Valve's 'Lab' and desktop theater mode could be the perfect introduction to virtual reality (hands-on)

Play fetch with a cute robot dog, fire flaming arrows, and play all your PC games on a giant screen. All for free.

If you spend $800 on an HTC Vive virtual reality headset, you're going to want something to play. And so far, we've seen fewer games for the Vive than for the rival headsets from Oculus and Sony. But Valve has a couple new pieces of Vive content that will be totally free -- and they're some of the best, most intuitive things I've tried in virtual reality.

The Lab is a collection of 12 bite-size experiences all connected by a central hub -- your own little room in virtual reality, filled with toys you collect from each of the other worlds. Translucent spheres serve as the doorways, each a crystal ball that you can gaze into to see what the next dimension holds before you take the plunge. Just reach out and grab one, pull it close, and poof -- you're there.

Using the HTC Vive Pre, an earlier version of the headset.

Nate Ralph/CNET


Some of the worlds are what Valve calls "postcards" -- a real place on earth turned into a video game environment by painstakingly cobbling together lots of digital pictures. My first postcard put me on top of a mountain that felt unbelievably real -- except for the cute robot dog tagging along. (I'm calling him Sparky, for obvious reasons.) I reached down to pick up a stick and threw it down the path, and Sparky happily went to fetch it back. What a good boy. I gave him a good scratch between the ears, and his tail started wagging like mad.

Next was an experience that put Angry Birds to shame: a robotic catapult built to "calibrate" the personality cores installed in Portal's hilarious robot armies. (If you haven't played Portal, you should; it's one of my favorite Valve games.) You pull back on the giant contraption and fire them out one by one, demolishing a warehouse filled with towers of crates and explosive barrels. (A nearby screen tallies up the millions of dollars in damage you cause.)

Then there was Longbow, a game where you shrink down to the size of an action figure to battle little two-dimensional paper warriors storming your castle with your trusty bow and arrows. It's a simple game, just nock an arrow, pull, aim, loose, rinse and repeat, but it all works so amazingly well that I honestly forgot I was holding a pair of wireless controllers instead of a bow and arrow.

Even though there was nothing to physically stop my "arrow" from passing through the bow's "string" since neither actually exist in the real world, the Vive controllers have just enough haptic feedback that I could feel exactly when and where my arrow touched down.

Last but not least was an arcade shooter of the bullet-hell variety -- the kind where you have to make your tiny ship dodge loads of enemy projectiles as you shoot back. Only Valve's virtual-reality-take on the idea had me holding my ship -- as if I were a kid "flying" a toy airplane by running around a room. I bodily dodged the enemy lasers, waving my hand through the air like a music conductor to avoid the deadly red beams and balls. It was great fun.

It kind of blows my mind that all of those experiences I just described, plus eight more, will be completely free. Valve says they should arrive at or shortly after the HTC Vive's April 5 launch.

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With SteamVR's Desktop Theater Mode, you can also still see the game running on the 2D monitor.

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All your PC games in VR

If that isn't enough to get started, there's also Valve's new SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode, which can let you play any PC game in your Steam library on a giant virtual television in a private theater.

Valve estimates you're looking at the equivalent of a 225-inch TV, and it sure seemed gigantic -- like playing games in a movie theater while sitting just a few rows away from the screen. The two games I played, Broforce and Rocket League, looked a little fuzzy, but they were definitely playable, and getting them to work was as easy as launching the game and putting the headset on.

SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode will also be free, and should be available by launch. It could be a notable advantage for the HTC Vive over the Oculus Rift. Oculus will let you play Xbox games in a virtual theater, but not PC ones.

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