A New Reality: Valve and HTC’s VR Headset Rivals Oculus Rift in Demos

Article by Alison K. Lanier | 751 words

At the beginning of March, Valve’s new virtual reality headset skyrocketed to the top of the Facebook trending topics and hovered there for a few hours.  Valve has already been successful in the realm of gaming software, particularly thanks to its popular Steam service, which distributes PC games digitally.

While the new virtual reality headset isn’t Valve’s first foray into hardware, this foray does appear to be at least marginally more promising than the “Steam Machine” hype of yesteryear.  Valve describes the Steam Machine as a console-PC hybrid running on Steam’s own OS. The Steam console found itself mired in logistical questions and still hasn’t made its way to the public, postponed to November of 2015.

The HTC Vive has Resurrected Valve’s Hype

Valve’s step into the VR arena, though, has lifted this disappointment and brought back enthusiasm for the company. Adding to the excitement is Valve’s new and surprising partner stepping into the arena, as HTC joins the team on the new headset. HTC is a company best known for its innovations in smartphones and tablets, though it influences many elements of the tech world. The Verge is optimistic that this new partnership could breed many innovative ideas.

The headset, called the HTC Vive, has articles and previews of it proliferating across the Internet with all the enthusiasm of the last Steam Machine. Announced at the Mobile World Conference in March, the device looks set to contend with the Oculus Rift as a pioneer into the fresh frontier of commercial and accessible VR gaming, according to CNET.com. Sony’ Project Morpheus is another contender in that arena, but with the immediate buzz that HTC and Valve made as an unlikely duo, their joint creation has every appearance of being an unexpected frontrunner.

How the HTC Vive Works

And the product itself? “Guess what?” says the CNET reviewer. “It’s amazing.”

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive headset and controllers. Credit: RoadToVR.com

In early preview images, the Vive headset looks a bit like a spider-eyed scuba goggle mask, with many small eyelet light sensors visible on the surface.  The controllers held by the player have been described as a hybrid of the Wii Remote and previously-seen Steam Machine designs. Valve is “trying to reinvent how we use our hands” in virtual space.

Even the technical side of the device is extraordinarily cool, for lack of a better word. According to CNET’s demo report, the headsets “work with laser-boxes—yes, laser-boxes.” The helmet tracks the movement of your head using light sensors, much like the Oculus Rift, only with super cool laser-boxes. Using laser base stations, the device tracks location and movement of the wearer through physical space, triggering a warning grid-wall in the VR view to warn the wearer of physical boundaries in the real world.

Instant Rivals with the Oculus Rift

Immediately, the prototype is being compared to existing products in the field and their recent prototype demos. CNET reports glowingly, “Do you want to know what HTC Vive is like? I’ll tell you. It’s an amazing experience, a jaw-dropping demo, a journey that even trumped my recent demo with Oculus Rift Crescent Bay just two months ago.”

The Oculus Rift has been the most highly anticipated experience in VR gaming for some time, and for good reason. The Oculus Rift Crescent Bay is a slightly boxier, slightly more rigid looking machine with rod-light head supports that keep the rectangular box mounted in front of the player’s eyes. Now, the same enthusiasm that once surrounded the Oculus Rift has found its way to the HTC/Valve creation.

The collision course between these two big-name models is a huge footnote in the HTC/Valve announcement. While the Crescent Bay is only an internal prototype, it is likely the last step before the commercial Oculus Rift makes its appearance on store shelves. As CNET’s reviewer gently points out, though, the HTC Vive works, and Oculus Rift is not a finished product. The Oculus Rift, IGN reported in mid-March, may not meet its expected release date in 2015. But Oculus founder Palmer Luckey claimed this delay is not a possibility because anything is going “horribly wrong”: rather, he says, “Everything is going horribly right.”

Perhaps the developers at Oculus just have their hearts set on being the miles-ahead frontrunner when their device is released—and who can blame them? Around the web, that’s their superhero image as the revolutionary innovators taking the lead in VR. But right now, with competing products like the Vive, maintaining that exciting, glorious image is proving difficult.

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