Monday, April 25, 2016

Disruption: The HTC Vive

The Omnivore got his hands on the 3d Virtual Reality head-set, the HTC Vive. Created as a competitor to the Oculus Rift and designed to work explicitly with the Steam platform, the Vive is next-generation of home-VR.

The Omnivore is here to tell you something: This is new.

On Disruption

The term "disruption" or "disruptive" is thrown around a lot in technology without sufficient justification. Partially that's because there's no clear definition (The Omnivore's rule is that you know something is disruptive when they legislate against it) and partially because the term (like "momentum" in politics) generally just means "I am excited to be writing about this"). Well, the Vive (or Oculus) certainly isn't being legislated against and it is starting to generate a certain amount of excitement.

So is the new 3d VR disruptive? Does it portend a sea-change in video games--or even human experience? Or will it go the way of 3D TV?

The Omnivore has had about 48 hours with a Vive and thinks: it's disruptive. It's going to change things.

The Vive Itself

The HTC Vive comes in a pretty big box and is more complicated than The Omnivore imagined. There's the head-set, sure. And there are these two "hand control" things. Okay, fine. What The Omnivore wasn't expecting were the "light-house" units. These are two wall-mounted laser-stations that have to be able to (a) see each other (unbroken line of sight) and (b) see the area where you are going to play 3d games,

Part of this is just the sitting down area--but the Vive also offers "Room Scale VR" which is where you stand in your play area (a couple meters on a side, ideally) and you can actually take actions in the 3D games. This can involve "swinging virtual swords," painting in the air with light, shooting guns, ducking, dodging, or even diving behind cover, and so on.

Once The Omnivore got these devices wall-mounted, he had to train the unit to define the play area (The Omnivore thinks of it as "The Cage" since it appears in high-lit blue lights in the 3d world when the game wants to tell you that you're getting near an edge  / wall).

The headset is comfortable (a lot of work went into that). The Omnivore opted for his blue-tooth headset for sound (the Vive comes with a head-set jack if you want to use that).

The Next Echelon Up

A while back, The Omnivore asked "Is there a video game we see today that people might still be playing in 50 or 100 years?" That question touches on issues of "Can video games be art?" and "Is there a 'Mozart' of video games out there right now?" (The Omnivore thinks: Tetris will be fun for a very, very long time).

That said, during the research, The Omnivore noted that about every decade, reliably, a new genre of video games emerges or publishes a foundational title. We're due for one. Having played the Vive, The Omnivore suspects the 3D VR "genre" is it--the next addition to the types-of-games catalog.

The 3D VR Genre

When The Omnivore read about VR titles, his impression was sort of like that for 3D movies. Historically, 3D Movies' major selling point was startling you with something exploding "out of the screen at your face." Later on, with improvements in 3D, the experience was of paying an extra $5 for a ticket to see an illusion of greater depth of field.

3D Movies were loved by some, headache inducing in others, but fundamentally did not provide a substantially different experience and certainly not a narratively different experience from regular movie going. While The Omnivore was not around for Black & White vs. Color TV, he expects that the move from 2D to 3D movies was less impactful than B&W to Color. Maybe more like the move from VHS to DVD?

A potential improvement (YMMV) certainly--but not something new.

The 3D VR Genre is new.

The Sitting Simulator

It may not be the best example, but The Omnivore purchased the "game" The Visitor (the link is a YouTube of "3 Cowards play The Visitor"). The Visitor is a 10 minute 'film.' There's no interaction--you can't even move around. You can look around--and you need to, in order to see what's going to happen.

The premise is dirt simple: you're sitting up in bed, in a bed-room, with a bit of a storm outside . . . and someone or something . . . comes to visit. It's scary in a way that nothing else The Omnivore has played has been. It isn't absolutely terrifying--but the intensity of the experience is utterly disproportional to the work that went into it. It's a tech-demo that can scare the heck out of you (or, at least, creep you out).

This shows the potential power of VR.

Tech Demos As Games

If The Visitor is explicitly a bit of a demo, even the top-line games seem to qualify as that as well. For example, the freebie from Valve, The Lab, is one of the most polished experiences available. You are in an Aperture Science style lab and there are different "worlds" (games) you can go to. You can also look around the Lab Itself, which is pretty interesting.

One of the worlds is a "tower defense" game where you stand on a castle tower and are attacked by cartoonish hordes. You shoot at them with a bow and arrow. When hit, they explode into fragments and balloons come out--you can shoot the balloons for extra points.

The game uses the two hand controls with a bit of force feedback to give you a sense of pulling the bow and arrow. It's scary-accurate, feels dead-on, and is, well, it's really, really fun. Even without the 3D VR experience it'd be a decent basic-game idea. With it, it's pretty much a compelling (if short) experience.

This experiential element is what convinces The Omnivore that we're seeing a new mode of game. Where we might once have seen great graphics or some new visual tech (Voxels?) as a potential interest generator (that would be hit-or-miss for a lot of people), a decent idea with the 3D VR experience becomes something worth checking out on its own.

The Emergent Language of VR Games

The Omnivore got two of the "big titles" to try out: Vanishing Realms (a dungeon crawl RGP) and The Star Seed (a sort of Myst-Like exploration game). Both have the same basic concept: you are standing in this virtual world and you need to move around.

You can't just walk around (too much) because you'll run into walls and such. So when you want to move "outside the cage" you need to use the controller to direct yourself to a new location and then teleport there. Okay, fine--but they both do it different ways. Starseed has you trigger the movement and then uses head-tracking to determine where you want to go. Vanishing Realms has you use the hand-set to fire a "movement beam" and when it's where you want to to go, you release and there you are.

These are different (The Omnivore prefers the Vanishing Realms version) and it is likely that people will be experimenting with this--and other options--for quite some time before nailing it.

The Vive and Oculus are 1.0

Despite being years in the making and VR head-sets having been around forever, the Vive and Oculus are really the first market-product that delivers this kind of experience with this kind of support and this smoothly. They are not cheap and they require a muscular machine to run. The Room Scale VR experience also requires an empty space that is large enough to move around in (The Omnivore was lucky to have one in his office--but that was luck).

In short, these are the emergent versions that will, in 5 years, be far surpassed. The Omnivore expects:
  • On-board graphics chips. A headset that helps with the rendering might offset the need for a super-machine (or enhance the experience if you have one).
  • Improved sensory location: The Vive uses lasers. Perhaps paring that with a Kinect-Like camera system and learning code could give the experience greater views of your body?
  • VR-Mouse and Keyboard. The Vive shows you photo-realistic views of the hand-set controllers in virtual space. It would be nice to see other input devices (mouse, keyboard, etc.) Perhaps even views of objects in the real room--if they could show you views of desks, real walls, etc.
  • VR Gloves? Everything old is new again--a lot of these games use hands that grasp when you pull the triggers on the controls. What if you could wear gloves that let you grasp, hold, etc.? That can't be far off.
The cost will also come down, perhaps dramatically, in five years. The Omnivore expects more telepresence, greater use of the "virtual movie screens" (you can use the Vive to visit a virtual theater where you watch shows or 2d games on a "huge screen") and so on.


The Omnivore can't say for sure if the Vive is "worth the cost"--but it is certainly "worth something." It is an experience that is pretty much impossible to replicate elsewhere and has great potential. It also has solid backing--while these devices might fail--or fall back to niche players, The Omnivore bets against that. These things are the beginning of the future.


  1. AR/VR/MR (with the Magic Leap) do seem to be transformational in a way we haven't seen since, well perhaps the advent of the 'Net itself. Given the amount of ink on the subject (Snow Crash, Ready Player One, etc.) and the emphasis on _dis_topian futures brought about by the rise of the genre, I'm not sure whether to be excited or scared. I do think this will work its way into politics at some point (perhaps "conservative" will come to champion the "real world"). Interesting times for sure.

    1. Magic Leap is less than 20 minutes from my house. I should really drop by and say "Hello!"
      -The Omnivore