I’m not a huge fan of Singapore’s quarterly tech bazaars. The exhibition halls are painfully crowded, desperate exhibitors aggressively peddle their wares over loudhailers, and uncles and aunties mercilessly shove their way through the impregnable walls of people. On the rare occasion, you might find me looking for a new PC for my parents. But after the solar eclipse earlier this week when the sun and moon were aligned, I found myself at the demo of the HTC Vive, powered by nVidia’s GTX 980.
nVidia doesn’t frequently set up booths at such fairs, let alone demo a VR unit that doesn’t have a Singapore launch date on the cards. So while one might find YouTube videos about how the Vive works, it’s important to don the headset, put on some headphones, and try it out yourself.
So are we ready for VR to become mainstream? Does the GTX 980’s 90fps really do justice to VR? Are we going to Magic Leap into the future and turn the office into a Doom-style FPS? Well, maybe in a few years, but not just yet, and here’s why.
The demo I experienced was set in a wreck dive. I stood at the bow of a sunken vessel, and soaked up the sights and sounds of fishes weaving around me. I could walk (or swim) around to navigate the immediate vicinity, look up towards the surface, see light from the sun scattered by the waves above, and look down towards… Oh wait, I didn’t quite manage to get to that.
The next thing I knew, there was a whale that slowly but surely made its way towards the shipwreck. Creatures like that are not to be trifled with when you’re unarmed and stuck at Level 1 in an RPG. The whale came up close. I could scrutinize its form more intently to see whether its edges were jagged, and inspect whether there were any visual artifacts. Overall, the whale looked OK. Nothing much I could complain about. GTX 980 ftw.
But what I found a little unsettling was that there was the slight hint of lag. This is evident when you turn your head around relatively quickly, and realise that there is still a barely perceptible delay in how the computer responds to your movement. This was clearly a deal-breaker for VR headsets many years ago, when I was still an undergrad trying to make sense of whether Augmented Reality would be ready for prime time if the quality was anything like what can be seen in this video . But as with most technologies, things improve, and the experience today with the Vive is undoubtedly commendable despite the slight lag.
That said, developers of the Vive should try to reduce the wire clutter that having the headset entails. I had to adjust the cables once so that they wouldn’t interfere with my movement. Besides that, there is certainly a dearth of content. Until game designers figure out how to effectively use the headset, I doubt the Vive would appeal to anything more than a niche market. Perhaps the Vive might fare better for social interactions, or in workplaces where you could shoot arrows at your colleagues literally, and not just figuratively.
Singaporeans will undoubtedly figure out how to purchase units and bring them in when the Vive becomes available in selected markets in April. Some Steam games will support the Vive when it’s launched, including dubious titles such as Job Simulator, in addition to Valve classics like Team Fortress 2.
DIRECOW HEADS UP THE SLOPES
For me, the experience was quite different – instead of heading below the water, I was tasked with making the climb up Mount Everest.
It was quite the smile-inducing experience: There was a flyby-helicopter ride of sorts at first, which allowed me a grand view of the mountains from above. If you are the sort to have vertigo, this isn’t for you – I could feel my legs turn to jelly at such “height”.
There was the second part of the adventure – I had to walk to another part of the floor (stretching the Vive’s cable to its limit, which might be an issue). There, I had to make a walk across a metal level balanced over a crevice. That felt as real as it could get. Sadly, the next portion, which probably involved using the Vive’s controllers to climb a ladder was, to put it simply, inaccessible – the controllers could not work due to all the interference on the show flow from other devices.
And while it was fun – it’s still early days for the tech, I think. It has a higher resolution than the PlayStation VR offering – but there’s still a lot more fidelity for it to be really life lag, and some lag to cut, especially for those more likely to get motion sickness. And you know, climbing Everest, maybe some wind effects and snow would have been nice? Time to start thinking about having a 4G room!