There’s a thrilling moment when you first slip your face into the HTC Vive, soon after you stop feeling like a bootleg Robocop, when you become utterly convinced of the vast virtual world into which you’ve been teleported. You’ll absent-mindedly try to lean on furniture that isn’t there. You’ll laugh like an idiot at a balloon nobody else can see. It’s impossible to appreciate until you’ve worn one, but the HTC Vive is unlike any other form of entertainment you’ve experienced.
Like some other VR devices before it, a screen inside the headset fires two separate, high-resolution images into your eyes through specialised lenses, creating a believable sense of distance and depth perception. Accurate, lag-free head tracking allows you to naturally look around in 3D space. Two wall-mounted, Rubik’s Cube-sized base stations monitor your physical location within the room, letting you freely stroll about inside whatever virtual world you’ve found yourself in, while two handheld controllers allow you to pick up and interact with virtual objects. Get too close to a wall in the physical world and you’ll see a wireframe outline appear in the virtual one, warning you of the impending impact.
In effect, the HTC Vive turns an entire room of your home into a first-person virtual space, in which you can move about using your actual body rather than by twiddling analogue sticks. The end result is one that’s seamlessly realistic and immediately intuitive.
It feels weirdly real, the sort of revolutionary new technology that sends you sliding into a ballpit of gushing and overwrought hyperbole: It’s this generation’s colour television. It’s our moon landing. It’s the holodeck. It’s that bit from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the monkey chucks the bone in the air. It’s a clever and very expensive new headset that bamboozles your brain into thinking you’re somewhere else.
There are some hefty barriers to entry for this nascent technology however, chief among them the hardware’s £689 price tag. It also requires a beefy gaming PC to power the thing, as well as that most precious of London resources: a roughly three by three metre bit of empty floor space in which to safely cavort about inside your virtual world.
Manage all that and you’ll find yourself at the bleeding edge of a new medium. But as spectacular as the base experience may be, slow uptake from software developers means you’ll quickly run out of games to play and worlds to attend.
Valve, creator of Portal and Half-Life, is supporting the Vive with games, though its launch titles include just a handful of experimental demos. An Angry Birds style slingshot game, a castle defence game in which you’re armed with a bow and arrow, a plunge to the ocean floor to wave at a big whale. All totally immersive, but limited in scope.
VR is nothing new. For as long as there have been televisions, ambitious people have been strapping them to their faces and claiming to have invented virtual reality, but with the Vive it seems the technology is finally on the cusp of overcoming its stinker of a reputation. An unprecedented leap forward that hints at untold potential, this is the most exciting piece of tech in years. Even if you look like a giant tit while wearing it.
It’s a grave injustice to describe Tilt Brush simply as “a 3D painting program”, because like most second-hand HTC Vive experiences it’s roughly ten thousand times more incredible than whatever you’re imagining. When immersed in virtual reality it becomes some mad inter-dimensional canvas in which you can draw streaks of glowing light, flames and paint into thin air – as if you’re Da Vinci, or God.
It’s the year 2050 and all of humanity has been wiped out by the dominant robot race. For entertainment and education, robots now simulate what life was once like for their fleshy, organ-having forebears. Job Simulator allows you to assume the role of an office worker, grocery clerk, gourmet chef or car mechanic. Fascinatingly mundane, it’s one of the first completed VR games to market.
Valve is the driving creative force behind the HTC Vive, designing most of the system’s underlying software as well as the early tutorials and setup utilities. The Lab is their spectacular showcase of exactly what the Vive can do: a collection of brief and experimental mini-games that range from archery and robotics repair, to fantasy bazaars and photorealistic Icelandic vistas.