Everything you need to know about the SteamVR headset
Originally unveiled at MWC 2015, the HTC Vive is the Taiwanese company’s first stab at a virtual reality headset, and it’s now ready for prime time.
Its original unveiling generated teeth-chattering levels of anticipation thanks to HTC’s partnership with Valve, the US games giant behind the Steam digital distribution system and the Half-Life, Portal and DOTA game franchises.
The verdict is in: HTC Vive review
A hardware update at CES 2016 saw it re-dubbed the HTC Vive Pre, but at this year’s MWC HTC has gone back to the simple Vive moniker for the final consumer edition. Here’s everything you need to know.
HTC Vive: Release date and price
The consumer version of HTC Vive will be available in April 2016 with pre-orders starting on 29 February.
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We originally guessed the Vive would be pricier than the Oculus Rift, and boy were we right. The Oculus Rift consumer edition costs $500 with the final cost at $599 after shipping, while the Vive surpasses it with the final cost sitting at $799.
However, you do get more hardware for your money. The HTC Vive bundle comes with two controllers, the Lighthouse base stations, some ear buds plus copies of the games Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives and Fantastic Contraption. You’ll need to provide a solid PC that will be able to run the experiences. Vive and PC bundles haven’t been announced yet, unlike Oculus which has already got several deals for you to choose from.
HTC Vive: Design and features
There’s not too much change between the newest consumer Vive and the Pre in terms of specs and design, though the finalized details have yet to be released.
The updated design for the consumer release is much smaller and more comfortable to wear, with swappable foam inserts and what it’s calling a nose ‘gasket’, as well as adjustable straps to get the fit right. And yes, you can use it with glasses.
Some new features and refinements have been added, such as a better headstrap and updated motors, which HTC says should make the headset even more comfortable.
The only real new feature is the Vive’s ability to connect to iPhones and Android phones to deliver alerts and messages when you’re in VR. It’s called Vive Phone Services and, like the camera inclusion, seems to be there to help people spend time in VR games and movies while keeping in touch with the real world.
HTC Vive: Hardware specs
The HTC Vive includes a display featuring two 1080 x 1200 screens, one for each eye, and the pixel density is said to eliminate the screen door effect unless you really look for it.
This gives the Vive a total resolution of 2160 x 1200 pixels, and an aspect ratio of 9:5 as opposed to other headsets’ more standard 16:9. The result is a taller image, but one which feels more natural and convincing – you can look up with your eyeballs rather than by craning your neck.
The screens run at 90Hz, which is on a par with Oculus Rift but lower than the 120Hz of Sony’s Project Morpheus. Whether the difference will be noticeable remains to be seen, but we suspect that once you get into the realms above 90Hz gains are marginal.
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There’s also a front-facing camera, which means the real world can be overlaid onto the virtual. In terms of gaming this opens up new possibilities for augmented experiences, but critically it will also help users move around their real-world environments without removing the headset.
As it stands the headset is tethered to a gaming computer with a bundle of data cables, but it’s believed that the final version will reduce this to a single HDMI cable. This does raise the question of whether you’ll be able to add USB peripherals to the consumer unit, though. There’s also a 3.5mm jack on the side of the headset so you can add your own headphones.
HTC Vive: Hardware
The headset contains a gyrosensor, an accelerometer and a laser position sensor, which work together to track the position of your head. Unlike the Gear VR and, to a lesser extent, Sony’s Project Morpheus, here your PC will do the graphical heavy lifting. The advantage of this approach is that the headset can be light and comfortable, and PC upgrades can keep it up to date.
There’s no word on minimum system requirements, but it’s likely that Steam Machines will be built from the ground up to handle the Vive.
HTC Vive: Motion tracking
While the clarity of the Vive’s screens is impressive, it’s the motion tracking which is likely to make this the must-have VR headset of this year. It comes with two wireless infrared Lighthouse cameras, which are placed in the corners of a room, and follow the headset’s 37 sensors (70 in total, including each controller).
The result is that you’re able to move freely within your living room with the headset on and it’ll track your every move, and this in turn helps make it feel like you’re exploring a space.
The basestations have been updated for the Vive so they now have more accurate tracking, plus they’re smaller and quieter.
Of course, there are inherent problems with the approach, such as how you’re going to explore a vast alien planet without walking into the fireplace. Clever software design will probably solve that problem, and we think sofas and coffee tables are pretty overrated anyway.
It’s also said to work with more than one headset, which is likely to confuse and frighten your parents when they walk into your first SteamVR party.
HTC Vive: Controllers
Interacting with virtual space is a problem that hasn’t quite been solved yet, although Sony’s ready-made Eye and Move controllers are a natural fit. The controllers supplied with the Vive have them beat, though.
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They’re basically a vertically bisected version of the Steam Controller, with a trackpad, buttons and a pressure-sensitive grip in each hand. It’s responsive and natural, and the perfect way to interact with a virtual world.
Again, the design was updated in early 2016 for the second-gen model.
Now wireless and battery powered, the controls include a dual stage trigger button under each forefinger, a home button and a similar, textured circular touchpad as before. Haptic feedback helps to let you know when you’ve completed the correct action – helpful as with any new controller there’s always a learning curve.
HTC Vive: Games and content
Vive has been shown off with a handful of demos, including one involving underwater exploration, another cooking up some tomato soup, a level based on Portal‘s Aperture Science laboratories and a tiny battlefield the player peers down on.
But HTC has a huge advantage over other companies making VR headsets in its partnership with Valve – there’s a massive amount of Steam games that already have the necessary code to work with the Oculus Rift, and Valve is releasing an open source API (application programming interface) so that developers can make their products (not just games) compatible with SteamVR.
The elephant in the room here is wearing a bright orange hazmat suit and horn-rimmed glasses. Not wanting to tempt fate, but we think it’s more than likely that if Half-Life 3 does make an appearance it will be pretty damn soon, and it will have SteamVR compatibility. Valve tends to introduce new tech alongside its tent-pole releases – Half-Life 2 launched at the same time as Steam on the PC, and Portal 2 was used to debut Steam on the PlayStation 3.
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HTC has also announced an impressive roster of content partners for Vive, including HBO, Lionsgate, Google and Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. No word on what this content will involve, but it’s arguable that TV and film-style content is more important than games when it comes to getting the general public into virtual reality.