Tag Archives: HTC Vive

Diving into VR

(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )

With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!

 

Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.

 

Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.

 

In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.

 

One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.

Setting Up Pains – Stepping up to VR

The kit has arrived and you are one step – physical that is – closer to taking that first virtual foray into an exciting, immersive new world. It’s just a case of opening the box and getting going, right? Not quite.

 

It took me about a week to finally get in to VR for real after taking delivery of my Vive, partly due to the fact that I moved house but also on account of one needing to put aside a reasonable chunk of time to dedicate to actually setting up the system. I’ll run through the steps I took in a moment but first it would be useful just to recap what I actually needed to have in place before being able to enter VR:

 

VR Headset, Trackers & Controllers – I opted for the HTC Vive and ordered it online from the US via Amazon. In the box was everything I needed to get going, other than the powerful PC to run it all.

 

Alienware, VR, laptop
A powerful PC, with a high-end graphics card, is required to run decent VR.

PC – VR is processing hungry and requires a top-of-the-line graphics card in order to render everything properly. More and more ‘VR-compatible’ packages are coming onto the market with each passing day but, in essence, I knew that I needed to get a gaming PC as this was certain to have the grunt power necessary to fulfill my VR aspirations. In the end I opted for an Alienware 13″ laptop – it was a brand I was aware of, even as a non-gamer, and a laptop offered the portability that I wanted to be able to take my VR set-up to other locations in order to demonstrate it; not something that would be as easy with a chunky desktop.

 

The actual process for getting set-up and into VR involved:

Setting up the Lighthouses – in order to be able to do room scale VR at present, it is necessary to have a minimum of two scanning sensors, positioned roughly opposite one another, in order for the computer to be able to track the headset and controllers and define a virtual “play space.” It is this process that ultimately took the longest to achieve, principally for practical/ DIY reasons rather than technical ones. The sensors that come with the Vive are known as Lighthouses and were significantly bigger, and heavier, than I first imagined they would be. I’d figured that I would be able to easily hang them from the wall using a picture hook, a pretty quick and simple task to install. When I examined them, however, I discovered that they weighed a fairly decent amount and had no hole or the like from which to hang via a hook. Besides, realising how important they were to the entire virtual experience the idea of hanging them loosely on the wall lost it’s appeal.

Each had two spiral sockets to allow them to be screwed onto a camera mount, like the one that you would use to mount an SLR camera onto a tripod. With one on the back and one on the base, there were two options for how I might mount mine. Included in the box were two pivoted brackets that were intended to be screwed to the wall, a step that would necessitate drilling holes in the wall of my room. In spite of my landlord initially saying it would be fine to do so he seemed a little less keen when I broached the subject again at a later date, and the fact was that I didn’t readily have access to the necessary tools to facilitate the mounting. That and the concern about drilling into walls where I had no idea about the location of power lines – receiving an electric shock would not be a great introductory step to VR! I also wasn’t certain about the optimal location for the two Lighthouses and felt that getting that figured out might be a smart move before committing to making holes in the wall. I also wanted to retain the option of moving the system easily, for example by taking it into work to demonstrate VR to my colleagues, and so a more temporary yet similarly stable solution was preferable. This set me off on a research effort.

Various options were considered and promptly scored off the list. These included mounting the boxes via heavy duty velcro attachments (not reliable enough); setting up tall camera tripods (too much of a wide footprint to be practical in a limited space); using GoPro handlebar mounts to attach the Lighthouses to curtain rails (I did, ultimately, do this for one of them), etc. One option that seemed to be getting a lot of attention online was that of using adjustable support beams (see an example here), which have the advantage of being easy to position, set-up and move again if necessary, as well as being secure. Coupled with pole grips like the aforementioned handlebar mounts for cameras this idea certainly appealed. The issue, however, was in trying to source said poles. Nowhere I looked in Dubai seemed to have what I was after and once again I looked to the internet. They had what I thought I wanted on Amazon but being fairly expensive (about $50 each) and pretty bulky I wasn’t sure if I could even get them delivered.

Go Pro mount
One option for mounting the Vive Lighthouses at the suggested height. A curtain pole is one potential location.

Desperate to actually get going I even looked into whether it was essential to mount them in the first place. According to one video blog on the topic it seemed as though the Lighthouses could scan and track adequately even whilst placed on the floor. This, I realised, was not a practical medium to long-term option and getting them at the suggested ‘above head height’ was still preferable. In the end I actioned what I intend to be a temporary solution: one I attached via a GoPro handlebar mount to the end of one of the curtain poles in my room – thankfully the power cable just extended enough to permit this – and the other I positioned on top of a tabletop mirror that thankfully happened to be as wide as the Lighthouse itself. In a bid to reassure myself that it was moderately secure I did enlist the use of some sticky tack to try and plant the base onto the surface a little more securely than it might otherwise have been. I wasn’t entirely certain if this positioning would work as this second station was sitting not angled down towards the floor but rather horizontally. I wondered whether this would adversely impact it’s ability to scan and therefore track me correctly in VR. I needn’t have worried.

With the Lighthouses positioned, powered and synched with one another (wirelessly and automatically) it was now time to fire up the headset and controllers.

 

Connecting the Headset to the PC – whilst there are now systems available to allow for un-tethered headset connection, the vast majority of VR newbies will, like me, have their first experience via a fully tethered system, meaning that the headset is directly attached to their computer, via a long cable. With the Vive this cable has three components, all of which connect to the PC via an intermediary little box (included with the Vive). One of the cables plugs into an HDMI port, the second into one of the USB ports, and the third, a power cable that plugs into a power outlet. One of the cables and ports at the back of the headset is there to allow a set of headphones, or ear buds, to be plugged in – sound is a pivotal component of the immersive experience of VR – and the Vive comes with a simple set of ear buds included. I, like most however, have ultimately opted to spend some more and get a decent pair of headphones.

 

Download the Vive software to get going.

Switch on the PC and Set-Up – setting up the Alienware laptop itself was simple enough. These days computers pretty much come out of the box ready to rock and roll so I have skipped a description of that stage. With the headset plugged in it was now time to download the Vive software, via the Vive.com website. This very intuitively guided me through the set-up process, including checking that the Lighthouses were scanning correctly – they were 🙂 – and that both the headset and controllers were being tracked – they too were working well.

 

Setting up the Vive was relatively straightforward.

Once the system had established that they could see both the headset and controllers I was walked – literally – through the process of setting up the ‘play area,’ the term for the space in which I could safely immerse myself in VR without tumbling into and over furniture and the like. Unbeknownst to me until now my previous room was simply not big enough to meet the minimum floor space requirement for a play area, a fact that would have severely pissed me off had I discovered the hard way. As I say, I had thankfully just moved house and it turned out that my bigger room had just the right amount of ‘spare’ floor to permit a VR play area. Phew! In terms of defining this area, I was prompted to take one of the Vive controllers and sketch out, in mid-air, my area. That is I actually walked around the area in question whilst pressing the trigger of the controller to, in effect, draw an invisible chalk-line around the perimeter of my VR area. I had to repeat this process a couple of times as I was, initially, just shy of the minimum area requirement, but once it was done I could see on the computer screen a digital rendering of the outline of my safe VR play space.

 

Steam VR
SteamVR home screen

Download SteamVR – a platform through which VR experiences, games and the like are available, I needed to download and install Steam in order to use my system. Again, much like installing the Vive software, it was a painless process to get Steam installed. Once it was and I had created an account and was logged in it was time to finally don the mask and enter my very own VR for the first time…..

Nerdy Vet in VR

After learning as much as possible about all things VR over the past couple of years I finally took the plunge and invested the significant sum required to become ‘VR Enabled.’ This involved purchasing both a high-end VR system, requiring the decision to be made between two competing devices: the HTC Vive, which sits on the SteamVR platform in terms of content provision, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift, the original poster child for VR and with its own online VR content store. I had visited Upload VR in San Francisco back in June 2016 fully thinking that the Oculus Rift was the device I wanted but was totally won over by the Vive, especially once it became clear that the Vive was able to do room-scale VR whilst the Oculus was only offering a seated experience and had not yet launched the Touch controllers.

The three experiences I enjoyed with the Vive (Google Tiltbrush, Universe Sandbox, and WeVR’s The Blu) had me grinning from ear to ear the moment I donned the headset and I spent hours crouching, circumnavigating, exploring and generally loving the immersive world into which VR had placed me. It was easy to forget that I was still stood in a room next to a PC and not in each of the magical playgrounds that I sequentially jumped into. You can read about my experience at UploadVR here.

I would’ve rushed out immediately and got myself set up with a VR set were it not for the considerable outlay of mullah that doing so requires and so I did what any good procrastinator does when it comes to making big decisions: I procrastinated and analysed the shit out of it!

So what made me finally decide to make the investment and jump into VR? A number of contacts I have made in the VR community over the past two years have all said the same thing: to truly understand VR and it’s potential it is important to actually experience it and become familiar with it. One VR expert pretty much told me to get a headset and spend 100 hours minimum in it! Like anything in life, whether it be language learning or training for a big sporting goal, full immersion is usually the best way to learn, grow and generally get good at whatever activity it is. Coupled with reading an advance copy of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book, The Fourth Transformation, which focuses on the rapidly growing sectors of virtual, augmented and mixed reality, this collective advice made me realise that if I truly wanted to understand VR there was only one thing I could do.

 

Ordering…… then Waiting

Everything you need to become VR enabled: headset, controllers & tracking stations (Lighthouses)
Everything you need to become VR enabled: headset, controllers & tracking stations (Lighthouses)

Decision made. Credit card in hand. Where and how to get hold of my own VR set up? As much as the Oculus Rift has come on leaps and bounds, especially since the launch of the Touch Controllers, which are, according to the reports, much better than the Vive’s, the fact that the HTC Vive comes as a complete package and does room-scale VR straight of the box, in addition to knowing about some of the applications available for it, I headed to the Vive site and attempted to place an order. Unfortunately there was no way to order easily from Dubai and the only way to order directly from Vive was to have a US credit card. So no go there unless I could persuade a US friend to do me a huge favour. Amazon, however, saved the day as I was easily able to order via their international site using my UAE credit card, and arranged to have the order delivered to me via the Aramex Shop & Ship courier service. One concern I had after placing the order was whether or not I had inadvertently been duped and perhaps purchased a convincingly presented fake. I had visions of taking delivery of a cheap, knock-off and the headaches of having to then get my money back. Thankfully I need not have worried as the genuine article duly arrived about a week later. Stage 1 complete and about $800 plus delivery of $160 in expense. Now all I needed was a computer capable to powering the device and I would be on my way.

 

VR-Enabled

Sadly neither of my Apple computers are even close to being up to the task of powering a high-end VR system, so I knew that I was going to need to fork out for a PC with a powerful graphics card. I had already looked around the stores in Dubai and found some pretty impressive machines on offer, all with equally impressive price tags. Convinced that I would be able to find a similar offering online, albeit significantly cheaper, I began doing some research. This is where I found the difficulty in being able to make a decision: what do I go for that would enable me to experience VR and that would be relatively future-proof without going insane and spending many thousands? I am not a gamer and so have no real experience or knowledge of what makes for a decent gaming PC. What I did know, however, was that Alienware was a brand that I had heard of and knew were big in the gaming world. I soon discovered via their website that they are part of Dell and so set to exploring the models on offer.

One of the first questions to answer for myself was whether I wanted to opt for a laptop versus desktop. I knew that I wanted the portability of a laptop so that I would be able to take the system into work, or to friends’ houses, but knew that desktops offered a much easier time of it in terms of expansion in the future, in addition to generally being cheaper to purchase. After much thought I did eventually opt for a laptop, going for the compact yet graphically very powerful Alienware 13” R3, with an Intel i7-6700 Core processor (a very powerful one I was informed) and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card. With added anti-virus software and UK VAT (I ordered via the UK site after clarifying with online customer support that I could a) use a UAE credit card and b) have the order sent to me via a UK routing address, Shop & Ship again), the total cost was about $2180. Unfortunately I was also liable to pay UAE Customs when the laptop arrived (eventually) from Dell. I did question whether with all the extra costs it might have just been better to buy a similar machine here in Dubai but came to the conclusion that it was still more cost effective to tread the path I did.

One note of caution for anyone looking to order overseas and have their computer delivered to them is to bare in mind that there might be unexpected issues. In my case the issue was that in spite of clarifying at the order stage that I was able to order using a non-UK card and to have it sent to me via a courier routing service, I received an email shortly after confirming — and paying for – the order from someone in accounts urging me to contact them within the next 24 hours as I had to confirm this, that or the other. This is where Dell fell down badly as trying to get in touch with the person in question, in spite of the urgency of their message, was impossible. I did eventually manage a stuttered email exchange, with the message being delivered to me being that my order was not able to be finalised as I could not verify the delivery address. I politely but pointedly highlighted the fact that I had asked right at the outset whether any of the specifics of ordering from out of country were going to be problematic and was assured that they would not. Now I was being told they were. How to frustrate and piss off a customer! Long story short I tried to get further clarification on the matter, advising Dell that if it was an issue then they simply had to refund my payment, cancel the order entirely and I would either find another option for ordering from them or buy said computer locally. Thankfully I was able to get some kind of clarity via a very nice customer service rep who chased up my case and eventually confirmed that my order could, after all, proceed. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had confirmation that my order had left China, where it was being built – ?! why then was I a) paying UK VAT, and b) having to have the item delivered to me via the UK when it more than likely touched down in Dubai on route to the UK anyway?!

Still, I was now, finally, in possession of the necessary tools to enable me to enter VR.