Let's get this out of the way at the beginning: Yes, I know that I look silly wearing a VR headset. It's not sleek and sexy right now, but most disruptive technologies aren't at the very beginning. Remember how websites looked in 1995? It may not be pretty, but you are looking at the future. I promise.
I had the opportunity to demo an HTC Vive last week at the Microsoft Store in the Aventura Mall. It's not an exclusive invitation: the Vive is the latest generation of VR systems available to consumers right now. For $799, you get the headset, two controllers, and two IR laser emitters that provide precise positioning within a 15' x 15' space. You also need a pretty hefty Windows PC to power your VR experience: at least another $800 if you build it yourself.
What is the HTC Vive?
The Vive is a virtual reality system produced in partnership between HTC and Valve. HTC is known for being a manufacturer of high quality Android phones, though they have been increasingly squeezed from the market by Samsung in recent years. Valve began as a gaming software company, producing the Half-Life and Portal series of games, and is best known now for their Steam platform for PC gaming.
The system consists of a headset that fits over your eyes, two handheld controllers, and two "lighthouses" that emit IR lasers for providing precise positioning of the headset and controllers within the VR space. This last part is vitally important for providing an immersive experience as well as reducing the effects of motion sickness. Nothing ruins the magic of VR like vomiting.
The headset itself feels a bit like putting on a heavy pair of ski goggles, and it is both lighter and more comfortable than you would expect. Soft foam padding lines the edges, and adjustable elastic bands that wrap around and over your head. An umbilical leads from the back of your head to the computer, including a small jack to plug in a headset for sound. The field of view is good, though your peripheral vision is blocked just like wearing a pair of ski goggles.
The two controllers are a bit bigger than a Wiimote controller, and have a ring attached to the top of the controller. There's a trigger and touchpad under your index finger and thumb, respectively. They can also vibrate or give haptic feedback, which I'll describe more later.
The Demo Setup
HTC has demo locations throughout the country at Microsoft, GameStop, and MicroCenter stores. Our closest location was at the Microsoft store in Aventura, so my friend Pete and I drove down to check it out. The demo space was a 6' x 10' space set up in the front of the store with an Alienware Area 51 desktop computer and a monitor to see what the participant was seeing. The lighthouse emitters were placed overhead to the front right and rear left of the space.
Once we were introduced to the hardware, our guide Carolina helped us put everything on and started the 9-minute demo.
Demo 1: Balloons
I found myself in a white room standing on a platform and surrounded by virtual screens displaying different apps and games. Carolina instructed me to look down at my controllers, and I saw them floating below me in the exact spot where my hands held them. As I moved my hands around, the virtual controllers tracked my movements without any latency or lag. I noticed that the track pad on my left hand was filled with a color wheel. Carolina then instructed me to select a color with my thumb and click the trackpad. As I rotated my thumb, the haptic feedback system in the controller gave subtle clicks to provide the illusion of using a clickwheel. With a click of my thumb, a bright blue balloon inflated from the end of my controller.
I have a three year old daughter, so I have recently learned a lot about how balloons behave. As soon as I released my thumb, the balloon drifted in front of me, and I bopped it with the controller. A little twitch in the controller made me feel like I just tapped the balloon, and it zoomed away from me just like a real balloon. I inflated another green balloon and tapped it up in the air. Five or six balloons later, my brain was convinced that I was playing with real balloons. I could walk around the small floor space and look at the balloons from any angle I wanted. The illusion was complete and I was sucked in to the experience in the first 90 seconds.
Demo 2: theBlu
When the demo switched over, I found myself standing on the deck of a sunken wooden sailing ship in theBlu. I could look up and see the sunlight shining through the surface far above me, and fish were swimming all around me. It was serene and peaceful, and the manta rays gliding overhead were slowly flapping their wings at 90 frames per second.
As I stood there, suddenly a giant whale swam up next to me and looked me in the eye. Although I knew it was a virtual whale, my mind kept telling me that a giant 90-ton cetatean had parked itself six feet away from me. The sense of scale was like nothing I have experienced from any other visual medium. Not in a 3D movie in a theater and never on a flat screen. I had to resist the urge to duck under the right fin of the whale as it swam past me, and I marveled at the size of the tail fluke slowly propelling the whale off into the distance.
Demo 3: Tiltbrush by Google
If you've ever seen a lightpainting video on YouTube, you already know a little bit about Google's Tiltbrush app. My right hand became my paintbrush, and my left hand was my palette. I pointed my right hand at my left to select the color or brush I wanted with an impressive degree of precision. While the person before me in the demo line was able to paint a pretty convincing Sonic the Hedgehog in glowing 3D lines, I stuck to swirls and swooping lines in the air around me. It was incredibly intuitive and easy to create lines that swirled around each other and created complex shapes. This type of three dimensional manipulation has incredible promise for modeling and CAD work, especially when coupled with 3D printing and fabrication.
Demo 4: Space Pirate Trainer
Who doesn't want to be a space pirate? I'm not sure exactly how the Space Pirate Trainer demo makes me a better pirate, but this was the first demo that would be considered a video game. I held a translucent shield in my left hand and a laser pistol in my right and stood on a giant platform in space. Just past the edge, waves of floating orbs appeared and began shooting lasers at me. I could block their shots with my shield and return fire with the laser pistol by pointing and pulling the trigger.
It doesn't sound hard, right? And that's probably the most amazing thing about this: it took about 10 seconds to figure out how to play the game. There were no controls to learn and no complicated controllers to manipulate. There is one less layer between you and the virtual world, opening up a huge variety of options for games and experiences.
I don't often call new technologies disruptive or world-changing, but it's pretty easy to see how this generation finally begins to deliver on the two decades of VR hype since the 1990s. The price point is accessible to large numbers of people, there's no motion sickness, the illusion of depth and the incredible tracking precision has removed most of the previous barriers for the experience. It's not perfect: the display is still a little pixellated and the field of view is still fairly narrow. But you can clearly see the opportunities for the next generation to get better, it cheaper, and smaller.
The experience felt familiar: I felt this way in the early days of the world wide web, or when the iPhone was introduced. This is something that is going to develop rapidly and go in directions that we haven't even anticipated. From a marketer's perspective, there's clearly a use for experiential marketing campaigns and giving a unique look at physical products.
From a data visualization perspective, the ability to explore data in three dimensions gives you the ability to more quickly manipulate and explore data clusters and geospatial data.
For the most part, this is still a solo experience and the apps are still a little rough around the edges. As this space gets more development and investment, platforms, best practices, and technology will quickly emerge to make the experience even more immersive and fluid.
As for me, I'm going to be looking for opportunities to create marketing experiences that leverage this technology. If you're near one of the Microsoft, GameStop, or Microcenter stores that offer demonstrations of the Vive or Oculus, I highly recommend stopping in for a demo and letting your mind work with the possibilities. Then come back here and let me know what you think in the comments below!
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