With all the recent excitement about upcoming virtual reality headsets, many observers are still concerned about a fairly fundamental problem: the inability to see the world around you when your eyes are encased in a vision-blocking headset. A new prototype of the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive shown at CES this week aims to solve that problem with a front-facing camera that can integrate images of your surroundings with virtual reality scenes.
The HTC Vive Pre, the second development kit offered by the company, will be used by many developers working on software before the planned consumer version rollout in April (after a recent delay from “2015”). While the Pre isn’t representative of the final hardware, it looks much closer to a complete consumer device than the rough prototypes we first saw last March, with lots of exposed wiring and clunky design elements.
The biggest new feature on the Pre is the front-facing camera, whose main purpose seems to be the ability to get your bearings in the real world without having to lift the headset to look around. A hands-on look from The Verge describes how the remote real-world view turns on automatically when you reach the edge of the system’s tracking volume, providing a fuzzy black-and-blue view of your surroundings that lets you see objects and patterns like walls. You can replace the VR world with a full view of your surroundings in “chaperone mode”.
The camera also makes it possible to mix the virtual and real world in augmented reality style games and apps, though developers don’t seem to have any examples of that feature yet. “Being able to take a seat, find your drink and have conversations without removing your headset is just the beginning of what’s possible,” HTC said in a statement.
Oculus has also made some computer vision acquisitions that suggest it may be interested in similar “inside-out” cameras for tracking and real-world views in future headsets. The Gear VR headset from Samsung and Oculus can use the front-facing camera in the Galaxy smartphones to view your surroundings, but this feature requires you to leave the game world and enter a system menu.
HTC is touting a few other refinements for the new Vive Pre development kit. The jagged pyramid of IR lights on top of the original Vive dev kit controllers has been replaced with a smooth tracking ring that sits above the hand like a halo. According to HTC, a new dual-stage trigger allows for “smoother” interactions with objects, while haptic feedback should give players an idea of how virtual objects feel in their real hands.
The new controller also has “updated ergonomics and softer edges, more balance, new textured buttons… grip pads for a more comfortable feel in the hand,” and rechargeable lithium batteries that last four hours on a single charge, HTC says. .
As for the headset itself, HTC says it’s now more compact, with a brighter display and “picture refinements”. [that provide] more clarity.” A system of interchangeable foam inserts and nose packs will ensure the device sits comfortably on any face, even for users with glasses, HTC claims.
We’ve been extremely impressed with the room-scale VR experience the HTC Vive delivers every time we’ve had a chance to try it. These refinements sound like a strong step from the existing “tech demo” phase to a real consumer product. We just hope the current target for the April street date doesn’t fall into the usual “Valve time” trap of endless delays and promises it will be “done when it’s done.”