Whether it be social, recreational, or professional, some of what represents me is here. Post a comment, or contact me at should you so desire.

The posts are in reverse chronological order, and are pegged by topic on the links to the left. For more of an introduction, please see the About this site page listed above.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The HTC Vive: Virtual Reality and the Holodeck

I had a chance to check out the HTC Vive the other day, and it was pretty amazing! I would love to share my thoughts with you on this commercially available, virtual reality device!

Virtual reality is used quite often in science fiction, but I think it is Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) that really sold us all on the idea. In the series, characters could step into a room that looks like some sort of Tron-designed cubicle, and instantly they would appear to be, well, anywhere. 

The Holodeck, as it is so known, was not only an interesting setting piece for many Star Trek episodes, it has also been pushing and inspiring video game and technological experiences since then.

Think about it! You step into a room and suddenly you're in your favourite city, in your favourite book, or in incredible, unbelievable places!

Not too long ago, I wrote about the HoloLens, Microsoft's reality-augmenting device. Now, I'd like to talk about the HTC Vive, the virtual reality device. 

Thanks to a friend of mine, I had a chance to try it out, and on my birthday, so that was very exciting! The device consists of a headset, which looks like a View-Master, two controllers, and two sensors. 

The sensors are placed on diagonally-opposite sides of the room, and some configuration is necessary to "map" out the room, ensuring the Vive knows what space you have to enjoy the experience.

Then what happens? Well, you put the device on, and your vision instantly changes. With high-quality picture beamed directly at you, your living room disappears.

When I first put on the Vive, I left my friend's apartment and was standing on something akin to Tron in space; grids and lines with the Moon and Earth and stars shining in the background. Before I saw all that, I saw the words, "This is real." projected in front of me, and I laughed. Nice touch.

As with any new piece of technology, there was a tutorial. I thought a lot about previous experiences I have had, with the Kinect, with the HoloLens, and reflected on the necessity of tutorials. Virtual reality is very new. While it is something we all have seen in movies and television, it is a novel sensation to be experienced. The device is fairly simple, but one must learn "the rules of the game". 

The tutorial begins by walking you through movement, which consists of actually walking around in your free space, or using the controller to "teleport" yourself if you need to go farther. 

This reminded me of the first episode of TNG, in which characters are discussing the boundaries of the Holodeck. As you can see in the video below, the boundaries are always present, but masked through what you can see. The virtual space around you simply shifts as you walk, so you do not walk right into a wall.

With the Vive, a similar thing happens. You are able to freely walk around in whatever area you have in your living room, or whatever space you've arranged, but once you reach the border, a translucent, Holodeck-like, grid appears to warn you that you are too close to a wall. In order to move beyond this, you can use a teleporting option which re-centres your perspective at a "farther away" location.

The controllers each have a touchpad, 2 buttons, a trigger, a squeeze-control button, and the touchpad itself can be pressed on the corners to act as different buttons in certain situations.

The tutorial taught me how to move in the space, and how to use the controllers, by blowing up simulated balloons and shooting them with lasers, before allowing me to interact even more with the world "around" me.

This is interesting to me because the Kinect had a very similar and rigorous tutorial. I remember going through it myself. It was slow, repetitive, fun, albeit a little tedious, but it was necessary. Soon after using it, I was comfortably using the Kinect and I still use it on my Xbox One.

So, in the future, VR may seem commonplace and easy, but for now, a good tutorial is worth the time put into it.

My friends and I tried out many different games and situations. Some were pure spectacle, showing off the grandeur of the Vive. Many were entertaining, while also showing the user what they can do with VR. There was an archery game, where you defended your tower from silhouetted warriors, and the movements were all very natural. There was Valve's version of Angry Birds, which was interesting.

There was Hover Junkers, which combined movement and combat in a very real way. You controlled a hovercraft, and your objective was to destroy other players. You could pick up junk on the ground, to cover your craft, and you had a variety of weapons from which to choose. My friend Alex, seen below, had an amazing time and described this as the best video-gaming experience of his life! 

My friend Mike played this one game called Budget Cuts, which was a spy game, wherein one must move through the building and eliminate or avoid robotic guards. This game was incredibly fluid, and Mike took to it very easily. The controls were simple to learn, yet offered a lot of variety, and the movement was precise. Mike was leaning around corners, opening doors and cupboards, and throwing knives at robotic targets. It was incredible to see how well the experience was working considering it was the first day of release. In my experience, most personal gaming technology requires a little bit of time to work out the bugs. Not only that, but the experience was so immersive that it was easy to forget that it wasn't real. Mike found himself trying to lean on simulated railings and benches, and I found myself worried that I would fall off a simulated cliff.

I tried out many of the simulations with a very critical eye. I was excited for VR, but I make it a practice to be critical of new technology, for if it can pass my scrutiny, it stands a better chance, I think, of becoming a successful product.

I was pleasantly impressed with the Vive and the precision in which it worked. As I mentioned before, the space you clear out to walk in, say your living room floor, is mapped and known by the sensors. In order to stop you from going "out of bounds", the simulation projects a grid wall whenever you get too close. You can still see through it, but you're warned to be careful. The location of the controllers was known at all times and so the manipulation of the environment was smooth and precise. I could grab imaginary handles, turn valves, I even grabbed a marker at one point and drew a happy face on a wipeboard, with no problem whatsoever. The controllers provided vibration, or haptic feedback, whenever I pushed against a simulated surface.. The device was comfortable, fitting my head nicely, and the experience was very moving. 

During one simulation, Jasper Peak, you appear to be standing on a mountaintop, just you, open sky, some sticks, and a robotic dog. The dog is very cute and will respond to your attention, as well as playing fetch. The vista felt real. So real, I almost could feel the fresh, mountain breeze.

There are few better words I could use here. This simulation was my favourite because, while I enjoyed the games, this felt real. It was meant to appear real, and it did that very well. It was so convincing that even though I knew I was standing on a flat, living room floor, it was very difficult to convince myself to walk off the ledge. The simulation does not drop you down for walking off the cliff, so you just hang in the air, all the while convinced that you are about to fall to your doom.

I wanted to push myself and the device to its cognitive limit. So, I walked around in mid-air. My friends kept asking me what I was doing, why I would try to "break" the simulation, but I wanted to test myself. I am not afraid of heights, but of course I would be nervous about falling. This simulation was so convincing that it took a very controlled effort to convince myself that I would not fall. This was the most impressive thing to me. I am an extremely strong-willed person, not easily fooled by illusion or persuaded even by feeling. However, this simulation fought back, and in doing so, it won me over to accepting VR for what it is, immersive.

While the Vive may have its pitfalls, it is certainly a technological success, and a very impressive one. I am extremely happy for my friend, and for the technology in general. I am sure that, with collaboration and time, the Vive and other VR will develop truly incredible things, reshaping how we see ourselves and the world around us.

If you have any questions for me regarding my experience, feel free to send me an email. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by!