Watch out, Oculus: HTC Vive's VR experience is astonishing (hands-on)

I wandered around an entire room and painted with light; my first taste with HTC and Valve's upcoming virtual reality hardware was incredible. Here's what it felt like.

BARCELONA -- The routine was familiar: no cameras allowed. Where I was going, to the HTC Vive demo room, our videographers weren't allowed to follow. Many companies in the business of making virtual reality and augmented reality experiences have these types of rules. What it means is I entered alone, and experienced Valve and HTC's 30-minute demo alone...or rather, with a single person helping me get set up.

HTC and Valve announced the HTC Vive, a virtual reality platform and hardware for PCs, a few days ago at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It's yet another VR headset in a growing sea of them. How could it compete? How would it stand up against other virtual reality systems like Oculus Rift , Sony's Project Morpheus, or any of the other initiatives out there? At first, I had no idea.

Do you want to know what HTC Vive is like? I'll tell you. It's an amazing experience, a jaw-dropping demo, a journey that even trumped my recent demo with Oculus Rift Crescent Bay just two months ago. It's a proof of concept, too: I was able to wander the whole room, just as advertised. And the Vive's VR controllers are the best I've ever seen.

Getting set up

The room where the Vive is being demoed was nearly bare: white walls, like a room in a Portal game. A single piece of furniture or two, where the headset and controller rest. The HTC Vive headset is a clear prototype: little light sensors studded throughout the helmet are for tracking your head as you move.

A prototype of what the Developer Edition headset will look like. Notice the sensors. Sarah Tew/CNET

They work with laser-boxes -- yes, laser-boxes -- mounted in the corners of the ceiling like mounted speakers. HTC's Dan O' Brien says these will be IR blasters when the consumer version launches later this year, because let's face it, most people don't like home entertainment equipment that's shooting frickin' laser beams. But right now, this set-up works as advertised.

I see the laser boxes. And in front of me, I see HTC Vive's specialized controller.

The controller's in a very early design, but are wands like the PlayStation Move, topped with triggers on one end and a capacitive click-disc on the other, like the Valve Steam Machines controller design. It's like one of those controllers was split in half and turned into two motion-sensing wands. At the very ends, the controllers opened out into a little sensor-studded bracket. I wasn't able to photograph or show these controllers in any way, but again, imagine Sony's Move controllers, the Nintendo Wii remote, and Valve's upcoming Steam controller all mixed together.

I'm handed the headset, which looks like a larger pair of Oculus goggles, with similarly sized lenses to the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype. Look at the pictures to get an idea. The elastic straps fit over my head, and even my glasses -- a tight fit, but it works. A set of headphones are placed over my ears. I'm in darkness.

I see a mock-up storefront for Steam VR, with tiles surrounding me: I see icons for Surgeon Simulator and a fishing game. And I see outlines of the VR controllers: like ghosts, they hover in the virtual space. I reach out and know where to grab for them, and now I can see them in front of me. I click the triggers, and see where my fingers touch the control discs: they glow and bring up spinning icons. These controllers can become, in a sense, anything you'd want in VR: and they feel like an improvement on any controllers for VR I've seen before, including Sony's Project Morpheus.

Now, the cool stuff begins.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What I saw

There were three demos that made up my 30-minute experience. The first was The Blu, by WeMo. I was suddenly standing on the deck of a sunken ship, at the bottom of the ocean. Ripples of light cast across schools of fish. A manta ray cast shadows on the ship's creaking boom. I walked across the deck: like Oculus Rift, I could move around and duck down, look up, change my position. But I could go further: so far, I began to wonder when the simulation would hit a wall.

Then I saw the wall. A glowing grid gently appeared, indicating I'd found the boundaries of my physical space. The grid-wall grew brighter, and spread across part of the deck. I reached out and touched the actual wall, right where it was supposed to be.

Then, a massive blue whale swam next to me, because this is VR, and that's what happens.

The next demo was maybe the most technically impressive: Tiltbrush. One wand turned into a magical palette, and my other a brush. I could dip the wand in and select my art tool, and paint in 3D across the inky space around me. I wrote my name in 3D paint, squiggled light-beams in spirals, drew snow and fire streaks and surrounded myself in ridiculous designs. I could walk around the art and do work on pieces from different angles. And the controller's accuracy allowed me to actually do things in the virtual space: I never used Microsoft's Holodeck-esque RoomAlive, but the capabilities for real interactions can happen in HTC Vive.

Finally, I ended up in an all-too-familiar antiseptic white room. A robotic voice addressed me, and yes, I was in Aperture Science, being dragged through a robot repair program educational trainer that, as you'd expect, doesn't go as smoothly as expected. It looked incredible: the writing and pacing were perfect. It felt like a Disney ride. I couldn't stop grinning. Portal 3, perhaps? Sounds like it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What it means: Watch out Oculus

Oculus Rift is not a finished product, and there are bound to be more surprises in store. But Oculus has stayed away from emphasizing controllers and inputs, while Valve and HTC have gone ahead and made a solution. And it works.

That the demo looked this good, and performed this well, amazed me. It's transformative stuff. I was in that space, doing things, more immersed than I've ever seen before. Is it practical? Will it work in all rooms? Will the tether work at home? Will the games be great? I have no idea. But this is a great step forward, and and Valve and HTC have more than proven they will be major contenders. This is the biggest news HTC debuted at Mobile World Congress 2015, and the most amazing of HTC's products. And for Valve, it's a massive shot across the VR world. With a good game store and a killer controller, there's no telling what HTC Vive could be capable of.


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