Living the Virtual Life

I am standing on the deck of a sunken ship, the wooden boards creaking below my feet. A school of tropical fish darts away as I reach out to touch it. That’s when a haunting whale call fills my ears. As I turn around, I am awestruck as a magnificent blue whale fills my view.

The simulation ends, and I take off the HTC Vive headset. It’s my first virtual reality experience. I’m convinced virtual reality (or VR) will revolutionize more than just video games and movies. Imagine watching a virtual Seahawks game, or exploring the Louvre without visiting Europe. VR is also changing the way we work and learn. NASA is experimenting with VR as a way to control robots on Mars; the military is conducting virtual training exercises; and the medical industry is using virtual re-creations of a patient’s body to plan complicated surgeries.

The High-End Experience
HTC Vive $800
The HTC Vive delivers the most immersive experience of all the devices I tried, as I was able to walk around and fully interact with a virtual play space. The headset was comfortable, and the display created nearly-lifelike environments. In the underwater simulation, I was amazed at the vibrant colors of the fish, the sunlight filtering down from the surface, and how realistically the whale moved through the water.

After a few minutes of practice, I got used to moving 3D objects around with the two wand controllers. It took me a bit longer to get used to not being able to see my real world surroundings, and I was in constant fear of tripping on an extension cord or smacking into a wall. Fortunately, the system’s two base stations did an excellent job of tracking my position and warned me if I was getting to close to a boundary.

There is one major upside and several downsides to buying a Vive. Eastside game developer Valve helped design the Vive’s software, and the quality shows. On the other hand, the Vive is the most expensive VR device currently on the market. The $800 price does not include the high-end computer to run the software. And, the base stations require an open square of at least 5 feet by 6.5 feet to work.

The Middle Option
Oculus Rift $600
While the Oculus Rift does not currently support full-body movement like the Vive, it is still an excellent device for playing 3D games and watching videos. The first thing I noticed about the Oculus was how comfortable the headset and built-in headphones felt. I also appreciated that I could adjust the headset to fit over my glasses with minimal difficulty. Once I started the Eve: Valkyrie demo, I found myself thrust into the middle of a massive starship battle. While I’ve played plenty of space games before, this time I actually felt like I was in the cockpit. Overall, it provided me with one of my most memorable gaming experiences.

A host of gaming titles will be coming to the Oculus in the near future, including Minecraft and Rock Band. More than 100 films are available in the Oculus store. Both Amazon and Hulu are producing VR shows, and the SyFy channel has produced a VR version of its hit series The Expanse.

The Oculus is a great choice for early adopters, but the device has two main drawbacks. First, it requires a powerful computer. Secondly, the headset is perfect for playing a quick game or watching an hour-long show, but I can see the headset starting to feel cumbersome during marathon sessions.

Cheap and Cheerful
Affordable VR Devices
Fortunately, there are several ways to experience VR without spending hundreds. The Samsung Gear VR ($99) is an affordable headset for watching 3D movies, playing mobile games, or exploring panoramic videos. While the Gear was designed by the same company as the Oculus, it does not require an expensive computer to run. Simply plug your smartphone into the front of the headset. The Gear works with any of the newer Samsung Galaxy phones.

If you want to try out VR for the cost of a cappuccino, check out Google Cardboard ($6). This simple paper headset will let you watch 360-degree videos, play simple games, and even take virtual reality photos with the free Cardboard Camera app. Cardboard works on most Android phones and can even be adapted to support iPhones.

The Future
What’s Coming
The VR revolution is just beginning, and a number of cool devices is coming in the near future. Sony will be releasing its own VR headset for the PlayStation 4 this fall, which is great news for gamers who already own the console. Apple is hinting at releasing a virtual iPhone headset sometime next year. But perhaps the most interesting project in the works is the Microsoft HoloLens, which projects virtual images onto your real surroundings. Make sure to check back in future columns, where I’ll talk about this exciting technology.

PAX Prime
Penny Arcade Expo (PAX)
Prime is coming to Seattle Sept. 3-5. PAX is one of the biggest video gaming and electronics expos on the West Coast. I highly recommend going if you want to try the latest games and gadgets months before they’re available in stores. The show will be held at the Seattle Convention Center, and tickets will go on sale in May.

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