VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY TAKES FLIGHT

And the key is full-body track­ing.

HWM (Singapore) - - Front Page -

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.”

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