Valve and HTC dive into VR with the HTC Vive, coming this year (hands-on)

/ Updated: March 4, 2015 10:00 AM PST
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BARCELONA -- Get ready, because yet another VR headset has entered the arena. And it doesn't use a phone.

HTC and Valve have formed the most unlikely of partnerships, announcing a forthcoming virtual-reality headset and platform called the HTC Vive at Mobile World Congress. It's a PC-gaming VR system that looks to compete with the Oculus Rift , and it'll debut this year in two waves: a "developer edition" coming in March, and a consumer-ready version by the holidays. I got a chance to demo the experience, and guess what? It's amazing.

The sensor-studded front of the Developer Edition's head-mounted display (an early prototype) Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vive is part of HTC's new multistage strategy to create connected products in different categories, including fitness, self home and VR, by the end of 2015. While HTC could end up with a lot of unexpected products down the road, this VR headset -- and its Valve partnership -- might be the most surprising. In theory, Valve is a serious partner, and one of the biggest players in gaming.

A PC accessory, not a phone accessory

HTC Vive will, like the Oculus Rift, offer immersive VR when connected to a gaming PC. It's not a phone accessory like the Samsung Gear VR . Some people might get confused by that: after all, HTC is a company known for its phones. HTC promises that Vive will have "high quality graphics, 90 frames per second video and incredible audio fidelity." From what I've seen already, I'd agree.

A new type of controller

Input's a challenge: most existing VR systems are experimenting with lots of methods, but none has proven to be the perfect answer. The Vive uses a pair of VR Controllers that will work for exploring virtual environments and still work as game controllers. They work a bit like Sony's motion-based Move controller wands on the PlayStation 4-based Project Morpheus VR, but also feel like Valve's Steam controller: a touchpad-like click surface on each controller is like a touchpad/control stick hybrid.

There aren't many great VR control systems that are being mass produced, making Valve's controller pretty central to the equation.

The Vive promises to sense your whole room and let you wander around in VR. Sarah Tew/CNET

Full-room VR, and wall-sensing

The HTC Vive will cover an entire room via a feature called Room Scale Experience, allowing VR-nauts at home to get up and walk around objects, much like the latest Oculus Rift Crescent Bay hardware, but currently over a greater range of space. Unlike Crescent Bay, sensor boxes shooting lasers (IR blasters by the end of this year) position you in the HTC Vive, and let you know where the walls are while you're still in VR. Get too close, and a grid outline of your room appears like a ghost.

You still have to set up the sensor boxes, which HTC suggests you might put above your bookshelves like high-end speakers, and how all this will work at home without accidentally tripping over the 5-meter tether to your PC remains to be seen. Most people don't have a lot of free, unobstructed floor space in their homes (although some enthusiasts may end up creating VR rooms, based on how good my demo was). According to Valve and HTC, games will be set to scale to experiences that fit your own personal space.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Content and partners: Steam, HBO and others

The Vive will support two different software platforms. The first is Steam VR, a future storefront for Valve's VR experiences and games. Some impressive content partners have already been announced: HBO, Lion's Gate, Google and obviously Valve. HTC has also promised a separate HTC software platform, also aiming for new VR experiences. The HTC Vive will be a pure PC accessory, but HTC has said that the Vive will eventually work with phones, too, starting with receiving notifications and incoming messages. These could be displayed, possibly, in VR as you play.

What will these developers and studios do to make Steam VR and HTC Vive a virtual reality hit? Valve's Chet Faliszek, a writer who worked on both Half-Life and Portal, admitted that we don't yet know what the killer apps on VR will be. "We don't know what experiences will be the ones that stick. We ported Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2, and they were probably the worst experiences in VR." Valve expects to experiment on new forms of content, not necessarily just blindly port games. Then again, maybe what Valve is suggesting is that new games need to be purpose-built with VR in mind. Portal 3 would be a hell of a killer app (and my demo certainly suggested that might be on the way).

The future looks bright (and crowded)

This probably won't be the last Valve-powered VR headset; HTC's will be the one releasing this year, Valve cryptically confirmed. For now, the Vive's unique controller and use of room-sensing, plus the promises of the Steam VR store, are being banked on to help the HTC Vive stand out from existing VR products.

Virtual reality is suddenly full of contenders, and it's unclear if the VR industry can sustain this many simultaneous players without at least some getting booted. Now, it'll be a question of which VR platforms get which games, movies and apps, or whether some can go cross-platform. But the early experiences I've had with the HTC Vive Developer Edition put it at the top of the virtual-reality hill.

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HTC Vive Developer Edition

Part Number: VIVEDE

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