The HTC Vive Pre is no HoloLens rival but with the addition of a front-facing camera it does now share the ability to give the wearer not only presence in a virtual space but presence in the real world too.
We tried out the second gen HTC and Valve headset at CES 2016 and were blown away by how such a simple addition - a blurry, blue outline of objects and people around us - could enhance the overall VR experience so much. It's the difference between being fully immersed and using one bit of brain to consider if you're about to walk into the kitchen counter.
A passthrough camera appears on the Gear VR, sure, but it's more useful on a headset like Vive which uses room scale tracking to allow you to walk around virtual spaces. Vive's Chaperone feature is the most obvious use case.
"The front facing camera has a dual purpose," said Daniel K. O'Brien, HTC's VP for VR, planning and management.
"Being able to sit down, being able to pick up a drink, identify someone else in the room, being able to see where you are in the room. The camera is at the same framerate as what you're doing from a content perspective. It's all happening at 90fps, with really low latency and the frames per second is what keeps you feeling so good."
But that's not all the camera could do. In demos like Aperture Science, HTC's second-gen controllers appear as virtual versions of the same objects within VR. Now there is scope for the camera to allow gamers to see, say, another handheld controller or a real world keyboard and mouse below them. In the future, apps and games that incorporate real world objects and people could also be possible.
"We thought - let's go out there with a really great experience and show off the capability of how it can further enhance the chaperone system, making it safer to use, easier to use, very convenient and start there," said O'Brien.
"So we decided to get that out there and then let the devs go nuts with it. From a versatility standpoint, we'll open it up to the rest of the dev community and see what they want to come up with. We'll let the dev community take it where they want to, they can be faster than we can. The potential [for mixed reality applications] is there, absolutely."
HTC is giving out 7,000 Vive Pre units to developers so that by the time the final headset ships in April, there is enough entertainment and gaming content plus tools for engineers, teachers, designers and even surgeons to be getting on with.
"We are planning a content showcase with Valve at the end of January that we're very excited about," said O'Brien. "Who are the best content creators that can create for a Vive platform? Who understands the complexity of developing this kind of content, from geometry and locomotion to storytelling.
"Well the lion's share of them are game developers today. But the entertainment industry is quickly taking on VR content creation and the complexities of building for it. They are that next group that understands the space, really understands storytelling, really understands creating fun experiences for users."