Late last week, I got a chance to give HTC Vive a test run at the Big Android BBQ in Hurst, Texas. I feel almost ashamed to say this, but I hadn’t even touched virtual reality at all — besides Google Cardboard, of course — until Friday. And while this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those out there that have already played with devices like Oculus and Vive in the past, I’m absolutely, completely, thoroughly, fully, a believer in virtual reality. Here’s how it went down…
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So for those that are unfamiliar, HTC is doing a worldwide tour right now showing off their early-production HTC Vive headset, and the Big Android BBQ was just one of many stops along the way. It seemed like it was definitely one big attention grabber of the event in the midst of admittedly less exciting developer sessions. Among hard-core developers as well as just general tech enthusiasts like myself, it drew a crowd. I had to show up at 9 AM on the dot to stand in a line to sign up, and I didn’t get my slot to play with Vive until noon. It didn’t help that the weather was miserable (they had to shut the truck down for a couple of hours at one point due to lightning), but it was completely booked for the entire day by around 9:30.
But finally, after a few hours of anxiously waiting around and meeting fellow developers, writers, and influencers in the space, I got my chance with the Vive. The cool thing about this tour is that HTC isn’t just putting you in a room for a few hands-on minutes with the headset. The reason the line is so long and the reason the truck got completely booked so fast was because HTC is giving those that try the tech a full 20 minutes of hands-on time, and they walk you through the whole process. You walk in a private room that’s about 10 feet by 10 feet, and you get a complete, personal rundown.
You walk in and you get strapped up, and within minutes you’re consumed in a virtual reality universe. At least for this demo, HTC is taking people through 4 different programs. The first is a very Google Cardboard demo app-esque underwater simulation, the third is a fun virtual reality kitchen that walks you through building a recipe (this one was hilarious and fun to mess around in — you could throw wine bottles across the room if you wanted to), and the last was a very simple Portal game from Steam that… was disappointingly not very game-like (you didn’t get a single change to walk through a portal, which I found to be very sad).
But the most impressive to me of everything that was shown off was Google’s Tilt Brush, an app it acquired earlier this year. Here’s a basic look at what Tilt Brush can do:
While plenty of what I saw on Friday felt like a gimmick (although a very, very fun and cool gimmick), Tilt Brush is what sold me on virtual reality. Not only could this be amazing platform for artists and creators to use, but it was simply one of the most fun “gaming” experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve never been a huge gamer in general, and honestly the most game-like program that was demoed — Portal — was the most boring to me. But this app that let me draw almost anything that my mind could imagine in free 3D space was so much fun that I wanted my 20 minute session to be extended. If I have an opportunity to try out the Vive again before it launches next year, I will definitely request to do just that.
The controllers change everything. I’ve used dozens of the Google Cardboard apps on the Play Store, I’ve done the gallery tours in the Cardboard app, and I’ve played with Street View in VR. All of this is great and dandy for about 10 minutes, but other than looking around and having the ability to tap on one place on the screen, you don’t get to control anything that’s happening. It’s just a viewing experience, and it’s not immersive at all. That’s not to say that Cardboard isn’t impressive technology (and even more impressive considering it’s basically free), but it’s not really at all the same thing as being able to live and interact in 3D space with a virtual world. Google’s Tilt Brush feels like the prototype of this experience.
So at the very least, I would highly recommend you track down this HTC Vive truck and give it a shot if you have a chance. I wasn’t seeing how powerful this platform was until Friday, and now I’m taken aback. At this point it’s expensive (a couple of thousand dollars at least), inconvenient (there were like four wires hanging down from my head that I was tripping over the whole time), and just flat-out inaccessible (Vive still isn’t launching until 2016). But fundamentally, I think technologies like HTC Vive, Oculus, HoloLens, and Magic Leap across both VR and AR (and maybe a convergence of the two at some point in the future) are going to be a really big deal in the next few years. I can’t wait to have one in my home.