Monday, 21 September 2015

70 minutes in heaven with Valve's HTC Vive.

You belong to one of two groups.  

Either you received a development kit as a developer and you have unlimited access to a HTC Vive or you need to chase HTC's truck around North America for a shot at a 20 minute demo.

There is currently very little grey area to be found between these two camps.

What DOES exist can be found in private invitations from developers to try out the kits they've been given, something I recently had a chance to do.  I was able to put on HTC's solution and leave it on for a full 90 minutes. *

It made for a hell of an introduction...

* yes, I said 70 minutes in the title, but I was trying to do a "thing" with the title so....

Now.. writing this as I am in late September, I need to be careful not to simply repeat what you've already read many times before.  There have been dozens of great posts at this point describing the HTC Vive experience and I'm quite sure you don't need another one.

Instead, let's fast forward and talk a bit about where some of this "might" be going.

In no particular order....

- - -

Sudden glowing respect for haptics

I have a confession to make.  I've never given haptics much respect.  A controller rumble in my hand never seemed to have much to do with anything I saw on screen, and typically my most commonly felt emotion was annoyance at this crude feedback.

The Vive manage to change all of that in a few short minutes.  A lot of the haptic feedback the controllers seem to give you is in a subtle tap, just a way to let you know that something has touched something else in the world.  I'm now burning with curiosity to know more about how much fine tuning can be done here and what plans might exist for the future.

There's a lot of grumbling about VR and the fact that we can't stop a users from putting their head through a wall and having a look around.

The world isn't solid.  Quite true!  But that might not be the end of the story.

I have a feeling... that through haptics of the kind the Vive has on display... it might be possible to weave together a world that has a subtle resistance to every surface.  If you've ever touched a single strand of spider silk with a finger, you can feel it resist against your touch.  Yes, you can certainly push through it and break it,

 but the thread is most certainly there and you can run your finger along it.  I "think" we can reach a place through haptics where the world actually feels tangible.  The resistance might be very slight but as we come to know it may end up feeling perfectly solid

"Operators", hands and uncanny scale

When running a user through a VR experience, we've traditionally focused on the person wearing the headset, however, inevitably tucked away in a corner, there's a girl or guy running the show in front of a 2D display.  This is the person who cues up the next demo or gently guides the user away from a wall that has crept too close.  Or maybe simply screams profanity at them:

"If you bash my controllers one more f***king time into the wall I swear to GOD I'm going to...." *

* This actually didn't happen during my session, I was exceedingly careful.  It isn't good policy to anger a person while blind and deaf to the world around you.

I should mention that some of the most interesting things happened outside of the traditional demo loop. While I was in the Vive, we had a live Unity3D development session runnin and my host was able to add objects and locations to the scene on the fly.

Without warning I found myself thrown into the middle of a dusty street in a cartoony Western scene with the sun hanging low in the sky.

A few moments later, a revolver appeared in my hand.

All of this was done at the whim of the operator.  If you don't get to wear the headset this turn... maybe you'll be happy to settle for being a God instead.

Anyone remember this bit from bugs bunny?  The one where daffy duck is being toyed with by the bugs bunny the animator?

Turns out, you can do the exact same thing in VR with an operator running the show, and it makes for complete insanity for both parties.

While waving my shiny new gun around, suddenly the revolver barrel was scaled up to the size of small car and...

....the feeling of power was ridiculous.

There's an unexpected gift that comes from being given hands in a simulation.  You've been given a reference point for scale that you never enjoyed before as a disembodied head.  Put your hand next to a lizard, if the lizard is smaller than you thumb... it is small.  If it is bigger than your hand... it is a big lizard.  If it far, far bigger than your hand... it might be a dinosaur.

Smaller than my hand... small lizard.

Bigger than my hand... big lizard....

Much bigger than my hand... probable dinosaur warning issued....

When your hands are represented in virtual space, you have a new appreciation for how big EVERTHING is due to the relative size.  This is especially true for anything that's within arm's length.  Virtual hands provide a very strong anchor to the world, not just through interaction but by working as tool to gauge size and distance.

So.... most importantly - what this means is.... if someone unexpectedly drops a revolver the size Honda civic in your hand, it's going to make an impression....

Depending on your frame of mind, you might start to cackling madly and try to shoot the sun out of the sky.  This I did.

All the laughing, must have gotten annoying for my operator, as just as quickly, my revolver was shrunk down to the size a pack of matches.  Just a tiny, little thing in the palm of my hand, still crisply rendered with the Vive, feeling absolutely real and about as dangerous as a butterfly.

So, you it appears you can take the same 3D model and convey huge impressions about "power" simply through scale.  Pretty damn neat, amazingly effective.

Later, I was thrown into another scene, an endless void of filled with floating cubes.  I appeared in mid air, floating above the infinite.  As I screeched, cursed and started to reel, the operator scrambled to throw a cube under me to serve as a floor for my feet and sanity.  Later, the box was resized and moved around at will by the operator causing me run around the room, desperate to simply stay on it and not to plunge to my death.

There is a GREAT deal of fun involving traditional 2D display users interacting with VR users that is waiting to be tapped.  Just simple cube manipulation and the prospect of falling is enough to be terribly entertaining for both users.

I am convinced there is absolutely no need to VR to be isolating to the user, after my experience I firmly believe that some of the greatest experiences will come from collaborative and competitive interaction between VR users and traditional 2D displays.  I feel that almost all VR experiences will have SOME kind of 2D interface that allow an audience to peer in on the world and possibly participate.

A sudden fetish for objects

Going back to that Western town and the gun I was given.  It was a simple revolver, the sort of thing you might get as part of a $5 set of weapons from the Unity Asset store.  Nothing terribly special.

And yet... I was captivated...

I could turn it over gently and examine it from all sides.  Since it moved so naturally in my hands, it felt overwhelmingly real.  Pointing it at my face out of curiosity*, I could make out the individual waiting bullets in each chamber.  I could not tell you the number of guns I've used in games over the last 20 years, hundreds, but this was the first time I stopped and actually admired the fine details of what I was holding.  It had a bit of writing on one side carved into the metal and I could hold it close and peer at the words to make them out exactly as you would do in real life.

* ...and this is why I don't own a gun.

I just stood there in the middle of the road, slowly turning the gun over in my hand like a unhinged psychopath or proud gunsmith.

Later on I had a chance to try Valve's Longbow simulation.

As I had found with the revolver, I took great pleasure in simply examining the bow in my hands and getting a feel for this "real" thing.  There's a much more personal connection to objects when you can see them rendered clearly and can manipulate them with precision.

Later still, I was standing in the middle of Job Simulator's kitchen, I picked up a knife and wanting to keep it handy, I actually looked for a way to tuck it into my waistband.  It was a very strong and unexpected need, a thought process that's never entered my head before despite the thousands of items and inventories I've managed over the years in games.

I think things are going to go in some unexpected directions.

Since there is so much connection with the "real" objects in the world, and the controls are so fine, I can easily see a kind of hyper realism coming to market in a big way.  Objects will increasingly have all the detail and modeled complexity of their real world counterparts.  There will be a delight in watching the components of a mechanism interact as one would expect and we will quickly become spoiled as we expect new levels of realism.

Some of this will end of being quite fun.

For example, here's a simple game:

You appear in a room.  Scattered around the floor are the following components:

Find them all and put them together before THEY break in.  You actually have to put the gun together in correctly.  Don't know how this model handgun is assembled?  Guess you have a problem...

You have 5 minutes, good luck....

I think there could be a whole set of games that evolve out building mechanical devices to solve problems and there's an audience out there that are going to take a special kind of pride out of knowing HOW thing work and are put together.  Whole new skill sets are going to be used in VR in the name of fun.

Body and soul

Keep an eye out for full body rendering quite soon, it seems like the next logical and necessary step.  You will look down and your body will be very accurately displayed and feel very "there".  Odds are quite good that this profound experience exists behind closed doors right now and will be a centerpiece of innovation in the year to come.  We've already seen examples, but I'm guessing when it hits, it will be REALLY good.

Once you have a body, you can have gear and decoration.  I expect that we might move away from virtual inventories and you'll be strapping things to your virtual self more and more often.

Valve's Longbow

I am going to get specific about a demo for a sec here, and only because in my own reading about Vive experiences it tends not to get mentioned much but for myself it was a really outstanding moment.

Valve's Longbow demo allows you to wield a bow and arrow and shoot at targets.  Now, I've only shot a real bow for an afternoon against paper targets but..... and this is an odd thing to say... I felt that the simulated experience was better.  Here are a few reasons why:

1.  You don't have to retrieve your goddamn arrows after shooting 3 times.  "Where did that last one go?  Over here?  Under this?  Why am I so bad at this?"

2.  While I enjoy the challenge of target practice quite a bit, a physical bow places demands on certain muscle groups that need to work together and not hopelessly fight each other, this requires training, tone and more time than I can commit.

3.  Real arrows make real holes in real things.  If you are learning or have bad aim this is a problem and a danger.  Valve's demo has balloons that rise up and present themselves as targets.  If I did this in real life, people would likely be punctured and come after me unless I hit them in a vital area.

Let me tell you a bit about this experience and it might tell you a bit about how engrossing this whole thing is..... when I first picked up the bow... I spent about a full minute just playing with the string... drawing it back and "feeling" the tension.  Before this demo, I never gave haptics much attention.... rumble feedback on traditional controllers always felt startling and unnecessary.  This single demo changed all of that for me and now I am fascinated.  As you draw back the string, you get slight haptic feedback that convincingly feels like you are placing tension on the bow.  I just stood there for a long time drawing on the string, back and forth, like some kind of psychopath or enthusiastic bowyer.

I didn't even consider firing an arrow for the longest time, it was simply fascinating to watch the arrow interact with the bow.  Maybe I'm easily amused...

Art and Objects

I got down on my hands and knees in Tiltbrush, chose the smallest size brush and scratched on the floor.

"Rob was here."

I was immensely satisfied with the results.  The writing was very, very small and almost impossible to make out when I stood up.  It was this little message that I wrote in my own hand, scratched into the virtual floor in the corner of my virtual space.  Something just for me, a little detail that you'd miss unless you looked for it.

So, in these very early days, we have a tool that has quickly proving that you can make artistic changes to a 3D space as easily and as intuitively as picking up a sharpie and finding a wall.  It is very exciting to think of virtual online games / environments / communities being hubs not just for "fun" but as places where art is being created and added to the world.

There's some fundamental urge in a lot of us to mark up the world around us and it seems like we are just on the verge of tapping into it in a big way.

It seems to follow that tools will rapidly evolve to the point where the act of crafting something in a simulation is just as common as destruction is now.


Hand input is compelling to such an extent that I don't think there is much of a future for any platform that does not make this an absolute priority to "get right".  Turns out, humans need to bring our body along in order to be fully present and accept a world as being "real".  Hands are the brain's our envoys to the world both real and virtual.

Give me a shout at @ID_R_McGregor  on twitter or send me an email at

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