How VR is finally becoming real, from new hardware to thrilling virtual reality experiences

From new hardware to new software to Oculus Rift preorders, VR finally got real at CES 2016.

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VR gets real in the desert

CES 2016 is when virtual reality got, well, real.

From new technology for HTC Vive to preorders for Oculus Rift to the reveal of a wide range of supporting hardware and software, VR’s finally feeling tangible after years of teasing and promises. Let’s dig in.

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Credit: Brad Chacos
Oculus Rift preorders

The biggest VR news coming out of CES has nothing to do with hardware or software, though—it’s that you can actually buy one of these newfangled VR headsets now, though for more money than was widely anticipated.

Oculus opened preorders for its Rift VR headset on Wednesday, with a sticker price of $600. Even though this is a major milestone for virtual reality, the immediate reaction wasn’t overwhelmingly positive, as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey hinted in the past that the price would likely be lower. Nevertheless, Oculus Rift preorders flew off the proverbial shelves in their opening hours.

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HTC Vive Pre

But Oculus’ biggest competition didn’t let Luckey and co. hog the spotlight unimpeded. HTC revealed an updated version of its SteamVR-powered Vive VR headset during CES 2016, dubbed the Vive Pre. The Vive Pre adds a front-facing camera to the headset, which developers can use to integrate the real world into virtual experiences. Think of the Vive Pre of a mix between the pure VR experience of Oculus Rift and the pure augmented reality of Microsoft’s Hololens. (Wondering what the difference is? Be sure to check out PCWorld’s VR for beginners guide .)

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VR Ready certification

With VR’s consumer launch imminent, PC makers are rushing to provide certifications that help users grasp that particular hardware will deliver a solid VR experience.

First up: Nvidia rolled out a “GeForce GTX VR Ready” certification badge that will adorn video cards and gaming PCs that pass muster for virtual reality gaming. That means the hardware inside will rock at least a GTX 970, which is the Oculus Rift’s minimum recommended graphics card for VR. MSI, Asus, HP, Falcon Northwest, Alienware, Zotac, EVGA, Maingear, and a slew of retailers have already pledged support for the certification.

AMD-powered hardware, of course, won’t be eligible for the GeForce GTX VR Ready program.

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Credit: Brad Chacos
Asus G11

Fortunately for AMD, Nvidia’s program isn’t the only one in town. It isn’t even the first, as Oculus announced the “Oculus Ready” program all the way back in September. Asus was showing off its Oculus Ready-certified PC, the G11 gaming desktop, at its CES suite. Configurations will vary, but all will meet or exceed the minimum specification requirements for a solid VR experience, and it’ll be offered with both Radeon and GeForce graphics cards.

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Credit: Brad Chacos
HP Envy Phoenix

HP took a different approach with its powerful new Envy Phoenix , working closely with HTC to ensure an optimal experience when the gaming PC’s paired with the Vive headset. The Envy Phoenix will offer a plug-and-play experience with the Vive, and HP and HTC are working to optimize the drivers for the computer to offer maximum performance with minimal power draw.

Intrigued? HP offers a 2TB hard drive and an overclocked Intel Core i7 K-series processor with the Envy Phoenix, and you’ll be able to choose between the Radeon R9 390X or the GeForce GTX 980 Ti for graphics firepower.

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Credit: Brad Chacos
EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti VR Edition

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX VR Ready certification won’t only apply to prebuilt PCs. EVGA’s embracing the virtual reality revolution with the EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti VR Edition, which is basically a version of EVGA’s existing GTX 980 Ti, but with an HDMI port on the inside of the PC, on the opposite edge of the usual ports. This snakes over to an expansion that you install in your 5.25-inch (read: DVD drive) bay, which holds an HDMI port and a pair of USB 3.0 ports of its own—most of you need to power a VR headset.

So why does this even exist? Snaking your VR headset’s cords around to the rear of your PC reduces their length and makes them prone to snagging on stuff. That can be a big hassle when those cords are connected to something wrapped around your face. The EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti VR Edition both provides enough graphical firepower to drive compelling VR experiences and eliminates that little setup headache. Now, to see how much it costs.

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Credit: Mark Hachman
Funky VR accessories

A fledgling industry of virtual reality accessories is already springing up, with the aim of making VR even more immersive.

The treadmill-like Virtuix Omni is basically a full-body controller for VR, letting you wander around virtual worlds with your physical feet. 3DRudder frees up your hands by letting you explore virtual reality worlds using your feet as controls. And Perceptive Devices’ software aims to let VR-immersed folks make mouse clicks merely by smiling. VR accessories is one field that’s only going to weirder as time goes on.

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Fantastical VR experiences

Finally, VR headsets are only the doorway. VR experiences are what will truly make or break this hot new tech, and I’m happy to report that the wide range of content on display at CES 2016 was eye-opening.

Sure, there was the usual lineup of VR games; I played platformer Lucky’s Tale, space dogfighting shooter Eve Valkyrie, and stranded astronaut sim Adr1ft, among others. And they were all great! But the really exciting VR experiences weren’t games whatsoever.

Lowe’s Holoroom (pictured), for example, lets you see your remodel in virtual reality before you drop your cash on materials you might not like in your house. My attempts to scale Mount Everest with the HTC Vive Pre kicked my primal brain into action and froze me in my tracks. And the virtual reality porn I tried in Naughty America’s suite? Well, let’s just say that was the most stimulating demo of them all.