Playing with Steam VR at Unity

April 6, 2016

At the weekend I had a lovely day in Brighton, where I was lucky enough to see my good friend Andy Touch, and visit the Unity3D Brighton offices to play with Steam VR and the HTC Vive.

The Unity office is awesome. It’s the kind of place that’s littered with Lego, toys and tons of games consoles.

Steam VR on the HTC Vive

Jon using the Vive

Until now far I’ve played with the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, and not yet tried Playstation VR, so my comparisons are with those. And Steam VR (on the HTC Vive) is the slickest, most expansive virtual reality I’ve used yet. The accuracy and freedom of movement puts other VR to shame.

Once you’ve activated it from your Windows machine - no messing around with external monitors as with the Rift - you pull the headset on and you’re in a huge grey playspace, and you can see controllers in your hands in front of you, hovering there. In fact, I first saw them hanging upside down from my hands from their wrist straps. The accuracy in the controllers is incredible and you can instantly see them matching up with every subtle movement of your hand.

Unfortunately that slickness requires a lot of setup. It has 2 wireless laser cameras, and a fully wired up headset (which Unity have draped through their ceiling so it’s out of the way). Then the controllers need charging.

The hardest part is finding a room large enough. Perhaps not a problem for people with large houses, but British VR early adopters - with our generally smaller rooms - might find themselves with not enough room. Think about the play space you might have needed for a Kinect play session and add a considerable amount more.

Andy using the Vive

SteamVR lets you define the boundaries of your play space, and that is shared with each game. It shows itself as a blue wall when you start to reach the edges. This means each game sizes correctly around your own play space and means you probably won’t walk into walls. I did walk into a locker, once.

The grey playspace lets you launch games from a big Steam menu and each game launches nearly seamlessly around you.

Here’s some of the games I tried:

Aperture Robot Repair

The recommended intro game made by Valve. This takes the humour and visual style of Portal and introduces you to the concept of VR. Visually incredible, combined with the full sound experience makes for a great intro to VR and interacting within Steam VR.

Job Simulator

Silly fun. Job Simulator has you completing ‘mundane’ challenges in an office run by robots, which includes deleting all 40,000 emails, plugging in your PC, throwing coffee at your coworkers and generally making a nuisance of yourself. Great fun. Lobbing things blindly over your shoulder never gets old. The full game has a mechanic job and a coffee shop job by the look of it.

Selfie Tennis

Absolutely bonkers. Selfie Tennis lets you throw tennis balls with your left hand and then hold a racket in your right. In a large, colourful, insane tennis court. As soon as you smash an ace across the court (it took a few goes), you switch to the other side of the court to return the serve. And so the rally continues, if you’re good enough. It was difficult to hit the ball because it wasn’t always easy to see how long or short the racket was. But then again, I have that same problem in real life.

Here’s OMGitsfirefoxx playing Selfie Tennis.

I soon discovered I could launch tennis balls at the huge mascots around the arena, knocking them over with a scream. Suddenly it became incredibly hilarious. Someone put some solid time into making them fall over ridiculously.

Budget Cuts

Probably the highlight of the experience and really sold VR for me. Budget Cuts is a stealth game, so lots of leaning around doors and looking into vents. Picking up and throwing objects or pulling them out of your inventory felt easy and just, well, completely spot on. Things acted how I expected them to and grabbing and lobbing items felt natural.

Screenshot from Budget Cuts

Because you can’t walk outside the confines of your real room (or risk walking into a real wall… ouch) the game allows you to fire a teleporter and warp there, which soon becomes seamless and feels natural without being disorienting.

One of the big challenges right now with VR is allowing the user to move around a large space without feeling ill. A traditional FPS with a stick movement would soon become confusing and motion sickness-inducing. As games evolve we’ll see inventive ways of movement, and Budget Cuts is the first step on that.

The game also had an inventive way of switching weapons, which is really hard to explain. The first VR shooter to make switching between guns feel badass and natural, combined with easy to use movement, will be an incredible experience.

Fantastic Contraption

Fantastic Contraption has classic ‘get the ball to the exit’ gameplay but in full VR. This means you can walk around your contraption, inspecting from all angles. This showed me how Steam VR could be more than just for games - this could be incredible for mechanics or product designers to let them see vehicles from every angle.

As I created my contraptions, I found myself stepping back to place new items to give them room, before realising they weren’t real and I could just walk through them. Bizarre.

Tiltbrush

The only ‘app’ on this list, Tiltbrush is a 3D drawing canvas by Google. It lets you make beautiful things - if you’re not me. I drew some horrific snowman.

The most interesting thing with this is how you use your left hand as a palette, like you would with real world painting. Using your right hand to select paintbrushes becomes quickly natural, as I found in my attempts to make art:

Thoughts

The Vive is the best VR I’ve tried yet. The sense of being in this virtual world, even one as cartoony as Fantastic Contraption or Selfie Tennis, was incredibly compelling. I completely lost my bearings in the real world and became engrossed in the simulation.

The ability to freely move around inside a space makes Steam VR more compelling than the Rift and PSVR, both of which generally limit you to sitting down. Job Simulator, for example, is coming to PSVR but may be a less engrossing experience as you’ll be locked to one space.

The accuracy and speed of the system meant I never felt motion sickness and became quickly engrossed in the action. Being able to move the controllers accurately meant I could interact with items in the world quickly and it became second nature.

It became so engrossing and comfortable I soon forgot I was wearing anything or holding anything at all. At one point I had an itch on my face and instinctively moved to scratch it, only to hit the headset with a controller.

However, VR isn’t always the most exciting thing to watch other people playing, as evidenced by this video either. And as I started to forget myself in the real world, I found myself making sound effects and standing awkwardly. But in the VR world, I was shooting big flying robots!

Challenges

Because Steam VR is unique, a game on Steam VR will be different from PSVR and Rift. PSVR and Rift have a key advantage in that they work incredibly similarly, so a game can be ported between the two without any changes in game mechanics. Steam VR may suffer from a lack of titles in the short term.

While the controllers and laser cameras are wireless, the headset itself isn’t. This led to tangles and tie-ups as I moved around the room, and I think this will be a sticking point for users.

2016 is an incredible year for VR. We’ve got the Vive and Rift arriving at people’s doors and PSVR will be out in the winter. However just because Vive/Steam VR is the best tech right now doesn’t mean it’ll win the larger market share. With PSVR’s price point they’re undercutting the whole market and I suspect they’ll come out on top by the end of the year.

But VR certainly isn’t decided by the first generation of products. I’m already engrossed and absorbed by VR now, and I expect it’ll make leaps and bounds in the next 5 to 10 years.

The next question for me is… how do I get to have a play with the Playstation VR?

I wouldn’t have been able to try Steam VR or visit Unity without Andy Touch. Andy is awesome. Go follow Andy on Twitter.