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Reality-checking HTC Vive and SteamVR: 4 crucial questions for the virtual reality headset

Less than a week after we first learned SteamVR existed, we already know what it is—sort of. It is indeed a virtual reality headset, a la the Oculus Rift or GearVR. It's the result of a partnership between Valve and HTC. And its name is "Vive."

Those were the key details that came out of HTC's Mobile World Congress presentation Sunday, along with the core specs: Two (one per eye) 1200x1080 screens rocking a 90Hz refresh rate, seventy internal sensors tracked by a pair of "SteamVR base stations" that allow you to move around rooms up to 15 feet by 15 feet, and a pair of wireless controllers to track hand movements. Oh, and there's an audio jack on the side.

That's basically what we know right now, and it's presumably all we'll know until we get our hands on the device later this week during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

But ahead of that hands-on, there are some things I'd like to discuss: A dash of speculation, a sprinkle of hype, and a heaping serving of reality.

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HTC's Vive VR headset.

Remember Steam Machines?

The first thing I think we should discuss is timing. HTC and Valve are on-record saying this device will launch by the end of 2015. If they hit that goal? Amazing!

Lest we forget the sins of the past, however, I'd like to bring up an old sore spot: Steam Machines. At CES 2014 Valve and a whole host of PC makers similarly swore we'd see Steam Machines on the market in holiday 2014.

We haven't heard anything about Steam Machines in the year since except words to the effect of "Yeah...we're not going to make our 2014 launch date." In fact, several of the would-be Steam Machines launched as Windows machines instead, such as the Alienware Alpha.

We're supposedly going to see a large Steam Machine presence at GDC this week, albeit rebranded as "living room hardware" instead of the semi-official brand name we heard last year. That's going to be our first exposure in fourteen months. And we still don't have a release date.

img 3579 Gordon Mah Ung

The Alienware Alpha was supposed to be the premier Steam Machine, but it launched as a Windows PC instead after Valve's SteamOS suffered delays.

So when Valve and HTC say "Yeah, the Vive is launching in holiday 2015," you'll have to forgive me if I'm a bit skeptical. Especially with specialized hardware like 90Hz screens in the mix—something Oculus CTO and tech-wizard John Carmack said was particularly difficult for Oculus to source at last year's Oculus Connect conference.

If we reach holiday 2015 and Vive is readily available for consumer purchase, well, good on them. Right now, the only consumer-available VR device on the market (or at least the only one that matters) is the Samsung/Oculus partnership, GearVR. More competition is desperately needed, though the Oculus Rift is expected to launch in 2015. What's more, we need competition that a) meets some basic technical specifications like the Vive's 90Hz refresh rate, so people stop feeling nauseous, and b) is priced semi-reasonably.

Which brings us to point number two.

What will it cost?

90Hz screens. Seventy internal sensors. Two base stations. Two wireless controllers with their own set of sensors.

Yeah, it sounds expensive. Oculus has said it's aiming to sell the eventual consumer Rift at $200-400, depending on component pricing, and that's (as far as we know) without the inclusion of a controller or separate base stations.

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HTC's Peter Chou holding the Vive VR headset.

Fortunately, you won’t need a HTC smartphone to run the Vive. While the Gear VR relies on Samsung’s high-end Galaxy phones for power and a display, HTC Americas president Jason Mackenzie confirmed that the HTC Vive will be a standalone device that connects to your PC in a VR-focused interview with Greenbot’s Florence Ion.

Wired or wireless?

But as far as actual performance is concerned, it all boils down to one question: Is the HTC Vive a wired device like the Oculus Rift or wireless like the GearVR?

If that sounds like a small difference, well, it's not. It completely changes the way you interact with virtual reality, speaking from my own experience with both the Rift DK2 and the GearVR. And it changes the overall possibilities.

Here are the pros and cons of each, laid out.

Wired: One of the biggest benefits to a wired headset is it's cheaper. Why? Because it lets your computer do all the legwork. There's already a graphics card inside my computer, and a fairly powerful one at that. I can load up any virtual reality demo, my graphics card will churn out the necessary visuals, and I'm ready to go.

This means you don't really need to build any graphics power into the headset itself, which lowers the cost to consumers. This is why the Oculus Rift DK2 is $350 while the GearVR requires a $200 headset and a $700 phone.

oculus crescent bay pc world 01

See the red-shirted dude in the back? He was there to make sure I didn't trip over the wires connected to the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype.

On the other hand, you're wired. Have you ever tried moving around with wires attached to the back of your head? It's not a great experience. When I tried the Crescent Bay Oculus prototype at Oculus Connect last September, we had to have a technician in the room with us to make sure we didn't accidentally tangle the wires by turning in circles, or simply trip and rip the wires out completely.

Do you have the funds to hire a fulltime technician to hang out in your house? Me either, which is why I'm confused by images of the Vive with wires clearly protruding from the top. If Valve and HTC want me to be able to move around a 15' x 15' space, wires will be a massive hindrance.

Wireless: So a wireless set solves the movement problem—you're no longer restricted to slow, careful motions in a defined path.

On the other hand, sending video over a wireless signal introduces latency and stuttering. Nobody’s figured out how to beam low-latency, high-res video from a PC to a display yet. And at 90 frames per second? Forget about it.

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Samsung's Gear VR is wireless, but relies on a high-end Galaxy handset for power and a display. 

The crux of the matter: The HTC Vive is probably wired in some way, but what does that mean for the much-vaunted 15 ft. movement diameter? Is this secretly Valve's Steam in-home streaming push? Can I go wireless and then stream cutting-edge PC games at 90 frames per second to the device? Not likely. But it's a nice dream.

What is SteamVR, really?

That brings us to the final question: What is SteamVR?

HTC and Valve definitely collaborated on Vive, but Valve also collaborated with about a dozen manufacturers for Steam Machines. Are the base stations "SteamVR"? Is Vive SteamVR? Or is Vive simply a platform that will host SteamVR?

Valve's currently the big unknown in this whole formula, and it's keeping a tight lid on things until GDC gets under way. If Valve shared VR knowledge with HTC, it's not out of the realm of possibility that knowledge was shared with other manufacturers too. Will we see other SteamVR hardware in the near future? Is SteamVR actually just a VR-enabled Steam storefront?

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And so many other questions remain. How do HTC and Valve deal with how disorienting it is to walk around with your vision obscured? What happens if I set one of the hand trackers down and just walk away? Will friends and family make fun of me while wearing it?

All important questions, and we'll hopefully have some answers to bring you after our hands-on time later this week. Until then, stay tuned to PCWorld for more GDC coverage all week long, or follow me on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news. Feel free to shoot me your questions, compliments, and displeasures.

This story, "Reality-checking HTC Vive and SteamVR: 4 crucial questions for the virtual reality headset" was originally published by PCWorld.

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