VIRTUAL REALITY TAKES FLIGHT
And the key is full-body tracking.
by JamesLu Virtual reality head-mounted displays have been in development for a few years now but they’re still closer in concept to Nintendo’s VR boy than Star Trek’s Holodeck. Yes, Oculus Rift may have secured a US$2 billion buyout from Facebook, but Oculus, impressive as it is, still feels passive, like you’re just looking around a virtual world. So when Valve and HTC threw their names into the hat there was understandable skepticism. What would a gaming company best known for its online distribution platform and a smartphone manufacturer know about VR? Apparently, quite a lot. What sets the HTC Vive apart from the likes of Oculus, as well as Sony’s Project Morpheus and Samsung’s Gear VR is that it doesn’t just let you see into a virtual environment, it puts your entire body into that world. In other words, it gives you a sense of presence. Other VR headsets don’t track your body, so as soon as you lean slightly the illusion of reality is shattered, and you just become a sort of disembodied floating head. The Vive tracks everything.
Made by HTC in partnership with Valve, the Vive is a head-mounted display with a dark gray faceplate jam-packed with sensors. Inside, two 1,200 x 1,080 pixel displays, one for each eye, offer 360 degree views. On the top of the headset are an HDMI port, two USB ports and a headphone port. Like Oculus Rift, the entire headset is connected via wires to a PC. What makes the Vive unique is that it uses the boundaries of your physical room to create your virtual space. It does this through two base stations that are hung on the walls at a 90 degree angle. These track your position and movement wherever you are in the room. Crouch, jump, lean, step forward, look up, down, left, right, and the system will be able to keep tabs on exactly where you are based on the position of your head. You’re no longer sitting at your computer looking around inside a virtual world, you’re walking around inside it.
That only solves half the problem though. The tracking system still can’t see your arms or hands, which is where the Vive’s controllers comes in. There are two of them, one for each hand, and they look a lot like the Nintendo Wii’s nunchuk controllers. Each one has a trackpad on top and a trigger on the back. These controllers let you interact with your environment.
It’s the combination of these two things that makes the whole experience click into something incredibly immersive. When I tried the Vive at MWC 2015, it was the first time I really thought to myself, this is the future.
While the Vive is still in early development, HTC and Valve have already partnered with a few companies to show off what it is capable of. One demo puts you on the deck of an undersea ship wreck. You can walk around the deck of the boat and grab at things. Schools of fish swim by, and you can swat at them to send them darting away. Another demo puts you in a kitchen. You can pick up ingredients, open the fridge or microwave and put things inside, you can even grab eggs off the counter and throw them at the wall where they smash and leave a mess. It’s all incredibly mundane stuff, but it feels completely real. Everything you can do in a real kitchen you can do here. This is what virtual reality should feel like.
Of course, the limitation of the Vive is the size of the room you’re in. As it uses your actual physical space to create the world, you can only walk forward so far until you hit a wall – literally. The underwater demo restrained you to the deck of the boat with railings that stop you from going too far, so while the ocean beyond the boat looks vast and endless, you’re actually stuck in a box. And of course the kitchen demo puts you in a virtual room the size of your actual room. Could you not just get a really big room then? HTC says that the sensors work best in a room of about 5m x 5m – so not very big. The other problem is the wires coming out of the Vive headset. While this is fine for the stationary Oculus Rift, it can be a hazard when you’re walking around with the Vive. Turn around a few too many times and the wires will wrap around you. It’s hard to completely immerse yourself in a virtual world when you know there’s a potential tripping hazard right under your feet. Even with these drawbacks, HTC and Valve have created the most immersive virtual reality experience so far. It’s not quite a Holodeck, but it’s the closest thing yet.
"What would a gaming company and a smartphone manufacturer know about VR? Apparently,
quite a lot.”