The Future of Virtual Reality: HTC Vive Pro & Vive Focus

By Paul Mealy

With the levels set for the first generation of virtual reality hardware, we can now take a look at the upcoming generation of virtual reality devices and see how they compare. As you’ll see, these headsets’ offerings vary considerably in experience quality, just like the first-generation offerings did, but the quality scale has been moved forward from the first generation of virtual reality. The high-end devices of the current generation will be blown away by some of the higher-end next-generation devices, and what may be considered low end in this second generation exceeds the first generation’s mid-tier devices. The future looks very bright for the next generation of virtual reality head-mounted displays (HMDs).

A number of companies have announced virtual reality consumer headset releases in the near future. However there is a vast ocean between announcement and a mass consumer-scale release. That ocean is littered with companies both large and small that have tried and failed to navigate the treacherous waters from announcement to final release. Failure often comes through no fault of the company or product itself. Be it competing products, a fickle customer base, or any number of potential issues, the evolution from ideation to release is a difficult climb for any product.

HTC Vive Pro

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive had consumer releases in March and April of 2016, respectively. That may not seem that long ago, but in the virtual reality world, where time passes akin to dog years, it can seem like a lifetime. As such, it was about time for an upgrade. And an upgrade is exactly what HTC is aiming for with its new HTC Vive Pro.

The original Vive was widely touted as one of the best consumer virtual reality experiences you could buy. Instead of trying to create an entirely new headset, HTC has instead focused on addressing some of the complaints fans had with the original Vive. The Vive Pro will increase the resolution of the original Vive from 1,080 x 1,200 per eye to 1,440 x 1,600 per eye. By all accounts, the change is akin to moving from standard-definition television to HD television.

The second feature that stands out with the Vive Pro is the new Vive Wireless Adapter. This adapter, which will work with the original Vive as well, features Intel’s WiGig technology to offer a wireless experience that operates in the 60 Ghz band. This should lead to lower latency and better performance.

Note, however, that unlike experiences that feature inside-out tracking, the Vive will still need its lighthouse sensors to positionally track users in space. Vive’s current headset, which offers six degrees of freedom tracking for its headset and controllers, has generally been regarded as one of the best in the consumer market. And early reviews point to the wireless adapter being able to retain that experience — a big step forward.

Six degrees of freedom (6DoF) refers to the ability of an object to move freely in three-dimensional space. In virtual reality, this typically refers to the ability to move forward/backward, up/down, and left/right with both orientation (rotational) tracking and positional (translation) tracking. 6DoF allows realistic movement in virtual reality worlds and increases the immersiveness of the virtual reality experience. Devices that only offer 3DoF will never feel as immersive as 6DoF devices.

This is one of the major differentiators to be aware of for virtual reality headsets. Higher-end headsets such as the HTC Vive allow full 6DoF, while the current-generation low-end and mid-tier devices mostly do not. Current mid-tier mobile options such as Google’s Daydream and Samsung’s Gear VR allow only 3DoF of movement — the three rotational movements (pitch, yaw, and roll). They don’t, however, allow for the translational movements, a big differentiator between the high-end headsets and the rest.

HTC also chose to integrate headphones into its new headset. (A common complaint of the original Vive was having to supply your own.) The Vive Pro also has an additional front-facing camera (in addition to the existing camera) in the headset. No word yet from HTC as to what these cameras could be used for, though rumors abound about their potential for environmental depth-sensing, for augmented reality applications, or the potential to make the Vive Pro compatible with Windows Mixed Reality experiences.

HTC seems to be positioning the Vive Pro as an item for those looking for a high-end virtual reality experience, similar to the existing HTC Vive. Think enterprise-level, high-end gaming or entertainment users. The Vive Pro likely won’t pull in consumers who are more price sensitive, but the creators appear to want to target the premium-tier market for those pushing the envelope with their experiences. HTC shipped the Vive Pro in April 2018.

HTC Vive Focus

The HTC Vive Focus is HTC’s upcoming mid-tier headset. The details about the features of the HTC Vive Focus have been released in China (and the Internet being what it is, word gets around).

The Vive Focus is a standalone headset (not powered by an external computer or mobile device). The headset itself contains the computer powering the experience. It claims to be the world’s first standalone VR headset available to consumers with 6DoF tracking.

The onboard cameras of the Vive Focus provide world-scale inside-out tracking. This means no external tracking devices are required for the user to be able to move about in the physical world and have her movements tracked in the virtual world. Early reviews of the positional tracking of the Focus have been very favorable, a good sign for the potential of untethered headsets in general.

The Focus is powered by a rechargeable battery that provides up to three hours of active use time. It comes with a single Vive Focus controller that supports 3DoF for the controller itself, similar to the controllers of the current-generation mid-tier experiences.

The Vive Focus currently sells in China for about $630. At a higher price point than some of the other upcoming headsets, the Vive Focus, much like the original Vive before it, seems to be targeting a higher-end market that is looking for a premium experience. Speaking in an interview with Antony Vitillo, HTC’s China Regional President of Vive had the following to say: “We don’t want to be the price leaders. We don’t want to sell a product that costs $200 with minimal features. Everyone that puts on a Vive should expect the best experience possible.” Vive seems less concerned with competitors than with trying to find what works for mainstream adoption.

Vive has stated that the headset’s reception in China will determine whether the headset will see a further international release. It will be very telling to see how the Chinese market receives the Focus and what it could mean for a larger-scale release.