Whether you are in the actual ocean or in a virtual world, when a mighty blue whale lazily swims over you and flicks its tail, you duck. There is no other way to react to it, even though when you are in the virtual world you know that you are the master of your universe.
This is what I realised when I was standing on a virtual shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, as a blue whale and stingrays swam around me. The scene is from one of the demos that HTC was giving with Vive, its virtual reality headgear, to select journalists and technology bloggers at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It also showcases the incredible potential that the virtual reality has and the opportunities that products like Vive have in the market in the coming months.
For now Vive is in beta stage. In fact, the hardware is at such an early stage of the development that it is not yet available to even developers. But it is a promising - no, make it extremely promising - product. Built by HTC using the virtual reality technology of Valve, the influential gaming developer, the Vive is arguably one of the best implementation of virtual reality we have seen so far. In many cases it is better than the much praised virtual-reality headsets made by Oculus, a Facebook-owned company. Though in some cases, it also seems inferior.
It is also a lot different from other virtual reality headsets.
Unlike the other virtual reality headsets, which hope to bring the richly detailed virtual world to consumers with the help of one headset, the Vive is built using a unique approach. It is not exactly a headset. It is a system, a system that involves using a small room, a few wall-mounted modules that throw laser beams, a powerful computer, a few wireless game controllers, a headphone, a virtual-reality headsets and lots of sensors.
The resulting product is something that offers incredible virtual reality experience.
At MWC, HTC showed five demos with Vive, with the last one being a totally mind-blowing experience involving a smartass robot. Once a user has put on the headset, headphone and has grabbed the controllers, the Vive system creates a virtual room. In this room physical walls are represented with a wired fence. Then, the virtual environment is created around your vision.
In the first demo I found myself standing on a ship that probably went under the water a long long time ago. The ship railings had rust and mold on them, fish came out of nooks and corners and stingrays were floating above me. I moved around the ship - actually room - to explore it. It was all nice and beautiful, with sharp enough textures and good colours. It was like being inside a movie, or exploring the depth of ocean in an air bubble. The wow moment came when the blue whale appeared on my left. Just a little beyond my reach, it swam. It went around the old ship, from left to right, moved a little up in the water and then flicked its tail. Wow! Gorgeous animal and one mind-blowing moment.
For the second demo, I was placed in a virtual kitchen. A lot of items were on the kitchen shelf and I could manipulate them. During my brief stay in this kitchen, a voice whispered in my ear that I could try to make soup. Unfortunately, omelette is all that I can cook so no (but nice try kitchen AI). But I played with the kitchen items and by the time demo ended, I had to managed to put tomatoes in a pot that was on the gas burner, break a knife, topple a few books on culinary, heat up something in the oven and throw a few utensils here and there.
The third demo was something where I was just a spectator. But that doesn't mean it was boring. There was a war going on between two armies - it was like a strategy game with miniature soldiers and tiny planes - on a tablet and I was standing in middle of the tablet. The warring armies were oblivious to my presence and they continued unabated while I saw the tiny planes crash after being hit by rockets and small soldiers vanish in a puff of smoke when the bullets pierced them.
In the fourth demo I was given a virtual brush. The task was simple: Use the brush and draw stuff in the air. By the time this demo finished there were a number of brush strokes floating in front of me, all their full virtual 3D brilliance.
But it was the fifth demo that really showed the full potential of the Vive. For this demo, I was placed in a robot repair facility. Now, those of you who are familiar with Valve will realise that the the company has a special affinity to virtual robots. Yes, I am talking about the Portal video game where robots are friends as well as foes. The Portal is set around the fictional lab managed by fictional company Aperture Science. The lab is largely controlled by GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence (AI), entity with a wry humour and a tendency to play pranks.