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A New VR Challenger Approaches: Hands On With Valve And HTC's Vive

Two months ago at CES, I was stunned by what I saw in Oculus' Crescent Bay build. It was an unforgettable experience that made me a believer in virtual reality (VR). I told friends and family about it for days after the event. Fast-forward to today. On the heels of the news that Valve and HTC are collaborating on their own VR device, the HTC Vive, we met with Valve at GDC to try it out for ourselves.

I really thought nothing could beat Crescent Bay, but my experience with Vive gives Oculus a run for its money.

Walking into the room, I immediately saw two black boxes on the top of shelves on either corners of the room. These devices are called "base stations," and they emit lasers to create the virtual boundaries of Vive. When I started using Vive, there was a rectangle on the floor indicating the safe area where I could walk. As I moved closer to the edge a wall appeared to indicate I was at the edge of the space, which perfectly coincided with the actual, physical wall.

I was then given the controllers for each hand. They featured a rear trigger button, the circular touchpad, similar to the pad on the Steam controller, and two grip buttons on both controllers. These would act as my virtual hands in each scenario. The controllers were wired connections at the time, but I was told that they would be wireless at launch with the base stations acting as detectors for the wireless controllers. A pair of headphones were placed on my head. HTC is said to be working on the audio quality for the final version of Vive, but you can still use any pair of headphones for Vive.

Then the demos began. The first was similar to Crescent Bay in that it was more of just a visual experience. I was underwater, standing on a deck of a sunken ship. A school of fish swam around me while a manta ray swam by, but kept its distance. A large humpback whale then entered the scene from behind the ship. This was where Vive's 110-degree view and 1080 x 1200 resolution (per eye) really flexed its muscles. As it approached the ship, I could see every crease and detail on the whale's eyes. As it turned away I saw every fold of its underbelly. The level of detail was astounding and the entire environment, from the sun peeking above the water to the sound of groaning, rusty metal, only increased the level of immersion.

The rest of the demos then highlighted the interactive use of the controllers. There was a scenario where the controllers became "hands" and I had to turn two gears to open a secret compartment as well as interact with a few objects. One of the more notable objects was a pair of spectacles that I "wore" that gave the entire landscape a green hue. I also tried throwing objects from one hand to another to test the responsiveness of the Vive controllers, and it showed no latency at all.

Another demo allowed me to paint in the 3D space using a variety of materials, such as light, fire, and oil, as paintbrushes. While my painting skills aren't exactly the envy of the painting world, my creations looked beautiful and painting in 3D space definitely allows for more creativity. I could paint just a simple picture in front of me or use the entire space as a canvas for a grand painting.

But perhaps the most interesting demo was from Valve. Set in the popular Portal universe, the demo put me in the shoes of a robot repairman. One of the walls was actually a gate, and once I opened it, a damaged Atlas robot, one of the two playable characters in the cooperative version of Portal 2, stumbled into the room. I was then instructed to open it by pulling a handle on its front panel, which was displayed in the most amazing fashion. The robot's parts were in various layers, which stretched across the entire length of the room. I could rotate the layers so that a few parts could essentially pop-out from the schematic. The level of detail and the interactive experience in the short demo was astounding because it showed the potential of what VR can do, not only from a games perspective, but also for other purposes, such as a simple repair of a device or even a life-saving surgery.

Throughout this week at GDC, I've tried numerous VR devices, including MindMaze's MindLeap, Razer's OSVR, Sulon's Cortex, Sony's Morpheus, and Crytek's Dinosaur Island demo on Oculus' Crescent Bay. Each one displayed its own strengths in the VR field, but none came close to the experience that Vive offered. The images were beautiful and the interactions were nearly flawless. Like most of the VR devices, there's still a lot of work to be done before Vive gets into the consumers' hands, but it definitely has a leg up from the rest of the competition.

Follow Rexly Peñaflorida II @Heirdeux. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.