I've used the Oculus Rift DK1, HD and DK2 for hours and hours and enjoyed my time with each of them immensely, but on each occasion, I'd feel some sense of relief upon taking the headset off. Relief that my head could cool down, relief my eyes could relax, relief that I hadn't thrown up.
When my twenty minutes with Valve and HTC's Vive came to an end, I felt no relief. Instead, I only felt disappointed that I couldn't continue exploring the 3D painting demo or playing with the specially-designed Portal 2 vignette.
My session began with being led into a small room at GDC, around 12 by 15 foot, and being introduced to Jeep Barnett, a programmer at Valve. He pointed out two 6"x6" boxes stood atop bookcases in opposite corners of the room. These are the laser-tracking devices that watch your movements throughout the room, and are one of the ways the Vive is different from the rival Facebook Oculus Rift headset. While the Rift places a small camera on top of your monitor in order to track your head position while you sit in an office chair, the Vive hopes to track you as you walk around your room.
To begin with, I sat down in a chair in the center of the room while I was wired up. The Vive is due out before the end of the year, but the version at GDC is still a prototype and while the headset is relatively light, it's attacked to heavy external cables. To compensate, I hooked a belt around my waist to hold those external wires so my neck didn't have to carry the load.
With the headset fitted, the first thing is that it's a little sharper than the DK2, at least to my eye. It's not perfect by any stretch, and if I studied the image in front of my face I could see pixels and jaggies and so on, but the following twenty minutes would be my first experience in VR where I would forget that there was a screen a couple of inches away from my eyes.
Next up, Barnett handed me Valve's prototype VR motion controllers. Since I had the headset on already, these floated up from the floor in front of me as Barnett picked them up, and I reached out to pluck them out of virtual space. They look a tad like Razer Hydra controllers but with elements of the Steam Controller merged in: instead of thumbsticks, under your thumbs sit two haptic touchpads, there's a trigger on top for your index finger, and another set of buttons pressed by squeezing your palms. Most of the demos I played used the index triggers.
Then Barnett put some headphones on me, asked me to stand up and he took away the chair. I was now standing inside a demo room at a busy conference, but completely immersed in a virtual world.
The motion tracking, the space
My first image when hearing of the Vive and its movement tracking earlier in the week was of walking into walls, stubbing my toe in my small office room, and knocking breakables off shelves. Valve have thought of the same.
To begin with, that virtual world was a white space with hexagonal tiles rising up front the floor around me. As I edged towards them, taking small tentative space out of fear of tripping, they shrunk down into the ground. I crouched down and touched the floor and the real world floor was just a little closer than the floor I could see. I stood up again, dipped my head, turned, straightened, looked up. At each point the headtracking seemed perfect. I was there.
The world around me transitioned to a plainer white space, but this one had images along the walls of different in-development VR games. Barnett directed my attention to the outline of a blue square on the ground, which marked out a safe space for movement, and then asked me to move towards its edge. As I did so, a wall of transparent grid squares faded in. Barnett described these as the 'chaperone', designed to stop you breaking all your stuff. The size of the space is something you calibrate yourself when first setting up the Vive and you can mark obstacles on the floor area to make sure you avoid outcropping furniture.
When I asked Barnett, he said that the minimum practical space for using the machine was around the size of two yoga mats, roughly six foot by four foot. He also said that the system can be made to work with very large spaces and that it can track multiple people moving through it at the same time. Valve are working on multiplayer prototypes, and hope to have more to show later in the year.
Settled in, Barnett told me to turn to my right and activate a screen. I turned right, took two steps forward, reached out with my right hand and squeezed the right-trigger on the controller to press an on-screen button. I can't communicate how strange this experience is - pressing a button on a screen which is actually being projected on a screen but using my real arm - and that's partly because any effort to do so betrays how simultaneously ordinary it feels. Within a few moments, you just forget about the weirdness.
Then the real demos began.
I was stood on the bridge of a sunken galley ship, debris scattered around its deck, penning me towards its bow. Small fish floated around in front of me, which I could chase away with my controller. "This is a good demo for showing scale in VR," said Barnett. It's called TheBlu. I walked around, looking this way or that, wondering if I could clamber over the fallen mast and wondering how longer-distance walking like that would work with the motion trackers. I opened my mouth to speak, "How far into the boat can I--", then caught something in the corner of my eye.
I turned around to look out from the ship and there was a whale, almost close enough to touch, swooping by. It stopped and I stepped to the left to align myself with its eye, larger than my head. I stared into it and became aware again of my physical presence in the real world: I was smiling. A big, open-mouthed, toothy grin had spread uncontrollably across my face as I made eye contact with such an amazing creature, and I felt giddy as it swam on, its fin and tail swooping past my face.
It's not often that I feel moments of euphoria while playing videogames, and I'm skeptical of this feeling myself. I half wonder if VR brings its own version of the phenomena of crying on airplanes, that the total effect of the headset, the immersion, the sense of being alone in a strange and public space, is that normally level-headed people come over all moony. Whatever the case, in that moment I'd have bought one if it had been for sale.
That was demo one.
Demo two was The Job Simulator, which cast me as a chef in a colourful, cartoon world, directed by a screen to make a particular meal by combining the items in a pot. While the first demonstration was purely passive, here I was picking up ingredients, opening and reaching into fridges, and the preparation ended by popping the food onto a plate, dinging a bell, and watching it being carted off. After successfully following the recipe, I was offered the chance to perform another or to pootle around with other objects in the kitchen. I turned around, zapped a steak knife in a microwave, and sent that off as my second serving.
The cartooniness of this world is why Valve's use of the word "presence" is so important. I'd normally think of virtual reality as operating on a scale, as the name suggests, of reality. The better the system, the more real it seems. But that's not quite accurate when you're operating in a cartoonish world of low-poly vegetables and floating plates. I didn't mistake the world of any of those demos for something real and that wasn't their goal, but I always felt present in the setting no matter whether I was cooking or pootling around with an ogre's spare mechanical parts.
That was the third demo. Set inside a small, rickety, fantasy-style room, with a cave beyond a wooden railing, I was talked at by an enormous ogre who was trying to fix something. He walked away and I spent a few minutes opening cupboards and tinkering with devices, the strangest of which were a pair of glasses with wobbling green plasma for lenses. I held those virtual goggles up to my eyes and looked through them, acutely aware of the chain of perception-bending at work.
Eventually the ogre returned, finished his repairs, and the room I was in began to ascend. It was an elevator and it emerged atop a mountain, my view suddenly unconstrained. I picked something up and threw it over the ledge, watching it sail out of view. In my memory, this feels no less real than times when I've rolled stones down mountains in real life.
Next up was a three-dimensional painting tool called Tilt Brush, which began with a flower springing to life from the floor, one brush stroke at a time. I was then given the tools to do that myself, my right-controller a brush, my left-controller a colour wheel and menu. I painted lines of light and snow through the air, and then a happy, smiley face in oils. "Is that John?", Barnett asked. "He did have red hair at one point," I said.
I could have used this all day, making nothing much of value but simply delighting in the precision of it. The motion controllers in my hands were as much prototypes as the headset itself, but I had no problem drawing John's irises in place. It's also strange how quickly they transformed in my mind from their actual physical shape to the glowing menu projections they existed as in the world. I was instantly accustomed to turning my hand this way or that to use the colour picker on the front and the brush picker on the back.
That was maybe the theme of the whole session: VR has come along far enough in just a couple of years that much of it is now instinctive. It's remarkable how quickly the whole situation normalised in my head; how quickly I stopped thinking of the virtual objects I was picking up as any different from real ones, and how immediately I stopped worrying about bumping into unseen walls.
The Portal 2 demo
But the fifth and final demo was the first time the giddy smile returned to my face since that initial encounter with the whale. This was Valve's own creation, and a vignette set in the Portal 2 universe. I didn't go sailing around on jump pads or paint slick surfaces, and I question how that might have felt given the limits on player movement speed for anyone who wants to avoid vomiting on their head-mounted display. But instead, I was cast as a robot repairman, trying to fix a malfunctioning Atlas. It was gloriously funny, but there were two moments in particular that were sublime.
The first was opening a drawer to be presented with a miniature world full of stickmen and desks in the style of Portal 2's cute, funny marketing. It was cute, it was funny, and it sold the sense of scale you get from virtual reality much like that initial presentation. I leaned in, getting a closer look at tiny figures typing at tiny computers. When I closed the drawer and one of the little figures crawled out and tumbled down to the floor, I couldn't resist crouching down again and trying to help him back up. The second moment was when working with Atlas, in which you grab a lever on the side of his face and pull, causing the internal machinery of his head to spool out on as if on a floating rack, all the parts inside spinning and clicking and popping away.
Everyone has experienced a moment with videogames where they were impressed with technology before, whether it was a tongue-floored corridor or a staggering ragdoll trying to remain upright, but virtual reality seems to have the power to go further than those mere gaudy thrills. At least in me, it inspires feelings of wonder at the same time. It's more than a flashier version of something you've seen before; it's more like seeing moving pictures for the first time and ducking when a train rushes towards the screen. Or, in my case, jutting backwards when GladOS's head shot towards where I was standing.
I've come over all moony again, but I'm willing to look silly in order to have a record of the genuine elation I felt after using the Vive. Whether it comes across in reading this or not, my desire when using the device was mainly to yell HOLY SHIT, call every friend and family I have and tell them to try it, and then to start indiscriminately hugging people. There will inevitably be better VR headsets in years to come that will make this one look deficient, and there will be limitations to this headset that will only be apparent after hours, weeks and months of use, but it would seem a shame to temper that feeling even out of entirely sensible cynicism.
In other words, there are fewer caveats than ever that need to be appended to the consistently joyful write-ups of various VR headsets.
That all said, it's obviously worth stating that, despite my current preference, it's still too early to say that the Vive is the winner of The Virtual Reality Wars. What's now clear is that the fight is coming. While Valve and HTC are sprinting to beat the Oculus to market, that doesn't mean Facebook's eventual consumer device won't ultimately be better. Whatever the case, users will be rewarded with machines made cheaper through competition - and a better chance at an open VR development platform.
Finally, for the sceptical and technical: no, I don't know what its field of view or framerate was; no, I can't tell you how much it will cost; and no, I have no idea if anything will be released for it with depth or lasting value beyond mere novelty.
And yeah, I don't have a room in my house that can fit two yoga mats side by side either. Right now, I don't care. I'll push my couch out the way. Or, as one Valve employee put it, "Who really uses their dining table anyway?".