HTC's Most Important CES Announcement Isn't The New Vive Pro Headset

(Steven Tweedie/Business Insider)

One of the motion controllers for the HTC Vive Pre.

The earlier version of the Vive had this sort of chaperone, but it was entirely virtual. The camera found on the Vive Pre, on the other hand, now merges the two worlds into one, showing a stylized version of the people and objects beyond that virtual barrier so you can not only see that your room's doorway is inches away but also that your friend is standing on the other side, too.

That's huge. I actually conducted a majority of my interview with the HTC representative entirely in VR, and thanks to the front-facing camera, I could see exactly where he was in the room. When he brought in a chair from the other room, I was able to keep the headset on and see where he placed it before going to sit down on the "virtual" chair within the headset that was indeed matched up perfectly with the real-world chair.

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HTC Vive Pre

(Steven Tweedie/Business Insider)

One of the two — now wireless — Lighthouse trackers that maps your room and tracks your movements in virtual reality.

HTC and Valve decided to overlay a filter of sorts on the real world when it's ported into your headset, which they argue makes the transition and merging of the two spaces feel more natural. After my demo and trying a similar but limited front-facing camera on Samsung's Gear VR, I agree. Mixing a virtually rendered environment with unfiltered footage of the real world would be jarring, and this way it just feels like you're seeing the real world through a "Matrix"-esque filter.

It's one of those things that's easier to see than explain, but when I asked if I could use my phone to take a picture of the new chaperone technology through the headset's, HTC wouldn't allow it.

I'd argue that the front-facing camera gives HTC and Valve a leg up on the Oculus Rift, but some people might not care about the merging of the virtual and real worlds, or maybe they plan to use their VR headset sitting down anyway, so the idea of a virtual chaperone won't be that useful.

As far as other features go, Vive Pre hasn't lost anything, but it's gained some new lenses that are said to make black appear blacker for a more immersive experience. The top-of-the-line motion controllers are now wireless — a welcome change — and feature a new design. The two satellite tracker boxes that scan your room to allow for precise positional tracking have also received a polished redesign and are now wireless, which means fewer cords to avoid when walking around in VR.

The headset's design is also a bit more polished, with the infrared trackers that dot its shell now hidden, and there's now the game-changing camera that faces forward and rests directly above your nose.

Will Oculus follow?

There isn't a front-facing camera in the Oculus Rift, but that doesn't mean it will stay that way, and Oculus has certainly researched the technology. They just decided to leave it out of the first consumer version of the Oculus Rift. But Oculus worked with Samsung to create its Gear VR mobile headset that includes a pass-through camera like the Vive Pre — but far more limited — so I'd say it's likely to be present in version 2.0 of the Oculus Rift.

For now, however, HTC has an important feature that differentiates itself from the Rift, and it's only going to make deciding between the two headsets that much more difficult.

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