Disruptive Review: The HTC Vive VR Headset

Of all the VR options about to go mainstream, the HTC Vive is in the expensive collection. At $799, this headset is not inexpensive. And that’s without the PC you need to drive it. So, not exactly a toy. At least for the mainstream.

Yes, you can experience VR using your mobile phone. From the cheap, and decidedly uncomfortable Google Card that holds your mobile phone, to the Samsung VR, a dedicated headset for Samsung Gear S smartphones. Somewhere in the middle of that is the Wearality Sky, that provides a 150 degree FoV (Field of View).

But frankly, apart from short YouTube style videos, or precomputed data, you’re not going to use your mobile phone. For one thing there’s comfort, the phone is heavy, at least heavier than a display. For another there’s battery life, not to mention performance. Moore’s Law hasn’t yet provided a mobile phone that’s as powerful as a desktop computer. And finally, it’s your phone. Quite apart from calls, if you’re anything like me, you’re using it all the time.

No, in-depth, long term, immersive VR is going to be with a dedicated system. I’ve tried two of them to date, the Oculus Rift (Dev II) and last week, the HTC Vive. The Oculus certainly exploded my mind in terms of potential. The Vive on the other hand blew me away.

Translating Physical to Virtual

Both of these devices are wired to a grunty PC, so movement is restricted. This needs to be overcome. I forsee some dedicated backpack Alienware or HP Omen type product. (Kickstarter anyone?) Something that lessens the weight and repositions this across your back so as to become transparent to the user.

Where the Vive totally trumps the Rift, however, is in the room managment system. Essentially there are 2+ depth sensing cameras & headset tracker that project a virtual grid within the VR experience to let you know you’re about to walk into a physical wall. This frees you from sitting in front of a PC and using controls to move around the virtual space. You can actually turn and walk IRL, and the movement is translated into the VR world. From an immersion perspective, this is insanely powerful.

Vision

The resolution of the Vive appeared much better than the Rift. Admittedly I’ve only worked with developer kits of both, but the difference is marked. This goes a long way towards immersion. Seeing pixels is a sure fire way for your brain to remind you that you’re not exactly in Kansas anymore.

I’m really keen to see the Avegant in this regard.

My first experience was called “Blu Encounter” where you’re placed on the deck of a shipwreck. Even as a Dive Instructor, this experience was uncanny. Watching the surface (about 18m above), the rays, and the fish was amazingly realistic. Just without needing a regulator. And when the Blue Whale swims past you get an experience of scale that you simply couldn’t recreate any other way.

Here are opportunities for:

  • Simulation and training,
  • Practice and preparation for extreme activities
  • Desensitizing someone’s fears – E.g. Heights, snakes, agra- or claustrophobia, the list is probably endless
  • Physical environment A/B (C-Z) testing

Sound

You can plug in headphones. But why would you? Far better to set up the VR space with a decent surround sound system. If you’re hearing directional sound from afar, this is going to be a far more immersive and less intrusive experience.

This also comes into play when you have more than one person in the space at the same time.

There was sound underwater, but this really came into play in the “Robot Repair” (as did heart stopping impressions of scale. We all know the power of surround sound to drive immersion in movies. This takes the experience to a whole new level of nuance and subtlety.

Control

The final difference right now is how you can use your hands. With the Vive you get two controllers. Both of these appear in within the VR space. Not as effective as perhaps gloves with taptic feedback. But they give an astounding level of control.

I used these in my final experience of my too short time in VR. Tilt Brush is a 3D painting experience. With the left controller you get a pallette of brushes and colours. With your right hand you ‘paint.’

The brushes range from traditional pigment applicators (paint, charcoal, pencil, pen, marker etc) to various forms of light. There’s plasma, electricity, snow, bubbles etc.

O.M.G.!!

I cannot adequately describe the experience. Part sculpting, part drawing, part dancing. All of the above. For the creative your mind explodes with possibilities. It takes a while to get control of the tools, then some time to translate 2D to 3D, and then…

…then you realise anything is possible. You can create anything. You could create a maze, describe scene, become part of the creation.

I wanted to stay in VR and learn this new craft. I wanted somehow to keep what I’d created and share it. I wanted to synchronise it to music. To play an instrument and express emotions through light, colour, sound, and motion. I wanted to dance with joy, and weep from the depths of my soul.

All this with the crude tools of a prototype in a development kit. When these tools evolve with more scope, nuance, and control… …perhaps art and science will meet religion.

Business Opportunities

I had <30 minutes in VR, just a taster really, and in that short time the Vive won me over. Imagine having an empty warehouse with the Vive setup then:

  • Taking customers through x renditions of a new physical space adn observe their behaviour? A/B testing of spaces, branches, shop fronts etc. without having to build them physically.
  • Allowing people to view your house for sale, without having to clean it for an Open Home (this is a current bugbear of mine). You could let them see it with their own decorations and furniture.
  • Creating limitless tests and challenges, from puzzles to “Escape Room” experiences.
  • Role playing and induction training.
  • Preparing for critical missions – everything from a wreck dive, to hostage rescue.
  • Training spaces – learn how to sell a mortgage, or perform in front of a stadium.
  • Visualise massive sets of complex data
  • Interview someone and let them demonstrate their skills.

In short: “Any Experience as a Service”

 

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