Hands on with HTC Vive virtual reality headset

We recently went hands on with the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, and here's what we experienced

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  • htc vive headset Headset and controllers
  • tiltbrush Tiltbrush
  • the blu The Blu
  • elite dangerous Elite: Dangerous
  • arizona sunshine Arizona Sunshine
  • aperture Aperture
  • everest vr Everest VR
  • nvidia geforce PC requirements
  • More stories
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HTC Vive hands-on: Headset and controllers

The HTC Vive is virtual reality headset comprised of various elements – the headset, two ‘cameras’ that detect your movement, and two wireless handheld remotes. The headset boasts a 1200x1080 screen in front of each eye, with refresh rates reaching 90 frames per second which should produce high quality imagery that fills your field of vision, allowing you to be fully immersed in games/experiences. It features a gyroscope, accelerometer and laser position sensor to precisely track the rotation of your head to 1/10th of a degree, allowing you to explore virtual environments naturally. The only downside to the current Vive headset is that it’s wired, and as I was encouraged to move around the virtual environment freely, I almost tripped over the cable during one of the experiences.

The two ‘cameras’ are referred to by HTC as Steam VR base stations, which can be used to track your physical location and movement, allowing you to physically walk around and interact with virtual worlds in real time without the use of standard controllers. The HTC Vive game controllers (one for both hands) are tracked by the system and offers a more natural way for you to use and interact with virtual objects in-game – a much better alternative to standard game controllers in our opinion.

Recently, I went along to a hands-on (or should I say eyes-on) event where Nvidia and HTC were showing off the potential uses for virtual reality beyond gaming, and it’s safe to say I was very impressed. Over the next few slides, I’ll be describing the experiences I had with various demos, from zombie shoot-em-ups to a three dimensional paint studio.

See also: Oculus Rift release date rumours

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Next Prev htc vive headset

The HTC Vive is virtual reality headset comprised of various elements – the headset, two ‘cameras’ that detect your movement, and two wireless handheld remotes. The headset boasts a 1200x1080 screen in front of each eye, with refresh rates reaching 90 frames per second which should produce high quality imagery that fills your field of vision, allowing you to be fully immersed in games/experiences. It features a gyroscope, accelerometer and laser position sensor to precisely track the rotation of your head to 1/10th of a degree, allowing you to explore virtual environments naturally. The only downside to the current Vive headset is that it’s wired, and as I was encouraged to move around the virtual environment freely, I almost tripped over the cable during one of the experiences.

The two ‘cameras’ are referred to by HTC as Steam VR base stations, which can be used to track your physical location and movement, allowing you to physically walk around and interact with virtual worlds in real time without the use of standard controllers. The HTC Vive game controllers (one for both hands) are tracked by the system and offers a more natural way for you to use and interact with virtual objects in-game – a much better alternative to standard game controllers in our opinion.

Recently, I went along to a hands-on (or should I say eyes-on) event where Nvidia and HTC were showing off the potential uses for virtual reality beyond gaming, and it’s safe to say I was very impressed. Over the next few slides, I’ll be describing the experiences I had with various demos, from zombie shoot-em-ups to a three dimensional paint studio.

See also: Oculus Rift release date rumours

HTC Vive hands-on: Tiltbrush

My first experience was with Tiltbrush, an app developed for virtual reality that allows users to create art in a three dimensional space. What this means to you and I is that you’re able to draw 3D objects and walk around (or even in) them, with the only real limitation being your ability to draw, which I must admit, isn’t a strong point of mine (despite my last name being Painter).

Anyway, I started off with a completely blank environment, apart from the concrete-esque slabs below me that outlined the area I could work in – any further and I’d hit a wall in real life. The two hand controls had taken the form of a paintbrush and a (very high tech) artists pallet, which is where you browse for brush effects and colours, amongst other options. By rotating my left hand, I switched between colour selection, brush selection, and more – and all I had to do was point and click with my right hand to make my selection. It’s very intuitive, and I had no guidance on how the experience worked.

I start off my ‘masterpiece’ by selecting a nice shade of green with a neon-style brush. I reach my arm out, pull the trigger on the controller and slowly retract my arm back towards me – and to my amazement, a neon line was left floating, as if by magic, in front of me. It was slightly animated, which added to the overall effect and brought some life and movement to a pretty static world.

After the initial learning curve, I went a bit crazy with the brush effects. I drew a rainbow in front of me, stood underneath it and looked up, then drew a 3D cube and stood inside it – hey, I did say that I wasn’t very good at art. A few paintbrush splatters later and I’d created my own virtual mess around me, but it didn’t matter – it was my mess that I could walk around and look at.

It’s a fascinating experience, and one that’d be very fun for those with creative skillsets. Tiltbrush provides complete free reign to be creative within a virtual 3D space -  talented artists could create hand-drawn worlds that consumers could walk around and examine, or architects could draw designs for buildings and get a rough idea of what it’d be like physically.

HTC Vive hands-on: The Blu

The Blu was one of my favourite HTC Vive experiences, but not because of its action (not a lot happens at the bottom of the sea), it was because of just how immersive it was. From the moment the experience started, in my mind I really was standing on a shipwreck on a cliff on the seabed. I look up and I can just about make out the sun, glistening far far away and around me tiny fish are swimming around, as if reacting to my movement.

I slowly edged towards the side of the shipwreck and looked over the edge at the darkness below – I could just about make out a shell of a downed plane somewhere below. It was at this point I experienced the same gut-wrenching feeling that I get when I’m at extreme heights, even though in my mind I knew that this wasn’t real. The HTC Vive picked up every small move that I made, both when looking around and when moving around the virtual environment with no lag, which helped me to feel completely immersed in the experience.

I turn around and see a life-size whale swimming towards me, which I have to admit gave me quite a shock. You really get a sense of scale when using the HTC Vive, and as I stood on the deck of the shipwreck with the whale swimming ever closer, I realised just how huge it was. It halted in front of me, and stared at me for what felt like a while with its huge, black eye. I had to resist the urge to reach out and touch it – of course, the Vive can’t simulate touch so it’d be pointless. After examining me, the whale decided that I wasn’t interesting enough for it and it started to swim away, being propelled by its huge tail – a tail that I was instructed to watch by the HTC Vive rep I was with.

As I watched the tail get closer and closer to the shipwreck, it grew in size until it was directly above me, blocking out the sunlight from above. Seconds later, the huge whale tail started to hurtle towards me and, as silly as it sounds, I flinched and jumped back. Again, I was well aware that what I was seeing wasn’t real, but the headset does a fascinating job at tricking the senses, believe me! The screen went black and the experience was over, much to my disappointment.

See also: PlayStation VR release date rumours

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HTC Vive hands-on: Elite: Dangerous

My next experience was with the hugely popular open world Space exploration and battle game, Elite: Dangerous. Being a first-person game set entirely in the cockpit of a spaceship, it seems like an ideal candidate for virtual reality gaming – and it was. I was sat in a seat in front of a fairly standard PC setup, complete with throttle to my left and joystick to my right, ideal controls for a virtual spaceship pilot.

As I put the HTC Vive headset on, I was immediately transported to the pilot seat of my very own spaceship with (as Elite: Dangerous gamers know) screens around me displaying various pieces of information regarding my ship and environment in real time, including a map of the area and a panel to request docking at a space station. Even as I looked down, I could see my own virtual body wearing a space suit – a surreal experience in itself, especially as the virtual body moves in the same way you do in real time. If I move the joystick or adjust the throttle, I can see my virtual hands adjusting the virtual controls at the exact same time.

As I looked out of the windows above and around me, I gazed out into the vastness of space and saw that I was smack bang in the middle of an Asteroid belt, near a beautifully detailed planet-sized planet. My goal, along with my wingmen, was to destroy an enemy spacecraft in the area, whose location was displayed on a screen in the cockpit – but I didn’t find myself referencing it very much. Instead, I looked up and around out of the windows to find the enemy, which was a much better and life-like experience.

As I weaved in and out of the asteroids, I spotted my prey out of the corner of my eye. I increased the thrust of my ship and unleashed hell on them, keeping on their tale until I inevitably destroyed them and watched the remnants of their ship float into the blackness of space. That’ll teach ‘em.

The attention to detail and gorgeous graphics of Elite: Dangerous make it an amazing game to play in virtual reality, and will definitely be on my ‘to play’ list once the HTC Vive is released in 2016. Exploring the vastness of space and blasting enemy ships out of the sky has never been so immersive.

HTC Vive hands-on: Arizona Sunshine

Next up was Arizona Sunshine, a typical first-person zombie shoot ‘em up currently in development. Although the graphics weren’t as polished as with Elite: Dangerous and Aperture (see next slide), this didn’t make much of a difference to me as the gameplay was both immersive and exhilarating. Unlike with other experiences, Arizona Sunshine displayed two hands in-game in place of the remotes being used, and physically required me to bend down and pick up the guns I wanted to use.

I started off with a handgun – and it was at this point I realised that Arizona Sunshine doesn’t display a reticule for aiming (like the rubbish 90’s arcade games with plastic guns), instead you’re provided with a red laser dot. As I raise my arm, look down the sights and fire the gun (and miss), it feels real. Zombies start to appear from behind rocks, giving me the perfect opportunity to headshot a few zombies at once – all I had to do was get the aim right. After firing a couple of shots, I got my bearings and started to hit my targets and one by one, the zombies started to drop.

That’s when one started to run at me, but me being cocky, I let it get close to me. Unfortunately, it got a little bit too close for comfort as when it got close enough, it lunged at me, which was a lot scarier than it should’ve been – but what can I say, it’s my first time in a full-blown zombie apocalypse. I fire frantically at it, and it slumps down next to me.

As I move onto the second area, on a bridge filled with the rusted ruins of cars, I come across two of the best guns to have in any zombie game – a sawn off shotgun, and a submachine gun. As I pick them up, I feel like I’m in some kind of action film as I unleash a magnitude of SMG bullets into a crowd of zombies walking towards me, clearing them all instantly.

A few running zombies appear, but this time I’m prepared - I let them approach with my sawn off shotgun in hand. Positioning played a huge part in the game and as I crouched in real life, I crouched in-game, which provided me with a fun opportunity – shooting zombies from below with a shotgun would launch them into the air, and with a bit of practise, right over the edge of the bridge. Hoards of zombies’ head towards me and bullets fly, before the screen went dark and the experience ended (much to my disappointment). Arizona Sunshine is one of the most satisfying games I played during my hands-on with the HTC Vive, and is really where the full-body motion tracking of the Vive comes into its own.

HTC Vive hands-on: Aperture

Now I have to start by shattering dreams – even though Aperture is based on the hugely popular Portal games and even features Portal-esque robots, it was an experience designed to show off virtual reality and is sadly not in production as a full game.

Anyway, I found myself in a fairly standard, brightly lit room in Aperture labs with a familiar sounding sarcastic robot (who I’ll refer to as GLaDOS) getting me to perform menial tasks. First off, I had to simply open the correct drawer to my left, which required me to physically extend my arm, grab the handle and pull to open. While the first two drawers had nothing interesting to show, the third drawer had a full ecosystem with paper-like people who, since I’d opened the drawer for the first time, thought I was their God. My sarcastic robot friend informed me that that shouldn’t have happened, and my adoring fans were incinerated. Boo.

Next up, I had to open the door to my right. Upon opening, I’m face-to-face with a damaged robot resembling ATLAS staggering towards me, obviously in need of some kind of medical/mechanical assistance which, of course, falls to me. I reach out and pull a tab on the side of ATLAS which expanded his internals in front of me, suspended in mid-air in a Iron Man-esque way, allowing me to select and rotate specific parts to try and find the problem. GLaDOS is in my ear rushing me, telling me that I have to fix him soon or he’ll expire and after a frantic search, the internals fall to the floor and ATLAS is no more.

GLaDOS told me how useless I was and that I was being reassigned – great, no more complex mechanical work! Various robotic arms peel the walls away around me and remove everything in the room, and replace the windows with walls. Before I know it, I’m being boxed in and before I even have a chance to react, I’m trapped in a pitch black, windowless room where I assume I’m being left to rot for not being good at my job. It was at this point I started to feel slightly claustrophobic, even though I knew it wasn’t real, which is testament to how realistic the experience felt.

That was the end of my experience in Aperture and it was one of the most entertaining of them all (partly thanks to GLaDOS’ sarcastic remarks), and really showcased the kind of potential that both virtual reality and the HTC Vive in particular has.

Read next: Everything you need to know about Samsung Gear VR

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HTC Vive hands-on: Everest VR

The Everest VR experience was the most memorable of all the HTC Vive experiences, for a number of reasons. Unlike other experiences, the Everest VR experience was in a room that’d purposefully been made cold – so cold in fact, that I was handed thermal trousers and a thermal coat to put on over my existing clothing before being able to enter. As I walked into the appropriately decorated room, complete with fake snow on the ground, it was clear that the point of Everest VR was to experience something that was as life-like as possible.

I was handed the headset and remotes, which conveniently were transformed into lovely warm gloves in-game. Well I say ‘in-game’, it’s definitely more of an ‘experience’ than your bog standard exploration game. As I put the headset on, I was shocked at just how picturesque the view in front of me was. I was looking at the Mahalangur mountain range, and in particular Mt. Everest – but it wasn’t the sheer size of the mountain range that took my breath away, it was more to do with the graphics. I was almost convinced that I was looking at video footage, as I was able to pick out small details from mountains in the range that looked life-like.

After reassurance from Nvidia that it was in fact computer graphics, I was faced with my first challenge; to cross a large crevasse via a flimsy ladder. As I carefully started to walk across the makeshift bridge, I couldn’t help but look down – and as I saw shards of ice break from my ladder and fall to the black abyss below, I was met again with the feeling of vertigo that I’d experienced in The Blu. It’s truly fascinating how virtual reality can trick your senses into believing something when you’re fully aware that it’s not real. Apparently other journalists even took to crawling across the floor, though I wasn’t lucky enough to witness this first hand. I slowly shuffled across the ladder (even with solid ground in real life, I didn’t risk big steps) and made it to the other side. Phew.

Once I’d made it across, the next step was to climb a ladder. No instructions were provided on-screen or by others in the room, I just instinctively put my arms out and started to climb the ladder. It’s fascinating just how intuitive VR can be, if developed properly. As I climbed up the ladder, I stopped to take in my surroundings – and the view was immense. I made it to the top, and I was prompted to stand on markings on the floor before I could continue with the experience.

It was at this point I was suddenly pulled out of the VR world, staring a completely black screen. What’d happened? I’d tripped on the cables that run from the HTC Vive to the computer, of course. That’s one of, if not the biggest issue with the HTC Vive – it encourages you to walk around and explore the virtual world around you, but you’re tethered to a very long wire. This, coupled with the fact that you’re completely blind when wearing the headset led to me tripping over the wire and damaging a part of the setup. In fact, the whole PC had to be replaced before I could continue with the experience. Whoops.

Once the issues had been fixed some 15 minutes later, I’d run out of time with the experience and was only able to take a look at the views from the top of the virtual Mt. Everest. Don’t get me wrong – the views were phenomenal, but the amount of time it took to fix the headset meant I didn’t get to take the scene in as a whole. Shame, really. However, with this being said, I’ll be excited to ‘experience’ Everest VR when it’s released in 2016.

HTC Vive hands-on: PC requirements

So, the HTC Vive definitely didn’t disappoint me – but the question is, will I be able to run HTC Vive (or any other VR headset) on my home PC? While the recommended spec for the HTC Vive hasn’t yet been announced, Nvidia recommend PCs featuring a Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or higher. Why? Instead of powering your games at 1920x1080 @ 30fps like you usually would, virtual reality requires 3024x1680 @ 90fps to avoid motion sickness and generally provide you with a good quality environment.

If you’re unsure of your current setup, there’s an alternative available to you. If you’ve got a Nvidia graphics card, simply open GeForce Experience (it should be pre-installed but is also available from the Nvidia website), select the ‘My Rig’ tab and it’ll tell you if your PC is VR ready.

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