I knew the internet would be monumental in 1996 but it would be ten years before I began making money from a website.
I thought mobile apps would make serious money in around 2008, and it took me six years before I had an app in the App Store.
Whatever excuses I had for such tardiness (being 13, having no money), they certainly don’t exist now. So I’m exploring VR and I feel like I’ve only just missed out on being an early adopter for this one!
I’ve had an HTC Vive for around a week and I’ve probably used it for around 2 hours total so this will be my very first thoughts.
I have minimal experience with VR. At a GDC in San Francisco in 2014 I donned an Occulus Rift headset, sat on a swivel chair, and rode in a spaceship. It was underwhelming.
But I’ve been aware of VR for a long time, and it’s always felt like vapourware. There were photos of headsets that look exactly the same as the Vive in computer magazines of the 90s, and maybe even earlier. I remember in around 1999 there was a development of new apartments in my hometown and instead of a showhome they had a portacabin which offered virtual reality tours. I can only imagine how bad they were.
That’s where we were, here’s where we are:
A headset alone is not enough. At the minimum, VR needs to be room scale (meaning that you can walk around a small area of a room, duck, dive and even jump). It also needs controllers in both hands. A controller in one hand is not sufficient for an immersive experience. When I’ve tried with a single controller I find myself trying to do things with my untracked arm. The Vive ticks all these boxes and I have to say - the experience is definitely immersive, and way beyond simply wearing a TV screen on your face.
Sight and sound
I’m amazed at how far sight and sound can go to immersing us in an environment. With current VR, we feel no wind, no temperature change, no motion feedback like acceleration or altered gravitational pull. But in spite of that it’s definitely good enough. When it comes to action, Haptic feedback in the controllers adds enormously. And it’s incredible how much of a role Stereo sound plays in VR considering it was basically feature complete in the 1930’s.
While simulations and 3D graphics work great on the Vive, real world things like video footage of photographs look terrible. We’re already used to seeing these in more detail than the headset is capable of producing. Although you can look around, it doesn’t feel at all real (to me at least). When each eye is seeing 4k levels of detail then this will be amazing, but for now we’re not there yet.
For video the parallels are clear with early CGI movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo. For example, there’s a VR experience called [The Blu] which is visually spectacular - you spend five minutes standing under the sea while sea creatures pass you by. The reason it works is the same reason why Finding Nemo worked in the early days of feature CGI - underwater scenes are easier to model in 3D (no fur, innate blurriness, slower motion, clear backdrops), and also we’re not familiar with them so our brains don’t tell us “that’s not how coral moves, this is fake.” A similar experience that takes VR players on safari would not work because the technology doesn’t have the ability to create realistic grass or fur in real time. It will do eventually, but I think we’re minimum five years away from that. The subjects of early CGI movies were chosen to match the technology of the time, and that will clearly be the same with VR experiences.
And specifically… VR Porn
I’ve seen a lot of discussion about how VR porn will be huge. But for me it did nothing. Porn is an odd form of video and in VR it suffers badly from the general problems of video mentioned above. It doesn’t feel like you’re present, but nor does it feel like you’re watching porn. I’m sure there will be devotees of VR porn, just the same as there are people rolling around their bedroom with an inflatable doll, but I don’t see it as in any way game changing for that industry.
It’s very clear from the games that are available that VR is the domain of the indie developer and we’re still exploring things like interface design. When the iphone came out, developers spent years trying to get to grips with how to control a device without buttons. Early attempts at onscreen joysticks, tilting the device to steer and so on. In the end, the games adapted to the controller, and not the other way around. Successful games like Flappy Bird, Temple Run etc were built around tapping the screen, and sometimes swiping. We’re still at the early stages of this process with VR. Games where you hold a gun and shoot things work pretty well, and pushing buttons also works well - but picking up objects feels a bit disjointed.
Room scale gives you an area of around 2m x 3m to walk around. But exploring a world bigger than this area is an unsolved problem. Some games have you point the controller and a spot and click a button to ‘teleport’ around to cover a wider area. This isn’t a good experience, and is useless for any fast action - you definitely would want to be running from an enemy like this. What tends to happen is that you walk to the edge of your playspace, want to go further, so you teleport forwards a few metres, but in real life your nose is still at the end of your play area. So you have to walk back to the centre, and THEN teleport forwards.
The other mechanic for this that is better is to fly around using a controller as a jetpack or similar. But in this case there’s a disjoint between holding a jetpack to fly yourself around space, and being able to walk left a bit - the two don’t marry up.
The two solutions that work well are to either limit your VR world to the size of your play area - which is find for point and shooters. Or to solve it in the way that Hover Junkers does: You are standing on a vehicle the size of your play area, and you can drive this vehicle around using a remote control. This provides the best of both worlds, but it’s only really suited to a fairly narrow field of games - that said, look how far the ‘tap’ for action games on iOS have gone… Flappy Bird, Crossy Road, Tap tap revenge, etc.
VR is not a social gaming activity. Trying it for the first time with friends is fun, and the best fun for me is watching other people play with it. But if you actually want to play a game for more than five minutes then it’s a solitary activity and there’s no point in your friends even being in the same room. This was surprising to me, because I’d always seen VR in the setting of a conference, exhibition or demo. When you have one in your home you realise that it is an immersive experience and you can’t see or hear anyone else in the same room.
VR is still very much the domain of the enthusiast or the early adopter. The technology is at the stage where applications that are a natural fit are now usable, and sometimes good. But this is a narrow range of stuff at the moment: first person shooting games where the player is either static, or static on a vehicle, and immersive experiences in environments that suit CGI rendering. There are still no big-name games but there will be. I think there’s the same opportunity for indie developers to produce breakout brands and franchises like Candy Crushem’ or Angry Birds. And unlike mobile, these games can justify a pretty high per-unit price: getting the Vive up and running requires a minimum outlay of around $2,500, and a commitment to rearrange your living room - paying $15-30 for a game in this context is completely realistic. I’m also happy to see that so far there’s been no ‘in-app purchase’ bullshit. Steam and Valve are going to be huge beneficiaries of VR.
Wires need to be eliminated. Ideally to the point where you can just have a headset on a coffee table, and the hardware is in another room. But at the same time, the screen resolution needs to double - which means yet more bandwidth is needed. On the positive, the motion tracking is basically done now - it works perfectly.
Overall, I think if you have the money and you’re curious about the future then it’s going to be money well spent - especially if you want to explore development, or to make investments in this space (both financially, or in career terms). I feel like I’ve recouped the cost of the headset in satisfaction just from watching other people play with it.
And finally… the Hardware
First - you’ve got to buy or build a high-end PC. That’s a pretty fucking high barrier before we’ve even got started. But let’s assume you’re a PC gamer anyway, or you just buy a pre-built PC. And the number of people who want a gaming rig dominating a corner of their living room is pretty low compared to those who are happy to have a PS4 sitting on a shelf.
To get the Vive working I had to drill holes in my walls and run power cables from nearby sockets. The system needs three mains outlets. The headset alone has a USB, an HDMI and a power connector. I once had a wonderful relationship with a girl, but our love floundered in the face of my collection of USB, ethernet and assorted jack to phone cables. Any decor but the most industrial is going to take an aesthetic hit from this system. When I was unboxing this kit there was a sense that I’m wiring up some Matrix-like alternative world. I liked that, but for the mass market, the headset needs to go wireless.
I’m not sure how these work but I can feel something spinning inside them. There is no power switch on them, so the only way to turn them off is to unplug them. And I assume since there’s moving parts, that they should be powered down when not in use. The instructions for the Vive are not good enough. Things like this are not mentioned at all.
The wall sensors are comparable to a surround-sound system. Although there are only two of them and they need to be placed in diagonal opposing corners of the room, above head height. This means they are in a prominent position, and not symmetrical. It’s not a good receipt for interior design success.
There are two handheld controllers and I think their design is a big success. The PS2 controller, in my mind, is the best controller of all time, but its foundation was laid by the PS1 controller’s form. I think Sony smashed it with this first design and I have a feeling that the Vive might have done something similar. My only criticism is that there are buttons which are intended for your thumb but I find these hard to reach.
- The screen resolution is the absolute minimum necessary. There’s lots of room for improved resolution here. It’s good enough for simulation but videos look pathetic on it compared to looking at a 4K monitor.
- The wire that follows you around the room needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. It really breaks the illusion when it gets caught up or you have to spend two minutes untwisting it.
- There are no instructions whatsoever for how to focus the headset. I wondered if mine was faulty because it was very blurry around the edges and my googling took me to this Reddit post which I’m sure every single Vive owner has now read. (Answer: There are grey focus rings on either side of the headset, you can pull these out and twist them to move the screen further or closer to your eyes. There’s also a little knob underneath the headset which does something with eye spacing but so far it didn’t seem to make any difference for me.) But HTC have dropped the ball on this - they need a ‘Calibrate your headset’ section of the setup process - if only to assure people that this is how its supposed to look.