HTC Vive Pre preview: Five things it taught us about the consumer Vive

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We've been playing with an HTC Vive Pre dev kit at home, and it's helped form ...

We've been playing with an HTC Vive Pre dev kit at home, and it's helped form our expectations of the consumer version – and the VR landscape in general (Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag) View gallery (9 images)

We have an HTC Vive Pre in house, and while we aren't going to run a proper review of pre-consumer gear that's meant for developers, the Vive Pre and consumer Vive are so close to being the same thing that we can't help but rattle off a few things we've learned. Our biggest takeaway? The Vive may be the VR headset to get.

Update: You can now read our full review of the consumer HTC Vive.

One day VR may change how we work and communicate, but right now it's all about entertainment – usually gaming. As an entertainment machine, the HTC Vive is phenomenal. Not only will you have a blast walking around its dazzling virtual worlds, reaching out and seemingly touching fantastic objects that only exist inside a computer, but it's nearly as much fun sharing that experience with friends and family. All good VR is magical, but the Vive has a few uniquely magical tricks up its sleeve.

Much of what we have to say about the Vive is reiterating things we've already said after using it at various events during the past year – there weren't many major surprises bringing it home (that's actually a good thing). But we did clarify, confirm and add extra nuance to some things we'd already suspected about the Vive.

One point of view that has changed has been the importance of room-scale VR. It blew us away in our first Vive demo, but as we experienced more of the Rift's standing Oculus Touch demos, we realized they were nearly as immersive – and we went back to thinking the Rift may be the better choice, mostly because the number of high-quality games we'd previewed for it far outnumbered those for the Vive. Now that we have the Vive in the nest, though, and have played more ready-to-roll games through its SteamVR platform ... well, just read on.

Room-scale VR: You're probably going to want this

When you first try VR, any halfway decent demo is likely to blow you away. That level of immersion then gets kicked up another notch (or seven) when you add motion controllers, like the Vive's controllers or Oculus Touch, that make you feel like you have hands inside virtual worlds.

But adding the ability to walk around a larger space cranks that sense of presence up once again. Room-scale VR lets you put your entire body into the experience, narrowing the subconscious/visceral gap between I'm playing a video game and Holy shit, I feel like I've been transported someplace else.

On one level, room-scale VR is a convenient marketing angle to help differentiate the Vive from the Rift. But having used it over a longer period of time, we now believe it's more than just a gimmick to sell headsets. Just like gamepad VR feels like a step backwards after you've used motion controllers, it's also hard to go back to standing VR after you've done room-scale. At some point, your instincts are going to lead you to expand your virtual boundaries and move around.

Room-scale is at the bleeding edge of today's virtual reality, and the Vive is the only current headset that officially (and safely) supports it.

The Vive's killer features? A virtual wall and a camera

We aren't part of the chorus predicting that the Rift and Oculus Touch aren't capable of high-quality room-scale tracking. On the contrary, during recent GDC demos I walked around medium room-sized spaces, in some cases turning in all different directions, and didn't experience even the most minor of tracking glitches. The Rift's tracking is great, even though it's only tracking 180 degrees.

But we still aren't likely to see room-scale as a big focus on this 1st-generation Rift – mostly because it doesn't have anything like the Vive's Chaperone system. The Rift can handle room-scale VR, but you'd likely bump into stuff (as I did during a couple of recent Oculus Touch demos).

Chaperone is HTC's and Valve's name for an innovative system that, while in VR, pops up a grid-like wall in your field of view to alert you when you get close to the edge of your playing area. It's a mostly non-intrusive way of giving you some awareness of your surroundings. You know, so you don't run into a wall, step on Fido's tail or smack your controller into a bookshelf.

After using the Vive Pre at length, we don't think any room-scale VR would be complete – or entirely safe – without Chaperone. This is the first-gen Vive's biggest advantage over the first-gen Rift, and it alone may be reason enough to choose the Vive.

The Vive's front-facing camera isn't quite as crucial, but sits along the same lines, helping to anchor you in the real world when needed. A double-tap of the controller's system button will instantly pop up a live view of your surroundings, so you can see exactly where you are in your playing space. The camera lets you do things like tie your shoelace, pick up a water bottle or have a quick conversation with a family member. It's about letting you jump back into the real world for quick bursts without ripping off your headset.

Room-scale doesn't mean you need a full-time VR room

Room-scale VR is adaptable in size, and many room-scale Vive games play just fine in a relatively small 6 x 6 ft. (less than 2 x 2 m) area. It will be a better experience if it's bigger, but you don't necessarily need to rearrange all your living room furniture or plant your flag in the biggest room in your home, decreeing "henceforth this shall be known as the Kingdom of VR."

If you ever do workout videos in front of a TV set – the kind where you need to hop several steps in any direction and do things like pushups and side lunges – room-scale on the Vive doesn't require much more space than that. Again, more is better, but you'll be fine without it (we're using a 10 x 11 ft. space with the Vive Pre, and it's been wonderful).

When you're done playing, the space goes back to being whatever it normally is (just stash away your headset and controllers, and ignore the tiny boxes hanging on the wall). The big requirements are that you need to be able to easily clear some adequate floor space when it's time to play and make sure young children or pets won't barge in unexpectedly. Unless you live in a tiny studio apartment or dorm room, it's easy to see most people having a pretty easy time with this.

For more detail on the Vive's setup, you can hit up our separate article on that.

Launch lineup: Thinner than the Rift's, but not without its own advantages

The Oculus Rift's launch lineup is in a league of its own, but the Vive isn't doing bad here by any means. We've been playing either full betas or demos of Vive games Hover Junkers, Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption, Final Approach, Selfie Tennis, Cloudlands: VR Minigolf, The Brookhaven Experiment, Audioshield and Tilt Brush on our Vive Pre (among others) and there's plenty of "magical" content there to keep you occupied for a while. Valve's new collection of mini-games, The Lab, which will launch as a free download on April 5, will only add to that.

The Vive's launch lineup does look thin in numbers and depth compared to the Rift's, but remember that all of the Rift's launch games are gamepad-based, as its motion controllers don't arrive until later this year (possibly around September or October). All of the Vive games we listed use its bundled motion controllers and support room-scale – making the Rift's advantage here less than cut-and-dry.

Comfortable with glasses

The Vive and PlayStation VR both let you slide their lenses forwards or backwards to either make room for glasses or give people who don't wear glasses a wider field of view. This is a great feature for anyone who wears them.

Oculus execs say the Rift has plenty of room for glasses (and we haven't had any problems fitting them in), but it isn't as comfortable to wear with specs. At GDC, I felt some pressure from my glasses against my face while wearing the Rift – even when the straps were fairly loose. The Vive Pre has been completely comfortable with specs underneath.

Countdown to April 5

Keep in mind that these impressions are all based on a dev kit that was never intended for public consumption. But also keep in mind that the differences between this latest dev kit and the consumer version appear to be extremely minor. Apart from playing its full lineup of (non-beta) launch games, we feel like we have a great sense of what the Vive is going to be like .... and we like what we're seeing.

Stay tuned for much more on the HTC Vive and its SteamVR launch lineup during the next few weeks.

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