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The HTC VR legacy - the past, present, and future of Vive

By Darren Price, 26 May 2021

At their VIVECON 2021 virtual event, HTC announced some new additions to its Vive VR family of devices. The Vive Focus 3 is an all-in-one VR headset with a 5K display aimed at business users. The Vive Pro 2 is a premium 5K VR system, primarily for commercial and industrial use, but also suitable for high-end VR gaming.  

It’s amazing to think that just six years ago, virtual reality was really still just a promise. The much-lauded Oculus Rift was out in development form only and the PlayStation VR was yet to be made available to gamers. 

It was HTC and its Vive VR system that landed first in retail. The original Vive was a collaboration between Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC and game developer Value, owner of the Stream game marketplace. 

The OG Vive came complete with a VR headset, two wand-like controllers, and two infra-red base stations. The Oculus Rift was originally launched with a single camera that detected signals from the headset. The Vive headset and controllers had sensors that used the signals from the base stations to position them in 3D space. The result gave the Vive highly accurate tracking and room-scale VR on day one.

The Vive was not perfect. Even if you had a PC powerful enough to drive the two OLED 1080×1200 panels running at 90hz with a 110-degree FOV, the experience was far from optimal. 

The low resolution of the displays meant that even after carefully adjusting the headset position the dreaded “screen door” effect, whereby the individual pixels were visible to the user, was very apparent.

For me, otherwise enamoured by the Vive, it was this screen door effect, particularly when viewing distant objects, that I felt really needed sorting out. But apart from that, it was an amazing experience.

It was the precision when moving your head and using the controllers in the virtual environment that sold the system. Tapping the two Vive controllers together in real life corresponded almost identically to the virtual representations in real life. 

Experiences, like the fantastic underwater world of theBlu, were just the start of the VR fun that has extended to racing cars in Project CARS 3, voyaging into the stars with Elite: Dangerous and flying jet fighters in Digital Combat Simulator. Studios such as Bethesda have exported their AAA titles like Skyrim and Fallout 3 into VR creating amazing worlds to explore with the Vive and its competitors. More recently, the new Microsoft Flight Simulator has entered the fray bringing photo-real civilian aviation into the VR space. 

Outside of games, the Vive could be used to demonstrate bringing 3D designs into a virtual environment. Using tools like Unity, Unreal Engine, Sketchup and SimLab designers and clients could take a walk around finished projects in a virtual environment.

In 2018 the original Vive got an update in the form of the Vive Pro, aimed at commercial users. This headset incorporated the deluxe head-strap, available separately for the Vive, which was much more comfortable with built-in included headphones.

The Vive Pro also increased the resolution of the screens to 1440x1600. Whilst the head-strap was an improvement, the increased resolution over the original Vive was negligible.

The Vive Pro is, however, compatible with the Basestation 2.0 devices which allows for more than two base stations to be used, extending the size of the virtual space. A modified version of the Vive Pro, the Vive Pro Eye added eye-tracking allowing for foveated rendering.  

2018 also saw the launch of the commercial use only, Vive Focus, a standalone VR headset for enterprise users. The device is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor with a 3K display and inside-out tracking. Featuring a kiosk mode, the devices are aimed at corporate presentations and demos as well as industrial training applications. The Focus would get a minor upgrade with the addition of six degrees of freedom (6DoF) controllers in 2019.

The Vive Cosmos, touted as the consumer replacement for the now discontinued original Vive, was launched in early 2020. For the Cosmos, HTC ditched the Valve-developed base stations in favour of inside-out tracking similar to their Vive Focus and that employed by Windows Mixed Reality devices.

The Vive Cosmos uses a network of cameras on the side of the headset and on the detachable faceplate to determine its position in 3D space using the surrounding environment as a reference. 

The Cosmos controllers, radically different from the OG and Vive Pro’s wands, have an array of LEDs that the headset’s cameras use to track them.

At launch, the Cosmos tracking system didn’t work very well especially in low light. Improvements were made, but the basic device still lacks the precision of the original Vive it was meant to replace. This is, however, perhaps a justifiable trade-off as the Cosmos required no external tracking equipment, effectively being a plug-and-play device compared to the Vive and Vive Pro. 

As well as the more consumer-friendly tracking system the Vive Cosmos also has a flip up front to easily exit VR. The “halo-style” head strap, which supports the device from the user’s forehead and back of the head rather than being strapped to your face like a pair of goggles, means that the lenses are further from the eye, making the touted 110-degrees field-of-view look a lot narrower and more like peering through a porthole.

The Cosmos does have an improved combined resolution of 2880 x 1700, better than both the original Vive and the Vive Pro. This reduces the screen-door effect to the point of being negligible.

A few months later HTC released the Vive Cosmos External Tracking Faceplate allowing the use of both Vive base stations and Vive controller for precision tracking. The External Tracking Faceplate is now bundled with the Vive Cosmos Elite package along with two 2.0 base stations and two Vive controllers. 

HTC produces a range of accessories like the Vive Tracker 3.0, the Wireless Adapter, and the new Facial Tracker that tracks up to 38 facial movements. Vive users can continue to customise their consumer VR experience in a manner without peer. 

The announcement at Vivecon 2021 shakes up the Vive range. Both the Focus 3 and the Vive Pro 2 have specifications that should put them in both in the best-of-class.

The Vive Cosmos and Vive Cosmos Elite packages remain HTC’s VR solution for casual users and gamers. The basic Vive Cosmos, being relatively easy to set up, favours users after a casual VR experience. The more expensive and more complex set-out required for the Cosmos Elite is geared towards gamers. Other than the External Tracking Faceplate here’s no sign of the originally mooted selection of faceplates mods for the Cosmos. 

The standalone Vive Focus 3 with its 4896 x 2448 at 90hz 120-degree FOV is still exclusively for enterprise users and only available to business customers. The Focus 3 has a lighter magnesium alloy frame and incorporates a fan to keep the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2-powered device cool. The package comes complete with a 24-month VIVE Business Warranty and Services.

With the Vive Pro 2, it’s clear that HTC is going for gold. With duel 2448x2448 LCD screens with a combined resolution of 4896x2448 running at 120Hz with a 120-degree field-of-view, it promises the best VR experience available. 

Interestingly, the Vive Pro 2 will only be available in a package with just the headset. Base stations and controllers will need to be purchased separately. Existing Vive, Vive Pro, and Vive Cosmos Elite owners will be able to use their existing base Stations (the Pro 2 being compatible with both the 1.0 and 2.0 base stations) and Vive Controllers.

As well as Vive Controllers being SteamVR compatible, the Vive Pro 2 can also be used with the Value Index Knuckles controllers.

The Vive Pro 2 is primarily still very much a commercial/industrial device. But HTC has recognised that the device has a market in high-end gamers wanting a premium VR experience.

Whilst the Vive Cosmos will remain the only Vive product available to gamers in retail stores, the Vive Pro 2 headset will be available for gamers to purchase from the Vive website.

The latest announcements from HTC suggest that the Taiwanese communications giant is still very much in the virtual reality space.

The Vive Focus 3 seems to be an ideal solution for corporate presentation and bespoke VR experiences. For commercial VR, the Vive Pro 2 looks to build upon the success of the original Vive and Vive Pro.

After the lacklustre reception of the Vive Cosmos by the gaming community, the launch of Vive Pro 2 presents a gaming VR solution that may just dominate the opposition.

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