HTC and Valve’s Vive was the first virtual reality headset that really made me jump on the VR hype train. Not only could you escape into virtual worlds, but thanks to its motion tracking sensors, your movement in the real world was translated into the digital. You were literally able to walk around in a whole new environment.
But it wasn’t perfect. Like Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift, the Vive’s display resolution made individual pixels clearly visible in certain situations, killing any sense of true immersion. The headset itself wasn’t exactly comfortable for those who wear glasses, and often mashed them against your face. Then there was the cable that connected the Vive to your computer, which was a constant tripping hazard.
And that’s where the HTC Vive Pro comes in. Available sometime this year, the Vive Pro improves upon all of the original Vive’s shortcomings by adding a significantly sharper display and more ergonomic design. There’s even a new Vive Wireless Adapter that lets you cut the cord to your PC, so you can walk around without wrapping yourself up in a cord.
It’s an impressive upgrade, especially given the fact that the headset has been out for just under two years. But it still needs compelling VR content to go along with those enhancements if it’s to move the needle for the industry.
So long screen door
I loved the original Vive when I first tried it back in 2016. But after a number of gaming sessions and using other headsets, the Vive’s visual shortcomings became more and more obvious.
Like the Rift, the original Vive had a resolution of 1,080 pixels by 1,200 pixels per eye. That’s not terrible when you compare it to a television that you sit relatively far from, but when you bring that screen right up to your eye, those individual pixels become clearly visible.
Text, for example, always looked blocky and, at certain font sizes, was almost too difficult to read. Being able to see those pixels also creates what’s called the “screen door effect.” Basically, when you look at something in the headset, it appears as though you’re viewing it with your face pressed up against a screen, due to the blank spaces between each pixel.
For the Vive Pro, HTC upped the headset’s resolution by 78% to 2,880 pixels by 1,600 pixels, or 1,440 by 1,600 pixels per eye. That’s a big improvement for a relatively small screen. As a result, images look far clearer than before.
HTC provided a test scenario where you viewed a VR room complete with a large text window and a distant bookshelf using both the first-generation Vive and the Pro, and the results were really astounding. The text in the large window was visible, but pixelated. You could even see the blues, greens and reds that made up the text’s white coloring. Finer details, like the titles on the books’ bindings were impossible to make out altogether.
Switch to the Pro, though, and that windowed text looks crisp and uniformly white. Even the books’ titles were easy to see without having to squint. It was really a striking enhancement over the previous generation headset. That said, it’s not like the kind of resolution you’d get out of a 55-inch 4K TV. There are still some sharp edges, for sure. But it’s certainly not something that will take you out of your gaming experience.
The Pro’s revised ergonomics also meant that I could keep my glasses on when using the headset and not have to worry about them being smashed against my face. The visor is wider and more comfortable than the first Vive, and its more balanced weight distribution makes it feel lighter than it actually is.
What’s more HTC is including premium built-in headphones for the Pro, that include a built-in amplifier. I couldn’t get much of a sense for how those headphones sounded during my demo, since the room was full of people and other demo stations making plenty of ambient noise. But from what I heard the headphones should offer a solid audio experience.
No more wires
In addition to its revised headset, HTC rolled out its new Vive Wireless Adapter. The antenna-like device that connects to the top of the headset allows you to move around with the Vive on without tripping over any pesky wires.
Powering the headset is a small battery pack you attach to your belt or slide into your pocket. HTC, though, isn’t saying how much play time you’ll get out of each charge.
Of course, the headset still needs some kind of connection to your PC, so HTC has built a wireless receiver that uses high-speed WiGig connectivity. WiGig is the key to making the Vive wireless, since it can carry so much data. Without it, HTC wouldn’t have been able to offer the feature.
The PC receiver connects to your computer’s PCI Express slot, which will be an issue for consumers who aren’t exactly comfortable tooling around with the inside of their machines. Laptop owners should be able to connect the receiver to their notebook’s mini PCI Express slot.
It goes without saying that the adapter doesn’t do much for making you look like less of a goober while wearing the Vive. But then again, you shouldn’t care how you look while wearing it anyway. After all, you’ve already resigned yourself to the fact that you look ridiculous with a VR headset on to begin with.
HTC doesn’t have a price for the wireless adapter just yet, but the company did say it will be shipping in the third quarter. So we’ll have to wait a bit longer until we know how it works in the real world.
Of course, neither the Vive Pro or the adapter address the main issue with VR, which is a lack of compelling content. Until we get a game or other experience that warrants the public dropping hundreds of bucks on a headset, the industry will remain relatively niche.
Here’s hoping something comes along in time for the Pro’s and adapter’s sales dates.
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Email Daniel Howley at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.