Until now, there was only one real name in the emerging world of virtual reality: Oculus, the company Facebook bought last year for $US2 billion.
But who would have thought that HTC, a company best known for making really nice Android phones, had something better in the works.
At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, HTC had a surprise announcement: The HTC Vive, a virtual reality headset that looks a lot like the Oculus Rift at first glance.
Even more impressive, HTC is partnering with Valve, a PC game platform that’s wildly popular with over millions of users. (Think of Valve as the app store for PC gamers.)
An early version of the Vive will be available this spring for developers who want to make games for it. The final consumer version will go on sale this year, possibly before Oculus has a chance to launch. Oculus hasn’t said specifically when it will launch its consumer version, but it won’t be until the end of 2015 at the earliest.
I got to try the developer version of the Vive at a demo in HTC’s booth at MWC, and I could already tell HTC and Valve are slightly ahead of Oculus.
The biggest advantage HTC has right now are the sensors it places around the room to track your head and the controllers you hold in each of your hands. I’ve tested Oculus a few times, and every time I find myself looking down where my hands should be and seeing nothing. The Vive solves that problem problem by putting a controller in each of your hands, so when you put on the goggles you can reach out and manipulate objects in the virtual world.
(Sorry, HTC wouldn’t let me take photos of my demo, so you can’t see the motion trackers or the controllers. But you’ll be able to see more once the developer version launches.)
The sensors can also map the room, so you’re free to walk around a virtual world. If you get too close to a wall in the real world, a grid pops up on the display so you don’t run into it.
A gave the Vive a whirl this week in a private demo. I walked out of the room and my first words were: “That was f——- awesome.”
I did a few demos. In one, I had to run around a kitchen and gather ingredients to make tomato soup. It was cartoony looking, but I still felt like I was really there. I was free to follow the instructions, running back and forth to the fridge for ingredients and mixing them together in a pot. Or, if I wanted to be rebellious, I could just toss everything around the kitchen and wreak havoc. I broke a lot of eggs.
In another demo, I became an artist. In one hand, I held a palette of artist’s tools like spray paint, a paint brush, and a virtual rainbow maker. I could draw in 3D space then walk around my creation as if it were a virtual sculpture. Insane.
There was a lot more in my brief demo, but the bottom line is this: Developers need to get their hands on the Vive to create really cool experiences before the device launches publicly later this year. HTC’s partnership with Valve will almost certainly get serious game developers cranking away.
I’m doing the HTC Vive a disservice.
Like the Oculus and other VR experiences, it’s impossible to describe what it’s like with mere words. It’s simply one of those things you have to try to believe.
In the short term, VR will bring on a new era of gaming. But there’s so much more to it. Virtual travel. Shopping. Social networking. Movies. Porn.
Fast forward a few years, once the hardware doesn’t look like a bulky, geeky headset, and we’ll wonder why we ever used a traditional flat screen for any of those things.
Now for the caveats: The resolution on the HTC Vive isn’t as good as what you get on the Oculus. There’s always a chance that could be improved by the time the consumer version launches. And as for the “hands” problem I mentioned above, when I interviewed Oculus’s CEO Brendan Iribe at Business Insider’s IGNITION conference last year, he told me the company was working on a solution similar to what HTC already has. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, it’s hard not to get excited about virtual reality. Between HTC and Oculus, we’re already getting a taste at a new era in the video game console wars. Get ready.
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