You can now preorder the HTC Vive. The VR headset -- which requires a fairly muscular PC to use -- will begin shipping on April 5.
The Vive is jointly developed by Taiwanese phone maker HTC and Bellevue, Washington-based game developer Valve. The system costs $799 (£689 in the UK), but -- unlike its archrival, the $599 Oculus Rift -- it includes a bevy of accessories, including motion sensors and special motion controllers. Both products will need to be attached to a Windows gaming PC in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.
We'll have more details and context on the Vive soon. In the meantime, what follows is our most recent hands-on experience with the hardware, originally published on January 5, 2016.
I was told to summon the Chaperone.
As I stood on the deck of a submerged pirate ship on the bottom of the ocean, I stepped towards the railing. Fish scattered around me. A glowing grid appeared, indicating a wall -- not in the virtual world, but the real one. I'd done all this before. I tried HTC Vive, a full-room immersive VR experience for PCs coming later this year, back in early 2015. But here at CES in Las Vegas, in early 2016, there was a new twist.
Suddenly, glowing shapes appeared behind the walls: I could see the entire room I was in, like X-ray vision. The furniture, the weird Vegas carpet patterns...and my CNET video crew filming me.
While Oculus readies its Rift VR system that's just around the corner, and Sony prepares the PlayStation VR for its PS4 console, the HTC Vive feels like the third competitor in the virtual reality wars. The Vive was supposed to debut at the end of 2015, but was delayed until this April. What I got to see at CES in Las Vegas was the reason: the hardware has been revamped and improvements made. Most importantly, a new room-sensing camera has been added to the outside of the Vive's head-worn display.
The Vive is, by far, the most ambitious virtual reality platform. It aims to be a full-room experience, a VR kit that senses an entire room and frees the user to wander around in a space up to 5 meters (16 feet) diagonally: two Yoga mats side by side, as HTC's Dan O'Brien, VP of HTC's Virtual Reality Group, described it during a briefing in Las Vegas.
Wandering around in a virtual world with a helmet on is dangerous, even in a sterile Las Vegas demo room. HTC and Valve developed a way for the Vive to sense walls and furniture in its previous hardware, but that wasn't quite enough. The latest developer hardware can use its camera to look at the room and provide continuous updates on where everything is. I felt like Batman using his bat-sense vision in "The Dark Knight."
The Vive shows the world around me when I double-click a home button on the newly revamped and lighter wireless controllers (which now last 4 hours on a charge, an improvement on the older Vive hardware). But the strange night vision-meets-X-ray graphics layer isn't the same as a real camera feed -- for latency-reducing purposes, according to Valve's Chet Falisze. You can see a smaller picture-in-picture view of what the camera sees, but blown up large it feels like bizarro sonar.
It's not like the sort of virtual-enters-reality feel of augmented reality, like Microsoft's HoloLens. It's something different: the real entering the virtual.
All the Vive's parts are new and refined. The controllers now seem more like something you'd buy in a real store. The room-sensing base stations that come with Vive -- laser-emitting boxes that are meant to be installed high up, like little speakers -- are smaller, compact cubes. The helmet is lighter, with refined strap design and replaceable parts for better nose and face fit that HTC calls "gaskets." The visual display has also been markedly boosted: The resolution is the same, but an engineering tweak to remove "mura" (the processing layer that dims and fades the VR image, according to HTC and Valve) resulted in much poppier, brighter, vivid colors during my brief demo.
The fish that flitted by me down in the virtual ocean popped with detail. A slow-swimming blue whale in front of me stared back with a massive eye that seemed more real than I remembered. I stared up at sunlight through water that felt more vibrant. Another demo I never tried before -- the brilliant Job Simulator game, also coming to Oculus -- had me pouring coffee, plugging in my clownish computer and attempting light office work in a brightly colored cubicle that showed off how much crisper the Vive's VR now looks. It seemed to help the pixels melt away.
This still isn't the final hardware: According to HTC and Valve, this developer's unit will be followed by another version before release. But it's much further along than before. But I still wonder about HTC and Valve's vision of full-motion, full-room VR. Vive's two controllers, room sensors and tethered helmet -- plus the required PC with the level of gaming graphics necessary -- will limit the appeal of Vive no matter what the price.
HTC and Valve are clearly committed to pushing the boundaries of VR into a space that's starting to feel almost like augmented reality, but VR -- and most people -- might not be ready to take that full step. Nevertheless, it's amazing stuff.