I sat there, staring at my desktop PC. It’s too old to run VR, I was sure of that – it’d be getting ready for its first day of high school were it a child.
I came to the conclusion that I’d probably only have to upgrade the motherboard, CPU and graphics card. And power supply. And other unknown elements… and that I have no idea how to do those things. I wasn’t going to be able to buy my own VR headset any time soon.
I sighed, and turned back to the front door, willing the delivery company to come and bring my demo HTC Vive unit (and VR-capable PC that I smartly borrowed from Nvidia). It took HOURS.
You see, ever since I tried the Vive in Barcelona at the start of 2015, I was hooked. I wanted to have one of my very own to play with ever since, not bound by the short demonstrations I’ve been unable to choose. It was a long 13 months.
It’s testament to the potential of the tech that I was still excited that long after the first trial – most things would have been usurped and something far more brilliant found. But that’s why I, a categorical non-gamer, was waiting near the door like a frenzied hound, expectant of his master’s footsteps.
I hate admitting that I’m a non-gamer. I grew up with Nintendo, whiling away hours trying to defeat Bowser in various guises. One of my pervading memories from childhood is the excitement and frustration of having to wait a whole night to tell my best friend I’d completed Super Mario Bros. 3.
So to admit to you that in my adult life that, despite owning all iterations of the PlayStation, I rarely use my console for anything other than streaming Netflix and playing Blu-rays is very difficult.
But with the advent of VR I had high hopes that stirring would re-emerge, that I’d suddenly find the time that was inexplicably robbed from me every day to ‘get around to playing’.
This was it. I had four days over the long weekend with the Vive and I was going to do something crazy: spend 12 hours straight in the VR experience. I was going to have all amenities ready (or within ‘shut my eyes and stumble’ reach) and I was going be so immersed in the VR world that I might go full Lawnmower Man.
This wasn’t going to be a review – after all, I was trying the Vive Pre for developers, not the final edition. This is an experiential look.
The knock comes. FINALLY it was here – and wow, it’s huge. I expected the monolithic box for the PC, but the Vive came with something equally as big. I suppose the headset, controllers, link box and infra red sensors all do add up to quite a lot of space… but I wasn’t expecting that.
I carefully took it all apart and lay it on the floor of my lounge, knowing full well I’d have to reassemble it in four days time.
With the computer added into the mix, there are a lot of wires and connections to figure out. There’s also something ‘hilarious’ about a PC being in a living room… to me, they’re supposed to be in the study or tucked under the stairs. This is mind-blowing stuff.
At least putting together the PC is the easy bit, with a few plugs seeing me up and running with the scarily powerful rig. Then came the part that slowed me right down: actually setting up the Vive.
First of all, I realized I needed to get the infrared sensors in the right place. The box came with wall mounts, but drilling in for a few days seemed a bit excessive (and I’m still in trouble from accidentally mounting the TV in the wrong place and having to do it again…).
They somehow needed to go higher than head height somehow. That’s limiting, and I scanned around my room. There was a bookcase that would work, but nothing on the other side of the room… Hmmm. One moved lamp later, and expensive technology was balanced precariously on top of something I inherited from my university house.
With the power leads attached the sensor looked ridiculous, but it was the only way to make the experience work, as putting the sensors at a more sensible, less fragile height would later prove to not work as accurately.
I downloaded Steam, SteamVR (which I’ve heard of, but have never used before), set up an account and updated a few drivers. Whenever I see a request to make sure I’ve got drivers installed, I get a small cold sweat that takes me straight back to 1997 and attempting to make a minidisc player talk to my computer.
That was seven weeks of my life I’m not getting back.
But it did highlight a big question with VR: who’s it for right now? While not exactly arduous, putting together all this stuff needs someone who’s au fait with troubleshooting PC installations, as there’s so much that could go wrong here.
And go wrong it does. I do everything step by step: plug in the headset at the right time, connect the link box to USB at the right moment, and yet once it’s all up and running I still was told the headset isn’t connected. There’s a light blinking on the side, but nothing’s at home when looking through the goggle-holes. I panicked, worried I’ve got a defective unit.
I checked the installation in the Control Panel, and it says it failed. I don’t know why, and I can’t uninstall it. So I do what the troubleshooting box at the bottom of the page says and unplug it all and try again, which mercifully works.
However, our US team was trying to do the same thing with their Vive Pre and I get pinged a message asking ‘Hey, you run into issues setting up the Vive?’
No matter what we do, they can’t get it to start up – in the end, they needed to try a fresh PC. Vive installation isn’t easy. Fact.
Maybe this will be fixed with the consumer edition and HTC or Valve tweak up the software… but I’m not hopeful.
But I was in. The headset was showing lines. I could see the controllers in virtual space and the boxes floating in the corners. I WAS IN THE MATRIX.
I had a look at what software was available, and was surprised to find it was nearly all gaming – and the only one that wasn’t was Google’s TiltVR light painting app, which really is the same as a game, but just labelled software. There were no movies or theatrical experiences… Vive is clearly a gaming platform first and foremost.
I left as many games as I could downloading while I headed out for a run, and was pleased to see it all ready when I returned – my library of awesomeness was alive and my world would never be the same.
My living room is pretty clear, but I had to move a few tables out the way to properly make space before I could begin. However, I could see that if you needed to get the couch out of the playing space each time, this would be TEDIOUS.
I fired everything up, and was told to run the ‘room set up’ to get a sense of how far I could move around. When this involves having to use a mouse that’s on the carpet, it gets tedious pretty quickly, asking me to point controllers at the monitor, put things on the floor, calibrate this, move that, trace the outline of the playing space with another controller… there are five steps to go through and it’s a lot of clicking and moving things.
But it’s pretty straightforward, and once that was done I was actually in. I instantly went for The Blu, the underwater demo that lets you walk around the deck of a sunken ship while a blue whale swims on by.
It was the first demo I experienced of HTC Vive, and I wanted to see if I was still as enamored.
I utterly was. The grin was back on my face as I wandered the floor, bashing fish out of the way with my invisible hands and peering over the edge of the boat, looking down in the deep below before seeing the whale pop by.
No matter what happens, being able to walk in virtual space is something that’s so immersive. So completely absorbing that it’s like nothing I’ve tried before.
Except for one thing: we’re bound by our playing space. I’d cleared a pretty big arena to play in, and I consider 3m x 2.5m a pretty good amount of room – but even with that I quickly ran into the virtual green cage that pops up in game, slightly jarring the experience.
But it’s not terrible and you soon learn to use it as a soft guideline – and when Chaperone comes in properly (being able to use the front facing camera to bring the outside world gently into view when you’re getting to close to objects) it’s going to feel like second nature to drift between the two planes.
It was time for me to move on though and try some new games that I’ve not experienced before. I wanted to see how far things have progressed since I last tried the Vive.
First up, Ninja Trainer (which is really just Fruit Ninja in the VR world, and before long I’m flinging around my samurai sword at bits of fruit and trying to avoid bombs. It’s intensely irritating as I seem to be able to hit the target but then it won’t actually slice, just bouncing off into the ether.
Maybe I need to practice… but after two attempts I’m bored and am out of the game. Space Pirate Trainer… that sounds more like it.
And, my God, this WAS more like it. It’s a simple game of shooting at robots intent on shooting at me, but the second you look down at your hands, which have morphed into guns, and find a simple grab over your shoulder will pull out a shield… you’re in the next generation of gaming. Simple as that.
The robots started coming, and within about seven seconds I’d already started firing in all directions with my guns held sideways, like a proper badass. I was shooting left and right and pulling out my shield, crouching behind it and peering around the side to pop off a shot when the robots retreated briefly.
This is what VR gaming was supposed to be like, using actual ‘normal’ movements to play the game, and I was having the time of my life.
Except, well, nothing really changed. I shot some robots. Then more came. I shot them. More came. I died, and started at the beginning again.
Bar trying to get a higher score (which I couldn’t find out until the end of the game) there was no impetus to keep me playing, keeping me coming back for more.
I decided to change tack and try something else. A diorama game was cool (you needed to kneel down to look through a small hole and enter the mini worlds) and once in, you could walk around small worlds and even open a window and peer out – and with the audio shifting to represent the outside world, it was amazing to be able to interact in this way.
To compare this to my gaming origins, where making Mario bounce on a Goomba was mind-blowing, this was light years, alternate planes of existence ahead. It was reality… virtually.
But the diorama game was another example of how the potential was there, but the gameplay was lacking. There was nothing exciting to do… I was basically looking around a small room with a chair in the middle. Shrug.
Next up was minigolf, and this was pretty goddamn cool indeed. You held the putter and knocked the ball around the arena – it felt blindingly accurate and even the tap of the ball vibrating up the controller felt correct.
Obviously with minigolf you need to follow your ball, and this game just needed a pull on the trigger below the controller to teleport you to where your shot ended.
This was when I began to get a bit of motion sickness though, as combined with the slightly juddery graphics of this early demo it felt very alien. While I loved playing incredible courses (including getting a score of 22 on a par 4) the tiredness of gaming with this level of nausea quickly began to grate.
I was starting to tire, but there was one thing left I wanted to try: Sisters, a ‘horror game’, would be an intriguing experience given the immersion of the Vive.
I don’t watch horror films at the best of times, but I thought that I should summon up some courage and give it a try.
I lasted about 45 seconds. The combination of dark scenes and 3D audio meant I could barely think about anything else, petrified about what was coming from where I couldn’t see. A creepy doll, random noises… it was all too much. It was the first time I’d ever had goosebumps on my arms from fear.
I yanked off the headset for the first time… and then the bad feelings came. I can’t work out whether it was because I’d started the VR experience with sunshine pouring in through the windows and it was dark when I finished, or just the sheer level of immersion triggered something within me.
It left me feeling uneasy, a greasy anxiety that I couldn’t shake at all. There was something about this experience that jarred me badly, leaving me struggling to shrug off the feeling of being in the VR world.
It was the same feeling I experienced when I was playing Turok the Dinosaur Hunter on the Nintendo 64 – a trite thing to say when talking about an old video game, but the dark graphics and panic of not being able to find a save point before more adversaries jumped out the shadows left pubescent me feeling worried and panicked.
I calmed down after a few minutes, but a combination of the horror story and broken reality was enough to leave me feeling deeply uneasy for a while.