Virtual Reality is coming (for real this time) and the ramifications of affordable, available, high quality VR solutions are going to be felt across a wide variety of industries. Recently I traveled to Dallas for the Big Android BBQ where I was able to demo the production version of the HTC Vive, releasing this holiday season.
The HTC Vive demo takes place in a 15ft by 15ft room. You are assisted by an HTC employee who helps you secure the fairly lightweight headset and provides instructions on how to use the two oddly shaped controllers that you carry in each hand. A few moments later, the screen flips on and you are standing in a white room with a group of icons representing various demos that hover several feet from your position.
Unlike the Oculus DK1 that I had used several months ago, the biggest surprise of the HTC Vive was not the higher resolution (comparable to the Oculus DK2 which I have not used), but that the Vive encourages you to move about the area around you. It comes with a built in system that displays a blue grid in front of you when you get too close to real world objects. It can take some getting used to and the system calibration feels off at times (causing you to brush against the wall), but the ability to walk around your physical space comfortably adds greatly to the immersion.
The first demo transported me to a sunken ship. Schools of small fish hovered around my head. A swipe of my virtual hands would cause them to scatter away. As I walked around the deck of the ship I peered over the edge at the seafloor below. For a moment it did not feel like I was stuck in a 15ft square room. In the distance I could hear the call of a whale. I looked back to see its shadowy form slowly approaching as its call grew louder. Within moments the massive form hovered above the ship; its massive eye loomed mere feet from my head as it tracked my movement. Moments later it swam away, and in a flash, I was standing in the middle of the white room again. My guide was speaking through the headset preparing me for the next demo.
There were several demos that followed, including a Valve demo set in the Portal universe, which hinted at the gaming potential of the device. After the demo ended, I gathered with my colleagues for some barbeque and we speculated about the potential for what we had just experienced.
The general excitement surrounding hands-on time with the Vive (all sessions were booked for both days) is something I have not seen since the release of the iPhone. It is easy to see how this technology could potentially be applied to a variety of industries. In engineering, you can walk around your 3d models. In fields such as automotive repair and healthcare, VR could be a valuable training tool. We are already starting to see how powerful of a training tool it can be on the competitive field of play with things like STRIVR.
In the next twelve months, we will see multiple pieces of consumer ready virtual reality hardware. The HTC Vive leads the way this Christmas but it will be followed closely by the highly anticipated Oculus Rift. Sony is throwing its hat in the ring with things like the Project Morpheus (aka Playstation VR). Microsoft is coming with the HoloLens, its hybrid augmented reality VR setup. These stand-alone VR solutions are only part of what could be a very large ecosystem of virtual reality technology. I believe that solutions that utilize the power of a person’s existing mobile device, like the Samsung Gear VR, may be the gateway to companies finding new ways to engage with their customers.