Vive Pro: An early look at HTC’s new VR headset
HTC announced its new and upgraded VR headset, the Vive Pro, at CES 2018.
The original Vive was the first consumer VR headset that let you stand and walk and with controls that made sense in virtual environments. As the first of its kind it was never going to be perfect, but fast forward two years and the Vive Pro looks to have solved the complaints of its predecessor.
With a name like the Vive Pro you would be forgiven in assuming this is a virtual reality headset aimed at the professional market, along the lines of Starbreeze’s StarVR headset. That’s the one IMAX uses to create VR arcades in some of its theatres.
Although HTC hopes that the Vive Pro, in conjunction with the Viveport Arcade platform, will be used for similar applications, it’s still firmly aimed at the consumer.
I went hands on with the higher resolution Vive Pro and spoke to Paul Brown, General Manager of Vive Europe, to find out what’s new.
I tried several demos including a like-for-like comparison with the original Vive and a go on the other major Vive announcement, the Vive Wireless Adapter.
Related: Best VR games
VIVE Pro Design – More comfort, less light leak
I’ve always found the original HTC VIVE design a little front-heavy, especially when compared to the Oculus Rift. It isn’t well balanced and prolonged periods of it resting on your noggin do end up with neck strain.
Not so with the Vive Pro. For starters it’s lighter, noticeably so. That helps, but it’s the new heastrap that makes it feel more like wearing a cap than a pair of lead-framed specs. There’s more weight on the back, thanks to a new cushion and tightening nut, which also means a more accurate fit and better weight spread. I spent over an hour with the new Vive Pro and got sweaty, but was otherwise fine.
Cables have been tidied up too. Instead of a nest of wires with the odd 3.5mm port jutting awkwardly out, there’s only one cable that comes out of the Vive Pro. This also makes the wire you drag around a lot lighter too, even though it’s longer.
The fit is more comfortable, but it’s also better at cutting out light bleeding into the visor. The cushion is thicker and fits around the nose better. This was never much of an issue for me, since I have a big hooter, but other people who tried the headset did complain about the space below their nose they could see out of. It’s a small fix, but a vital one in keeping you immersed.
Gone also is the velvety feel of the padding on the original. This has been replaced with a faux-leather material which, while just as comfortable as before, does make your face a bit sweaty. It is much easier to clean now, though, and looks a lot prettier too.
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The final major change is the pair of high-res headphones that now come attached to the headset. It’s not hard to see where HTC got this idea from, the Vive’s headphone looks and adjust just like those on the Oculus Rift.
When I originally reviewed the two headsets I remarked that one of the few advantages the Rift had over the Vive was the on-ear headphones. That’s no longer the case, and they sound good to boot.
The Vive’s new headphones pack 3D spatial audio for better 360 degree sound and there’s active noise cancelling thanks to a pair of mics. The final products will have Alert and Conversations modes that will feed through sounds and voices you should hear such as fire alarms or your partner berating you for ignoring them. I didn’t get the chance to try these.
Vive Pro Displays – Sharper and more relaxing
The biggest criticism leveled at the original Vive (and Rift and PSVR) is that it’s just not sharp enough. The 2160 x 1200 pixel resolution sounds sharp but in reality each eye is getting a similar image at just 1080 x 1200 pixels. Put that resolution in a screen an inch from your face and then stick a distorting lens in front of it and you are left with the clear view of individual pixels.
Some applications exacerbated the issue more than others. Darkness-filled space sims like Elite Dangerous look incredible, while games that favour light backgrounds not quite.
The Vive Pro now comes with 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye (2880 x 1600 in total) and the 37% increase in pixel density makes a huge difference. Nowhere was this more evident than during a like-for-like demo where I tried to read the smallprint on the back of a book. On the original Vive it was nigh on illegible, even held up to my nose. With the Vive Pro it was easy to read, in fact I placed the book on a shelf and stepped back and could still read the text from a couple of (virtual) metres away.
Everything looks sharper and more defined, without losing any of the encompassing stereoscopic 3D that makes VR so immersive. It’s a huge step in the right direction, but the pixels haven’t shrunk enough yet to make them entirely invisible. Look very closely and they’re still there, but they’re just a hint and nothing like the harsh screen door effect we’ve become used to.
Paul Brown, General Manager of Vive Europe, explained that “The Vive Pro provides immediate immersion. The screen door effect is down to the wire.”
The new displays continue to use OLED technology and run at 90Hz, but the VIVE Pro’s screens are a little smaller than the older version – 3.5-inch as opposed to 3.6-inch. The field of view is still an impressive 110-degrees, though, and i didn’t notice it being any less encompassing.
Now I’ve never had a problem with VR sickness on the Vive. I’m not massively prone to it anyway, and the games on the Vive tend to use teleportation to get you around. But there are certain experiences on the Oculus Rift that really make my stomach churn. These invariably involved forward (or back) motion and rotation, as opposed to teleporting to a spot without any momentum.
I am very pleased to say that I tried two demos that involved forward and lateral motion and didn’t feel a jot of queasiness.
The first is a commercial application aimed at training forklift drivers without having to run the risk of newbies driving around a bustling warehouse.
Developed by the Raymond Corporation the Raymond Virtual Reality Simulator puts you at the controls of a forklift and lets you drive the vehicle through a warehouse with a series of tests. I had a proper forklift cockpit with full controls, but in the real world the VIVE will be hooked up to a stationary forklift and the controls mapped to the ones on that.
I initially followed instructions, but quickly reverted to a GTA approach to proceedings, barreling around the warehouse and flipping pallets like a maniac. The simulator quickly identified that I wasn’t stopping where I should, wasn’t looking before exiting junctions and generally that I would be a terrible liability. And it was right.
What impressed me most is that it all felt very natural. I feel that even just the 15 minutes I had driving the forklift taught me a lot about the way it handles and how the controls and forks work. The commercial and training applications of VR for space and flight travel are well documented, but now it has become cost-effective for less high-profile vehicles.
The second demo was the best VR experience I’ve ever had. The marriage of the HTC Vive Pro with CXC Simulations Motion Pro II and the Assetto Corsa racing sim was sheer exhilaration.
I’ve used plenty of race simulators in the past, some with encompassing screens that are great in their own right. But the visual and aural immersion the Vive provides combined with the physical sensations of the rumbling simulator added a dimension to virtual reality I’d never experience before.
Braking at speed to take a corner felt like I was being thrust forward and held in by the harness. The texture of the road under the tyres and the steering fighting against my unruly turns just made it all the more real. I could have spent all day throwing myself around that track.
Vive Pro Requirements – No upgrade required
I spoke to several of the Vive representatives and asked them whether the requirements for the Vive Pro were any more taxing on the hardware than the previous version of the headset.
The short of it is that you won’t need beefier hardware to run the Vive Pro. I couldn’t get clarification whether that meant that the Vive Pro could run the same applications at the higher resolution using the same hardware, or whether the resolution will match the older model to keep things running smoothly. HTC remains tight-lipped about many of the Vive Pro’s specs; we still have a lot of details to find out about.
For example there was no mention of the two cameras mounted on the front of the Pro. The original Vive has a single pass-through camera that allows you to view the physical world if you so wish. It’s a good way of having a sip of coffee without having to take the headset off or risk scolding your face.
The new pair of cameras look like they can offer a lot more than that. Mounted approximately eye distance from each other they should be able to read the real world in stereo, like Intel’s Realsense camera. This opens the Vive Pro to a whole host of augmented or mixed reality applications.
When I queried Brown he told me “We’re not saying [the Vive Pro] is just a VR Device. We want to pack it with capabilities and let developers decide what applications to create with it”. So there’s clearly a lot more that HTC believes the Vive Pro can do over and above immersing you into VR worlds.
The other new features is the IPD (interpupillary distance) sensor. The original Vive has a manual knob that brings the lenses closer together or further apart depending on the individual. Getting this right is vital as we’re all different and if the lenses aren’t in line with your eyes everything can look blurry. It seems that the Vive Pro now calibrates this automatically as I didn’t need to adjust any setting when using multiple Vive Pro’s in succession.
Vive Pro Release Date and Price – When will it come out?
Unfortunately there was no information forthcoming about when the Vive Pro will be available to buy. This was the first look the world had of HTC’s new VR headset so it may still be some distance away. However, this looks and feels very much like a finished product, so I’m hopeful that we’ll see the Vive Pro released in 2018.
What will the Vive Pro cost? Again there were no hints other than Brown telling me that this headset was aimed at consumers, as well as location-based VR arcades and enterprise applications. That suggests the headset won’t be prohibitively expensive, especially considering the lower-cost alternatives on the market.
Vive Pro first impressions
The VIVE Pro fixes almost all of the issues the first headset had. Smoother and with better screens, lighter and more comfortable. Even the cable feels less of an imposition.
It still is, though. And that’s why HTC’s announcement of the Vive Wireless Adapter, which will work with the original and new model, is as exciting as the Vive Pro itself.
The Vive Pro may not be VR’s holy grail yet, but it’s another leap towards creating virtual environments that look and feel real.