As we approach the release of Valve's SteamVR and the Vive headset, we'll be updating this page with every scrap of new information. You can also follow the development of the Oculus Rift here.
After years of hype for the Oculus Rift, Valve suddenly became the frontrunner in the race to consumer VR when it announced SteamVR in March 2015. SteamVR, made in cooperation with smartphone company HTC (the headset is called the HTC Vive), is the culmination of years of research into VR at Valve. It's finally real, it works, and it works well—Valve has solved most of VR's major roadblocks, like positional tracking and motion sickness. Here's everything we know about SteamVR so far.
What’s the release date?
When Valve announced SteamVR in March, it claimed that the headset will be available to consumers by the end of the year. Valve also said that devkits would be available to developers this spring. There's been no news since GDC in March about those devkits, and whether they're already in the hands of developers, or still on track for a spring release.
What is it?
SteamVR is a virtual reality system, with a headset built by Valve and partner HTC. The headset itself is called the HTC Vive. Like the Oculus Rift, the Vive is a VR device that contains two screens (1080x1200 resolution) streaming data at high refresh rates (90Hz) to create the sense of 3D virtual reality. Lenses sit between your eyes and the displays to create a rounded field of view and help your eyes focus on the LCDs. The headset will connect via a hardwire to a PC, which will run games and other VR software.
The HTC Vive headset is just one component that makes up SteamVR. The headset's position and orientation in space are tracked with a pair of laser-emitting base stations that Valve calls Lighthouse. Two base stations are placed in the corners of a room, and the lasers they emit make contact with sensors arranged around the surface of the Vive headset. The tracking system is extremely fast and precise, and can also be used to map the boundaries of a room, which can be incorporated into the VR experience. Stand close to the wall, and a representation of it can appear in front of you, preventing you from walking headfirst into it.
The third element of SteamVR is a pair of wand-shaped controllers Valve designed for VR games. The SteamVR controllers represent Nintendo Wii remotes with sensor arrays mounted on top of them for the same degree of positional tracking as seen in the headset. The controllers use haptic thumbpads that can be split into a number of "buttons" or directional inputs. A trigger on the back serves as the primary button.
SteamVR is the latest iteration of virtual reality hardware from Valve, after years of R&D and experimenting with different tracking options. Notably, while the Oculus Rift is still presented as primarily a seated experience, SteamVR is designed to support standing and walking around a room with full positional tracking.
What’s happened recently?
Since March, there's been very little public information about SteamVR. Valve said that it would give free Vive Developer Edition headsets to some developers. Those sign-ups opened on April 21.
On April 30, Valve released the SDK for SteamVR, and also supports Unity and Unreal Engine 4.
How much does it cost?
Valve hasn't announced a price yet for SteamVR, but it's expected to cost more than the Oculus Rift for a couple reasons. HTC has stated that its wants to deliver a high-end, premium VR experience. The laser-based tracking system is likely more expensive than the camera system Oculus has been using with its headsets. SteamVR also includes a pair of controllers that will add to the cost.
We don't know if all those pieces will be bundled together or if there will be an option to buy them separately.
Have you used it?
We have. Our hardware editor Wes Fenlon used SteamVR at GDC in March 2015 and found that it had surpassed the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype hardware in most ways. Despite being sensitive to VR motion sickness, he didn't feel queasy at all using the Vive headset. SteamVR's controllers help convey a strong sense of presence in the virtual space, since you can physically move your hands around to interact with the virtual environment.
Wes also found the SteamVR's integration of tracking data into its game demos impressive. Walking around and seeing a translucent grid appear in the virtual environment where a real wall is in physical space felt a bit like walking around a Star Trek holodeck, and seems like a promising solution for game developers who want to encourage walking and exploring in VR.
The version of SteamVR we've used likely isn't final, so it's possible some elements of it will change by the consumer release in November.
What are the best videos?
It’s impossible to capture the experience of virtual reality in a 2D YouTube video. But if you want a very small taste of what one of Valve's VR demos looks like (one set in Portal's Aperture Science facility), you can watch this video from our friends at Maximum PC.
To learn more about SteamVR's technology and its Lighthouse laser tracking system, watch these two interviews with Valve from Tested.
What else do we know?
Very little. The Oculus Rift, SteamVR's biggest competitor, is launching in the first quarter of 2016. According to the CEO of Oculus, the consumer Rift headset and a PC capable of running it will cost around $1500.
Since Oculus has announced the system specs needed to run its headset, we can guess that the Oculus Rift will cost around $300—conceivably as low as $200 or as high as $400. SteamVR may come in at a higher price point than that.
Many prominent game developers tried on SteamVR at the 2015 Game Developer's Conference, and came away true believers. Cliff Bleszinski called it a transcendent experience when we interviewed him a few days later.
What are the system requirements?
There are no system requirements for SteamVR yet. Because VR requires high refresh rates pushed to two displays, it's going to be fairly demanding. Below are the recommended system requirements for the Oculus Rift, which are likely fairly similar to what you'll need to support SteamVR.
— NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
— Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
— 8GB+ RAM
— Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
— 2x USB 3.0 ports
— Windows 7 SP1 or newer