I’ve been playing around with the HTC Vive for just over a month now, in which time I’ve grown accustomed to all of its features and quirks. Technically, I’ve been a VR participant since around March, when I originally purchased an OSVR HDK 1.3. With the OSVR HDK however, you’re limited to a 1080p display (although the newly released HDK 2.0 now matches the resolution of the Vive/Rift) and you’ll have to bring your own solution to the table in regards to motion controllers or other methods of input. Still, it was enough to dip my toes in the water, and helped make my decision towards ultimately investing in a HTC Vive. So a whole month onwards, what are my thoughts?
Well first off, the Vive in the UK is getting a price hike, and is looking at going up from £680 to around £750, without any shipping fees included. A potential £70 worth of savings for buying now instead of waiting means that a lot of you will be considering whether or not to jump in now, or whether to just hold off, see what Xmas/New Year brings, and save up patiently until then. Hopefully with this article, I can help you reach a decision. As for me, I consider myself very open-minded and I usually become an early-adopter for a lot of new technology, regardless of what the community’s thoughts are on the tech. I see something I like the look of, or fancy giving a try, and I buy it.
So I’m not writing for those of you that share a similar mindset to me, because you’ll need minimal guidance/advice on this sort of thing beyond the basic spec sheet to know how you feel about it. This article is written for those of you that don’t usually buy new tech as soon as it comes out, unless it really interests you, and you’re in the process of doing your research to see if VR is something that’s worth throwing down a substantial amount of money to participate in the buzz early.
Using VR in limited space
So with that, let’s get started. First question is probably the most important and quickest way to set the tone for the rest of this article. Is my Vive gathering dust on a shelf, or am I religiously wearing it everyday? The answer is a tad complicated in my circumstances. My rooms upstairs (where my PC usually lives) are not big enough for a room-scale experience (like it will be for most people), so for me to have the best benefit from the Vive, I have to move my computer downstairs, unplug the mess of 7/8 USB cables, and rearrange and sort through them later when I bring the PC back up and have to plug them all back in again. It’s a nightmare for me to move sofas and tables, to clear the room, and plug/unplug cables each time I want to play a room-scale game.
So for me, the question each time becomes “Am I really in the mood to play for two or three hours plus, or do I just want to play this quick experience and mess around for less than an hour?”. If it’s the latter, then I try to do what I can standing up next to my desk, and hope to god I don’t swing for my wall or worse, my 42″ TV (I’m one of those weird people that loves using a large TV as a monitor on their desk; call it compensating for something!). So what is the answer to the question I’m still avoiding? The answer is, it’s still used quite often, even for a sitting down experience. In the first week, the novelty meant that every day, I would clear the living room downstairs of furniture, unplug a maze of cables from the back of my PC, re-locate it downstairs, set up the room scale measurements, and spend a good three or more hours playing in VR.
The effort required to have that experience though, meant that I’ve come away from doing that more than once a week, where I set aside a few hours and build up the excitement or anticipation of not being able to play certain games until that special time where I make the effort, vent it all out of my system, and build up that tension again (still talking about VR here, right?). Otherwise, I’m restricted to seated experiences, or standing up and taking a risk in my constrained space, hoping that I maintain good perceptual awareness mentally of the space I’m occupying outside of the headset (so far so good!).
Non-gaming uses of virtual reality
I’ve taken to watching some TV shows using the Vive headset. Using Virtual Desktop, it’s nice to be able to watch my content on a blown-up virtual screen, in a relaxing 3D environment of my choosing. It easily beats the experience of watching something in your boring, same-old study room. I’ve been watching YouTube videos in 360 degrees and playing regular games on a virtual curved desktop screen (and yes, curiosity got the better of me and I tried out VR 3D 180/360 degree porn too).
The experience of watching videos online that offer 360 degrees of vision and render themselves as true 3D experiences is mind-blowing. It completely changes the nature of how you learn, interact, and engage with your favourite content. Want to learn about dinosaurs? Put yourself in a field surrounded by them, getting a true sense of their scale and mass. Want to be taking on a virtual tour of a foreign place? Someone will walk around their town or city, and take a video of their journey so you can be taken along too. You are a virtual tourist in a virtual world, that just so happens to bring the real world into it for you to explore from the comfort of your home.
“The experience of watching videos online that offer 360 degrees of vision and render themselves as true 3D experiences is mind-blowing. It completely changes the nature of how you learn, interact, and engage with your favourite content”
So even when restricted to your desk, there’s still a lot that can be achieved from owning a VR headset. Video/picture content becomes more engaging and immersive, and offers what I’d describe sometimes as a meditative experience. Sometimes when I want to unwind, I do find myself taking a 3D virtual walk around New York, or being placed in a random location to simply exist within that space. With no narrative or events taking place around me, simply grounding myself in that spot is relaxing in itself – especially with headphones to fully immerse myself. I think that’s where some of the more interesting applications of VR have yet to assert themselves.
A community called ASMR focuses on providing experiences of soft talking, whispering close to microphones, scratching and tapping various materials, as well as a plethora of other fetishes which are supposed to entice you to feel a form of goosebumps/relaxation/tingles which many have triggered when exposed to certain stimuli. I’m one of the types that get triggered by whispering close to the ear or talking in a foreign language/accent. Having someone whisper in an audio clip, regardless of what they have to say, really relaxes me and helps me remove any stress I have built up. Needless to say, having this experience in conjunction with a visual scene wrapped around you enhances that experience tenfold if you can make use of that for yourself. I can also imagine that if you’re the kind of person that has any form of social anxiety, you could use this as a tool for acclimating yourself to becoming more public mentally, though I’d be concerned that it could also be used to further escapism and compound the problem even worse, so please be careful in how you approach that kind of usage and don’t make things worse for yourself.
VR and gaming
What about gaming? Well right now, things are up in the air. Working on a VR project myself, I’m all too aware of the problems we face as an industry, from a variety of different areas. First of all is the most obvious: movement. How do you create locomotion in a game, where the user is restricted to a small 5 x 5 foot kind of space, but wants to explore large open environments? Valve’s early answer for their Lab experience was to give the player a teleportation arc, that they can cast out into the world, and be teleported to a certain location, with their room-scale navigation placed relative to where they are in that space currently. This sort of works, as it allows you to move around within a small space chosen by you as the player to place within the virtual world. The problem is you cannot create sustained and continuous motion. Walking forward in your living room means that you will eventually hit a physical barrier, and won’t be able to continue in game. So walking in a traditional sense is not currently possible in VR. The only viable method currently is either using the left analogue stick or touch pad for traditional movement where the player’s head rotation controls the direction where the movement is calculated from, or you try one of the more experimental options like attaching motion sensors to your feet, and bring them up and down in a motion to signify you want to walk forward, which is very limited right now.
The next big problem is sitting versus standing. Some games address this with capabilities from the controller to be able to cast a line out from the controller, to pick things up on the floor hit by the raycasted line, meaning seated players don’t have to bend down to pick things up constantly, but standing players can still do so if they wish. Do you pick things up because the ring of the controller is touching the object, or because it’s hitting a certain area of the controller within a radius? Do you enforce your own movement scheme, or offer multiple options like The Assembly did? Do you make text bigger to be read, or do you allow the player to move the UI around physically to suit them, bringing it up close to their face when they need to read something? There’s so much to answer for currently that it’s impossible to call any VR experience right now in a gaming context to be polished or streamlined. Everyone is still trying out new things, and there aren’t any standards yet beyond pulling a trigger to pick things up. Some games require you hold it down, others ask you click it in and then click it again once more or press the side buttons to drop the object, so even something as simple as grabbing objects has no set standard yet!
“Right now, the novelty of just being able to be present and interact with a virtual world is wow-factor enough to keep me interested”
My best experiences so far with regards to gaming have been those that are independent from any A.I involvement. They’ve been things like shooting ranges, mini-games, and small interactive spaces that make use of the room-scale feature like Job Simulator. They’ve been places I can go to and explore, with no real goal and the developers have basically given me a glorified sandbox with an end-goal, or sometimes none at all. Right now, the novelty of just being able to be present and interact with a virtual world is wow-factor enough to keep me interested, even a month on.
Eventually though, you’re going to start asking the question of, “okay, so what games can I play?”, because right now, there are tons of experiences, but hardly any games. I mean games in the traditional sense of having scores, or opponents to face, challenges to overcome or objectives to achieve. The problem is VR can’t ask too much of you quite yet. Until developers and consumers become acclimated to the new medium, and kinks are worked out and industry standards are set, enforcing any kind of experience that pressures you into performing well is only going to sour your attitude towards the medium. Developers are all too aware of that, so they stick to things that work consistently in VR, such as aiming a gun, or throwing something, or even simpler such as physically interactive puzzles. The rest then tend to just stick to providing a passive/sandbox experience, where you can set your own pace, and not feel pushed into “becoming good” at VR per sé.
So, is VR worth the investment?
Right now at least, VR still is just an expensive toy. If you have the money, then you should be fine in just deciding whether this kind of thing excites you or not, and whether the case examples of things I’ve tried out with the Vive would be worth your time into doing yourself. If you’re on a budget, or don’t have the cash to spend on a luxury item like this, then I would say that you aren’t missing out on much quite yet. Yes, the experience is mind-blowing, nigh on life-changing to how you consume your content and shows much potential/promise for the future, but I wouldn’t ask anyone to scavenge together money in whatever way they can to buy one this early on. My experience is definitely better having the Vive controllers in hand. I consumed a lot of my media before with the OSVR HDK, but I didn’t interact with my media; I was just able to look around and watch it all in 3D. With controllers in my hand though, I feel much more grounded and present in the experience, and that’s where the true potential of VR lies. Having hands in the virtual world helps anchor you to the space, and creates what the industry is currently calling “presence”. Right now everyone is treating this mental state as the platform to build VR on; the bare minimum if you will for everything else we’re going to be layering on top.
If we’re going to keep this simple though, how much have I used an almost £700 headset? Averaged out, it’s getting an hour a day of usage. Realistically speaking, I’ll spend one day a week playing for three or four hours in a room-scale setup, and the other days of the week I’ll spend a few evenings watching videos, playing seated experiences/games, and doing desktop stuff with the novelty of doing it on a virtually curved screen inside a custom 3D environment. After this amount of time, you’d spread the cost of the Vive for me personally, somewhere around £10 for every hour of use so far, for the first month I’ve had it. Obviously I’ve been getting a lot more usage out of it from working on a VR project myself, being a bit more experimental and open-minded to try out everything because I’m a development-minded individual. For a pure consumer though, I can easily see them getting half the mileage as what I’ve had. Without the passion and drive to produce their own content, or bring together their own created experiences and take authoring control of their VR content, then I can see most regular gamers or tech enthusiasts getting a little bored by now.
To conclude, if you’re a developer with money spend, it’s a yes from me. If you’re a developer on a budget, then it’s still a yes from me, and finding the funds to acquire VR will be worthwhile. If you’re a consumer who’s an early adopter kind of person, then it’s still a yes, but remember the state the VR world is currently in, and there’s no widespread support or standards for the medium yet as we’re all still finding our feet. If you’re a consumer who doesn’t usually jump in early for new tech trends, and you’re on the fence, I’d say no, and wait it out a little longer.