Valve-HTC Vive: The closest thing we have to the Holodeck

We got a chance to try Valve’s VR system at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), and it’s the best VR experience we’ve had yet. This is the closest thing to a modern-day Holodeck there is at the moment.

Built in partnership with HTC, and named Vive, the head-mounted display (HMD) uses two 1080x1200-resolution displays, one for each eye. The FOV is around 100 degrees. While we could still make out the pixels, it’s hardly distracting and is definitely sharp enough for consumer release.

Like the Oculus Rift HMD, the Vive will be wired, and like Oculus’s Crescent Bay prototype, it supports a 90Hz refresh rate. Beyond that, there are some key differences. Instead of depending on a single external camera for head tracking, Valve has two “lighthouses,” which users must place at opposite ends of their room. These simply need to be powered (rather than plugged into your PC) and they emit red lasers that assist the Vive in supplying 360-degree room scale tracking, which allows you to map out your walkable space. The lighthouses also help identify Valve’s new VR controllers.

The controllers are very similar to the Razer Hydra controllers, except will be wireless (the prototype unit we tested used a wired solution, but we hear there are working wireless ones out there in the wild). The controllers have sensors that work with the lighthouses to detect where they are in your VR experience, meaning you can see your hands in the game. The controllers have a circular touchpad on the  front, a trigger button on the back that essentially allows you to grab things (à la crab hands), and long buttons on the side of the stick that you can squeeze. The controls were nearly 1:1 and are definitely the best VR controllers out there, better than Sixense’s similar Stem VR system. There are also a bunch of little cameras on the front of the headset that leverage the position of the lighthouses to provide positional tracking, which not only lets you lean into objects but to walk around as well. One big problem with VR pertains to response time; we tried shaking our head as fast as we could to see if we could experience any judder and are glad to report we experienced no such lag.

The half a dozen demos we tried were all fantastic. One took us to the bottom of the ocean atop a sunken pirate ship and allowed us to walk around the deck as a giant blue whale swam past. Another placed us in a kitchen and asked us to walk around and pick up ingredients to cook in a pot. We also tried a game called The Gallery: Six Elements that had us looking at a giant rock monster in a Lord of the Rings-style universe. Finally, we opened a bunch of funny drawers via a Portal 2 demo that looked gorgeous with its new Source 2.0 engine.

Compared to other VR solutions, Valve is at the top of the heap. Its headset is sharp, offers a great sense of depth, has excellent tracking, allows you to walk around, didn’t make us motion sick, and comes with an excellent controller that works well. Valve says a dev kit should be released by the fall, and the consumer release should be coming at the end of the year. If we do have one concern, however, it’s price. All of this sounds expensive, but we might just sell our own legs for this if it means we can have virtual ones.

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