January 12, 2016 3:18pm
In Part One of our look at the new HTC Vive Pre Virtual Reality system, we detailed the company’s new hardware. Although the Pre is still a developer kit, it is a lot closer to the final hardware consumers will be able to pre-order starting February 29th, and HTC claims that it incorporates two “breakthrough” improvements over the first Vive.
The first improvement is what the company is calling “mura correction” that is supposed to work in conjunction with the Pre’s brighter displays to remove the traditional haziness one experiences with most VR headsets. The second is the use of a new front-facing camera to improve the Chaperone system that has become a cornerstone of HTC and Valve’s room-scale VR solution.
The HMD (head-mounted display) is also more compact and is supposed to be more comfortable to wear. Well, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the only way to see if the Pre lives up to HTC’s claims is actually to use it, which is what we did, extensively, at CES 2016.
In our demo of the Pre, we were shown the new Chaperone system, and tried out two demos, WEVR’s theblu:Encounter and Owlchemy Lab’s Job Simulator, both demos myself and fellow MobileSyrup writer Patrick O’Rourke have already tried on the first-generation Vive.
“Tron” Mode, AKA The Improved Chaperone System
I’ve taken it upon myself to dub the improved Chaperone system “Tron” mode, but it doesn’t really look like the image above from the seminal 1982 film. Well, enough that I think my name fits, since the Chaperone has lots of glowing blue outlines and gray shading. I guess if you want another analogy, it would be the grid of the Star Trek Holodeck, with blue lines instead of yellow.
The Chaperone system, as implemented on the original Vive, is the electronic boundary area of the virtual play space you are physically in, and is one of the keys as to why HTC and Valve’s room-scale VR works so well. This boundary is invisible the majority of the time when you are in the world, but as soon as the Vive’s tracking system detects you are approaching the limits of your given space (up to 15 x 15 feet), a virtual grid fades into view. This lets you know you are about to run out of room and potentially walk (or run) into a wall.
The beauty of this system is that once you know it is there, you instantly gain a level of confidence, allowing you to move around in the virtual world, believing that you’ll be visually alerted when you might run into danger. This subconscious confidence then adds to the sense of presence that the other components of the Vive (visual, audio, control) are giving you, further heightening the technology and making your experience more immersive and believable.
The problem, though, with the Chaperone featured in the original Vive is that all it could do was tell you when you were about to step out of bounds. While this is fine for the environments where we demoed the Vive — empty spaces set up specifically to show the headset off to us — that scenario isn’t going to reflect how most users will end up using the HTC’s VR headset at home. They’ll be setting it up in spaces with more than just blank walls, and in addition to worrying about where the boundaries are, what happens when something or someone from outside the VR space you’ve set aside finds its way into it? HTC and Valve don’t want you tripping over your cat while Viving.
With the addition of a functioning HMD mounted camera, the Vive Pre is now able to pull in additional data about its surroundings. This information is used to improve the Chaperone system, which add to the level of confidence one has when using the Vive, in turn heightening presence and immersion. The new Chaperone system has two modes. The first is an extension of the always-on Holodeck-like grid that appears at the boundaries of the play-space.
The second works with the camera. Instead of just a glowing blue grid, you can also see actual objects that are beyond the extent of the virtual world. While filming a hands-on demo, I could see the person filming me as I approach him, and the detail level (though still wireframe) was enough that I could make out the camera and details of his face. The beauty of this system is that it serves two purposes: It both enhances how secure you feel while using the Vive, and allows you to interact with objects outside your VR space.
You could, for example, have a water bottle on a table outside the boundaries and use the Chaperone to be able to reach out and drink from it without having to remove the HMD. Another example is a friend or significant other standing of the edge of the Chaperone, communicating with you. Because the Vive Pre has a microphone, their voice could be audible in the VR world, alerting you to walk towards them so they can talk to you (probably to tell you to stop spending so much damn time in VR!).
Going Beyond Safety
The new Chaperone system has two modes. The first is the automatic tracking of the boundaries of your play space, with the addition of being able to see and potentially interact with objects and people outside that area without having to remove the headset. This mode is always on and always appears when you approach the edge of play.
The second mode is what we are calling Active Chaperone mode, where you double-click on a controller button to enter into “Tron mode” no matter where you are. The view in this mode is a little different than the wireframe representation of the normal Chaperone, with objects shaded to give them more volume.
The beauty of this is that it tracks real-world objects within your virtual space. So, for example, you can place a chair in your game space, flip to Chaperone mode to see it and walk over and sit down in it (oh, and move the HMD’s cable out of the way) without ever having to leave VR.
The view in this Chaperone mode is sufficiently abstracted that it doesn’t look like reality, it just looks like a blue-tinted additional virtual space. Again, this gives you an additional level of confidence that you can both interact with real-world objects in VR and quickly flip to Chaperone mode to look around if you sense something getting in your way.
This mode can be used for more than just giving your butt a place to rest while you are in VR; it can integrate physical controls into the virtual space. For example, if you have a racing wheel or HOTAS joystick setup for a space combat game, you could set up those peripherals in your real-world space first, put on the Vive, then use the Chaperone mode to locate them and sit in front of them.
On top of that, the Vive tracks where those controls are, so it can map the virtual representation of the physical controls. We were even told that the system is precise enough that it could be used to integrate a real world keyboard into your virtual space and track every key.
Finally, even though the improved Chaperone system doesn’t offer what’s considered a mixed augmented reality experience (where virtual objects are superimposed over a view of the real world), developers have full access to the Vive’s camera. That means there’s nothing stopping someone from taking advantage of the new camera and creating unique experiences for the Vive.
Meet the New Boss, Same As The Old Boss
After our eye-opening demo of the new Chaperone system, we got to try some demos. Unfortunately, neither of them incorporated any features from the Chaperone system, because HTC told us that developers were only recently sent the Vive Pre, so they haven’t had enough time to test the new systems and add them to their games. However, the improved HMD design, brighter displays and Mura correction did substantially improve the experience in these demos, both of which we’ve already tried.
At first glance, WEVR’s theblu: Encounter didn’t look significantly different from what I’ve experienced before. In this demo, you are standing underwater on the deck of a sunken ship, and can walk around and look at all the marine life that passes by, including an awe-inspiring massive blue whale at the end. But it soon became clear that everything was brighter and crisper. The textures on the ship’s deck, the little fish flitting around you, and the manta rays floating above looked much better than I remembered. Then when the whale swam by and I stared into is huge baleen eye, it looked substantially more detailed and alive. What was already a fantastic experience became even more so on the Vive Pre. When asked if the improvements were because of enhancements to the graphics of the game, we were told no; it was simply down to the improved visual hardware of the Pre.
The last demo we tried was a new level of Owlchemy Lab’s Job Simulator. The basic premise of the game is that it’s 2050 and robots have take everyone’s jobs, so humanity (we assume) lives a life of luxury. However, to give future mankind an idea of what it was like to work, the robots have set up job simulations where we can experience the mundanity of being an office drone or convenience store clerk. Of course, the robot’s perception of what these jobs were like is suitably warped, so humour ensues.
Hopefully the trailer above gives you an idea of what the game is like, and out all the demos I’ve done for the Vive it’s certainly the most fun. It’s also packed with Office Space and (old, good) Simpsons references. As for how it looks on the Pre, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, since I didn’t try this demo on the old Vive, but again, the new visuals of the Pre made everything look as bright, sharp and colourful.
April can’t come quickly enough
In the conclusion of part one, we said that we felt that the hardware was ready for prime time, despite its ‘developer kit’ moniker, and we definitely want to reiterate that here. However, after trying out the new Chaperone system and some of the awesome demos already available (that look significantly better visually on the Pre), the Vive is likely going to give consumers a great experience out of the box. Yes, it’s likely going to be expensive, but it may be the best virtual reality experience available today, and for the foreseeable future.
If you are serious about getting into real VR (as apposed to mobile offerings like Cardboard and Gear VR), then you owe it to yourself to start putting some money aside for February 29th, which is when Vive pre-orders open up. Out of all the amazing things we saw at CES (and there were many), we’d have to say that the HTC Vive Pre was the most amazing of all.