If you want the very best virtual reality, that's probably going to mean using one of the Windows PC-based headsets. There you're going to have two major choices right out of the gates: the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. While the Rift is gearing up for its consumer launch, we got a look at the new HTC Vive Pre dev kit today.
Choosing a PC-based VR headset is going to be one tough decision, as the Vive impressed the hell out of us once again in today's demo. Its defining feature is that it's room-scale and free-roaming, so you aren't limited to sitting down or walking around a small space (though you can do that too). Room-scale VR is incredibly immersive, but it also has its share of challenges. A new feature in the Vive Pre looks like the ideal solution for the problem of smacking into things.
The Vive has a built-in feature called Chaperone, which exists to tackle this very problem. In our previous Vive demo, Chaperone simply meant a wall-like grid would pop up in your virtual vision when you got near the edge of the playing area. But the new version of Chaperone uses the Vive Pre's new forward-facing camera, giving you a sort of thermal view of your surroundings when you need it.
For example, when I'm safely within the Vive's designated playing space, all I see is the virtual environment. If I get close to a wall, though, I not only see the old grid-based wall pop up in front of me, but I can also get a glimpse of anything that's near me, giving me time to react and avoid it.
Double-tapping a menu button on the controller switches into full-on Chaperone mode, laying out an instant view of all my surroundings. Only it isn't a standard camera view; instead it looks a bit like an infrared HUD of your surroundings, or something Batman would use to find thugs in a dark warehouse. Walls, nearby objects and other people stick out like a sore thumb, making it dead-simple to find them before some accident befalls you or them.
There's still the potential obstacle of having a cord trailing you around the room (PC-based VR isn't going to be wireless for quite some time). If you double back quickly, you may need to keep some awareness of that and skooch the wires out of your way (and no, unfortunately the cord doesn't pop up in Chaperone).
I've never tripped over the wire in any of my Vive demos (or even come close to doing so), but the "tail" created by that cable is a challenge HTC will want to deal with in this whole room-scale thing. Though the company wasn't yet ready to go into detail, a rep tells us it's already moving in that direction.
The new headset itself is lighter and more comfortable than the first Vive developer kit. We don't remember the older model being uncomfortable, but the Vive Pre felt great – it isn't significantly better or worse in this respect than its big competitors (namely Oculus) at this stage.
The Vive controllers also got an overhaul, now having more of a consumer-friendly look and feel. The older ones had a bit of a Wiimote feel to them (Nintendo's old Wii controllers) but the new models are smaller and lighter; they feel more like Oculus Touch than they did before. In both cases, the controllers give you virtual hands inside virtual worlds – letting you pick up and grip objects (which is especially nice in workplace sandbox game Job Simulator, as you pitch coffee mugs into opposing cubicles and throw spoons at walls ... it's ridiculously fun).
The big question mark with the Vive is content. At this point we wouldn't say it's a concern: we still have at least three months until the headset's consumer launch and there are going to be some announcements on this front between now and then. But we also didn't see any new demos today; they were the same ones we saw when we visited the HTC Experience truck at Comic-con last July.
It's too early to jump to any definitive conclusions on this front, but, for what it's worth, Oculus has shown us by far the most/best variety of game demos.
We'll be playing with the Rift yet again later this week, and will publish some post-CES thoughts on how we see all of this stacking up at that point. Right now it's looking like a tough call. Both have great "hands" controllers, best-in-class displays and the raw horsepower that only a PC can provide. These guys aren't making it easy for VR early adopters.
Developers who want to get their hands on one of the 7,000 kits HTC and Valve will be distributing can find out more about the Vive Pre at the product page below. Consumers will have to wait until April to get their hands on a Vive.
Product page: HTC