In our last episode, I wrote about the final construction and initial thoughts on the PC I built to drive my HTC Vive headset. Now that I’ve been using it for a few weeks, it’s time to start talking about my thoughts on the build and on VR. Stick around, it’ll probably be thrilling or at least interesting enough to occupy you for a few minutes in between Pokemon Go captures.
Holodeck – The PC
First, let’s talk about Holodeck, the PC I built. Generally speaking, it has been excellent. The hardware choices I made have worked out really well and have performed with spectacular results. The time to boot to a login screen is 19 seconds. Login and desktop load is about another 5 seconds. Boot time is barely enough to get the connected TV turned on before I’m already at the login screen.
The fans are almost completely silent. The only issue I’ve had so far is a slightly high level of heat off of the video card when under extreme load. I may have to revisit the fan configuration to ensure that I have optimal airflow through the chassis. I think the fans are adequate, but I may need to change flow direction.
After I built it, I wanted to make it very hands-free. I wanted facial recognition for logins using Windows Hello, but that requires an Intel RealSense (or compatible) camera. This is essentially a 3D/infrared camera similar to that included with the XBox One. While many tablets and notebooks come equipped with them these days, consumer off-the-shelf cameras are scarce and expensive, starting at $200 or more.
Instead, I added a cheap fingerprint scanner for biometric login. It works great. After registering fingerprints and setting up a PIN and password, all I have to do is swipe my thumb and I’m at a desktop. Even with multiple users configured (each with their own logins), I don’t have to enter my username or anything. Windows 10 recognizes who is attempting to log in and authorizes accordingly. Not as hands-free as facial recognition, but I don’t have to fumble with a keyboard and mouse.
Next, I wanted some voice control. I wanted to tell my computer to “Open SteamVR” or “Shut down PC”. Simple, basic commands. For anything more complex, I picked up a compact bluetooth media center keyboard with included touchpad. Windows 10 includes full support for Cortana, which can make use of voice commands similar to Apple’s Siri or OK Google. Here’s where it gets a little weird and annoying.
First, finding a microphone was a major pain in the neck. Since my console is not on or near a desk, I didn’t have room for a mic stand. I wanted a small mic that could be attached to the wall near the console, but had enough sensitivity that I didn’t have to be practically licking it for it to pick up my voice. These days, your choices in microphones are “Things that are attached to headsets”, “Things that are $400 and made for professional podcasters”, “Things that you have to actually have inside your mouth before it picks up any sound” and “Things made in China by a company you’ve never heard of that may or may not work but only cost $10 so what the hell?”. I bought the $10 one. It barely works. For Holodeck (the room) v2.0, I might try to find a room-scale mic that I can mount to the ceiling in the center of the room.
The second problem is Cortana itself. The configuration requires a Microsoft account. There’s no way to use a local Windows account for this, although it is possible to still login with a local account by separating the windows account into an “application only” login. However, you can’t seem to use the same Microsoft account for multiple local logins. It only seems to work with the last person who used it. Subsequent users are always prompted to “Continue setup…” when clicking on Cortana. That means I need to create a separate Microsoft account (and track usernames and passwords) for each distinct user I create on Holodeck, if I want them to have voice control. I wish Microsoft would make this process easier and more flexible. As it stands now, it’s stupid and annoying.
Next is Cortana’s inconsistency. Sometimes saying “Hey Cortana” wakes it up and readies it for command, but as often as not it requires the user to first click on the Search field before it will respond to voice commands. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when it does this. If I wanted to click on something, I wouldn’t have configured voice control, so stop making me wake you up with a mouse click.
Lastly, Cortana has a limited set of commands available to it, and they are not configurable. For example, if I command “Hey Cortana, start Steam”, it will prompt me to specify “Steam” or “SteamVR” (by saying “one” or “two” from the list presented). There is no way for me to set one of them as “default”, so launching Steam is always a two-command process. This is a problem if you have many similarly-named programs in your Programs list. The only fix is to remove the ones for which you don’t want voice control. Cortana will, however, respond well to things like “what is the weather?”, “when is the next show time?”, that sort of thing. Cortana seems to be heavily geared towards being your personal assistant rather than actual command and control.
Also, Cortana disallows some commands completely. There is no “logoff” or “shutdown” at all. The workaround is to create shortcuts or a shell script containing the appropriate commands. I made simple shorcuts and named them “Shutdown Sequence” and “Logoff Sequence” and “Reboot Sequence” and then placed them in a folder in the “All Apps” menu so they’d be indexed by Cortana:
C:\Windows\System32\shutdown.exe /s /t 10
I created one for each so I can just say “Hey Cortana start shutdown sequence”. I included the word “sequence” as a differentiator to prevent any speech recognition confusion.
Holodeck – The VR Room and Experience
Virtual Reality has been around in one form or another since at least the late 80’s, but it’s only been since the early part of this year that the technology has approached anything like usable. Since this is the first time that VR has been commercially available to the masses, I consider it to be “first generation”, and even though I personally dislike their headsets, Oculus Rift deserves enormous credit for getting us this far.
I opted for HTC Vive for a couple of reasons, not least of which is Oculus’ owner Facebook and their absolutely abhorrent privacy policies. I also wanted to buy into Vive’s room-scale experience. HTC achieves this through the use of two laser emitters positioned at opposing corners of the room. The headsets and wand controllers are festooned with sensors to pick up these emissions. The combination of the two very accurately determines the position and orientation of all devices.
The first time I put on the headset and just looked around, I was astounded. It was better than I expected, but not quite as good as I hoped. I know that the technology will only get better, though. This is 1st-gen and I take that very much into consideration. That said, what HTC has achieved with the Vive is just incredible and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again.
The headset has grooves along the temples so that I can still wear my glasses, but the lenses sit so close to your eyes that there is a real concern that the Vive’s lenses will make contact with my eyeglass lenses. Given that each cost me around $700, I can’t afford to scratch either one. There are companies working on that little problem right now, but HTC could have left a little more clearance.
While playing, I work up a bit of a sweat. There’s a lot of movement involved. While the face cushion is removable and (presumably) washable, it’s not something I want to do every time I finish playing. Sharing the headset with my family is therefore somewhat off-putting, knowing that we’re sharing forehead grease and sweat. I try not to think about it too hard, but I’d like to see this easier to swap out so that each person can have their own without having to fumble with it for an hour. UPDATE: I’ve since removed and washed the foam insert. Removal and re-installation was a lot easier than I thought, but washing it required allowing it to air-dry overnight. I don’t know what a better solution might be, but shared sweat will definitely be a problem. I can’t even imagine what VR arcades and demos will do when they have dozens/hundreds/thousands sharing the headset. I predict a lot of contagious skin diseases.
The visuals are basically just two miniature HD TV screens. This is why a high-end graphics card is a requirement. It has to be able to drive two high-res “monitors” at 90fps. In this respect, the NVidia GTX1080 has performed admirably with one exception: While playing DCS World (a flight simulator focusing on hyper-realism rather than arcade-like gameplay), having graphics set to High quality results in a nauseating flicker as the frame rate tries to keep up. In all fairness, however, this is a game designed for a 2D world that’s had VR layered onto it, so it’s not exactly optimized for VR. Dialing down the graphics a little bit alleviated the problem but, obviously, it impacted the view.
One thing I dislike about the screens is the pixel size. Because your face is so close to the screen, the size of each individual pixel is much more apparent. Also, because it’s a separate screen for each eye, any distortion (due to dust, lens scratches, or even just a microscopic misalignment) in one is not duplicated in the other. When watching a movie in a virtual theatre, it feels like you’re sitting 50 feet from a giant screen, but the picture quality isn’t as good as if you were sitting in front of your HDTV. Again, “first gen” tech here, so I’m sure this will get better. It’s already orders of magnitude better than what we had even ten years ago.
The wands are really well designed. They fit my hands perfectly, and in the VR world they feel like whatever VR image has been superimposed, whether it’s a pistol, a tricorder, a magic wand, or a light saber. I never feel like I’m holding a game controller. People are already starting to design accessories to enhance the feeling. Unfortunately, the likelihood of accidentally breaking one by smacking into a wall or a ceiling fan is high. Replacements are not yet available and are reported to be north of $120.
The games. Oh, the games. Where do I begin with the games? Remember when the Apple App Store and the Google Play store first launched and they were both crowing about the sheer numbers of apps they had, but when you started to really look a the numbers, you discovered that 95% of them were fart apps? That’s where we are with VR games right now. VR is in its infancy. I get that. But the vast majority of apps currently available are some variation of a fart app. They all fall into one of a few different categories:
- Tech demo-type apps, which are very short and serve to highlight one technology
- “Early Access”, which is NewSpeak for “beta” or “unfinished, buggy mess”
- Feature complete
- Low-effort fart apps
There are a few apps that kind of cross-over into several categories. The Brookhaven Experment or PoolNationVR are feature complete, but don’t have the scale or depth of something like Call of Duty. DCS World is huge and well-established but isn’t really made for VR (requiring a mouse and keyboard, or a flight sim throttle rig). Most of the apps, however are simply low-effort or early-access (which largely amount to the same thing). That said, there are a handful of games that are very fun to play.
In these early days of VR, I fully expect to start seeing better and larger games start to appear as software developers start to see more people buying into the technology, but I have yet to see anything that I might call the “killer app of VR”. I firmly believe that we are experiencing the birth of a technology that is going to change the world, so better applications are coming.
Alright, we’ve talked about the PC, the hardware, and the games. What’s it really like to play with? I can tell you that any screen demo that you can watch right now does not do justice to the experience of being in the game. When you put on the headset and the headphones, you begin to become isolated from the real world and become fully immersed in the virtual one. Playing DCS World for the first time felt like actually sitting in the cockpit of a real Sukhoi SU-25t Frogfoot and a real North American Aviation P-51D Mustang. It was so real that my jaw dropped.
Video by GamerMuscleVideos
While clearly computer animated visuals, you are nevertheless there staring down the gun sights of a real jet fighter. You’re really there, in the clock tower, shooting robots with a sniper rifle and you’re really ducking behind the wall when they shoot back. Launch The Brookhaven Experiment and the zombies are real. They are your size, they’re coming for you, and you are fighting them for real in a way that’s absolutely terrifying.
If you don’t have your sound on for this, then you’re missing the best part of watching my wife fighting zombies with a knife in Brookhaven.
Virtual Reality on the HTC Vive is a visceral experience and it’s very hard to convey just how real it feels without actually trying it for yourself. I was dropped into the lobby screen of a game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and it felt exactly like I’d just been dropped whole-body into Fallout. I started looking around to see if Dogmeat was around somewhere.
If this is what we can expect when the technology is in its infancy, I cannot wait to see what comes next because I’m already blown away.
Well, it’s clear that I’m completely astonished. Enough so that I spent close to $3000 on my own rig and, when I move next year, I plan to have a dedicated space for it larger than my current 2 meter by 2 meter room (Vive can go up to 6×6). But it’s not all wine and roses. There are some very real problems that will need to be addressed.
VR has a very real puke factor to it. The experience is so real that your brain and vestibular system can’t tell the difference. If you use hand controls for locomotion (as in Doom, Destiny, Call of Duty, etc.), your entire world moves around but your head doesn’t. This will induce nausea in most people almost immediately.
Many games have dealt with this by creating a hybrid walking/teleport system. That is, you can move about the space within the confines of your real-world environment (in my case, a 2-meter square room), and then use a controller-triggered point-and-teleport system for longer-range movement or short-range readjustment (as when you’re trapped between a real wall and a virtual wall). This system works decently enough, but is probably not ideal. As the technology progresses, solutions will have to be found or many game types will be severely limited.
The headset itself (and especially with glasses) has a lot of edge distortion. This is a consequence of using high-index lenses and short focal lengths. It’s also somewhat tunnel-visioned since peripheral vision is only simulated due to the tiny screens. While you can simulate being in a large movie theater, I wouldn’t want to watch a movie that way. The edges of the movie screen are blurry, forcing you to turn your entire head to see edge detail. I expect 2nd or 3rd-gen to move this along in a positive way.
One big thing is that you can’t see your hands. You can see the controller of course, because it’s detected by the sensor net and rendered in the headset. But if you need to type on a keyboard or use a mouse (as in DCS World), it’s nearly impossible. As much as I’d like to have a simulated dogfight in a P-51 Mustang, there are way too many controls. Even with a full flight-sim rig, I still need to see where my hands are to flip switches and turn knobs. The Vive has a front-mounted camera, so maybe it’s possible to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the immersion.
Each game has its own UI. Sometimes a menu tracks with your head, which makes it hard to read text at the edges. Sometimes it stays put, but launches behind you so you don’t know it’s there until you start looking around. Eventually, developers will settle on a sort of standard and this will calm down a lot.
Steam’s lobby interface works really well. They’ve built a simplified system with a “laser” pointer and virtual keyboard that allows you to use either their simplified “Big Picture” mode or just an in-headset rendering of your entire desktop screen. The UI elements are somewhat confusing to navigate through, but generally aren’t really an issue.
The HTC Vive is really a Steam interface. If you want a game or an app for it, you’re really going to Steam first. Anything non-Steam will probably work, but may take some fiddling. For example, there is no out-of-the-box support for watching Youtube 360 videos. There are third-party apps on Steam to help you with this, but it’s not obvious which ones, or even how to use them if you find them.
I’ll just go through a few random thoughts in bullet point here.
- The headset is big and bulky. It’s heavy and puts pressure on your cheek bones.
- There’s no air flow across your face. It gets hot and my eyes dry out.
- There are wires hanging off the back tethering you to an expensive PC.
- The laser emitters don’t always wake up from sleep like they should.
- The Vive is made by HTC, but it’s really a Steam device. HTC doesn’t seem overly interested in providing actual support for it. Hopefully this will change.
I absolutely adore virtual reality and the HTC Vive is simply amazing technology.. I think the amount of potential it has is ground shaking. In the next 10, 20, or 30 years, we’re going to see VR used in ways we never thought possible, in all aspects of our lives. Augmented reality, blended reality, and full virtual reality are going to change the way we live, work, learn, and play. The technology is in its infancy and we have a long way to go, with plenty of bumps on the road, but I have confidence that solutions to each problem will be found. The technology will only get better and I am anxious to see it.