It’s 2:30 a.m., I’m in my bedroom, and I am under attack. Blue and red orbs hurtle towards me and I throw up my arms to deflect them, swaying back and forth to the angry snare hits in Led Zeppelin’s Achilles Last Stand. My actual arms—not pressing buttons on a gamepad. For a moment I feel as if I’m channeling that legendary warrior, my shields effortlessly casting aside these persistent projectiles. The song builds. I’m squatting now, punching my shields out towards the incoming spheres in time with the beat.
The song ends and I take off the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. My girlfriend is sitting up in bed, staring at me with a look that’s half-smile, half-bewildered. “Sorry if I woke you up,” I say. She replies: “It wasn’t as goofy as I thought.”
This is the okay-it’s-sort-of-goofy-but-who-cares future: Room-scale virtual reality, powered by the Vive and SteamVR. If we chart the progression of video games from Spacewar and Zork all the way through to the 3D games of 2016, then the Vive is the next logical step towards realism. Or “immersion,” to borrow the most overused term in gaming—and the Vive delivers it in spades.
It’s an awe-inspiring bit of tech, and the logical counterpoint to last week’s Oculus Rift review. Let’s dig in.
Running to stand still
For years it seemed like Oculus would make it to market unopposed. Sure, there were a half-dozen headsets from Razer, Sulon, and a host of other imitators, but nobody who could really compete with Oculus on specs and software.
And then HTC unveiled the Vive. It was a shocking swerve, though the effect was maybe lost on those who don’t follow the industry closely. See, for years Oculus and Valve were actually partners. Valve fed Oculus its VR research for free, and many of Valve’s top VR heavyweights eventually left to go work in-house at Oculus.
I’ve no way of knowing when that sunshine-and-roses relationship broke down, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it coincided with Facebook purchasing Oculus two years ago. Regardless, Valve announced the Vive about a year later, in the spring of 2015. And now, as of today, it’s a real product.
As with the Rift, the Vive is a virtual reality headset. To paraphrase myself from last week, this means it’s essentially a monitor you strap onto your eyes, at which point lenses warp the 2D image into three-dimensional world that you can wander around. At its best, VR feels like you temporarily absconded from your bedroom/living room and teleported to a new and fantastical world—perhaps one in which you’re a dungeon-crawling hero, or an engineer building balloon cars, or a god who can shrink the solar system down to the size of so many colorful marbles.
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