HTC Vive report from GamesCom

So, I got the news with ten minutes to midnight… no HTC Vive demo for me at GamesCom but I wouldn’t let a simple refusal put me off. So rising rather later than I had planned I made my way to GamesCom and eventually stumbled across the booth. I knew Wednesday was reserved for press but figured that not all the appointments would be kept, and I was right. There was already a sizable line to the side of the booth for people also willing to wait and after a quick bathroom break I joined them and sat down to wait.

And wait I did, people slowly went in, people slowly joined the line behind me. I would have been very happy to wait most of the day, apart from the fact that my laptop had come unplugged in the night and ended up on only 14% power. After nearly four hours the ten people in front had been demo’d and it was very nearly my turn. The (mostly female) staff were constantly turning people away (or rather, putting them off with the long wait times) so they would have easily shown the demo to 50+ more people. Five booths just didn’t seem like a lot considering the interest they got. It would also have been very interesting if passers by could see into the rooms, but for most people the HTC Vive stand would remain a mystery.

Finally I had my turn, and with my bag stashed away I stepped into the room with Olga, my ‘operator’. It was dimly lit and after closing the smoked glass door the sounds of the main floor were considerably muffled. The room was perhaps 3m x 3m, carpeted wall to wall, with a PC in the corner and the mystical Vive on the floor in the center of the room. Next to it were two wireless controller. I placed the headset on my head and now stood in a white room, with the floor tiles fading off into the distance. The controllers were on the floor where they should have been. There was also a panel at waist height to start the demos. First I got a pair of wireless headphones, then the controllers were put in my hand (after the all important wrist straps). Olga now set up a sound link so she could tell me what to do and help me.

First we tested the chaperone system, so I approached the wall until a set of boundaries appeared to tell me I was going to close. I tested these later and found that they were slightly generous, so putting your hand out meant they weren’t right where you though they might be. In an empty room it was great, but I had some reservations a little later on. With the boundaries set I returned to the center of the room and we tested the controllers. With my left hand I could use my thumb to select a colour, my right hand trigger would then blow up a balloon, which then floated away from me. With either hand I could hit them and there was a distinct ‘dunk’ from the controller, much as you might feel from hitting a real balloon. Subtle tactile feedback.

The controllers were light and comfortable in my hands, I’m not a huge fan of their appearance but I’m pretty sure this will change before release. The HMD was also light, comfortable and with a large sweet spot for viewing. It just worked. I think perhaps the white ‘transition room’ setting wasn’t ideal since I could see some screen door effect, but honestly this is just nitpicking. I could see it because it’s what you see while you’re waiting for headphones and controllers, once the scene changes I completely forgot about it. The resolution is great, really great. Compared to the DK2 it’s awesome.

So the stage set we moved onto the main event, the demos. First I was transported to the bow of a sunken ship, surrounded by a shoal of fish which flicked away from my hands when I swiped at them. Approaching the side I could peer down into the murky depths and looking up the sunlight dappled the waves above my head. ‘This is really nice’ I said to Olga, smiling widely, as I strode around the deck of the ship, the SDE was gone, the four hours waiting well spent. Manta rays glided in from the darker water but didn’t react when I tried to touch them. The controllers were only simple rods in my hands, I put my hands to my sides and just enjoyed the visuals. I deep rumbling boom announced another arrival and a huge blue whale swam out of the depths and gazed steadily in my direction before swiping it’s huge dorsal fin over my head and shaking the ships remaining deck tackle with the thrust of its huge tail. Just lovely!

We returned to the white room after Olga informed me that the demo would end, this is nice to prepare for the transition instead of just throwing the user back into the previous scene. Now I was moved into the center of a table where a small pair of armies were battling below me, one defending a castle and other attacking with tanks and other weapons. I crouched down to get a little closer to the action. This was an impressive demo but not my favourite, getting a little too close to the ground created a few problems when my head clipped through the floor, but still it was pretty well done. I also got a little too close to the walls a couple of times and now I saw a pretty big flaw in the chaperone system. Although I was close to a wall, I was looking into the center of the room and in no real danger of walking into a wall since I was crouching down and facing away from it, but the whole boundary was lit up until I moved out of it’s range, so now instead of looking at what was happening behind the castle walls I was acutely aware of where I was in the room instead. Perhaps instead of showing this in an open space it could be in a room the size of the demo room. Then I would be very aware of where the walls are and could happily get quite close to them. The Chaperone system would ideally flash up when I’m *really* close.

We then moved onto the cooking game and I made some soup! First I played around trying to chop up the tomato (you can’t) and then threw a knife from hand to hand. My controllers were now big blocky open hands and pulling either trigger made them close so instinctively I knew I could pick stuff up. I threw a few eggs around, chopped a carrot up, broke one knife and then realised I had a job to do. The environment was good, but not perfect, I tried to ring the bell with the side of the knife, but it didn’t do anything. After a minute of messing around I noticed the instructions I was supposed to be following and started throwing ingredients into the nearby cooking pot, two tomatos, some mushrooms, a dash of chili sauce and salt. The kitchen was a bit of a mess when I was done, but I could now ring the bell with my hand and the demo ended.

We then moved onto the tilt brush demo which has been written about a lot. It was quite good, but it’s pretty difficult to create something interesting when you’re just playing around. Some more time to really play would have been nice but I just wanted to move onto the real event which I knew was coming. I nearly asked for it to end early but it finished soon enough. I’m looking forward to trying it when I have more time, and I would love to paint something with another person at the same time, either in the same space or across the internet.

So the final demo, which I hoped was the Aperture lab was replaced with the ‘Secret Shop’. I was standing in a weird medieval room with junk and stuff all around me. Olga vaguely explained that someone would come in to give me a light that I could ‘use’ but I really didn’t know what she was talking about :p Eventually the door opened and in walked a weird character holding some kind of white light. He offered it to me and with my right hand I reached out to take it. Now I had a burning white light in my hand which threw shadows around the room as I waved it around. The environment was really beautiful, with a stunning amount of detail all around me. One thing I noticed was the lack of positional audio though, the sound was good in all the demos but I wanted to hear where I should be looking. When the shop owner approached the door from the outside, I could hear him, but I didn’t know where he was, I had to look around to figure out what was going on.

So with the light in my hand Olga instructed me to press my right trigger close to a glowing circle of symbols shining on a sheaf of parchment on the table in front of me. I did so, and was momentarily confused because now the shop keeper was droning on about something or other but was now towering above me, partially obscured from the bottom, his voice deep and booming. I was now 2 inches tall and standing on the papers but utterly confused. It took 10 seconds for me to understand that I had magically shrunk and was now seeing the same scene from a completely different perspective. It really is the most amazing thing to experience something with no preparation or warning, which I’m now completely spoiling for you dear reader 🙂 So even though I knew all about changes in scale I wasn’t ready at all when it just happened for the first time. Again I said to Olga “This is just amazing!”.

Ever demo was undoubtedly running on a top end PC and although I did mark a few very occasional, tiny twitches in the position of the controllers, every demo from a technical point of view was just stunning. No noticeable latency (screen or controllers), great resolution, no dropped frames or visual artefacts. The minor screen door effect melted away once the fun began and the good field of view issue (which was better than my DK2) was also instantly forgotten. The hardware seems to be very close to being ready to be sold. If they had presented me with a card reader right after the demo (and a bag I could take away) I would be happy to put in my PIN for $700.

Pressing the trigger again returned me to my ‘normal body’ and normal scale, and at Olgas urging I now waved my shining light at other circles of light dotted around the room. A dusty shelf was empty but for a small green frog and a band of light, but pressing the trigger close to it once again returned me to my miniscule body and the tiny frog now towered above me. I stepped gingerly towards the edge of the shelf to look down and then the frog lashed his tongue out over my head causing me to flitch. Just awesome 🙂 The scene was repeated all over the room, small vignettes of funny creatures or moving magical objects coming alive once you teleported to their side. With my off hand I bashed some of the objects around the room and they generally responded predictably to my touch.

Then the curtain opened, the lights come back up and it was all over. 15 minutes of fun for a 4 hour wait. Was it worth it? Yep. HTC and Valve have a great bit of kit on their hands. The demos were really good. My only slight concern is that people might try them and think ‘well, it was a nice experience, but where is the game?’. Myself, I know the games will come and there are already plenty that are on the way. Palmer should be very proud, he’s not only spawned his own great company to fulfill his dream but also inspired a worthy competitor to push Oculus forward too. They can’t afford to rest on their laurels with such amazing experiences to spur them on.

 

Lets see what Oculus have to offer tomorrow at 12 noon 🙂