Xbox One and Xbox 360 game consoles. Those systems send light signals out and then capture them as they bounce off of objects and return to the camera. That kind of system takes an extreme amount of processing power to track multiple objects. It gets exponentially harder the more objects you add.
By contrast, the Valve system doesn’t measure anything bouncing back. The sensors that are struck by the laser light send signals back to the PC over a wire (which is why, for now, the headset is wired). The PC then calculates the 3D space around you.
The number of objects you can track are independent. You can have four or five people wearing headsets and be in the same area with just two base stations tracking all of the headsets.
One of the games, Hover Junkers, showed me that kind of experience. Two other players, each with their own headsets and PCs, joined me in the same multiplayer shooting game. I squared off against them as they drove these giant hovering junk vehicles around a desert canyon. It was hard trying to drive and shoot at the same time. But there was no problem having the three of us in the same experience. Hover Junkers will be able to support up to eight players at once.
In many ways, this is the real way to do VR. You have your hands on some very precise instruments that let you pick up things. You can grab ammo in the zombie shooter game Arizona Sunshine and shove them into a pistol, much like you would do in real life. That makes the simulation of a shooting game much more realistic, as you can’t just automatically watch as the gun is reloaded for you. It takes motion, and it makes shooting games much more tiring than they are when you play them with a game controller on the couch.
We played each game for about 15 minutes, and that seems like the natural break time for playing games in VR. But I’m looking forward to playing some of these games for many hours.
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