Having caught the Virtual Reality (VR) bug back in E3 2013, I was eager to spend more time away from the dull normalities of my world, and inside the cockpit of a fighter jet – or anywhere else for that matter. For the most part Oculus Rift has been the poster child for VR, but a lot has changed over the past two years.
Subsequently, it has become a little more competitive now that Sony and Valve have pushed their headsets into the spotlight, and dare I say it, it’s a little more crowded. PlayStation’s upcoming Project Morpheus will be exclusively owned by Sony’s home console; so that’s a tick in the box which will bring it to a mainstream audience. We then have both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (both of which cater to PC audiences), and this ultimately leaves the future open for console consideration.
My latest experience with the newest kits of Morpheus and Oculus allowed me to become more familiar with hardware that is closer to a consumer product. Funnily enough, Valve’s HTC Vive is already scheduled for a fall release having only been in journalists’ hands since early 2015. Quite surprising when you consider its competitors have been known to the public for longer, and are yet to receive an official release date.
My latest experience with Morpheus was a lot more relaxed compared to my five minute demo over a year ago. I’d already played War Thunder with Oculus, but it was reassuring to test out the view of a fighter plane’s cockpit through Morpheus.
Compared to Oculus, the first thing that struck me was the struggle to get a sharper picture. Despite having a carefully constructed shell, Morpheus felt a bit disconnected compared to my other experiences. The fact I couldn’t fill my vision with the imagery meant completely immersing myself in the situation was a much harder task, as the screen wasn’t as close to my eyes as I would have liked.
It was an exciting show of how I might play a lot of PlayStation 4 games in the future, especially slightly older ones as demonstrated with War Thunder, but I’m apprehensive about the final consumer version.
Having initially been introduced to Oculus two years ago, I was expecting a lot from this new, more refined model. My VR experience came from the courtesy of Ubisoft, who presented me with two short demos. The first, Eagle Flight, pitted me in the first-person view of an eagle, and even demonstrated exactly what it sounds like to be the bird. Another interesting aspect of this demo was that I played alongside three other people; it was the first time I was showcased multiplayer in VR.
As the eagle I started atop a building in a low-res, cel-shaded rendition of Paris. Once in flight, all I had to do was look in a certain direction to control the flightpath of my bird, and tilting my head left or right initialised a sharp turn. The precise nature of the eagle’s movement via my point of view was really satisfying. It was the most one-to-one experiences I’d had on the Rift, and showcased a new aspect I hadn’t encountered before. Split into two teams, we were tasked with capturing a flag and taking it to a beam of light in order to win a point. I could speed up by holding the left trigger on a Xbox 360 controller, plus we had the ability take out opponents through shooting a sound wave with the X button.
My second demo was less of an interactive experience, but proved that sitting down and simply watching can be just as fun. It was based on Far Cry 3, and my character was sat opposite the leading antagonist, Vaas, who spoke to me like a psycho. What made the experience even more realistic was that if I looked around my environment and paid less attention to him, Vaas would notice and demand my attention. As the demo continued he became more agitated, before kicking the concrete block I was attached to over a ledge, plunging me into the water below. It served as a powerful reminder that control isn’t everything, and looking and listening can be just as engaging.
Valve’s HTC Vive
Before the Vive I thought I had VR all figured out.
It’s still in the teething phase, I said.
The ability for one-on-one, completely immersive experiences are a long way off, I said.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My interest in trying the Vive first started by hearing chatter of amazing experiences on my Twitter feed. I proceeded to slowly drift by HTC’s business area to see if there were any appointments available, but unfortunately nothing was left. Luckily for me there was one last location to try, and with a bit of begging and crossed fingers, I managed to land a date with the device.
Like all first dates, I didn’t know what to expect other than something very special. Who wouldn’t be expecting anything but magic from something created by Valve? I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant about the fact that HTC was joining them, as being an Apple customer at heart, in my mind this company was just another lonesome handset manufacturer; aiming to get their phones into the mitts of those without iPhones. I can safely say I’ll now love them forever.
As I entered a dimly lit room I was handed the Vive headset, a pair of headphones and two controller sticks. The minute the display appeared I didn’t feel the need to adjust the focus, nor did I get any hint of motion sickness; I felt as though I had been transported to the digitally constructed white room presented to me. What followed were five demos, each a couple of minutes in length.
I won’t go into too much detail with the demos (check out our video below for the full, insider scoop), but what I will say is that now I’ve had the tasters, I want the whole Vive slice. It’s hard to put into words exactly how good the Vive is, other than to say it’s the best VR I have ever experienced. Put it this way; as a result I’m finding it hard to care much for Oculus or Morpheus. It’s an experience so surreal and one-to-one that I didn’t even notice the lack of audio, which was due to a technical error, as I was totally immersed within its visuals.
The clarity of the screen and practically zero-latency all play a big part in making Vive my number one choice. Once it’s launched, consumers are going to receive some pretty substantial kit, including the headset, two PlayStation Move-like controllers, and a couple of small square boxes. These boxes will fire out lasers and calculate exactly where you and the equipment lie in a 3D space.
My favourite demo, presented by Tilt Brush and Google, allowed me to create my own artistic imagery and experiment with designs in a 3D space. With one of my hands operating the brush and the other selecting my menu, I could then craft any design within the space around me. I started by selecting “fire” and proceeded to paint our Start Replay logo. I swiftly moved onto “stars”, which enabled me to sprinkle a burst of the galaxy across my surroundings. I felt like a kid and I couldn’t stop grinning. I was so immersed, I could’ve stood there for hours and basked in the soft yellow glow around me. It almost gives me shivers remembering how good it was.
By the time my demo was up, I was genuinely sad that I couldn’t stay for more. It’s astounding to think that Valve has been working on this pre-Oculus. Both its competitors are proposed to hit retail in mid-2016, but Valve aren’t messing around by heading for a 2015 holiday release.
There’s no doubt that Vive will be the most expensive package, but I’d be happy to spend a fortune on it considering the quality of experience on offer. Both Sony’s Morpheus and the Oculus will have their own control systems, but I don’t see them being as immersive as Vive’s. Before I start to gush more about leaving my real world for a virtual one, I’ll set you one task: try the HTC Vive as soon as possible. You won’t believe your eyes.