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Hands-on with the HTC Vive, Valve's crazy, beautiful VR system

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The Vive — HTC and Valve's VR hardware, coming this year — is a bit of a hassle to use, in its current state. The headset is easy to put on and take off, and feels great with glasses, but a number of heavy wires run down the back onto a belt that attempts to keep everything together. I still came close to tripping once or twice.

The demos were given in large, clean rooms — no pictures were allowed — with the two positional tracking cameras in either corner. The product is an entire package; when the retail unit comes out by the end of the year, you'll get the headset, two motion-sensing controllers and the two base stations.

Different demos required varying amounts of space. I spoke with Jeep Barnett, a game developer at Valve, and he said he's created experiences in as little space as two yoga mats.

vive 3

The hardware is clearly a work in progress, and the fit and finish needs to be improved substantially before launch. The two controllers, one held in each hand, feature buttons on the grips; they feature triggers too, and a touchpad on the front that also works as a button. It's an intense amount of hardware. We were told that to run the demos we were playing, you'd need a high-end video card and a very competitive gaming PC. Nothing about this sounds like a mass media product.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that the hardware is incredibly fucking cool.

What it's like inside

The headset is comfortable, as I've said, but it's hard to get used to walking around such a big area in virtual reality. The screen is bright and clear, with a field of view that feels a bit wider than the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2. It's not a dramatic difference.

The motion tracking on the controllers is part of what sets the experience apart. During one demo I was able to pick up gears and accurately throw them at glass bottles. I played a cartoonish cooking game and found it easy to pick up items and move them where I needed to go.

The best demos were designed around the space limitation. I played an underwater area where the railing on the deck of a sunken ship was the limiting factor. Others just put up walls. A wireframe effect popped up when I came close to the limits of the tracking, so the demo has ways to keep you in place. It takes a while to get used to, and longer to trust, but it's a good system.

It was precise enough to draw with ease

There was another demo that used both motion controls and allowed me to draw in 3D space, complete with a virtual palette to select colors and neon effects. I had fun drawing with all the crazy effects, until I created a room that looked like Vegas threw up in it, but the proof of concept for creative software was clear.

It was precise enough for me to draw with ease, and the tracking was on point. The system takes a bunch of equipment to work, and that will drive the price up, but it all works significantly better than Sony's technology in this regard.

The controllers helped with the sense of presence and reality in a way that's hard to describe in text; the rock-solid feeling of being able to reach out and pick something up with a few light haptic effects sells the experience in a way that other technology is going to be hard to match. But this is also clearly aimed at the hardest-core virtual reality fans, with powerful computers and space in which to walk around. If you're willing to make the investment, you'll likely be amazed, but even at this early stage it's clear that it will be a significant investment indeed.

Questions about specific pricing, shockingly, weren't answered.