The second HTC Vive development kit has a built-in camera and new controllers

A last-minute prototype, just before VR hits the real world

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HTC is spending a surprisingly good name on a product that will only exist for a few months.

The product is the Vive Pre, a virtual reality headset that’s going out to developers soon after its unveiling this morning. The Pre is a transitory link between the original Vive prototype and its final consumer iteration, which is supposed to ship in April after several months of delays. It’s a second-generation development kit focused on creating a VR experience with the most experimental technology and the least compromise , even if it means few people can afford it.

Originally, the Pre wasn’t supposed to exist. The Vive was meant to launch by the end of 2015, but at the last minute, HTC and Valve reportedly held it in order to add “a very, very big technological breakthrough,” something worth giving up its position as the first high-end VR headset. At CES, we’ve finally learned what that was: a front-facing camera that gives wearers a window back into the real world. It’s an undeniably big change — and it's undeniably cool.

HTC Vive Pre

The camera isn't a novel idea. Oculus has acquired several companies that scan real-world space with cameras, and one of its leaked designs included a similar feature. It's conceptually much like the Gear VR’s pass-through camera mode — a toggle that swaps the headset's virtual environment for video from the phone. The Leap Motion, a depth-sensing camera that can be fixed to the front of a headset, also offers a video mode.

The difference is that Valve and HTC have managed to make the feature seamless and natural, at least for the short demos at CES. The original Vive's tracking space was bounded by a blue grid, letting wearers know they'd gone too far. While effective, it could give the misleading impression that you'd hit a flat wall. Now, instead of a wall, that grid acts as a membrane. Step or reach beyond its limits, and a black-and-teal rendering of the real world swims into view outside. It's detailed enough to make out objects and patterns, but not photorealistic enough to feel like a grainy imitation of reality, the way the Gear VR does.

Many have dabbled in headset cameras, few have made them central features

Right now, the camera doesn’t provide much beyond this boundary feature and a full "chaperone" mode, which replaces your entire environment with the camera view. It’s HTC and Valve’s answer to the vital question "How do you drink a glass of whiskey in VR?", and while it’s a pretty good one, it’s still not hugely ambitious. But the technology opens up a broader range of possibilities. Third-party developers will be able to tap into it for their own purposes, and an HTC spokesperson says that its software can map 3D space, which would let virtual objects respond to real-world ones — similar to Microsoft’s HoloLens room-scanning tech.

It’s a shame that the Vive’s demos don’t take advantage of these possibilities, or offer much new material at all. The demo includes a handful of familiar virtual experiences, including physics game Job Simulator, the Tilt Brush 3D painting app, and undersea environment TheBluVR. There’s a lot of exciting tech in the Vive, but unlike just about everyone else in virtual reality, Valve and HTC aren’t putting much effort into advertising their games yet. Several developers have announced support for Valve’s SteamVR, which will power the Vive. But so far, there are no big launch promotions, no preorder specials, and no big reveals like Oculus’ Rock Band VR or Sony’s Rez.

Tilt Brush HTC Vive

Tilt Brush (Drew Skillman)

HTC vice president of planning and management Dan O’Brien says that the Vive won’t have exclusive games, but that it will be revealing a launch lineup in the coming months. At CES, it’s showcasing a set of both gaming and non-gaming uses for the Vive, including a virtual showroom with Audi and a VirZoom exercise bike station. "Anybody that we put into a VR headset, whether they're a car designer or an airplane designer or an artist or a medical person, somebody that does education and training and simulation, they just see the applications so easily," says O’Brien.

Despite this, HTC seems to be banking more on the sheer technological prowess of the Vive than specific applications. The Vive doesn’t necessarily beat every element of Oculus or Sony’s hardware, and it doesn’t seem as focused on promoting software right now, either. But neither of those competitors can match the freedom of movement of what HTC calls "room-scale VR," and the front-facing camera is more experimental than anything we’ve seen from them in recent months. More importantly, it enforces a certain level of experience, rather than compromise to create on more accessible options. The Vive is the only system that’s never shown off with a traditional gamepad — only a pair of wand-like motion controllers that will ship with the headset.

HTC seems to be banking on the sheer technological prowess of the Vive

When we first saw the Vive, its hardware looked like someone split Valve’s Steam Controller in half and topped each side with a pointy LED-encrusted hat. Now, the wireless controllers are made of solid gray plastic and look less like "gamer gear." The Vive’s Lighthouse sensors track a smooth plastic circle on the end of each controller, putting their design somewhere between a miniature pistol and a portable cupholder. Holding them doesn’t feel quite as natural as using Oculus’ Touch controllers, which fit perfectly into a curled fist. But they’re as responsive as ever, and it’s gratifying to have motion controllers taken for granted, not treated as an optional feature.

There’s less obvious difference between the actual headset and its competition. HTC says that it’s improved the Vive’s visuals, with blacker blacks and more vivid colors, but this is difficult to judge without a direct point of comparison. While it’s gotten lighter and the straps have been redesigned for noticeably greater comfort, the Vive is probably still the least ergonomic of the major headsets, strapping tightly to your face instead of resting around your head. Oddly, the field of view does feel different, and better. HTC couldn’t confirm any change, but it feels like there’s less obvious black space around your peripheral vision.

HTC Vive Pre

Buying this bundle — including controllers, headset, and spatial sensors — won’t be cheap. No high-end VR headset maker has announced a price, but HTC has implied that the Vive will be the most expensive of the lot. This raises the question of whether the Vive will ever come within reach of ordinary users. It’s conventional wisdom that VR will start as a high-end luxury and trickle down, and O’Brien’s statements reflect this. Still, he’s cagey about how affordable it will be, emphasizing instead that the Vive will simply be worth whatever price tag it ends up getting. "I think the Vive is going to be for anybody that decides that they want the best VR experience," he says. "I think today — yeah, the innovator, the early adopter, the person who wants to go after the new technology's going to immediately grab onto it, but I think any consumer will find this a much more enjoyable experience."

The biggest mystery around the Pre, ultimately, is how different it will look from the headset that’s supposed to ship in April. Unlike the first development kit, it’s easy to imagine a slightly tweaked version of this design turning into a consumer-ready product. That’s especially true given how short the Pre’s run might be. HTC and Valve have promised to put out 7,000 units, going first to developers who already have kits, but they’ll move their focus to the consumer edition after that. Still, neither O’Brien nor any other member of the HTC delegation will rule out the possibility of another big change. "You're just going to have to wait," he says. "There's opportunity for improvement always with this hardware, but right now, we'll just focus on what we're releasing at CES this week."

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