No matter how much you read about how immersive virtual reality is, it's hard to really understand the feeling until you try it. That's part of why HTC is beginning to tour its Vive VR headset around the US, bringing a truck loaded up with demo stations to a number of major cities and events to let gamers and non-gamers alike try it out.
San Diego Comic-Con is HTC's first stop, and it's also using the opportunity to show off the latest version of Vive. It's the same version that HTC is now shipping out to developers, and it's been updated to include wireless controllers, rather than the wired ones that HTC showed off in March, when the headset was announced in partnership with Valve.
Vive (rhymes with "hive") otherwise hasn't changed much: it's composed of a headset, two controllers, and a pair of laser-emitting trackers. The trackers allow Vive wearers to actually move in a small space throughout their room — a square around 10 feet by 10 feet in size — while exploring virtual space. Only being able to go so far is limiting, but it still opens up some impressive scenarios that you don't get from other VR headsets, like the Oculus Rift, that require you to more or less stay facing one direction. With the wires removed from Vive's controllers, the experience basically goes a small step further toward really making you feel free. The first time you walk up to a ledge and get scared believing that you could actually fall, you'll understand why adding real world movement is so powerful.
HTC's demos are about more than gaming. In addition to just letting people experience VR, it wants to give people an understanding of what VR can be used for. One of Vive's demos lets you paint in 3D, quickly giving a pretty fantastical impression of what creating art could be like. Another demo is essentially an interactive short film by Valve that takes place within the Portal universe, showing how VR can be used for storytelling. One of the more interesting suggestions from this demo set is that virtual reality could be used for job training. A basic game puts you in the shoes of a chef; you're not about to learn from it, but it's easy to imagine a more thorough demo throwing you in the middle of a hot, loud, and bustling kitchen. You can find some addition details on Vive's demoes from our initial preview of the headset.
My colleagues have already sung the praises of Vive, and I'm happy to add another voice to the choir. Putting the headset on was among of the most fun and engaging experiences I've had in a while, and I think a lot of people — especially people who aren't enthralled by most video games — will be surprised at how much they enjoy even the blocky 3D graphics that you end up staring at. If HTC's truck rolls up near you, find and hour and go see it. The schedule doesn't appear to be online yet, but HTC says it should be driving by Chicago, Kansas City, and Seattle for The International and PAX.