Yesterday afternoon, I got a preview of the new HCT Vive Sync virtual meeting platform from HTC Vive, and it’s the best one I’ve seen yet — and I have seen a lot of these platforms. But I’m still not sure that it’s worth spending several hundred dollars, or more, per headset per student or employee, even if the meeting platform itself is free during its beta period.
Introducing VIVE Sync Open Beta, a VR collaboration tool that allows businesses to hold virtual meetings/presentations in real-time from the comfort of home. You can even personalize an avatar (sorry, we don't have sweatpants yet). Details: https://t.co/ZtKhFdaMue#VIVESync pic.twitter.com/cGdVaxHYpM
— HTC VIVE (@htcvive) April 30, 2020
On the plus side, the controls were simple and, for the most part, intuitive. The avatars were awesome, business-appropriate, and extremely compelling. And, best of all, I had no motion sickness with the headset even after hours of use, despite the fact that I normally can’t go for more than a few minutes in VR without starting to feel queazy.
On the downside, except for situations where people need to interact spacially with one another or with 3D models, the marginal improvements over video calls aren’t worth the inconvenience and expense of wearing a headset.
Let’s go through all these one by one.
Look ma, no vomit
The headset I was using — the HTC Vive Focus Plus — is an all-in-one, wireless headset with six degrees of motion.
The headset came out last year, starts at $800, and is hands-down the best VR headset I’ve used to so far, and that includes various incarnations of the Oculus Rift, the Microsoft Hololens, the original HTC Vive, Oculus Go, and dozens of different smartphone-based headsets.
First, it’s all-in-one. So it doesn’t depend on a computer or smartphone to power it. You turn it on and it just works, no complicated syncing or software required.
Second, it’s wireless. Unlike earlier Vive headsets, or the Oculus Rift or the Hololens, you can walk around, spin around, move your arms, without worrying about getting tangled in the wires.
Third, it’s fast and responsive. The head tracking and the hand-held controllers both feel real. In other headsets, the head tracking or the controllers would sometimes drift. Your field of view would slowly rotate, and the controllers would go out of sync with your hand motions. This did not happen to me while using this headset.
Fourth, and, for me, best of all, the tracking was good enough that I didn’t get motion sick. When there’s a delay between what your inner ear is telling you is happening, and what your eyes tell you, your body thinks that you’ve been poisoned and wants you to throw up. You know, just to be on the safe side. That’s been a significant usability barrier for virtual reality headsets for quite a while now. Nobody wants to see their customers getting sick. It’s bad for business.
But head tracking isn’t just about turning your head from one side to another. All current headsets to that, to a lesser or greater extent. Even the $5 cardboard headsets that you put your smartphone into have the ability to know when you’re turning your head. It’s built into the phone, via the accelerometer.
New high-end headsets can also tell if you’ve moved your head in a linear motion. We’re always leaning forward or backwards a little bit, or shifting our bodies side to side. Accelerometers pick up rotation, but not linear motion. But the newer headsets, including the Vive Focus Plus, can pick up the linear motion as well, covering every possible way you can move your head — and shift your angle of view. Now the picture your eyes see is completely in sync with what your body tells you is going on.
The only way to get linear tracking is with cameras. You can put cameras up on the walls of your house to track where your body is located. Or you can put cameras on the headset itself, looking out, to see if your body is moving in relationship with the walls and other objects around you.
Earlier Vive headsets opted for the external cameras, which are a pain in the butt to configure, and add to both the expense and complexity of a VR setup.
The Vive Focus Plus has cameras and proximity sensors built into the headset itself. The motion tracking happens seamlessly, without any effort on the user’s part.
If companies want to use virtual reality headsets for training, walk-throughs or virtual presentations for customers, team building, or collaboration on 3D design, then this headset, or ones with similar features, is hands-down the way to go.
In the past, the enterprise-focused virtual reality platforms I’ve seen have offered either overly cartoony avatars or extremely generic or even robot-shaped ones. Sometimes, both.
The Vive Sync platform has an avatar creator tool that comes in the form of a smartphone app. You take a selfie, pick some basic options, like hair color, skin tone, glasses shape, and it generates an avatar that’s basically a very skinny version of your real self.
There isn’t much variety here yet. Not too many clothing options, no body shapes. All the customizations, including clothing options, were gender-neutral, though you did need to pick a female or a male avatar to use as a base. There were no skirts, but that’s probably not a bad thing in a virtual reality environment.
The avatar creation system was incredibly well-designed, and I was very impressed.
I was even more impressed by the in-world gestures. The hand motions were connected to your hand-held controllers and looked natural and realistic. And the physical motions of the body itself was also very realistic, instead of the awkward foot-shifting you get in environments like Second Life and in some video games. And you could look down and see your hands and feet, which helped create a feeling of realism and immersion.
But what really stunned me were the facial expressions. High Fidelity has been trying to get this right, but with the collapse of their business model, we’ll probably never know if they’ll ever actually succeed. Most other platforms do a ridiculously bad job of trying to sync mouth movements and facial expressions to your actual words and face motions. Vive Sync did.
I don’t know how they managed it — I’m hoping to talk more to their designers to find this out — but they were able to even sync facial expressions like squinting your eyes. Or, at least, it picked up the expressions of David Sapienza, HTC Vive’s assistant vice president of content development and production, the guy I met with last night inside the platform. I’m still waiting to find out what headset he was using, and how it worked.
He tells me that they’ll be adding in more customizations later, but even now, the platform’s avatar are head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen out there so far.
Mostly intuitive interface
Virtual reality user interfaces are a tricky thing. They’re still being developed, and every company is basically re-inventing the wheel right now. Every app takes a different approach to how they use the controllers and how they handle motion.
The Vive Sync had a better approach to most other platforms I’ve tried. There’s a menu button on the controllers that shows you the options, and if you look down on it in-world a little pop-up diagram shows up telling you what buttons do what.
But I still kept getting confused trying to figure out when I was supposed to press the trigger and when I’m supposed to press the button on the trackpad. As these platforms evolve, and the controllers get more standardized, the confusion will probably abate.
Until then, expect to see your users teleporting all over the place when instead of pressing the select button they press the move button.
And speaking of motion, the Vive Sync finds a pretty good balance between in-world walking and teleporting.
They figure that you only have a small space to physically move around in before you start tripping over your office chairs or walking into a wall, so physical motion is constrained. If you walk too far into any direction, a wire mesh cage pops up around you. Instead, you point at the ground and click, and you teleport over.
I much prefer this approach to one where you click a button and your avatar walks or runs while your physical body stands still. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m prone to motion sickness. Watching the world move around me while my body is telling me I’m standing still is not good for my stomach. But teleportation seems to avoid this problem entirely, for me at least. Apparently, my body is completely happy with me disappearing from one location and appearing in another in the blink of an eye.
The headset I was using does a physical calibration when you first use it, so it knows how tall you are, and how tall you are when you are sitting down, and it knows when you’re standing or sitting. That also made in-world motion extremely intuitive.
There’s also a button to rotate your field of view instantly, with no motion. This came in useful when I sat down at a table in the virtual conference space, and was able to rotate my view so that it aligned with the physical desk I had in front of me in real life. Being able to put your hands down on a table and have a surface actually be there was awesome.
But that brings me to some of the downsides.
Look ma, no keyboard
I’m a journalist. I take notes. I take notes by typing them. Sure, I’m a touch typist, and can type without actually looking down at my keyboard — but I still have to be able to see the screen, so that I know I’m typing in the right place.
In the Vive Sync meeting space, I couldn’t see my physical keyboard or computer screen, or a notepad, or anything else I could take notes with. Yes, I can dictate words onto an in-world notepad, and then sync that notepad to the cloud. When dictating, your audio is muted for other participants so that they don’t hear your dictation. But still, I prefer to talk to people, ask questions, and then write down the answers while continuing to listen to them talk, instead of stopping to dictate the answers to myself while everyone waits.
Similarly, I like to be able to refer to notes, have access to a browser, and do other tasks while I’m in a meeting. I can do all that in a real-world meeting where I have my laptop in front of me, or in a video conference. But I can’t do that, yet, in Vive Sync.
There is a “pass-through” mode on the Vive Focus. If you enable it in settings, then click the power button twice, the view changes to what’s outside you in real life. It’s grainy and black and white, but it does let you see what’s around you. It’s one or the other though — you can either see your virtual environment, or your actual surroundings, but not a combination of both.
There are plans to include more pass-through functionality, where, say, if you’re sitting at a desk in the environment you can see your real-life keyboard or laptop screen in front of you.
Another option for note-taking is to have automatic transcription of in-world conversations. Zoom recently announced a deal with AI-powered transcription service Otter.ai, which I’m a big fan of. It would be great to have that inside the Vive Sync platform.
Another option that might work for me is if the in-world tablet that appears in front of you with the press of a button could be a mirror of your computer screen or a web browser. That, at least, would let me refer to notes while I conduct an interview, and see what time it is. I totally lost track of time while I was in the meeting yesterday — I forgot how much I rely on pop-up reminders on my computer or phone for my appointments. There, too, I would like to see more synchronization with other devices or platforms.
Discomfort and inconvenience
The HTC Vive Focus Plus is a nice headset. It weighs 25 ounces, but is pretty decently balanced so it’s not too heavy on your head. At least, not compared to other high-end headsets. But you’re still wearing a giant plastic thing, which is not pleasant.
The headset fits over my glasses, but if your head, or your glasses, are larger than mine then that might not be the case for you.
The field of view is a decent 110 degrees, and you stop noticing the black edges on the far right and left of your view. And the resolution, with a combined pixels of 2880 by 1600, or 661 pixels per inch, is not bad at all. But still, even with my glasses on, I couldn’t read the smaller text on the virtual tablet in front of me unless I held it five inches in front of my face. Light text on dark backgrounds was particularly difficult for me to make out, even with glasses on.
But the basic problem is that the Vive Sync is not a good problem for casual meetings because you have to put on the headset, sync your controllers, load the app, and figure out how to get to the right meeting. With a video conference, you just click on a link.
Sapienza’s development team uses the headsets all the time because they’re creating content for the platform, so holding in-world meetings is an easy step.
But for a team that isn’t already using the platform for something else, getting it just for the meetings doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. Yes, the sense of immersion is nice. And it’s also great that you don’t have to dress up because the avatar does it for you. But the friction of having to put on the headset and find the meeting gets in the way. And if you don’t use the headset every day, then you also have to dig it out from whenever you put it, make sure the headset is charged up and the controllers have batteries, and figure out which buttons do what all over again.
That said, some people do have a need to be using it every day, or maybe they have a use case that’s to compelling that the inconvenience is worth it.
Sapienza showed a couple of those use cases for me yesterday.
I’ve written before about how Ford and other companies use immersive virtual reality to work on car prototypes. Their setup is extremely high-end and expensive. Enterprises also use virtual reality for training simulations and medical simulations. These are all very high-value use cases.
The Vive Sync platform lets you pull in 3D models, such as a model of a new car you’re designing, or a new building, or a heart, and look at it from all directions. You can also move the model around, scale it up or down, or step inside of it. The best part is that the team members can be anywhere on the planet. So your marketing manager from New York and your head of production in Taiwan can be standing next to your Detroit engineering team, all looking at the same thing, pointing out where they want a different color, or a slightly different shape, or a new safety feature.
This is an amazing and powerful use of the platform.
I hope that this is enough of a use case to give Vive Sync enough of a customer base to continue innovating, and for HTC itself to continue to improve their headsets.
My wish list
Here is what I would like to see more of in the Vive Sync platform and HTC Vive headsets:
- In-world building tools. Right now, you can bring in objects and move them around, rotate them, and scale them. You also have colored pencils so you can draw lines in the air in front of you. I would like to be able to point at surfaces and change their colors, and also have a built-in collection of building blocks that I can pull from an inventory and drop into the world — furniture, walls and floors, plants and other landscaping, and so on. Think of Minecraft, but more business-appropriate.
- More avatar customizations.
- Better resolution for in-world text.
- Auto-saved meeting transcripts. With the permission of all participants, of course.
- Spacial awareness. I came close to knocking over my coffee cup several times yesterday as I waved my hands around. And I stood up to greet people, than walked around a little bit, then wanted to sit down again. I had to feel around blindly for my chair and desk. It would be nice if the headset could show me, say, faint outlines of the objects or walls around me so that I don’t bump into things. Maybe the double-tap on the power button could cycle me through regular VR mode, pass-through mode, and outline mode.
- In-world access to my calendar, email client, or web browser.
- LinkedIn connections. If I’m in a meeting with someone, I’d like to be able to pull up their LinkedIn profile. Or, if they work at the same company as I do, their company profile page.
- Lighter headset. I would like the headset to be closer in form factor to a pair of sunglasses and have it come with a wireless charging stand that I keep it in while I work or sleep. Speaking of glasses, it would be nice if it also had built-in vision correction so that it can replace my actual glasses.
- Better batteries. According to HTC’s specs for my Focus Plus headset, the headset batteries last for up to three hours of use before they need to be recharged, and the AAA batteries in the controllers need to be replaced after four hours. There are two batteries in each controller, so you’ll be going through four batteries at a pop here.
- Hands as controllers. The Vive controllers are nice, but who needs them when you have your actual hands? I want to be able to use actual hand gestures to interact with the environment. The headset already has cameras on it. Add a couple more, to the sides or bottom of the headsets so it can see my hands even when they’re not in front of me, and we can ditch the controllers altogether. Instead of a menu you pull up with the click of a button, I want to have a virtual smart watch that appears when I turn my arm to look at my wrist, or a virtual smartphone that appears in my hand when I turn my hand in a smartphone-holding motion.
- Full-on mixed reality. So, for example, if I want to have a meeting with someone, I can put on the glasses and see them sitting right next to me, in my office, looking at my computer screen, pointing out my spelling mistakes, as if they were right there physically with me. Or maybe that’s just the social distancing talking.
- Cross-platform integration. I want to be able to sync with my Google or Microsoft accounts — or whatever platform my company is using — to be able to access all my calendars, reminders, emails, and documents right there, in-world.
- Desktop replacement. While I’m wishing, I might as well ask for the moon. I want my headset to be able to create a virtual monitor in front of my face and a virtual keyboard so that I can do all work with just the glasses.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the potential of this platform. I don’t expect to be using it for meetings myself since I can’t easily take notes during the meetings, and in any case not enough people have compatible headsets.
Watch a video about how to use the Vive Sync platform below.