Why the HTC Vive Made Me Think a Whale Looked Like Ron Howard

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Why the HTC Vive Made Me Think a Whale Looked Like Ron Howard

It all started with a kiss.

Before you think this is going to get weird, hold on. It was my wife and she was bringing me eggs for breakfast. I was testing the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, holding two trackpads in my hands and walking along a deserted beach looking for clues.

I had already grown a pair of VR legs. The metaphor, borrowed from the sailor’s term sea legs, means you have immersed yourself sufficiently that you are no longer feeling nausea or dizzy; you are starting to accept an alternate reality. On the beach, a storm rolled in, the thunder echoing off in the distance like pieces of sheet metal, gently shook. I “felt” the rain on my skin, the dampness seeping into my pores, that strange feeling of storm-dread you can only understand if you witnessed a tornado at a young age. Then, the kiss.

It felt foreign, like it didn’t belong, almost (I’m sorry about this) octopus-like. I had woken up in the middle of the night after playing games on the Vive all day and dreamed about Inky the octopus escaping from its aquarium in New Zealand. The real world had blended (or is it commingled?) with my dream state, the VR world, and real life. It was awesome! And, terrifying. I imagined a future state of consciousness where we can decide to be Inky the octopus instead of only dream about him, where we can reduce ourselves to the size of a sea creature, explore the Coral Reefs in Belize during a lunch break, and squeeze through a drain pipe.

To say the HTC Vive is worth $799 at this early stage of VR immersion is almost an understatement after wiping (real) sweat from my brow and thinking a kiss felt like an octopus was in the room. Immersion, in case you have not heard the proper definition, is the sense that your consciousness can take root in another reality. It has to be convincing. You pull out a cartridge containing your brain and insert another one with a different brain.

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Not all of the games are this way, though. That beach level is from Call of the Starseed, which might also be a self-published e-book written by a teenager in Des Moines. You use the trackpads to reach out into a 360-degree gameworld and click to move from one place to another. The game would have received a passing grade on Gamespot in 1996. Here, it’s like you have become Andy Serkis in one of The Lord of the Rings movies.

The experience isn’t just transportative. You look down and see your hands. You look up and see the sky. You can shoot a flare gun. You feel like you can become someone else, and you do. Time seemed to pass at a different rate of speed. Playing Starseed for 30 minutes in VR turned out to be more like an hour in the real world, a way to fold time neatly in half. When you are done, you remove the headset and shake your head a bit. You’re not removing the cobwebs; you’re trying to restore them.

Another “game” called TheBlu has the same ability to convince your synapses they have been reprogrammed. It might seem like overstating the experience, but you stand on an ocean floor and watch as a sea turtle floats by so closely you can smell the sea lichen. (Not really, but that might be in the next version.) In another scene, a whale pauses to look you in the eye. You think for a second it looks like Ron Howard. You wonder if you can see your own reflection. In one level, you sit in what looks like a bubble at the bottom of the ocean in the dark. You use the trackpad as a flashlight. A fish swam near my earlobe. I jumped a little.

I should tell you my nephew was not so convinced. VR seems to “work” for some people and not for others. He complained incessantly about the games looking dated. He wanted Call of Duty and was playing Minecraft and adventure games. We’re in an early stage here, and if you decide to spring for the Vive (or the Oculus Rift, which costs $200 less but doesn’t offer the trackpads), you should be thinking about Electronics Arts and Ubisoft making games for this device sometime in about 2018. Oh, they might announce Call of Duty or Battlefront versions before then, but first-person shooters don’t easily translate into VR unless you totally rethink the player mechanics. If I have an M1 pointed at a bunch of guys coming over a hill, that’s one thing. What happens when I turn around? Most shooters these days are designed to follow a linear path. Even though Assassin’s Creed seems to take place all around you, it’s designed to take place in front of you. The entire concept hinges on staging events that occur in your front-focused field of view, not in an immersive, 360-degree virtual world.

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That’s why, in a game like Gunjack (which worked on Vive but doesn’t support the trackpads), you’re constantly looking all around you—above, below, to the side, and even behind you. More importantly, the entire paradigm is different. In the surgeon simulator where you do a heart transplant, another game where you can pretend to be a mechanic who works on Disney cars, and one of my favorites that involved guiding planes into runways with your fingers, it’s all about reaching out and doing things. You pick up the heart, you pour the oil, you guide the planes. In Call of Duty, you shoot and reload. I’m hoping Activision is busily trying to figure out how to create a VR version of COD that involves 360-degree cockpits and repairing tanks, but it all depends on how many people buy the first VR headsets. It’s small market stuff for now.

That’s why, if you’re thinking about the HTC Vive, you have to weigh your options. How much do you like kissing an octopus? How much do you like whales? Are you drawn to the idea of doing a virtual heart transplant? Do you want to be able to stand next to Jupiter? For now, it’s all about these experiences, which play out like proof-of-concept demos. I’m a major, major fan. I’d pay for these experiences, although I did find that, over the last two weeks, I used the HTC Vive less and less. (Developers need to get busy creating new experiences, pronto.)

That said, I’ve heard there is a new Star Wars game in the works where you can wield a lightsaber and duck behind cartons to avoid Stormtroopers. Sign me up.

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