This week at CES, HTC showed off its new HTC Vive Pre virtual reality headset. This comes after breaking a big promise earlier last year in which they said consumers will be able to buy one before the end of 2015. When the delay was announced, it was claimed that it was because of a big “breakthrough,” and that HTC would be showing that off on new developer hardware at CES.
Although we’ve already covered the Vive Pre’s initial reveal, we did want to get some face-on time with what is the latest high-end VR solution to see first hand how the improvements made to the hardware affect the experience and to see if this “breakthrough” is genuine or just hyperbole.
The first thing that HTC went over with us when we met with them is all the physical improvements made the HMD, controllers and lighthouse base stations. They are quite a few (HTC told us they’ve redesigned “every component from the ground up”), and although most of them are small, they all speak to a further overall refinement of the hardware to be closer to a product that could be sold to consumers.
In fact, it has been speculated that the Vive Pre is the hardware that HTC was planning to sell in limited quantities this past December and the choice was made so it could be further refined and to give developers more time to work on content for it. When it was pointed out to use that if the Vive had shipped late last year that they would have almost being no finished content people could experience, the delay makes much more sense.
As for the improvements, looking at the headset, it has been redesigned to be more compact and although it isn’t lighter, the way it fits your face is improved and better balanced, making it feel lighter. The straps have redesigned and are made from higher-quality materials and are more comfortable and adjustable, with their connection to the HMD being able to swivel. When I put on the Pre, the improved straps did work much better, and it has a shape that cradles the back of your head similar to the design of the Oculus Rift CV1’s head strap.
The Vive Pre now has interchangeable face gaskets, the foam lining shown in the picture above and interchangeable nose gaskets (the rubber moulding in the centre) allowing for a better fit to different facial shapes. There is also a proximity sensor that automatically powers the displays on or off when you put on or take off the HMD (head mounted display).
Brighter and Clearer
In addition to these ergonomic improvements, there have also been some improvements made to the displays. The first is that they are noticeably brighter, and the second is what HTC is calling “mura correction.” Although they were not able to share with us any details as to how it works, the company did describe it as a ‘linen-like quality’ over the image that is most noticeable in darker environments, and this correction removes this greatly improving the image quality. After doing some research, I discovered this informative Reddit thread that speculates what this does, which addresses the problem that OLED displays have with subpixels having non-uniform brightness.
Although, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this should be considered a breakthrough, I can confidently say that the image quality of the Vive Pre, when compared to the original Vive, is noticeably improved. Everything looks brighter, clearer and crisper even though the actual resolution of the displays is the same. HTC also reminded us that the Vive is fully compatible with eyeglasses, with the ability to adjust to the distance of the lens to your eyes to accommodate different sized glasses.
Where the cables connect to the PC has also been changed, and the HDMI and USB 3.0 ports are not recessed into the headset, with a door that covers the plugs. The thinner cables run along the top of the head strap, and although they are still something you have to account for when using the Vive, they don’t seem to get in as way as much (and with the Pre’s new Chaperone system you can easily see where they are and avoid or move them while in VR).
Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Vive Pre does not have integrated headphones. There was some speculation that HTC would add this feature, and when asked we were told nothing was set in stone. However, HTC said that for now it feels like most Vive buyers will already own a decent headset and will probably prefer to use it over any built-in offering. There is also a microphone on the Pre, though we were not told its location.
The original Vive developer kit also had a front-facing camera (two in fact in what looked to be an HTC Ultrapixel camera layout), but when I tried it in Barcelona for the first time, the camera was not used for anything. Since then, it was speculated what it was for, with the consensus that it would be used to detect real-world objects, such as your cat, entering into the VR space and alerting you for safety.
However, the next time we tried the Vive we used a revised developer kit, and the camera had been blocked off. With the Pre is has returned, and it, along with the enhancements to the Chaperone software system it drives is the ‘breakthrough’ that HTC was referencing and does exactly as expected, bringing your real-world surrounds into your virtual world, for both safety and to enhanced your VR experience.
Updated Wireless Lighthouse Basestations
The improvements to the lighthouse base stations (which play a key role in the Vive’s room-scale VR tracking) are minimal but welcome. The previous versions needed a sync cable to be run between them (two lighthouses are the minimum needed to track room, and more can be added to map more complex spaces) the new ones have optional wireless syncing. They also look like finished products, are quieter and come with a universal tripod mount screw hole for easier mounting.
Significantly Better Controllers
Although the controllers have not had any changes made to their functionality, they have been completely redesign. Their shape is more comfortable, the button placement, shape and size is more ergonomic, and they look more like finished products, rather than the 3D printed-looking prototypes of the original Vive. One addition is a dual-stage trigger that developers can optionally take advantage of, instead of the single-stage of the older controllers.
What has improved is better haptic feedback, better wireless connectivity due to a relocation of the wireless receivers and most importantly vastly improved battery life. The original Vive wireless controllers would die after about an hour of use, which is certainly unacceptable for consumer use. The new controllers have built-in rechargeable batteries that last up to four hours.
Hardware That’s Ready for Prime Time
Throughout the time we played with the Vive Pre, I thought that this is hardware that is ready to be sold to the general public. If it were to go on sale tomorrow, I would have no hesitation in recommending it. However, while I think the hardware is ready, HTC and Valve are correct to say that there simply isn’t enough software out there to make investing in a Vive worthwhile. So delaying it to April now makes perfect sense to me, even if I was at first personally frustrated and disappointed by the delay.
The improved hardware is only half the story, though, and in the second part of out coverage of the Vive Pre we will detail all the improvements made to its software, including the new Chaperone system that uses the camera, which I’ve dubbed “Tron Mode”, so check back soon to read all those details and our overall thoughts about HTC’s latest Virtual Reality headset.