opinion


Hands on with the HTC Vive – an apology to VR lovers everywhere

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Like many of the passing trends in the telecoms industry, or the broader consumer electronics one for that matter, much has been made of the potential possessed by virtual reality as the next best platform for digital entertainment.

Gone are the days where one can go outside into the real world and into real life (or “IRL” as we internet folk say). For why go through the ordeal of physically exerting one’s self when one can have the whole experience sat in one’s own living room?

Okay, full disclosure: I’ve been against VR since the first time I tried its latest incarnation. However, at 5G World in London this week, I managed to get my hands on a top of the range pair of the HTC Vive virtual reality goggles, and this virtual experience is one incomparable to the one I tested at Mobile World Congress earlier this year.

In a 25 square meter space with sensors visualising one’s virtual parameters, the user dives into a brave new world with an almost limitless array of environments. From a sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean, to blasting space bots set on ending your virtual existence.

VR is one of those technologies that has been threatening to take off for the best part of 30 years, but never really having done so. This journalist remembers venturing to the Trocadero games arcade in Piccadilly at a tender age to take on his polygonal nemeses, equipped with a VR helmet, a plastic gun and his big brother by his side. While it has been a multi-decade journey for virtual reality, with many an aborted effort by consumer electronics firms in the past, today’s telecoms industry is now in a position to fully enable a high-definition VR world.

Cloud infrastructure means that, today, more than 250 made-for-VR titles are at users’ fingertips and the pending arrival of 5G in the next half a decade means the high bandwidth and ultra-low latency requirements for VR-based online gaming and mobile content streaming is now more possible than ever before.

Putting on the HTC Vive feels like equipping Darth Vaders helm

Putting on the HTC Vive feels like equipping Darth Vader’s helm

Back to the expo on the final day at 5G World, and a queue had formed outside the HTC Vive VR experience. With a camera crew in wait and “press” emblazoned upon my lanyard, I cheekily managed to bag a fast track pass ahead of the excited masses. After successfully getting through the daunting three seconds of impending doom when the headset gets strapped upon one’s face, an almost instant transportation to the deepest depths of the sea quickly sees any early trepidation fall by the wayside.

It took about 30 seconds to get my head around the concept that my immediate surroundings were no longer my immediate surroundings. The accompanying pictures illustrate how quickly you become immersed.

After a close call with a giant whale in one world, I was quickly thrown into a do-or-die battle with levitating space droids reminiscent of those used by a young Luke Skywalker to hone his abilities in Star Wars Episode IV (that’s the last Star Wars reference). Being able to dodge, and even shoot, incoming laser bolts makes the whole experience so exciting that when the mini-game ended and moved on to Google’s 3D painting app “Tilt”, I instantly longed for another chance to defeat my extra-terrestrial oppressors.

HTC VR Space Pirate Trainer

“Space Pirate Trainer” on the HTC Vive

My disappointment, however, was extremely short lived. Tilt allows to the user draw practically anything imaginable in all three dimensions. From your run of the mill smiley face to a galaxy of stars warping around you – the possibilities are nigh on endless. I opted out of playing the VR game of horror movie franchise Paranormal Activity, and the HTC engineer running the show wasn’t keen on demonstrating it either, you can guess why.

The experience was far too brief for my liking, and represented a rapid U-turn in my original opinion of VR. At MWC, it still seemed gimmicky; it was disorientating and lacked the sensory tactility that, for me, is at the core of any immersive VR experience. However, at the premium end of the market, the experience is astounding, and a genuine thrill for any gamer or tech enthusiast, of which I am both.

Sony PlayStation and Facebook are two companies, along with HTC, throwing their weight behind the VR movement. Facebook with its purchase of Oculus, the VR headset manufacturer which rose to fame courtesy of Kickstarter; and Sony with the Playstation VR, due out later this year. Each have been developing their own ecosystem of games and content, as demonstrated at video gaming exhibition E3 in Los Angeles in June.

Doubts still exist over its long term feasibility as a content consumption medium, however. That could be down to the ability of VR to reach the masses in the same way conventional games consoles or mobile platforms have done so successfully, or because of the space required in which to play VR (see aforementioned 25 m2 space used for the exhibit); or, more likely, because of the premium price point.

Tim VR HTC 2The HTC product I trialled at 5G World is on sale at £689 for the whole kit and caboodle; including the headset, handset controllers, but not the extremely powerful computing platform required to run the gaming engine – priced at somewhere between £750 and £1,000. For the dedicated early adopter and hardcore gamer that could be seen as a worthwhile investment, although many may wait for the second gen version to hit the market before ploughing a hefty pile of cash into the technology.

PlayStation VR, meanwhile, will come to market at $399 for the headset alone; although recent reports say the device has already completely sold out of stock available for pre-order. You can never be totally sure on exactly how many units have been sold in pre-order, for all we know it could be three, but it would look as though demand levels could be unprecedentedly high for the new gaming platform, if we were to assume a less cynical stance.

I recently spoke about my distain for virtual reality on one of the recent Telecoms.com podcasts, discarding it as another short-lived technology fad. However, after reflecting upon my experience of really getting hands on with a premium headset trialling some bloody fun games, I feel compelled to retract my previous statements and humbly issue an apology to any and all VR enthusiasts out there. I get it now. It’s going to be good.


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