The Verge's New York offices now have an official virtual reality room. The library for its HTC Vive Pre holds a bunch of experiments and demos for full games we won't see for weeks or even months. But there's too much cool stuff to ignore. So for the next few weeks, we're putting our writers, editors, artists, and videographers through some of the best that VR has to offer. Here's what we think.Sometimes the best interaction is having literally nothing to press.
The Rose and I is a short piece by Penrose Studio that made its world premiere this past January at Sundance Film Festival. Loosely based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, The Rose and I presents a vignette where the eponymous Prince — living on a very tiny asteroid — "meets" a single rose that has sprouted up, approaching the new development with a mix of trepidation and curiosity. There's little else to say, honestly; the full experience is over in minutes.
And yet, I was enchanted by what felt less like a short film and more like a diorama that had sprung to life. Every detail, from the hand-drawn stars to a soundtrack that interspersed radio static with classic jazz, felt akin to a Pixar short. There were no obvious tricks to draw my focus except for scarcity: the entirety of the scene is a handful of distant planets and a small asteroid with a conspicuously large crater. Strapped into the Vive, my only course of action was to wander through this sparse set and wait for something to happen, the touch controllers strapped to my wrist just dangling in the air.
That's the experience had when watching The Rose and I through HTC Vive, with two external cameras placed in corners of an actual room, defining the limits of where one can wander both physically and virtually. I wasn't interacting with the scene so much as I was stepping through it as an inconsequential presence. It was as if I had stumbled upon a moment that would've happened regardless; my presences went unnoticed.
I didn't have quite the same visceral reaction with the Gear VR version (which is called Rosebud). Since Samsung's headset is a self-contained device, positional tracking — that is, knowing when I step forward and letting me wander deeper into the scene — isn't possible. The only way to see around the asteroid was to "grab" it (by using the touchpad) and transplanting the little rock to another part of space. All other background objects and light sources, consequently, remained firm in place; I was quite literally altering the reality of the moment by teleporting the asteroid to where I wanted.
The difference between actually, physically walking through a virtual space vs. rearranging set pieces for a better view speaks to different "tiers" of experiencing VR — a technological challenge that can have some tangible impact over how a story is presented. (Indeed, Penrose Studios created the "Touch Orbit" system as a workaround for VR headsets without positional tracking — you can read more about it in this great blog post by Penrose founder Eugene Chung.) It's one thing when you're the focus of a scene and the action comes to you; it's another to be an outside voyeur that has to rearrange element to get the full view. (None of which is to say The Rose and I isn't beautiful or effective on Gear VR — the whole piece is well worth your time on any device and serves as a great example of simple VR storytelling.)
Of course, the Vive is an inherently prohibitive setup for all but a select few, requiring open space, a powerful PC, and of course the $800 Vive system. The Gear VR, in contrast, is about a hundred bucks for anyone that has a new-ish Samsung Galaxy phone. One experience is on the cusp of mainstream viability. The other still lives in the fringe. But the gulf between the GearVR and Vive won't always be this large; in time, the financial and computing price of VR will diminish, benefiting both headsets, bringing together the comparative accessibility of the GearVR and the creative potential of the Vive.
In these halcyon days, filmmakers and animators are still learning how to tell VR stories with an audience that's free to look wherever. Imagine the challenges when they can move about, too.