Hands-On With Valve and HTC's Vive VR Headset
The instructions I received by phone were simple and cryptic: Turn up at the appointed hour. HTC had something to show me, and they weren't dropping any hints as to what it was. I've covered the company for more than a decade, but when I arrived a few days later at the foyer of HTC's gleaming, white headquarters in Taipei to be led upstairs, it was one of the rare times when I had no idea what I was about to see. My response to the company representative's gentle teasing about what I thought I was going to be shown was really just a guess—something to do with health care?
By now, you're probably aware of what that something was: HTC is getting into the virtual-reality business. But in mid-February, when I walked into a small, brown room to be greeted by a handful of engineers, HTC's involvement in the VR project was still a well-kept secret. The smartphone maker spent about nine months working with Valve, the computer-software developer behind the Half-Life and Dota games and the Steam online store, which millions of people visit to download PC games.
The Vive headset and two seven-foot-tall towers situated in opposite corners of the room were the embodiment of what HTC had been keeping secret. I would later learn that the headset itself has at least a dozen miniature sensors on the outer casing that can pick up signals from what they see in the room. With no introduction or explanation, HTC's engineers put the goggles and earphones on my head and sent me off into VR land.
I was immediately faced with a school of manta rays swimming in front of me and above me, their giant wing-like fins silhouetted by sunlight shining through the surface of the water. The fish were close; I reached out to grab them. A ship's guard rail and wooden deck told me where I was. I turned around to see the body of the ship. "You can walk," said the HTC rep—a brief reminder that I was in transition between two worlds, virtual and real. "We'll tell you if you're about to hit the wall." Can I bring you home with me?
The chain from the ship's anchor was in front of me. I walked up to it for a closer look, two or three steps. It seemed real, except that I couldn't touch it. Lacking, too, was the feeling of weightlessness felt by anyone who has tried scuba diving. As the demonstration drew to a close, after what seemed like just a few seconds, I turned around again to see the large tail fin of a whale gently glide past me. In the real world, I once had the chance to swim with whale sharks in Mozambique; this seemed almost as real.
Then the screen went blank, and the company gave me a new toy to play with. A controller in my right hand had both a trigger and a thumb button, which I was supposed to use to "handle" objects.
Back in for the second demo, I was in a laboratory. I turned to see a chest of metal drawers in front and a window to another lab on the right. Reaching out with the controller, I tried to open the drawer. Nothing. I tried again, pumping my arm back and forth a few times, as if sliding the drawers open. Nothing. It was a glitch, someone in the room said, so we rebooted. Again, nothing. HTC is aiming to get these sorts of glitches fixed before the Vive hit stores this holiday season.
After swapping controllers and trying a third time, I was back into it, opening the cabinet to reveal a cardboard model of an office, complete with flat, animated, cardboard office workers. I could peer in, look from the side, even look under the open drawers. I closed the drawers and became fascinated with looking through the window into the lab next door.
This is where virtual reality moves from three-dimensional to what I call 4D. (I know the fourth dimension is time; by this, I mean full, walk-around motion.) By taking a few steps to my right, I could peer further around the left side of the next room and the same went for the other direction. When I stood on my toes, I could get a better angle on what was lower to the ground. This walk-around is what made the VR experience exciting, fascinating, and seemingly limitless—unless I hit the wall.
From the third side of the room, an open door brought me face-to-face with a menacing-looking robot before it dismantled itself to reveal its component parts. Hanging in mid-air, with yellow arrows serving as clues to what I was supposed to fix, the controller became a poor proxy for the manual dexterity of my hand. Somehow, I failed at the task. The result was a Hollywood-like display of fast-moving, 3D graphics that morphed the placid lab into an industrial factory and then a white-walled prison cell.
During my journey from a virtual sea to a virtual lab, the business journalist in me recalled that Oculus was the most famous VR company and had been snapped up by Facebook for $2 billion. Now I was staring, with amusement, at the confines of the white cell and considering that this is the type of experience Zuck had in mind when he spent big money on the company. Sure, it was cheaper than a mobile messaging app and a heck of a lot more fun. Yet, as the engineers helped me disconnect, I couldn't help but voice my first thoughts to the HTC team: "That's cool, but how will you make money from it?"