23 March 2016

Trying out the HTC Vive

On the way back from a meeting in London yesterday I was able to find time to queue up at the Curry's on Tottenham Court Road to try out the HTC Vive. There queue was about a dozen people longer (and longer by the time I left) and with a 15 min demo each I had about an hours wait. There was an amiable and knowledgeable HTC expert supervising the whole thing, and ready to answer questions, and on his monitor (above) you could see what the Vive user was experiencing. The space was about 5m x 5m with the positional sensors in each corner.

So what was the experience like?

First the graphics was actually underwhelming. There was a definite step change from DK1 to DK2, but now DK2 is worse than the best smartphone solutions, and Vive really was no different from those. Still a slight "gauze" over the screen, and edges of the screen visible (perhaps better headset adjustment?), so no real sense of higher rez or wider field of view. It may be that the HTC is a few percentage points better, but not enough difference that you (or at lest I'd) notice. I also thought that the headset was heavier than the DK2, but apparently I was the only person who'd commented on its weight.

Where the HTC did score was in the integration of the peripherals. The handset controllers were OK, a little oddly shaped, but the meant that whatever you were holding in world appeared where your hands/controllers were. The first demo is a simple shoot-em up, and you can hold either a shield or gun in each hand - just flinging a hand back over your shoulder to change. Using the shield/guns was totally natural, just point and shoot. You could also move around the platform a bit (although there was little need), and a green fence appeared when you began to stray to the limit of the area (no evidence of the forward facing camera bleed-through of reality).

The second demo was Job Simulator. You're in a cartoony office cubicle just full of stuff to play with. The controllers now appear as white gloved cartoony hands (no arms), and pulling the trigger causes them to grip an object (although its then more a case of it moving with the hands rather than being gripped by them). I had great fun trying to build a jenga stack out of donuts and coffee cups. You could fill a  mug with coffee and tip the coffee all over the store. Throw physics worked well, both for donuts and paper-planes. There was a computer that you could access, but just very large font text (forgot to see what was the smallest font fize I could see to read - a good test of resolution). When I dropped a donut on the floor I could kneel down and peer under the virtual desk and the trackers did their job of keeping everything in sync - all very natural.

And that was it. I only realised later that the person before me (image above) had also had the chance to use the painting app, but I guess the guy through the queue was building too long. Pity as I'd hoped to see if I could draw a solid looking house.


Graphics are OK but not wonderous, and the £200+ price hike over the Oculus probably wont be worth it for that (or possibly even over the Samsung or Cardboard with a decent phone - and can't say I noticed lag was significantly better). The peripheral integration was great through, but in reality you could build that into any system - but it is hassle to do, and having it all working out the box is pretty neat.

Thinking of use cases though, to get the fullest benefit you do need that 5m x 5m area and a minder to make sure you don't trip over the cable - so apart from the geekiest of gamer geeks I'm stil not sure its going to be a mass market entertainment system - and particularly at that price. And if you just want a sit-in-a-chair VR experience the other solutions are a lot cheaper.

Where I am excited though is in our core area of training. People spend a lot of money on cave type 3D set-ups. But with a £700+ Vive you can have a fully portable spatial trainer. Just think of projects we've done such as this nursing trainer:

With HTC Vive a student could actually walk around the bed, place and adjust equipment, do basic medical inspections etc. There would still be challenges with reading patient notes and talking to the patient ( a real need for voice recognition), but all do'able. We could probably even make it multi-user.

So, great to have tried the Vive out. A pity its not another step beyond the current display quality, but really neat peripheral integration.

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