Today I tried HTC Vive, and it’s every bit as fantastic as you’ve already heard. I entered the special demo area a sceptic, scoffing at the gaping guy ahead of me, wondering if he knew just how stupid he looked, swinging his arms around clumsily as he reacted to what I could only assume were a bunch of invisible midges.
A roll of my eyes as he removed the headset, let go of the joysticks and banged on about how much fun he’d had. Come off it, you’re an adult. Pull yourself together, I stopped myself from saying aloud.
My turn. Feeling like a Richard Dawkins on his way to meet a nutter who’d claimed to have had a divine experience, I stepped up.
The first thing I noticed when I picked it up is its weight. Despite its size, the Vive headset is unexpectedly light. It’s also easy to strap around your head, with the face padding allowing you to tighten it without the eyepiece digging into your face. It’s so much more comfortable than the Gear VR.
The joysticks are also easy to handle, with a circular cutout at the top ensuring they remain light. They each feature a clickable trackpad, a menu button, a home button and a trigger. A solid start, and HTC told me that an extra ridge will be integrated underneath the trackpad, to stop your thumb from slipping. It sounds like a sensible move.
After the chap controlling the computer the Vive is tethered to slaps a pair of headphones over my ears and hits a few buttons, voila, I’m no longer of this world. I could make out the rough outlines of my feet and the congregating crowd (go away, all of you!), but other than that, I’ve become virtual baby. It's a hell of a lot more immersive than I imagined and found myself smiling like a teenage boy who’d just seen a pair of boobs for the first time.
In an instant, I'm under the sea, stood in the middle of a shipwreck. I’m swinging at tiny fish as they whizz past, marvelling at manta rays and OH MY LORD, THERE’S A BLUE WHALE EYEING ME UP.
It’s incredibly difficult to explain the feeling as the giant virtual animal approaches and glides past. Seriously, I wish I could take pictures inside the headset. I’m stunned, frozen and feeling incredibly insignificant all at the same time. I obviously knew it wasn’t real, but I was in awe, twisting my neck from side to side to drink the whole beast in, and actually leaning forwards to peer under its right fin -- the natural thing to do in a completely alien situation.
In another simulation, I found myself on the edge of a platform, shooting bastard flying robots as they attacked me with their own little weapons. I’m not a gamer, nor have I ever been, but Vive had me ducking and diving, fighting these digital devils with real gusto.
I knew there were people watching -- I could hear their laughter and camera shutters -- but I didn't care how stupid I looked (the state of my hair admittedly didn't help my cause), I was a man on a mission. What happened to me? It was extremely fun, yet I know I’d never ever be into the game if I was using a PC, smartphone or traditional console.
The Vive is unique in this aspect. Being a part of the action is such a powerful draw, it can convert miserable naysayers like me. Seriously, today I gamed like I've never gamed before.
My favourite taste of Vive, however, came through Tilt Brush. It’s essentially a VR, Google-made version of Paint, and I could see myself using it for hours. Using one joystick, you can choose from a range of colours, functions and brushes. With the other, you create.
Within a few minutes, I built a gigantic neon fire, with blue plumes of smoke whirling overhead and a canary yellow ring surrounding the entire scene. A masterpiece, if I say so myself. What’s truly magical, however, is the ability to walk through or around your work, study it from all angles, replay the entire production process and edit as you go. This isn’t simply visually incredible, but opens up the potential for collaborative projects. Google Docs will never be this sexy. Will it?
My only issue with Vive regards the cables. As it needs to be tethered to a compatible computer, you'll inevitably get a cable caught around your feet or legs. I was never in danger of tripping up, but the knowledge that something from the real world was posing a potential danger to me broke the VR illusion several times.
Dan O'Brien, the vice president of HTC's VR business, says he doesn't reckon it's a problem, telling me,"I’ve been using the tethered system now for two years. It's easy to shift the cables away from your feet, and the front cam ensures you won't walk into your physical surroundings. We find people really easily adjust for it and it doesn’t become a problem. People have even played around with ceiling mounts, though I'd advise people to be very careful with that."
Sorry Dan, but the fact that people are trying things like that proves that the Vive would be so much better if it was wireless. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like this will be the case anytime soon, thanks to bandwidth issues.
There's also the small matter of pricing. HTC has confirmed that the Vive will go on sale for $799, but is yet to reveal UK pricing, leading many to speculate that it'll be rather steep. "The $799 price is the base price," O'Brien told me earlier today. "We’re basing global pricing on that. We’ll do a local currency conversion and then take into account local taxes. We’ll have [local prices] up very, very soon. There’s a global price we want to be consistent with."
In other words, the Vive will definitely cost more than £550. More realistically, we expect it to ship for a fee closer to the £800 mark, but guess what. We think it's worth it. Looking back, my problem with VR is the fact that I’ve used too many sub-par headsets. To paraphrase a truly awful saying, I started hating the game, rather than the player.
The HTC Vive is, quite simply, the most breathtaking piece of technology I've had the pleasure of testing, and I can't wait for it to come out.