In virtual reality, I boxed, looked for adorable aliens, piloted a robot that shot lasers, and created my own masterpiece last week in Las Vegas.
Some of the headsets I used to test out these experiences were nearly twice as expensive as the smartphone we used to take the picture up top. They might be much less functional right now, at least. Are they thus worthwhile?
The new HTC Vive XR Elite will cost £1,299 or $1,099 when it launches next month. A few months ago, Meta’s Quest Pro went on sale for £1,499 or $1,499.
The number Meta has sold thus far is unknown to us, although I would venture a guess that it is not very many. It is intended to be a teaser for Meta’s vision of the future rather than a bestseller and is targeted at corporations and (rich) early adopters.
VR hardware has frequently been referred to as intimidating, and to be honest, it once was. Early headsets were infamous for being cumbersome and heavy, and many needed to be connected via wires to a powerful computer in order to process the pictures.
These new headphones are far more portable and lighter in comparison. A case the size of a container of peanuts can hold the Vive XR Elite headset when it is folded up.
The lenses on HTC’s more recent headsets can be adjusted to remedy common vision problems, which is great for short-sighted folks like me who don’t like to wear glasses and a headset at the same time.
Both headsets push considerably more toward mixed reality than the prior fully immersive experience; with the Meta Quest Pro, you can always see the outside world.
The majority of the demos I attempted with the HTC showed the real environment behind the graphics via a camera. As a result, my virtual boxing target didn’t land right in front of where my colleague Ammie was standing in real life, sparing him a hit to the nose.
I’m using the term “virtual reality” (VR) in this post as a catch-all, but I believe that mixed reality, often referred to as augmented reality (AR), is more likely to gain popularity. It is more about digitally enriching your current environment or easily transitioning between the two as opposed to entirely losing yourself in a virtual one, which is unsustainable over an extended period of time. Theoretically, this will enable you to use your headset for an extended period of time, up to the two-hour battery life.
For example, the HTC Holoride is intended for use by passengers in vehicles. It’s a collection of games that move at the same speed as the moving vehicle you’re in. Your flying robot stops at red lights much like the car does.
The only drawbacks are that there are only 10 games and it costs €900 (£800). I don’t know how long it would keep my kids’ attention, but I think they’d like it.
To be honest, the Quest Pro demo was a little strange. A strange, rabbit-like creature bounced over the wall into a fantasy area that I was not allowed to enter, so I had to use a kind of magical torch to search the floor for it.
Then I encountered an avatar who could imitate my facial expressions and had a youthful green face with pink flower petals for hair. It was, said Meta, an example of how I could seem in its metaverse, once it’s built.
Famously, existing Meta avatars don’t yet have legs (Meta creator Mark Zuckerberg noted at the Quest Pro debut that “legs are tricky”) and Flower Zoe was no exception. It was captivating, but also weirdly alienating to witness this creature behaving much like me.
VR has some practical applications. It’s often hailed as a great training instrument – surgeons can safely learn how to execute delicate procedures, and engineers can practise fiddly aircraft repairs. It enables millions of people to attend major live events simultaneously – approximately 11 million people attended the first concert to be performed within the game Fortnite, featuring the DJ Marshmello, in 2019. Many gamers love it.
But it’s still a novelty, rather than part of the fabric of our existence. Outside the IT realm, many people I know have either never tried it, or maybe tried something once or twice in an arcade.
A word of advice though – I have come away from my week-long VR-fest with a patch of real,life conjunctivitis – so make sure those headsets get cleaned!
Even if you do decide to spend big cash, don’t expect to find the experiences instinctive. The controllers take some practice. Picking up a guitar to play Guitar Hero with was excruciatingly tough with the HTC Vive XR.
Why couldn’t I just – you know – pick it up? I couldn’t get my virtual fingers to adhere to the fret, and then when I thought I was pushing the guitar closer to my body I ended up making it bigger. HTC conveniently lost the recording of my awkward, unsuccessful attempts at being a virtual rock star, for which perhaps I should be thankful.
Finally, there’s a fairly enormous, fruit-shaped hole in the entire picture.
As yet, there is no device from Apple – the tech titan whose iPhone altered the mobile phone scene back in 2007 (it wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was the device that broke through to the public).
There have been numerous rumors and purported leaks regarding a pair of augmented reality glasses potentially hitting the market this year, but Apple has been famously silent up to this point.
There is no question that something is cooking in Cupertino, Apple’s US headquarters, given that boss Tim Cook has previously called augmented reality (AR) “a deep technology that will influence everything.”
If the pricing is right, perhaps some Apple magic will transform VR from a nice-to-have into a must-have.