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I got to try HTC's latest virtual reality prototype, and it has a big leg up on Facebook's Oculus Rift

HTC Vive PreSteven Tweedie/Business InsiderTrying out the new HTC Vive Pre headset for the first time.

There are two front-runners in the race to claim the virtual reality crown. Oculus, founded by the modern virtual reality pioneer Palmer Luckey, has been leading the charge and even convinced Mark Zuckerberg to buy the company for $2 billion.

But there’s also HTC and Valve, two companies who combined their skillsets — HTC’s hardware manufacturing and Valve’s gaming software and fanbase — to be the first true competition for Oculus and its much-hyped Oculus Rift headset.

It’s a good-natured race for the most part. Oculus and Valve even helped each other in the early days before Facebook bought Oculus, and both companies have said that competition just means there’s a better chance for VR to go mainstream.

Meanwhile, virtual reality fans have been debating which company’s headset offers the better technology and library of games — HTC and Valve’s Vive headset, or the Oculus Rift?

On Tuesday, HTC and Valve made a big announcement, unveiling a new prototype version of its Vive headset called the Vive Pre that now includes a more refined design and, more importantly, a new feature that the Oculus Rift doesn’t have — a front-facing camera in the headset that changes the entire experience.

With virtual reality fans on the fence as to which headset to buy, could the Vive Pre’s camera be enough to convince people to opt for HTC’s headset instead of the Oculus Rift?

After trying it out first-hand, I think the answer is yes.

HTC Vive Pre cameraSteven Tweedie/Business InsiderThe new front-facing camera that ports the real world into the virtual world rendered inside the headset.

Why the front-facing camera is such a huge deal

I got the chance to try out the HTC Vive Pre at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I’ve tried the previous version of the HTC Vive that’s meant for developers, and was blown away by the headset’s ability to track your movements and position within a room.

So why is that camera a big deal?

One of the biggest annoyances when you’re wearing a virtual reality headset is that you can’t see what’s going on in the real world around you. With a traditional VR headset, that means lots of fumbling around with your hands as you seek out your controller or keyboard.

But the Vive Pre’s front-facing camera can port video of the world around you into your headset so you don’t have to take it off. This might seem minor, but it allows for all sorts of things you couldn’t do before like walking around without worrying about hitting a wall, finding your chair without assistance, and — most importantly — bridging the virtual and real world.

Because the Vive Pre tracks your entire room, it also inserts a virtual barrier that lines up with the real walls in your environment. This is called the “chaperone,” and it’s a virtual set of grid lines that shimmer into being whenever you approach a wall in the real world, otherwise it remains invisible so you can concentrate on the virtual scene you’re in. If you need to grab your drink or interact with someone else in the room, you can just double-tap one of the buttons on the controller to port the real world into your headset.

HTC Vive PreSteven Tweedie/Business Insider
HTC Vive PreSteven Tweedie/Business InsiderOne of the motion controllers for the HTC Vive Pre.

The earlier version of the Vive had this sort of chaperone, but it was entirely virtual. The camera found on the Vive Pre, on the other hand, now merges the two worlds into one, showing a stylised version of the people and objects beyond that virtual barrier so you can not only see that your room’s doorway is inches away, but also that your friend is standing on the other side too.

That’s huge. I actually conducted a majority of my interview with the HTC spokesperson entirely in VR, and thanks to the front-facing camera, I could see exactly where he was in the room. When he brought in a chair from the other room, I was able to keep the headset on and see where he placed it before going to sit down on the “virtual” chair within the headset that was indeed matched up perfectly with the real-world chair.

HTC Vive PreSteven Tweedie/Business InsiderOne of the two (now wireless) Lighthouse trackers that maps your room and tracks your movements in virtual reality.

HTC and Valve decided to overlay a filter of sorts on the real-world when it’s ported into your headset, which they argue makes the transition and merging of the two spaces feel more natural. After my demo and trying a similar but limited front-facing camera on Samsung’s Gear VR, I agree. Mixing a virtually rendered environment with un-filtered footage of the real world would be jarring, and this way it just feels like you’re seeing the real world through a Matrix-esque filter.

It’s one of those things that’s easier to see than explain, but when I asked if I could use my phone to take a picture of the new chaperone technology through the headset’s, HTC wouldn’t allow it.

I’d argue the front-facing camera gives HTC and Valve a leg-up on the Oculus Rift, but some people might not care about the merging of the virtual and real-world, or maybe they plan to use their VR headset sitting down anyways so the idea of a virtual chaperone won’t be that useful.

As far as other features go, Vive Pre hasn’t lost anything, but it’s gained some new lenses that are said to make the colour black appear even blacker for a more immersive experience. The top-of-the-line motion controllers are now wireless (a welcome change) and feature a new design. The two satellite tracker boxes that scan your room to allow for precise positional tracking have also received a polished redesign and are now wireless, which means less cords to avoid when walking around in VR.

The headset’s design is also a bit more polished, with the infrared trackers that dot its shell now hidden, and there’s now the game-changing camera that faces forward and rests directly above your nose.

Will Oculus follow?

There isn’t a front-facing camera in the Oculus Rift, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way, and Oculus has certainly researched the technology. They just decided to leave it out of the first consumer version of the Oculus Rift. But Oculus worked with Samsung to create its Gear VR mobile headset that includes a pass-through camera like the Vive Pre (but far more limited), so I’d say it’s likely to be present in version 2.0 of the Oculus Rift.

For now, however, HTC has an important feature that differentiates itself from the Rift, and it’s only going to make deciding between the two headsets that much more difficult.

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