HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens available for pre-order

The HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens: available to pre-order (sort-of in the case of the HoloLens)
The HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens: available to pre-order (sort-of in the case of the HoloLens) – credits; Vive via HTC, HoloLens via Microsoft

Monday, February 29th 2016 saw HTC / Valve open the doors for pre-ordering of the consumer version of the Vive VR headset, while Microsoft started accepting pre-orders for the Development Edition of the AR / mixed reality HoloLens system.

The first batches of each system are expected to start shipping around the same time as Oculus VR commences the first shipments of the Rift headset, which was made available for pre-order in January: the Rift is expected to start shipping on March 28th, world-wide, with the Vive starting on April 5th, also world-wide (although the latest update on the UK order page now states shipping will be in May 2016, possibly as a result of initial order received). The HoloLens will commence shipping on March 30th – but only to developers in the USA and Canada.

HTC initially announced the US consumer price for the Vive  – US $799 excluding sales and shipping –  on Sunday February 21st. This is some US $200 more than the Oculus Rift, but the prices does includes two wireless hand controllers; Rift buyers will have to purchase similar controllers separately, either from a third-party or through Oculus VR when their Touch system launches some time in Q2 2016. While no prices have been confirmed for the latter, many are taking Palmer Luckey’s comments that bundling Touch with the Rift would have “significantly” raised the price of the latter to mean that Touch is liable to cost between US $100 and US $200 – markedly closing the gap between the two systems.

The Vive pre-order kit comprises the headset unit, two wireless hand controllers, two room sensors and a pair of ear buds (the headset includes a jack socket for those wishing to use their own headsets / ear buds
The Vive pre-order kit comprises the headset unit, two wireless hand controllers, two room sensors and a pair of ear buds – although the headset includes a jack socket for those wishing to use their own headsets / ear buds (credit: HTC)

On February 28th, 2016, HTC further announced the Vive’s international pre-order pricing. This see the Vive pitched at £689 (around US $960) in the UK and €899 (US $977) in Europe, both inclusive of VAT but exclusive of shipping costs (£57.60 for UK customers). Customers in Canada can expect to pay CAD $1149 + tax and shipping.

The Vive package includes the headset, which has a similar technical specification to the Oculus Rift (but with a 9:5 aspect ratio rather than 16:9, the former being said to result in a more natural and convincing “feel” to images on the headset’s screens), the two wireless controllers,  a pair of Vive base station sensors, a Vive Link Box, and a pair of Vive ear buds. For a “limited period” pre-order units will additionally ship with two free VR games: Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives and Fantastic Contraption and will also include Google’s Tilt Brush VR painting system.

As an added sweetener for developers, and as reported by Tech News World, Unity Technologies has announced their game platform will have native support for the HTC Vive and Steam VR, while Valve have introduced an advanced rendering plug-in developed for Unity. There is also a Vive Developer’s portal, which includes support for Unreal Engine.

The computer hardware specifications for the Vive also pretty much resemble those of for the Oculus Rift, and like Oculus VR, Steam are offering an application that potential purchasers can download to test whether their PC is “VR ready”, while HTC offer a page of recommended PC hardware suppliers who can provide “Vive optimised systems” to US customers.

The Vive Pre consumer edition now available for pre-order
The Vive Pre consumer edition now available for pre-order (credit: HTC)

As I reported in January, the headset includes two interesting additions. The first is the front mounted “pass through” camera, which allows the user to see an overlay of the room around them projected into their virtual view. This fades in if they approach a physical object (e.g. a wall or desk, etc.), or can be manually triggered via the hand controllers, and allows for collision avoidance when using the headset with the room sensors to move around within a VR environment. The second is “Mura correction” (“mura” being a Japanese term meaning “unevenness” or “lack of uniformity”), which removes the inconsistent brightness levels between one pixel and the next on earlier Vive headsets, presenting a far more uniform and cleaner image.

Further information can be obtained from the HTC Vive pre-order website and via Valve’s Steam website.

If the price of the Rift and Vive sound bad, then the cost of the HoloLens Development Kit might well sound obscene, with Microsoft pitching it at US $3,000 a pop to US and Canadian developers. (who must also be registered Windows Insiders).

Microsoft's HoloLens: to be deployed to the International Space Station
Microsoft’s HoloLens (credit: Microsoft)

However, one mitigating aspect of this price is that the HoloLens is a completely self-contained unit: all the processing hardware and imaging software (built on Windows 10) is contained within the unit itself, which is battery-powered (active life around 3 hours of use, standby life of about 2 weeks between recharges). The Development Edition is also clearly just that – a unit aimed specifically at high-end developers wanting to create applications for the system.

Even so, the price is pretty hefty, and not something smaller or independent developers may find out of their comfort zone.

Promoted as a mixed reality unit, the HoloLens is designed to overlay the wearer’s real-world view with digital images, information, etc. This potentially opens it to a fair wider range of work and leisure applications than all-enclosing VR systems, allowing the wearer to fully interact with a virtual environment and their physical environment at exactly the same time, and Microsoft offer a pretty glowing vision of what life with the HoloLens might be like, whether at work or at play.

NASA certainly feel the unit – which, when it first appeared was critiqued by the likes of Quartz (among others) for its field of view failing to match expectations present by Microsoft – is worth the effort. As the promo video touches upon, NASA / JPL is using the headset in support of rover operations on Mars (which I wrote about here); in addition, two HoloLens headset have been flown to the International Space Station, where they’ll be used to support ISS activities.

The HoloLens Development Edition comprises the headset, which runs Windows 10 and has an active battery life of 3 hours (up to two weeks in standby mode), a USB adaptor and a carry case. There’s also a Windows holographic documentation website.

Further information on the HoloLens can be found via the Microsoft HoloLens website.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Vive pre-orders stack against those of the Rift. Many in the tech media regard the Vive as the better of the two products, despite the Rift getting the lion’s shared of the hype; however, this does need to be offset against the current strength of the US dollar at the moment, particularly where sterling and the euro are concerned. This said, and as noted at the top of this article, the shipping date for UK orders appear to have been pushed back to May 2016, suggesting initial orders may be relatively strong among early adopters.

The HoloLens is really in a class of its own. The unit isn’t aimed at the consumer but at building an ecosystem of games, applications etc., to support it. That said, if it is to gain real traction, it’s liable to need a lot more in the way of ergonomic styling for many, and it is certainly going to have a consumer price-point that is a lot, lot lower. Google pitched the first offering of the Glass system at US $1,500 and completely failed to enthral people (although it’s worth noting Google also filed application with the Federal Communications Commission for a new version of Glass in December 2015).

I still remain convinced that AR / mixed reality potentially has far greater mass market appeal than VR. However, if there is one thing these pre-order announcements demonstrate, it is perhaps just how far VR / AR technologies still need to go before they become the kind of “must have” additions people want in their lives.

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