After years of focusing on business-oriented virtual reality, HTC is launching a $ 499 entertainment-focused headset called Vive Flow in November, with pre-orders starting globally today.
The new Vive Flow looks radically different from most HTC Vive devices. It’s a standalone piece of hardware modeled after a pair of sunglasses, and at first glance it could pass for a reinforced reality headset, not just a VR. But behind the slightly bug-eyed mirror shades, you’ll find a lighter version of previous Vive headsets — minus some great features.
Vive Flow, which was leaked heavily before HTC unveiled today, is a compromise between capacity and availability. The device has a display of 1.6 K per. Eye (HTC did not provide the exact resolution) with a 100 degree field of view with a refresh rate of 75 Hz. It’s a bit more limited than the 120 degrees and 90Hz speeds you find on the more expensive Vive Focus 3 and roughly the same refresh rate, but a lower field of view than the original Quest. It’s also a bit comparable to Oculus Quest’s refresh rate before a recent upgrade and a bit more cramped than its 110-degree field of view.
Two front-facing cameras handle motion tracking inside and out, and HTC also plans to support hand tracking, though the feature was not available during a pre-launch demo and did not provide an exact timeline for its rollout. It uses the latest generation Qualcomm XR1 chipset (unlike Quest 2’s XR2), and it has a respectable 64 GB of storage space, but — unlike the Focus 3 — no space for an expansion card.
Lightweight hardware is a big selling point for HTC. “We wanted to come up with something lighter, more portable, easier to travel with,” says Dan O’Brien, HTC’s head of VR. Flow weighs 189 grams compared to about 500 grams for the Oculus Quest 2 and has a hinged design that can be folded up to fit in a $ 49 carrying case.
Unlike previous Vive headsets, the Vive Flow does not come with a controller. Instead, you connect the headset wirelessly to an Android smartphone and use the phone as a combination remote control / touchpad. Similar to the mobile Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR remotes, it is basically a virtual laser pointer with buttons for selecting items and opening the home screen.
Leaked photos showed Flow connected to a black box that some people wondered could be an external computer device. It’s actually a $ 79 battery pack that should let you use the headset for four to five hours. Flow technically has its own battery, but HTC says it only lasts a few minutes – it’s designed to let you switch power sources without turning off the headset. So you need either the HTC battery sold separately from the headset or (according to HTC) a 10,000 mAh powerbank and a USB-C cable.
In addition to controlling the device, the phone connection lets you mirror Android apps, call up a virtual copy of the phone’s home screen, and let you launch apps like streaming video services in a floating window. The headset does not pair with iPhones, and although HTC has not ruled out future support, it indicated that there were serious barriers to getting iOS to play well with Flow.
HTC wants people to use Vive Flow for visually immersive but mostly desktop experiences. So you can watch a 360-degree video or sit in a virtual environment, but you can not use apps that require full virtual hands. (This excludes most well-known VR games.) Camera tracking gives you a more natural experience than a headset that can only detect the angle of your head, but the app catalog and the somewhat loose-fitting spectacle-style design mean you probably won’t walk around.
HTC says Flow launches with 100 apps and supports 150 before the end of the year. In addition to applications such as video streaming, its release message promotes the Tripp meditation app and VR therapeutic service MyndVR, which is tailored for older adults. You can also engage in social media spaces like Vive Sync and watch streaming video, something that has proven popular on AR glasses. Flow supports a limited number of apps in HTC’s Viveport store, and users can subscribe to a reduced, Flow-focused version at $ 5.99 per share. Month of Viveport’s subscription service.
Vive Flow basically acts as a VR headset for people who find current VR headsets overcomplicated or intimidating. O’Brien describes the device as something that is easy to put in a bag while traveling without worrying about extra pieces like controllers. “We wanted to make something that was super easy and flexible,” he says. Instead of directly competing with gaming-oriented headsets, HTC is trying to devise a new category of itself.
HTC’s focus on older users (“the huge Boomer population”, as one MyndVR representative put it) is part of this strategy. Then is pushed to a spectacle-like design instead of the straps you find on most headsets. “There’s the user who really just wants this thing to be scary and easy to turn on and off,” says O’Brien — and that’s the one Flow is made for. The result has much in common with the now discontinued Oculus Go, but with a hungrier look and upgrades like camera tracking from the inside out.
My brief experience with Vive Flow was a mixed bag. Flow is actually remarkably light – presumably in part because HTC unloaded its battery. But without a strap system to hold the headset in place, the screen slid down my face, blurring the top half of my VR experience. HTC plans to offer alternative interchangeable face packs for different fits, and one of them worked better than the original. But I still had to be careful while turning my head, and the feeling of carefully balancing the headset was not exactly relaxing.
Flow was exponentially more bearable than previous “glasses style” VR headsets I’ve tried. It’s just still much more unstable-feeling than the Focus 3, Quest, or virtually any other large headset, and there’s no alternative strap option for people who want a more secure fit. There is a diopter adjustment dial so you can change the focus of each eye individually, but like Quest 2, you can inappropriately not change the focus while actually looking at a picture – you have to take the headset off, turn the wheel a notch, and then put it on again.
The smartphone-based controller, Vive Flow’s biggest departure from standard VR design, is theoretically reasonable, but practically awkward. I used an HTC-supplied Android device that worked fine as a VR laser pointer. But thanks to the long-standing trend of ever-larger phones, I could barely fit my hand around HTC’s phone to press virtual buttons on the screen. It is also a strange choice for any headset aimed at older users who are dramatically less likely to own smartphones.
Hand tracking could partially solve the interaction problem. But gesture interfaces remain frustrating hit-or-miss and typically require you to keep your fingers up to perform fine movements, which also seems like a bad option if your hands have limited mobility and I did not get to try HTC’s version in my demo. O’Brien says HTC is still playing with options for other control systems – the plan is to release the headset and then adjust its design based on how people use it.
More generally, it’s not clear HTC’s emphasis on portability is the key to winning over VR doubters. Companies have been putting “VR you can throw in the bag” for years, and outside of people whose jobs involve headsets, I have not seen a single person mention it as a selling point – while I have heard even skeptics praise larger headsets for being comfortable. HTC also says that people will feel less awkward about having this spectacle-like design in a public setting like an airplane. As someone who has actually worn a VR headset on an airplane, I’m not sure it’s enough to erase its basic weirdness.
There is not really a clear audience for Flow in the US market. It is far more expensive and less feature rich than the Facebook-subsidized Oculus Quest 2, but without specialized features that can make it attractive to businesses or other organizations. (Film festivals and schools, for example, can use a VR headset without frills for 360-degree video, but Flow is not.) HTC has designed social apps like Sync that could have a relatively broad appeal. But outside of its meditation and video options, my Flow demo did not offer a great sense of its daily value. I mostly found small games that I could play occasionally, not tools I would spend $ 499 to access.
But HTC has built a strong base of VR business hardware, and for now, it seems content to release Flow as an experiment. Well, at least you did not go down without explaining yourself first.