A virtual reality war is coming between the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, and the latest edition of HTC's head-mounted display makes it an even tougher foe. Called the Vive Pre, the device is closer to what consumers can expect when it goes on sale in April, complete with a new front camera that lets you see the real world around you as you walk around, an improved visual experience and a comfier and lighter design.
Here at CES 2016, I had a chance to go hands-on with the new headset and the enhanced controllers, which HTC will be seeding to more than 7,000 developers, and I'm excited to see how they can leverage the Vive Pre's unique advantages over the competition.
Front Camera Is Smart Addition
The Vive headset's biggest improvement is the front-facing camera, which works in tandem with the Chaperone feature. Now, in addition to being able to tell once you're getting close to a wall (thanks to HTC's room-scaling technology), you'll see objects like chairs or people in front of you. All you need to do is double tab on one of the controllers to toggle to the live view. However, you won't see a truly life-like picture but more like rough sketches of objects. I kind of felt like I was in an A-ha video.
As Valve's Chet Faliszek explained, who is working with content partners for the Vive, developers will be able to blend the virtual and physical worlds. For example, your real-world keyboard and mouse might be integrated into a game for a mixed reality experience. We're not talking Hololens-level augmented reality, but the front camera opens the door to a lot of possibilities.
The Vive headset itself is also more compact than the previous model and features interchangeable foam inserts to allow for greater comfort and a more secure fit. It's not clear whether HTC will bundle multiple options or charge extra for them.
Less Mura = More Immersive Visuals
The Vive already has one key advantage over the Oculus Rift in that the system uses a pair of hubs that map your play space with lasers, allowing you to move around in the virtual environment. In other words, if you step forward in a game or crouch down, it will translate to the VR world. However, HTC has been working hard to improve the visual system as well, as the Vive Pre sports brighter displays and other image refinements to improve clarity.
One of the key achievements for the Valve team working on the Vive has been to reduce the "mura effect," which can make it seem like you're looking at a dirty window when you're looking at VR content. The improved visual display system removes that effect, making you feel more present in the VR environment. I noticed the improvement when I experienced the BluVR demo a second time around; as I looked around me underwater, everything looked clearer and a bit sharper, especially as a huge whale swam by me and stopped to look me right in the eye.
Unlike the Oculus Rift, whose Touch controllers will not ship with the device, the Vive will come bundled with its controllers, which let you see and use your hands in VR experiences. The Vive Pre package improves upon the last iteration by making the weight more balanced and making ergonomic tweaks to make the controllers feel more comfortable. They'll also last longer on a charge, with a rated battery life of 4 hours.
I especially liked the improved haptic feedback during my quick demo, and the new dual-stage triggers will allow developers to have more creative freedom when it comes to creating more interactions in their titles.
Outlook: Moving in VR World Still Biggest Advantage
HTC says that it has made the base stations required for room-scale tracking more compact and quieter, and this capability will be key to the Vive's success. Daniel O'Brien, HTC's vice president of VR planning and management, told us that the Vive can map up to 5 meters of diagonal space but it can be as small as the seated position. One of the 15 partners at CES showing content for the Vive will be running a cockpit simulation for a flying game. O'Brien says that he typically uses the Vive in a space the size of about two Yoga mats side by side.
The Vive might wind up being pricier than the Oculus Rift because of its room-size tracking and bundled controllers, but HTC is trying to deliver a VR solution that's future-proof. "We want to fulfill the fantasy of the movies," Valve's Faliszek said.