With the hardware set-up and the software installed it was finally time to don the HTC Vive headset and enter my own VR for the first time. I am pleased to report that it was as awesome as I had imagined.
A little like scuba diving, which similarly requires the wearing of rather bulky, somewhat cumbersome equipment but whose experience is instantly transformed once in the medium for which it was designed, VR, as it currently stands, is much the same. The headset, whilst attractively and elegantly designed, is undeniably bulky and has some noticeable weight to it. It also looks pretty dorky if truth be told. No-one, I would posit, looks anything other than intensely nerdy wearing a VR headset. Still, as soon as the headset is placed on the head and the eyes drink in the rich graphics being streamed through the displays then, well, all that other stuff becomes instantly irrelevant. Like entering the water as a scuba diver, entering VR is met with the same perceived change of physical state. The weight of the headset is forgotten. The fact I looked like a dork was forgotten. I was, however, in a new world. Sure, I knew I was physically still in my room but then again I wasn’t. I was somewhere else entirely. That is the magic of VR.
The first experience of VR that any new owner of an HTC Vive will have is almost certain to be the tutorial. This takes place in a large white dome-like space, much like the O2 arena in London back when it was the Millenium Dome, complete with an echoey acoustic that one would imagine such a cavernous and empty space to possess. Whilst I was having an initial look around this new space I heard a voice from behind and turned to see a robotic sphere, complete with a central ‘eye,’ somewhat reminiscent of HAL in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 but friendlier. It was this levitating robotic head that was talking and it quickly became apparent that he was to be my tutor.
What followed was a systematic yet thoroughly entertaining introduction to the basic fundamentals of VR, from the principles of the play-area boundaries and the various functions of the controller handset buttons, neatly demonstrated by means of balloons, fireworks and laser beams emanating from the ends in response to each button being pushed. The balloons were especially fun as it quickly dawns on anyone going through the tutorial that one can interact with them, for example, by batting them away as one would do so at, say, a music festival. One of my friends, whilst undergoing the tutorial for the first time, released a swathe of balloons that floated gently towards the roof of the dome before quickly switching his controller over to serve as a laser beam and proceeded to shoot the balloons in a digital, VR version of clay pigeon shooting! Classic!
With the basics of the Vive explained in what I can honestly say is the most engaging, memorable, fun and effective computer setup tutorial I have ever undertaken, one of the key values of VR, and indeed spatial computing, as a medium was apparent: being immersive and interactive, including physically, serves to massively reinforce learning in a way that standard, screen-based tutorials just cannot. Can you imagine how much more engaged and willing to listen to the helpful Microsoft Office paperclip you would have been were you able to feel as though he was there in the room with you? If a simple start-up tutorial could have people grinning and feeling engaged then one can only begin to imagine the potential value of spatial computing for wider education. I have always believed that this technology will revolutionise learning and having now been able to experience it first-hand I am as convinced as ever. Going to school in the next five years is going to be awesome if the classroom experience is going to embrace the power of this tech – almost makes me want to regress back!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..