I'm not gonna lie: I was jealous when I heard that my colleague Sean Buckley got to play 12 virtual reality games in Seattle last week. (He even moaned about it later.) I got to try "only" four on the Vive Pre at HTC's Taipei headquarters. But that's OK, because in the end I also had a blast -- to the point that I ended up running around the room, high on adrenaline. Not even the zombies in Arizona Sunshine made me do this much exercise. As I sat down to recuperate afterwards, I caught up with one of the key execs on HTC's VR team to learn about the Vive's setup process and what other features are in the works.
Until now, little has been said about what the Vive's setup process will be like when it goes on sale. (For the record, "Vive Pre" is still a pre-release name.) But in my interview, Associate Vice President Raymond Pao gave a little more insight into how this will work. The Vive system consists of five pieces: the wired headset, two wireless controllers and two "Lighthouse" base stations for laser tracking. Obviously, you'll also need a Windows PC with a relatively powerful graphics card -- preferably, at least an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 or an AMD Radeon R9 290, according to Pao, which is the same recommended requirement as for the Oculus Rift. For the diagonally placed Lighthouse hubs, you just need to secure them at somewhere just above the user's height. Typically, they should be set at 2.2 meters in the US or 2 meters in Asia.
Pao added that the Vive works best in a 4.5 x 4.5–meter room, though a tiny 1.5 x 2–meter space is also fine, especially for titles like Elite Dangerous that require the gamer to be seated. Of course, not everyone's room is a perfect square or rectangle; it might be slightly trapezoidal or there might be a table in the way. This is where Chaperone comes in.
Chaperone, which debuted last month at CES, is a safety mechanism that shows you a gray overlay of the physical world -- be it a wall or an object -- when you're about to hit something, or whenever you double-tap the menu button on the controllers. To enable this feature, there's a one-time calibration process: You need to go around the room and map the boundaries with one of the controllers. This is aided by a new front-facing pass-through camera introduced on the Vive Pre. Pao said his team is aiming for an overall installation time of somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes.
"We've been trying different [wireless] solutions, but none have truly fulfilled our needs thus far."
For the sake of bandwidth and latency, the Vive Pre's headset still needs to be wired to the PC. "Many wireless communication companies have approached us claiming they have the technology to solve these issues, so we've been trying different solutions, but none have truly fulfilled our needs thus far," Pao said. However, as far as he knows, no one has yet tripped over the cable in the public demos, even after his team intentionally stopped holding the cables for the gamers.
"People are conscious [of the cable]. It could be to do with the games' design, but it's certainly not as hazardous as we thought it'd be." That said, Pao also welcomes the idea of hanging the cable from above, but he'll let users decide on this one.
As the owner of a cat and a dog, I'm actually more concerned about tripping over my pets, not the cable. Fortunately, Pao's team has recently started working on a feature that will help detect incoming pets or other moving objects, but he doesn't have much else to share at the moment. Though, come to think of it, it's probably best if we just physically keep our pets out of the zone in the first place.
"We don't want to make a compromise for the sake of compatibility with other platforms."
During my visit, I got to try three cool new games by Futuretown, a Taiwan- and Canada-based studio that's developing exclusively for the Vive. Johan Yang, the CEO and co-founder, made that decision when he met Peter Chou last year and experienced the Vive for the first time. Chou encouraged Yang to focus on VR, and ended up becoming his mentor as well as an investor in his company. That little detail aside, it's still interesting that this team of 15 would risk limiting the size of their audience by making games for just one platform.
"We don't want to make a compromise for the sake of compatibility with other platforms," Yang said, "so our games are designed with the Vive's every single feature in mind."
Indeed, my colleagues and I were blown away with Futuretown's games. We started off with an easy one called Cloudlands, which is simply a VR mini-golf game. (It was also shown at that Valve event last week.) We then switched to something much more intense: a first-person shooter called A-10, in which you stand on a platform floating above a planet (maybe Earth?) and you have to shoot down alien drones that are flying in from several wormholes. The game has the right balance between fun and intensity, as long as you remember to shake the controllers to reload your pistols once in a while.
What got me all sweaty was the third game, Jeeboman (pictured above), which lets you beam yourself between rooftops in a psychedelically colored city and shoot down enemy drones that come up to your face, with the added challenge of having to pick up batteries, ammo and health packs in order to survive. But even though I was running around in the room, the cable issue I mentioned earlier didn't affect my gameplay that much.
As developers, Yang's team have naturally tried their hands at other VR hardware, but they were left unimpressed, due largely to the lack of a room-scale experience and intuitive in-game interaction. For instance, it wasn't until last June, when the Oculus Rift finally started supporting controller tracking, that the company even reached out to Yang's team to discuss the possibility of porting their games to the Rift, which we now know won't be happening anytime soon. The alternative solution would be to implement hand tracking using Leap Motion or similar offerings. But again, Yang wasn't satisfied by their reliability or speed.
Similarly, the Samsung Gear VR -- also powered by Oculus -- lacks positional tracking, in the sense that there's no tilt tracking, only rotational tracking, so your brain knows immediately that what you see isn't real. For Yang, that's a deal breaker, especially when he's aiming for about 30 minutes per session in his own games.
VR devices will eventually replace our laptops.
Looking beyond gaming, Yang believes VR devices will get so compact that they'll become standalone computers, to the point that they'll eventually replace our laptops and thus let us set up a virtual workspace wherever we go. You won't need to pay a premium for a large monitor, because in the virtual world your screen can be as large as you want it to be, or you can even have multiple screens. But of course, we're still years away from that vision.
"I think the VR market is still at the 'DynaTAC' stage right now, just like how it was a niche market at the beginning and only the bosses would use one," Yang added. "People would ask, 'Who needs a mobile phone? I can just go home and make phone calls.' But look at what happened many years later."
Photos and video by Andy Yang and Ross Wang of Engadget Chinese.