The HTC Vive is in turnaround. After disappointing some people last year by putting the launch date well into 2016, the company's back with a second generation developer model so good, it will win back our brains.
Developed in partnership with Valve, the HTC Vive wowed us and everyone else who tried it last year. A real-deal competitor for Oculus Rift! Alright!
Before CES, the HTC teased a refreshed version of the dev kit, and I was one of the first members of the media to try it. It's the last ditch to work out the kinks in Vive before its public release in the first quarter of this year. The official name of the device is the Vive Pre. The billboard new features are a newly redesigned front-facing camera, a redesigned headset, better base stations for improved tracking, and greatly improved ergonomics on the controllers.
I was treated by Nvidia to a demo of the Everest VR experience that's been trotted around recently. The demo takes you on a virtual reality trip up the towering mountain. It's part NatGeo documentary — complete with grave voiceover — and part interactive experience.
The most compelling part of the experience is when you're asked to follow Sherpa guides on a treacherously-narrow makeshift bridge across a cavernous drop.
Though the graphics are great, what really sells the experience are the details. When you look down at the newly redesigned controllers (more on hardware below) you see little mittens. Before crossing the bridge, you reach out and grab a pair of ascender tools which are attached to wires on either side of the bridge. Then, you walk. And you walk very slowly are carefully for fear of falling to your doom. Is it possible to die in this experience if you step off the wrong way? I have no idea — I did not intend to find out! As you make your way across, the bridge, the controllers vibrate, giving you the sensation that at any moment a gust of wind will come and carry you away.
Overall the experience was seamless. After a small hiccup when I first put on the headset, the system ran as planned. The positional tracking of both my body and the controllers felt realistic. I was never disoriented throughout the demo, and thanks to a nic egrid that appears when you're close to the wall, I never felt like I as about to knock myself unconscious.
It should be noted that I didn't experience any of the sick-feelings I've had before on this kind of high-flying virtual reality adventure. Though the experience's graphics still retain that old "screen door" effect, the refresh rate was so fast that I could throw my head around without dropping a frame. (You better believe the Vive was connected to a badass Nvidia-powered system that made this kind of graphics processing possible.)
As for the hardware, you can see that the that the headset has evolved and looks a lot more like a finished consumer product than it did the first time. I found it quite comfortable to wear, though the weight would certainly get cumbersome after a while. And of course, the headset has wires coming out of it, so it's not like you're being released to another dimension without a tether.
One year ago:
The controllers also look fresh and new — again, like polished consumer products. The ergonomics have been improved, but the basic principle is the same: A big wand with a circular touchpad and a trigger for each hand.
One year ago:
While this isn't exactly as powerful and refined as the final version of the Oculus Rift, the rapid evolution of HTC and Valve's technology gives us every indication that we have a lot to look forward to when the Vive launches to the public in a few months.