(Wired)– There isn’t one kind of VR. Throw augmented and mixed reality into equation and there isn’t even one kind of ‘reality’. But the HTC Vive was the trailblazer for premium VR, beating Facebook-owned Oculus Rift to key features such as motion controllers and room-scale VR.
Even now, Oculus’ room-scale solution – which allows the system to track your position anywhere within a fixed area – can’t match the Vive’s in either accuracy or size. Now HTC’s out to widen the gap further with Vive Pro, a kind of 1.5 upgrade on the original headset, and WIRED got to spend an hour or so with it this week.
The key upgrade is improved sharpness. Twin OLED screens deliver a 2,880 x 1,600 resolution (1,440 x 1,600 per eye), a 37 percent boost in pixels-per-inch and 78 percent more pixels in total.
HTC’s aim is to eliminate the screen-door effect – the sensation of seeing the pixels that make up the screen and a common complaint of even the top-end headsets like the Vive and Oculus Rift. I wouldn’t say it’s removed entirely, but it’s a vast improvement. Text is noticeably sharper and easier to read with little of the scanline effect common on lower resolution headsets.
It’s a good start, and HTC’s been busy refining the ergonomics, too. While the new headset is slightly heavier than the original, it’s better balanced with less weight at the front and on your face. This is down to the addition of a new rear headrest and a bracket tightening mechanism reminiscent of the PlayStation VR.
Where the original felt clamped onto the front of your face, the new headset sits more comfortably with no unpleasant pressure points. This, and some improved padding, allegedly means an end to notorious ‘ski mask’ indentations after a long session, too.
These little changes are meant to improve immersion, or prevent the loss of it. HTC’s also tweaked the ‘nose gasket’ – the rubber bits around the wearer’s nose – to reduce light bleed. But the built-in headphones are the other truly meaningful upgrade. The original Vive didn’t come with headphones, so you had to use your own or purchase an upgrade. Here they’re integrated into the design and they make a good first impression. They’re easy to adjust and sound beefy and detailed.
Overall, it’s a decent package and one that cements Vive as the pinnacle of VR right now. But it isn’t a quantum leap over the original headset, which is problematic given the price. The Vive Pro costs £799 for the headset alone, compared to the newly reduced Vive which now costs £499 with the headset, tracking base stations and motion controllers included.
That’s a huge leap for new purchasers and upgraders, especially for a collection of incremental (though good) improvements, and that’s before you consider the increased hardware requirements.
While the official requirements remain the same, the reality is the Vive Pro has 74% more pixels than the original headset. That has a cost. Rendering more pixels means that, without a PC upgrade, users will have to reduce image quality settings to hit the silky smooth frame rates necessary for an enjoyable VR experience. None of this is HTC’s fault, of course, but no one would blame even the most ardent VR fan for balking at the cost.
This says nothing for my two bigger VR foibles. One is a simple: heat. The Vive Pro is more comfortable, but things get pretty hot inside after 30 minutes or so. Nothing breaks immersion more than the need to de-mask just to cool down. In this, PlayStation VR does best thanks to its lack of ski mask-style padding. The other, more complicated one, are wires.
Despite the big ticket price, the Vive Pro is still a tethered experience. HTC’s improved and reduced the cable management, but wires are wires. A Vive Wireless Adapter is planned for release later this year and it’s an exciting (and impressive) solution if it works as advertised, but that’ll be an extra cost for hopeful Vive Pro purchasers.
All of which makes the timing of the Vive Pro odd. It and the Wireless Adapter together would signal a serious leap in the VR experience, one that could reasonably command a serious premium. On its own, the Vive Pro is less convincing, despite numerous worthwhile improvements. No doubt HTC hopes its tie-in with the Ready Player One movie will help shift units and pre-orders of the Vive Pro have already sold out in the UK, but I can’t help wanting more.