Today’s VR-centric ViveCon 2021, presented by HTC’s Vive division of VR headsets, kicks off with two new headset models slated to launch this year.
That’s probably the headline HTC wants VR fans to focus on—hooray, new stuff to strap to faces—but a closer examination of both headsets (and feedback directly from HTC’s executive team) puts a damper on that, at least for any average consumer interested in buying either.
The Vive Focus 3, HTC’s newest “all-in-one” untethered VR headset, competes directly with the Oculus Quest 2, but it costs a whopping $1,000 more than the Facebook-branded option, at $1,299 MSRP. And the Vive Pro 2, a long-overdue spec bump to 2018’s Vive Pro, resembles the earlier model all too much while costing either $799 by itself or $1,399 for its “full kit.”
Those high prices aren’t accidents, as the HTC Vive department is full-speed ahead with a focus on business, enterprise, and public entertainment centers (aka “VR-cades”).
HTC doesn’t want to go downstream
When pressed, Vive General Manager Dan O’Brien confirmed that this month’s event has zero announcements in store for its Vive Cosmos line of headsets—which he also admitted is the company’s “consumer offering for PC-VR.” That’s not great news for VR fans outside the enterprise sphere. The Cosmos’ default inside-out tracking remains wonky, even after getting firmware updates, and its default controllers are an unfortunate mix of heavy and power-inefficient. Something like ViveCon would’ve been a great time to offer assurances for either current or future Cosmos customers. The silence there, as far as I’m concerned, speaks volumes.
When pressed about Oculus as VR’s top-selling consumer option, O’Brien was frank: HTC wants to make its VR money from upfront purchase revenue, not from “downstream” opportunities. He described at length the business model of “some brands” subsidizing expensive hardware at a lower MSRP “with the hope of monetizing downstream on shared services” and “maybe using data-mining tactics to understand user behavior and then run a program that also generates downstream income.” (It’s not hard to piece together who he may be talking about.)
O’Brien is instead bullish about targeting companies in the manufacturing and intensive training sectors who “can find the return-on-investment (ROI), their savings on efficiencies, and time to market, within six months of buying” Vive headsets.
But follow-up questions reveal that HTC isn’t necessarily interested in consumers who are willing to spend more for untethered Quest-like options. On paper, the untethered Vive Pro 3 sure seems like a sexy jump from Quest 2. The only spec they have in common is the Snapdragon XR2 as an SoC. Vive Focus 3 is otherwise an across-the-board jump: a 120-degree FOV (compared to Quest 2’s 92 degrees), a default refresh rate of 90 Hz (up from Quest 2’s 72 Hz default, which can scale up to 90 Hz and beyond), 8GB of RAM (up from Quest 2’s 6GB), and a “5K” display that offers a 170 percent jump in pixel resolution over Oculus’ latest model.
Plus, its granular interpupillary distance (IPD) slider will be great news for many head shapes and sizes that don’t conform to Quest 2’s backwards, cost-saving IPD slider. (That remains a sticking point for me, since every time I use Quest 2, its ill-fitting IPD leads me to headaches within 30 minutes of strapping in.)
Vive Pro 2: Resolution, and little else
I’m cautious to call Vive Focus 3 superior to Quest 2, since I’ve yet to test the headset, but I can already call out one major issue: HTC’s unwillingness to unlock its tethered, Android-powered software suite for consumer-facing software. O’Brien confirms that this decision has enterprise in mind, because HTC “doesn’t want to put any concern for our business customers… that their users would access consumer content.” Womp, womp.
With Quest 2’s rise in sales of both hardware and software, it’s no secret that VR apps are shifting away from dedicated PC-VR and toward Android-based ecosystems. Focus 3 will support both tethered PC-VR via a USB 3.0 cable and wireless PC-VR via the Wi-Fi 6 protocol, which is great news for consumers with libraries on PC storefronts. But its Android software restriction will make Focus 3 a tough sell as a future-proofed Quest rival. (That high cost includes a full HTC warranty, repair, and customer service package, to be fair.)
Meanwhile, Vive Pro 2 only improves upon the original HTC Vive Pro by boosting its frame rate and pixel count—and that’s good news for anybody who has stayed within the Vive ecosystem (complete with its tracking boxes and compatible accessories) and simply wants to jump to 120 Hz refresh and a 260 percent higher resolution than 2018’s Vive Pro. But that assumes you’re a fan of the Vive Pro’s design, weight, strap, FOV, and built-in speakers—and that you’re not interested in perks found in 2019’s eye-tracking Vive Pro Eye.
I’ve yet to test Vive Pro 2, but on paper, its resolution is arguably the only real selling point compared to the Valve Index headset, which retails for $499 by itself (and, in my humble opinion, surpasses the original Vive Pro’s elements in every way imaginable, especially FOV). When pressed on one of the Vive Pro’s worst aspects—its dated, heavy wand controllers—O’Brien basically tells consumers to buy Valve’s Index Controllers. I’m not kidding: “Customers have gravitated to the Knuckles, and we want to be supportive of that,” he says. (Sadly, this means anyone buying the $1,399 “full kit” is getting saddled with the old wands—and that means the kit in question is arguably targeted to non-gaming customers by default.)
There’s no place like home?
HTC could astound us all by announcing another Cosmos headset or update by year’s end—or maybe resurface its augmented reality-minded prototype, the Vive Proton, though O’Brien didn’t mention the latter in our call. Even if that were to happen, I was left with a clear indication that HTC is done with the consumer-facing sector. He had much longer answers to offer about business strategy and enterprise customers than he did about consumer-facing products and plans.
If you’ve been holding out for a great, forward-thinking home-VR option from the HTC Vive division, think of this year’s ViveCon as a very, very loud breakup letter. It’s over.
Listing image by HTC