Saturday, July 11, 2015

Vive VR impressions, part 1 : Setup day!

Forgive me, I'm in a ridiculously heightened state right now after setting up the Valve-HTC Vive kit that arrived earlier.  Allow me a post to talk about that initial experience, then I'll post a 2nd time with some more important broad thoughts on what it means for VR IMO.



I spent most of my day setting up the kit.  Valve has made an insanely slick document detailing the process, and it has an amazingly Portal-esque vibe to it that just makes even the daunting task of setting this up actually a pretty cool and enjoyable process.

The "camera" positioning (not really cameras, I mean the two laser array lighthouses that give the VR parts their location tracking reference points), I found to be incredibly forgiving actually.  I had mine up on shelves I had around, and expected to have to fiddle with them and do some detailed alignment... but no, they just worked.  Valve was meticulous in including all necessary bittles for different mounting options.  When you're in the room-setup and calibration app you can walk around in your room and see the cones that represent the "view areas" the lighthouses provide, and honestly I think it would be pretty hard to screw those big cones up if they're at all semi-logically placed nearby.

I ended up making a quick Home Depot run for an extension cord to reach the top of the shelves, but other than that, it was very well packed with nearly anything you could need in order to set it up.

The lighthouse units themselves are truly just... cool.  The clear front means you see these high end looking electronics with spinning lasers and LEDs and displays... it's utterly sci-fi when you power them up and see them kick in.

Excellent visualization of how the lighthouses work

The actual head mounted display unit ("goggles") are excellent as expected.  I didn't weight anything, but it feels to me like it's maybe VERY slightly heavier than the DK2 maybe, but far from an issue.  I find it more comfortable than the DK2 personally for my face, but I imagine this is just something everyone will find based on their face geometry (and the DK2 isn't a shipping thing anyway, so, don't mean to start some comparative speculation).  I found the Vive seems to block out light really well, especially around the bottom.

The two hand held controllers are ridiculously light; I can't possibly imagine these things will cause you fatigue, at all.  Despite being significantly larger than something like the Wii controller, they actually feel even lighter to me.  They came with two complete sets of rechargeable batteries, and alternate hardware in case you want to run the controllers off USB cables... although I admit that sounds utterly insane to me (I'm sure someone has a compelling development reason).

The various bittles and adapters are all incredibly well laid out in packaging, and overall I have to say I kind of enjoyed the whole process so far.  Yeah, I know... freaky.



The Software so far has been pretty damn cool.  The step by step manual walks you right up to this point, where Steam comes in.

The basic calibration and room setup application is pretty posh.  There are some rough edges, but they took the time to add all kinds of excellent user feedback that immediately made me think "HOLY SHIT, THIS IS BANANAS!"

From the moment I fired up the room calibration program, things were pumping.  I hadn't in any way bothered to meticulously arrange my head unit to be in the view of the lighthouses or anything, and I wasn't really anywhere near what I thought to be my usable "VR area".... but, BAM, the goggles are totally oriented sitting on the desk next to me.

The screen says go to the middle of the VR room area.  I walk over there and put the goggles on.  MAN it's responsive!  Just, no discomfort at all.  In the setup VR space there are floating items that represent the lighthouse objects, and it's really cool lifting the visor and seeing these realspace objects in that same representative location.  Reality and VR space were really blending even in this simple little setup app... and that got even nuttier next.

It said to hit the button on one of the controllers.  I hadn't brought the controllers with me... but they were there floating in the distance on top of my desk, oriented haphazardly as they were really laying there.  Without giving it a second thought, *WITH MY HEADSET STILL ON* I casually walked across my office, reached for the controllers with my invisible hands, and picked them up with no real world vision at all.  It was the most utterly natural thing possible to my brain.

Only a second later did the impact of that even register, that there truly is this blurred line between this 3D model of the controller in my hand, and the corresponding real world controller in my hands.

I hit a button and this dialogue box / window popped up over the controller.  I waved it around and just busted out laughing like a maniac at how fucking cool such a goofy little interaction is when it has this much presence behind it.  There will literally be a hundred damn lightsaber games for this thing a month from now, mark my words.

The real thing that has stuck with me as I started to call it a night though was how excellent the subtle vibrations ("Haptic" feedback) coming through the controller was.  Valve has utterly *nailed* making things in the world feel truly physical.  As you wave the controller's floating pointer over buttons on your menu, there's a subtle bump on the controller, like it's embossed in floating space.

You start in a kind of dotted line box, and click and drag these little handles out to designate the room dimensions you're standing in, and where the floor is.  As I clicked the little handle sphere, and started pushing it down to the floor, the controller is providing this extremely well designed feedback as though I'm pushing this physical thing that has resistance to it.  It was definitely another moment of giggling maniacally.  Pushing the walls out to match my physical room was just... damn this is unbelievably cool... I can't say it more simply than that.

It's nearly pointless to even try and describe, it's operating on such subconscious levels...

But overall a great takeaway was simply how forgiving the whole setup was in terms of spatial requirements.  I had envisioned these distinct shadows and treacherous dead zones where controls blinked out of registration, or meticulously needing to arrange the lighthouses 'just so' to cover the play area.  Nope.  Looking around in the setup app, it's clear that the lighthouse fields of view can cover a very generous area, and my first impression at least is that it's just not that picky.  This bodes well IMO for people concerned about such complex hardware being used by general consumers... it's far more forgiving spatially than something like the Kinect was IMO.



It's not pure rainbows shooting from my rear though, it is still a prototype dev kit after all.  I spent a good deal of time working with an issue I still haven't tracked down.  The controllers would work like magic for about 10 seconds, then abruptly drift off across the room and freeze before coming back to me another random interval later.  I removed some glass covered posters in the room, thinking the reflections might be an issue, but that didn't appear to be the cause.

Online some people mentioned they switched off one of their lighthouses completely and it solved some tracking issues.  I tried that and it worked, although obviously it's suboptimal and affects the fidelity of how things are tracked as they're obscured from the single lighthouse box.  So, I worked with that for quite a while to no avail before deciding to sleep it off and see if I can sort it out with a clear head tomorrow.

I also have a fairly constant stream of "USB connection" messages, like there's a loose USB or power cable somewhere despite checking everything meticulously.  Tomorrow I'll buy a USB 3.0 hub and see if I have some better luck.

UPDATE: If you get to this point with a dev kit, it's entirely likely you simply need to plug the wireless controllers in via USB and update them.

Anyway, they're minor issues that I'm sure will be sorted out tomorrow, grabbing the latest firmware or so forth.  The Valve developers look to be extremely active on the forums as well, which is beyond awesome.  Overally, for a dev kit experience this has been a stunningly impressive ride so far.  While it's working... it's just... it's truly some science fiction moments.  You freaking need this in your life once the rough bumpies are polished off.

I'll talk more in my next post about what this all has done to my head :)

Now, I need to sleep and dream in room-space.

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