The first thing I felt was dizziness – a sensation, I was later told, that is considered a negative thing in the virtual reality business.
“Dizzy sounds like you’re not having a good time,” explained J.B. McRee, senior manager of product marketing for HTC, who was walking me through a demo of the HTC Vive virtual reality headset.
But I was having a good time: it was my first experience using a virtual reality headset and being completely immersed in a virtual world.
I just needed a minute to get my footing.
The HTC Vive headset is widely considered to be one of the most advanced virtual reality systems on the consumer market because it allows users to move so freely within digital worlds. Some headsets only allow you to sit or stand in one place.
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The system – which consists of the headset, two base stations and two wireless controllers – allows you to stand up, walk, jump and interact with the virtual world. Your movements are tracked by the base stations and interact with the 32 dimpled sensors on the face of the headset – allowing you to move around your “play space” freely.
Here’s the catch: the Vive’s virtual reality experience comes with a big price tag – about C$1,149 plus shipping. That’s a big chunk of change when compared to competitive models, such as PlayStation VR which will retail for about C$549. The Facebook-backed Oculus Rift headset will cost more than $900 for Canadian consumers, but that’s still a little less than the Vive.
But Vive’s technology, combined with impressive graphics, does create a mesmerizing experience – especially for a first-time user.
I only wore the headset for about 20 minutes. In that time, I travelled to outer space, dived underwater and looked a giant whale in the eye, painted in 3D, scaled Vesper Peak in Washington and learned how to shoot a bow and arrow.
WATCH: Virtual reality demo with the Vive
Each experience was quite different – for example, while under water I simply learned how to move around within the play area. HTC Vive has a safety feature called “Chaperone” that prevents users from walking into walls or knocking over their living room furniture. When you get close to the boundaries of the play area, a 3D “fence” appears around you, so you know not to go any further.
The bow and arrow game presented a whole new challenge – learning to pick up items that don’t actually exist. To pick up my bow I needed to use the controllers I was holding in my hand, but trying to remember what buttons to press became frustrating.
As a first-time user, I was surprised to experience a sense of vertigo when standing on the edge of a virtual cliff – although I’m told not everyone reacts this way (maybe I’m more scared of heights than I thought I was).
The strangest part for me was that I felt as if I needed to walk carefully across the mountain landscape, as to not lose my footing – forgetting, of course, that I was actually standing on nothing more than carpet.
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According to McRee, there are now over 180 different experiences for HTC Vive, including many games.
But it’s not all about gaming. Virtual reality is also presenting some unique education experiences.
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According to McRee, there is some cool non-gaming content coming to the Vive platform. For example, a new app called “Surgical Theatre” is being used by surgeons to better prepare for and visualize surgery.
“Physicians can actually take 3D scans of people’s brains that have diseases like cancer. They can put on the Vive headset and actually walk through the brain and see how the cancer is attached on to the brain. They actually plan their surgeries around that keen understanding that they gain to physically get up and walk through and understand the brain,” he said.
Virtual reality is increasingly used in the medical field for training and education purposes. For example, in April Dr. Shafi Ahmed preformed the world’s first virtual reality surgery, removing a tumor from a colon cancer patient’s bowel.
WATCH: J.B. McRee explains the Vive and how surgeons are using the headset to learn about cancer