HTC Vive Pre

CES 2016

It's been some 10 months since HTC and Valve first announced the HTC Vive. And in that time we've talked a good bit about this whole-room virtual reality experience. How practical it might be. (Or not.) How much it'll cost. (We still don't know.) Or — and this one from the more skeptical among us — whether this promise of a a futuristic VR will ever really come to fruition. While inexpensive (and much more simple) VR experiences from Google Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR (powered by Oculus, which is finally opening up preorders for the Oculus Rift) have been available for some time now, a good number of us have been waiting (not so) patiently for this virtual future we've been promised.

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It's not here yet. At least not for the paying public. But with the announcement of the HTC Vive Pre — the next-generation prototype from HTC and Valve — we're getting much closer.

I took the Vive Pre for a spin here at CES 2016 in Las Vegas. This is what the future is like.

HTC Vive Pre

HTC Vive has progressed a lot in a year. And the reality of a usable whole-room VR experience has increased along with it.

Funny thing about the brain. It remembers. My second time demoing Vive was a good bit easier than the first, some 10 months ago in Barcelona. This time as I slid into the new Vive visor, I knew what I was getting into. As I stood once again on the deck of a sunken pirate ship and looked over the railing to the sea floor below, I knew I wasn't going to fall off. I worried less about the Aperture Robot Repair plant actually hurting me.

That doesn't mean it was any less impressive, though.

The improved visor is a big part of the new experience. First is that it's been slimmed down a good bit, with a new head strap and gasket — the part that actually rests against your face — making it much more comfortable to wear. (And HTC says there will be multiple gasket sizes available when Vive launches in April.) It also looks far less like an oddly diamond-studded faceplate, with the tracking components no longer visible.

HTC Vive and HTC Vive Pre The first HTC Vive prototype we used in February 2015, and the new HTC Vive Pre.

But it's also about the improved visual experience. Everything is more crisp and clear, HTC says. And while we're sort of used to wishing for increased resolution with phone-based VR systems — which Vive decidedly is not, still requiring a PC to push the pixels — actual resolution of what's hitting the display is just part of the full experience. Instead, said Valve's Chet Faliszek, a good bit of improvement had to do with "Mura correction," or removing blemishes that keep you from being immersed in the experience and instead feeling like you're looking at a display.

A better display and Matrix-like boundary system means developers have an even cooler world to play in.

"Resolution's the bizarrest thing to think about, in a way, with VR," Faliszek, the longtime Valve guru who was instrumental in the writing of iconic video games Half-Life 2 and Portal, said in a group interview ahead of CES. "Because really what it is is pixel density of where your eye is looking. You want that to be the clearest and sharpest. And so when you talk about the visual system in VR, it's a lot of things. It's lenses. It's the actual panels. It's the software processing it. There's a whole bunch of things coming together to do that."

Yes, you'll still see individual pixels in the Vive experience. But the overall feel is definitely more smooth and immersive.

And that leads us to the improved "Chaperone" aspect of Vive. That's the name for the tracking system Valve has in place, and the boundaries it places on the experience so you don't go walking into walls. (OK, it's what makes this whole thing very Holodeck-like.) Now that there's a visor-mounted camera on the Vive system, it can see (and feed back to you in real time) what's going on in the real world while you're immersed in the Vive world. As you get close to a wall you'll not just see the grid boundaries, but you'll also "see" the wall in front of you. If there's a chair in the way, you'll see it. If someone's lurking in the corner, you'll see their outline, too. I could see my gear bag on the floor, including details on the front of it.

It's not at all unlike the "high-frequency generator" that gave Batman his sonar vision in "The Dark Knight." (Though it's not anywhere near as seizure-inducing.) It's also fairly close to the coded outlines Neo could see at the end of "The Matrix." It's strangely familiar — maybe the movies are to thank for that — and also extremely useful. It's also just the tip of the iceberg of what the camera can (and will) be used for. And that's just Chaperone. The real fun begins when developers get their hands on these updated Vive kits, which will be happening in the next few weeks.

"Every time we do something like this it's always really interesting to open it up and see what developers can do with it," Faliszek said. "From seeing them doing crazy things with the tracking to getting to see now full access to that front camera. ... They'll have total access to it."

The handheld controllers have steadily improved since my first demo nearly a year ago, too. They went wireless a while ago. And now they're rechargeable over microUSB (the batteries last 4 hours), have dual-stage triggers, and basically look and feel like you'd expect for a product of this caliber. The base stations — which fire the lasers that make the tracking system work — have shrunk a bit and could be mistaken for speakers hidden in the corners of a room.

We're still months away from being able to buy Vive, of course. We may still see more features and tweaks. And that gives many of us more time to justify the cost — and we still don't know what that will be — to our significant others. And that means more time for more demos, which HTC says aren't going to end any time soon.

If you have the opportunity — whether you're way into VR or just want to see what all the fuss is about — do it. Whole-room virtual reality absolutely is a future tech. Maybe not most practical just yet, but it's quickly getting better.

Now we just need to be able to buy it.

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