On How I Was Oh So Wrong About Modern VR

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I listen to a number of video games/tech related podcasts as well as read a slew of related sites. I can safely say that VR has been trumpeted as the next coming. It seems everyone who has tried it is gaga over the prospect of a VR future. I’ve heard it so much it started to become a little irritating (the irony is not lost on me). So, when I was at the gym yesterday and noticed that HTC had set up a booth right outside the check-in, I was intrigued. It was pretty late when I finished up and they were already closing up shop, so I looked online and saw they were still holding sessions the next day with sign ups at 9 AM.
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I waffled back and forth because I was pretty apathetic about the whole prospect, but, to set the tone of this post, I’m glad I did.

Long line of people signing up to try the Vive
Long line of people signing up to try the Vive

I’ll give a little overview of the hardware and then go demo by demo. This should hopefully capture everything I want to say about it.
Hardware

The Vive Hardware
The Vive Hardware

The Vive looks much like the other VR contenders, Playstation VR and the Oculus Rift. It’s a headset that covers your entire field of vision. There is additional hardware that the Vive has that the Rift and PVR does not, and that is maybe what makes this more exciting than most. The Vive has two controllers, one for each hand, and these have triggers on each controller, and two thumb pads on top. The thumb pads are similar to the Steam Controller, which makes sense because Valve is a partner on the Vive. These are how you react with the virtual world, they are far more immersive that using an Xbox or PS4 controller due to the fact that they are a better analog to how we traditionally interact with the world.
The other, and perhaps the most important, piece of hardware are the positional pylons. I’m not sure what the official term for these are, but they surround the play field on tripods and feed your absolute position in the room to the headset. This, this right here, is why the Vive is amazing. Being able to actually walk around in a virtual space is what turned my opinion on its head. This in concert with one-to-one controls. It’s an experience, to say the least.
The last thing that HTC provided was some generic over-the-ear-cans to provide sound. They are not part of the hardware, but they did help with immersion.

Starting Area
When you first put on the headset you are in a pretty large white room with little informational podiums about various upcoming VR projects. The first thing I did was naturally looked around and then down at my hands. I could see the two controllers and they moved and tracked like in real life. Then I started messing around with buttons and thumb pads. A balloon started to inflate as I rolled my thumb around the pad. As soon as it was filled it started to fall, and I instinctively went to bump it up, like you would in the real world. It totally worked! The women running my demo said, “Oh, I see you’ve discovered the balloons.” Oh, I had discovered much more than balloons (I’m sorry, I’m still giggling at how god-awful cheesy that line is. It’s perfect.)

theBlu

The white room went blank and when the lights came up I was underwater. I started looking around, trying to get my bearings. I was immediately taken aback at the fidelity of what I was seeing. I know graphics have gotten good. My card is a little old, but I’ve seen things at 4k on the beefiest of rigs. I can’t tell if you are more or less sensitive to screen tearing, aliasing, artifacting, and every other graphic anomaly that can crop up. Perhaps because it’s so immersive I didn’t notice all the irregularities, but it looked incredible. I didn’t have to to think, “OK, let’s try moving around.” My body instinctively went exploring around the ship. Looking all around the ship and amazed at the detail. The artists captured the how the sea had started to reclaim the vessel. Seeing schools of fish swim by. Looking up at the refracted light above. I even walked over and looked off the bow of the ship to see the disappearing sea floor below. Then I heard something out in the distance. It started to come towards me. There was this whale swimming up to me. It didn’t seem intimidating at first, but as it got closer I saw the enormity of the thing. VR allows you to sense depth, too, using stereoscopic vision. That in concert with the field of view makes the scale of things feel incredibly real. So, I felt the rush of adrenaline you feel when things are about to turn sideways because this whale was coming right towards me. I feel like I must state that this isn’t me trying to embellish for the sake of writing. This was a visceral reaction. I was even telling myself, “this isn’t real, there is nothing coming towards me.” As the whale’s fin approached I physically moved out of the way to not be hit by it. Then it just stopped, looking at me with its giant eye. As it moved on I turned to my left and there was a manta ray right by me that startled me and I again dodged out of the way. It’s pretty incredible how your brain is completely tricked by this illusion. Then the lights went down and the white room came back up. That is one hell of an introduction.

Job Simulator

Next up for Office Simulator. The primary function of this demo, I would learn, is to get used to interacting with objects in the digital space. This is where your controllers really shine. You start in a cubicle, in a nondescript, cartoony looking office. Everything is stylized to be brightly colored and blocky. I looked around and then looked down at my hands. In keeping with the theme of cartoony, the looked like big Mickey Mouse gloves. Then “my boss” came in. He was a floating CRT computer monitor wearing a tie. In a manner echoing Portal’s GLaDOS he starting informing me that consuming caffeine has been show to improve worker’s productivity and that my first task was to consume some. A cart came into my cubicle with coffee mugs and a box of donuts. As before it was no problem to easily reach my hand over, pick up the mug, using the trigger on the back to mimic grip, and take it over to the coffee machine. I placed the mug, pushed the button, then brought the mug to my face to drink it. The incredible part is I didn’t have to think, do this, then do that. It felt natural. I think that is the most telling part about all this. It’s instinctual in a way a 15 button, 2 stick Xbox 360 controller isn’t.
On a side note, I honestly think the 360 controller is the peak of being able to navigate a 3D space projected in 2D. The issue is the learning curve. I’ve been playing games my whole life, so it feels second nature to me. But I’m sure you’ve seen someone new picking up an FPS for the first time and running into a wall and spinning around. It’s not intuitive.
Going back, he then had me eat a donut, and then move on to turning on my computer. The computer was unplugged so I had to plug everything back in. What was pretty neat, is that I had to look under the desk, which I did like I would look under a real desk, careful to not bump my head (are you sensing a theme?). The next part was cool for a wholly different reason. You had to use the computer, albeit in a simplified manner. The thing was, using the mouse, didn’t feel totally unlike using a mouse for real. This could mean that translation of familiar workflows could be achieved in VR, which is pretty awesome! He then had me fire some people by stamping fired on their files, and the demo was over.

Tiltbrush

This was probably the most, “woah.” demo for me. This was made by Google, for whatever that is worth. The premise is simple. It’s a drawing program. It’s like the MSPaint of 3D. It’s dead simple to use, the one crucial aspect, is that it is in three-whole-d’s! I started just making squiggles in the air. I noticed the tools were controlled by the thumb pads and started messing around with color and changed the background to “space.” Up popped a tiny moon in front of me! So cool. I was drawing all around the moon, which was so cool. To do any of that in a modern 3D modeling environment is really hard because of the limitations of 3D projected into 2D. You would have to be zooming, panning, and tilting. Not only that but my squiggles would cast shadows on the moon. The lighting tech doesn’t directly relate to VR, but it does a great job of making the whole thing more convincing. I then changed my brush and color and the started making twists around my squiggles. Weaving in and out of them, again with the lighting being incredible. As I was walking around looking at this mass of nonsense “art” I made from different angles I thought to myself, there is NO PARALLEL to this in current computing. This is why I think that this was the game changer for me. This opens up all new possibilities for artists in a way that modern tools don’t. I’m not trying to say that this will supplant old ways of doing things, I’m saying this will enhance them and create better end products. And just as soon as it started, this demo was through.

Aperture Robot Repair

This was the most complete of the VR experiences from a complete start-to-finish perspective. This took place in the Aperture Science facility from Portal. All the humor was there as well. What struck me about this demo was that it was a contained room, and it was so detailed. It was ostensibly a repair shop, albeit with unmistakable touches of Portal. I just walked around, looking at everything in it. Imperfections in the walls, tchotchkes on the desk, it was incredible. The voice over wanted you to do various things, like open some drawers, and in typical Portal fashion, you never did anything correctly. There was a moldy piece of cake in one of them as a nod to the long running, and over used “cake is a lie” joke from the original Portal, I chuckled. There was even a tiny universe that made me its god in one of the drawers that was then promptly incinerated. I was told to open the garage door to let a malfunctioning robot come in. As he sparked and sputtered in I found myself at quite a sense of unease. Again, it’s the scale of everything. I backed up to the wall to avoid it. You were then told to explode the robot, not in the boom sense, but in the sense of seeing all the parts floating in air. You were then informed to repair certain areas of the robot and only had 30 seconds before it exploded, this time the boom kind. Of course you were set up to fail. At that point the rooms starts to fall apart to reveal the larger facility, and the spinning death grinders below. Then GLaDOS herself comes down and peaks in with her monoeye. I’ve played plenty of Portal, and let me tell you. She wasn’t that scary until then. She is HUGE! I found my heart racing as she would move around and berate me. I was then informed I was not qualified for this position and subsequently stamped out of existence, literally. That’s where the this demo, and the demo at large, ended.

Conclusion
In a well trafficked portion of a gym full of people, I flailed my arms and looked around and under things not there are people gawked from a distance, and I didn’t give a damn. In fact, I didn’t even think about any of that while in the headset. That should be a ringing endorsement in-and-of-itself, but to bring it further, it was a visceral experience that nothing has replicated to this point. It is everything those podcast people said, and more. I am more than excited to see where all this goes. This is a game changer. I see some issues with it though. The cost being one of the chief concerns, at $800 plus another $1000 for a top end PC to run it, it’s hard to justify those costs. I think costs will come down, but like any hardware, software needs to follow or it’s dead in the water. If there are not enough users to justify software development costs that could all wash away. Secondly, the Vive requires ample empty space, a VR room as some have been making plans in their house. Most people don’t have that kind of space in their domicile. Being able to walk around in the world is really what clinched it for me. The experience misses something without it. Finally, and most importantly, is that you need to try it. You can watch the videos I have here. You can read my entry, you can listen to impressions. There just isn’t a good proxy for trying it out. That is a problem, because if it’s anything like what I had to do, you are only hitting a small amount of people per day. It’s going to need more demos and a lot of people’s friends who fork over the cash to buy it and let them try it.

I am changed though, there was pre-VR and now post-VR and I can see myself with one of these in the future, one that I hope overcomes its hardships.

On Virtual Reality in Gaming.

With the recent release of the Nintendo 3DS I could not think of a better time to write this article. Whether you were too young, forgot, or just plain blocked it out the video game industry had kind of an obsession with virtual reality in the early 90s. It seemed as if everyone was pointing to virtual reality as the future of computer and more importantly video games. Imagine being IN the game. How rad would that be? Not as rad as everyone once thought as evidenced by the fact that no one is throwing on a VR helmets every time they want to play Halo. It was however the focus of a lot of research. Let me take you on a journey through the rise and fall of VR in video games by the two most prominent companies of the day.

Firstly, let me start off with the big question, “What the eff is virtual reality?” It is basically the total immersion of oneself into a virtual space. It was mostly done by putting on a helmet-type apparatus with screens and motion sensors in it. When you move your head so moves the scene. You are also given some way of interacting with the environment either by a controller or by the system detecting your movements. It’s a very nebulous concept, but one everyone was sure they wanted. Think of the Holodeck on Star Trek. That would be the ultimate goal of Virtual Reality, complete world replacement.

Sega


Sega was arguably the first to try its hand at VR announcing the Sega VR in 1991. It was an add-on to the popular Sega Genesis. This was exactly the kind of thing people were looking towards as the future of gaming. It was an apparatus you stuck on your head with LCD screens inside that tracked your head movements. Not much is known about it because it was canned two years later. The cause of its cancellation was said to be due to the experience was SO REAL that users would forget they were in a game and injure themselves whilst moving. The real reason was probably because testers were getting headaches and motion sickness. The last time it was seen was in 1993 at some trade shows. I have provided a video for your amusement.

Nintendo


This is probably the most prominently known venture into VR and goes by the name of Virtual Boy. I will not assume you all know what it is so here is a little background. It’s important to understand Nintendo’s philosophy to understand the inception of the Virtual Boy. Nintendo has always been about using technology that has been tried and true. It’s not cutting edge, but the fact that it has been around allows developers and engineers to use it easily because it’s understood. It also makes the systems cost effective and cheaper for the consumer. The NES used a modified 6502 and the Game Boy used a modified Z80 as their CPUs both of which were considerably dated even when the systems came out.

Everyone was hyping VR and Nintendo wanted a piece of the action. The Virtual Boy codenamed VR32 was lead by Game Boy creator and personal hero Gunpei Yokoi. It was Nintendo’s attempt at consumer level VR. It went through some drastic changes in its development process and more fundamental VR ideas such as a head-mounted unit where the screen would move as the player did were scrapped early on. The Virtual Boy’s claim to fame wasn’t so much that it produced a life-like VR experience, but that it allowed the user to see in 3D much like the 3D that is shown in movie theaters an homes today. The illusion of depth was created much the way your eye perceives depth which is a difference in images between your right and left eye. Although Yokoi insisted more time was needed to tweak the Virtual Boy, it was rushed out the door so additional resources could be allocated for Nintendo’s next big venture, codenamed “Project Reality”, which would later be known as the Nintendo 64. It released in July, 1995 in Japan and August, 1995 in the US. Rushing the system out lead to poor sales and a low adoption rate for third-party developers. It is generally considered a major flop by the gaming industry. Even worse there is much speculation that Gunpei Yokoi, the head of the VB team, was blamed for its failure and was ostracized by Nintendo forcing him to leave the company.

There were numerous problems that plagued the system. There were only two colors the system had which were red and black, which many found to be unacceptable. The problem was that LEDs were expensive and red LEDs were the cheapest and used the least power so to keep the cost manageable and battery life high they built it with only red LEDs. The intensity of the red LEDs was said to cause headaches in some users. The fact that it was marketed as a “portable” system was misleading and lead many people to think that it was a replacement for the Game Boy. This was of course false, it just meant that it could be transported easily as the system is fairly self-contained and can be powered by batteries. This one stood out to me: the system comes with a compartment for 6 AA batteries and no AC adapter even though the system needs to be played on a tabletop. The AC adapter was an extra accessory you had to buy, which I think is a poor choice. As mentioned above it has lousy third-party support and at the end of its life had only 22 games available in US and Japan.

Despite it’s many shortcomings I do believe it was a pretty neat system. If Nintendo had spent a little more time on it, the Virtual Boy might be remembered fondly in the great Nintendo lineage. Being an owner of this console I can attest to the fact that the 3D effect is actually pretty great. It also has one of my favorite games, Wario Land. I’m sure many people, including myself, hope this gets emulated and released on the 3DS.


What we can extrapolate from all this is that the world thought they wanted virtual reality, but in reality (see what I did there?) probably did not. Although, in direct contradiction to my conclusion I will say that we are moving back in that direction in terms of gaming, just maybe not in such obvious ways. With the release of the 3DS we not only have augmented reality, but portable, affordable 3D in games. The 3DS is the ultimate culmination of what the Virtual Boy was trying to be. On top of that we have the Kinect, which allows you to interact with objects in a virtual space without the use of a controller. With all these burgeoning technologies we might end up close to the original theory of VR that we originally thought.