Stepping into new worlds: Virtual reality at UNC

Stepping into new worlds: Virtual reality at UNC

We try out the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vibe, two virtual reality headsets making waves in the tech world. Here's our take.

When it comes to exciting new tech, virtual reality is one of 2016’s hottest topics.

Users put on a headset with built-in screens that simulates the world around them. Head tracking lets you look around the environment in 3D.

The past year has seen VR become more accessible than ever. Google launched Cardboard, a $15 rudimentary headset made of literal cardboard that works with any cell phone. Samsung offers Gear VR. It is compatible only with Samsung’s flagship smartphones and is a significant upgrade from Cardboard with a slightly higher price ($100).

Those headsets offer basic functionality, like watching Netflix or playing mobile games in VR. But there are two other headsets in an entirely different league: the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. These devices are designed to be used to play the latest video games on high-end gaming computers. That means great graphics and highly advanced tracking technology.

The School of Information and Library Science at UNC was kind enough to let me take their Rift and Vive units for a test run. It turns out that while the current VR tech definitely has some issues, the experience can be dazzling when it works. And the most impressive thing I saw wasn’t aliens, space combat or a homicidal robot.

The virtual reality room at the UNC School of Information and Library Science.

The virtual reality room at the UNC School of Information and Library Science. It’s powered by a computer, two headsets, some controllers and a lot of motion sensors.

HTC Vive

For $800, the Vive offers room-scale VR gaming with specialized motion controllers. That means you can walk around in a 3D world and reach out to interact with the things around you.

This was best demonstrated by Tilt Brush, an app Google designed for the Vive. It allows you to paint in three dimensions using the Vive’s motion controllers like an artist holding a brush in one hand a palette in the other. The interface is intuitive, and writing your name in 3D and then walking around to view it from a different angle is mind-numbingly cool.

But the moment that most caught my attention during my time with the Vive was during The Lab, a demo backed by the device’s developers that’s designed to show off its coolest features set in Portal‘s universe. The segment I completed involved disassembling a robot and looking at its intricate parts in 3D. That wasn’t the best part, though.

I turned away from the action and noticed a boring-looking brown table. I walked over to it and squatted down. To my delight, I could actually climb underneath and look up at the underside of the table. Something about this simple interaction with such a mundane object hit close to home, and it was probably the most immersive VR experience of the day.

Other highlights with the Vive included a cartoon zombie shooter that let me wield a katana and pistol, showcasing the impressive accuracy of the motion controls. This is what the Nintendo Wii promised 10 years ago, only the Vive actually captures 1:1 motion to an almost unnerving degree.

Oculus Rift

The Rift boasts the corporate backing of Facebook and respective CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It’s generally designed for sit-down experiences, like being in a cockpit. For now, it uses an Xbox One controller instead of motion controls. But there are optional motion controllers coming out soon, probably to keep up with the Vive. It costs less than the Vive at $600, but those motion controllers will cost $200, evening out the price.

Me wearing the Oculus Rift and demonstrating that virtual reality is the definition of "inner beauty".

Me wearing the Oculus Rift and demonstrating that virtual reality headsets are the epitome of inner beauty.

This means that many of its games are designed differently than those made specifically for the Vive, but they are often nearly as impressive. One of my favorites was EVE: Valkyrie, a space combat sim. In space, there is no horizon; no up, no down, no concrete directions at all. Flying through it in barrel rolls and loops left me feeling like I was almost going to fall out of my chair.

Lucky’s Tale was much more relaxing, but still impressive. It’s a 3D platformer a la Super Mario Galaxy. The camera hovers just above the action so that it feels like you’re in the middle of the world. It showed a lot of potential for games like Civilization 6 to be played in VR.

Another memorable Rift experience was not a game, but an experience called Abe VR. It was like watching a short film from the perspective of one of the characters. In this case, I was in the head of a victim bound to a bed, being tortured by a robot. The atmosphere was unnerving and got me excited about the future of VR movies.

Issues

To be frank, the HTC Vive is an ugly monstrosity of a device. It’s heavy and tethered to the PC with a thick wire that comes out the back and always seems to be in the way. Twice during my hour with the Vive, I tripped on the wire while walking around in VR and abruptly ended the experience.

The Vive comes with earbuds, but I plugged in a nicer set of over-ear headphones. That meant I had to deal with yet another device weighing down your head.

HTC can't make the Vive look comfortable even in its own promotional images. Also, she's missing headphones.

HTC can’t make the Vive look sleek in its own promotional images even when hiding that big cable.

Since the Vive leaves you blind to your environment, it compensates by virtually displaying outlines of the room when you get close to the walls. Despite this feature, I found myself paranoid of bumping into the walls with my face or a controller, and was reluctant to move at times because I wasn’t sure where I was in the room. This probably gets better with practice.

The Rift is somewhat smaller than the Vive and considerably lighter. It also uses built-in headphones rather than requiring separate ones. That means that although it doesn’t sound as good, I found it easier to put on and manage.

But the Rift left small cracks around my nose that let some light in. This made it less immersive than the Vive, which did a fantastic job of shutting out all light.

Takeaways

Virtual reality is capable of providing some amazing experiences. The best part is knowing that the tech is still relatively new, and developers are just wetting their toes in the pool of potential.

But these headsets are still aimed at the enthusiast market. VR is not going to hit the mainstream until it’s light and easy to take on and off. Early adopters might be willing to pay $800 for something that looks like it came out of Star Trek, but the average consumer will not.

It’s also worth nothing that you’ll need a high-end gaming PC to use the Oculus or the Vive. For now, this means you’ll realistically be spending over $1,000 to own either headset. Even Sony’s relatively affordable $400 Playstation VR headset amounts to a total investment of $800.

An ad for the Vive on Twitter

Is the Vive incredibly cool? Oh yeah. Is $1,500 “within reach” for most people? You decide.

But when I wasn’t tripping on a cable or fighting to align the headsets on my face, I could see VR’s enormous potential. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of standing inches away from an enormous T-Rex, or the genuine fear I felt when I booted up one of the horror games before deciding not to play it after all.

Or seeing the underside of a table. Now that’s immersion.

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Robert Kinlaw
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