Since we last had a hands-on look at the HTC Vive at CES, we've had confirmation of a price and pre-order date for its long-awaited consumer launch, and we took another opportunity to get up close with the hardware at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Unfortunately, apart from a few tweaks to a couple of the demos, this was largely the same experience as we had at CES – the Vive Pre developer unit we tried doesn't have the improved strap and improved glasses support of the finished consumer devices that will soon go on sale to the public, while the new phone integration (enabling you to send messages and make calls in VR once it's linked to your handset) isn't ready yet either.
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Nevertheless, this was another jaw-dropping demo, as the room-scale Vive transported us from a submerged shipwreck to a spaceship base and back again. The time that HTC and Valve have spent perfecting the headset is definitely in evidence, offering up an experience that's truly immersive, and a headset that's comfortable and light to wear. There's something about putting your full body into a virtual world that creates an incredible sense of "presence" (feeling like you're someplace else).
It's helped by the dual laser emitting base stations that give you a roughly 15 x 15 ft (nearly 5 x 5 meter) space to walk around in: HTC reps are keen to emphasize that you don't need to convert a garage space or office corner to use the Vive (it will work fine when you're standing still or sat down) but the freedom it gives you adds an extra dimension to the experience. We also imagine many Vive developers will want to emphasize its killer feature; without setting up a room-sized space, you may miss out on the platform's best content. Either way, the Lighthouse stations that allow the headset to track your movement plug directly into a wall outlet, no need to hog up any USB ports on your paired PC.
The neat Chaperone feature was present and correct too, using the Vive's front-facing camera to warn you when you're about to walk into a wall using a subtle blue grid. With a tap on the fluidly functioning motion controllers it's possible to see a window into the real world again or a blue, glowing outline of it – useful for those times when you want to check where the dog is sitting without having to take off your headset.
We weren't able to try the phone integration or the Fantastic Contraption game you'll get with your Vive pre-order, though the headset is set to start shipping in early April (the hilarious Job Simulator is ready, though, as it was at CES). Software and content isn't as much of a question mark as it was before Valve's recent developer showcase – shooter Hover Junkers, which uses a moving platform mechanic to transport you around a post-apocalyptic wasteland, looks especially cool. The Oculus Rift does (from where we stand now) still appear to have the more robust launch lineup, but with a company as experienced in software development as Valve on board this shouldn't be a long-term issue.
In the meantime, more and more headsets are joining the fray. Here at MWC, LG has been showing off its LG 360 VR goggles, another entry in the entry-level, mobile VR market alongside the likes of the leading Samsung Gear VR and comically low-end Google Cardboard. These devices are great for getting a quick and cheap intro to virtual reality tech, but for something that really feels like another world (positional tracking and all) then you're going to have to pay the big bucks for a PC-powered headset – and right now that means the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift.
Software availability aside, it's impossible to fault the HTC Vive in terms of graphics, responsiveness, controls or all round experience, and our MWC demo gave us another reminder of how quick and stable a device it has now become. If you have the cash to spare on first-generation VR kit, you won't be disappointed.
The awesome HTC Vive goes up for preorder a week from today, for US$799. You'll also need a powerful gaming PC to go with it (likely costing $900 or more if you're starting from scratch).
For more on the Vive, you can recap our check out Gizmag's features/specs comparison between the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Product page: HTCView gallery - 6 images