Last year I wrote about the growing interest in virtual reality (VR) from industries such as retail, education, manufacturing, healthcare, and construction. These types of companies–and others–continues to show strong interest in the category, but some of the technical limitations and ergonomic issues with existing high-end VR hardware has been a roadblock for some. At CES, HTC announced a new version of its VR headset called the Vive Pro that addresses many of the issues commercial users have with today’s shipping headsets and positions the company well for accelerated commercial shipment growth in 2018.
I had the opportunity to demo the new Vive Pro at CES, and the resolution upgrade in the Pro is a noticeable improvement. The standard Vive offers a 3.6-inch dual OLED display with 1080 by 1200 resolution, while the Pro utilizes new 3.5-inch OLED displays with 1440 by 1600 resolution per eye. I had the opportunity to try several different applications, including a social networking app that took place inside a scene from the upcoming Ready Player One movie, and a medical training app, where another person guided me through a medical procedure. The increased resolution drives a much more immersive experience. It also makes it much easier to identify small details in the environment, as well as read text (a key for many commercial use cases).
Moving to offer improved headset resolution was a key target for hardware vendors across the VR landscape in late 2017 and headed into 2018. All of the shipping Microsoft-based mixed reality headsets from Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and HP have higher resolution, 2.9-inch LCD panels (1440 by 1440), and Samsung’s Odyssey headset utilizes what is likely the same 3.5-inch, 1440 by 1600 resolution OLEDs as the Vive Pro.
HTC hasn’t yet disclosed the minimum PC specifications required to utilize the improved resolution of the Pro best, but company executives did note that driving a higher resolution experience will likely require more PC horsepower. And, of course, the content and apps need to support the increased resolution, too.
Improved Sound, Ergonomics
In addition to the improved displays, HTC also added integrated headphones and amplifier into the Vive Pro headset. The sound is a crucial element of full immersion in virtual reality, and the lack of an integrated solution in the existing Vive was problematic. It means every time you take off the headset you have to remove and manage a set of headphones, too. While this is merely irritating to most consumer users, it’s a larger problem for commercial users who need to slip in and out of the headset often. It’s also an issue in B2C scenarios such as retail where sales associates are moving people in and out of the headset on a regular basis.
In addition to integrating the headphones, HTC also took the opportunity with the Pro to rebalance the entire headset with the goal of making it more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. I didn’t spend enough time in the Vive Pro to decide how big an improvement this was, but any improvement is a welcome one. HTC also updated the user’s ability to readjust the headset with a new sizing dial, and there is also a setting that lets you adjust the distance of the screens from your eyes. Additional improvements include new dual microphones with noise canceling and dual front-facing cameras.
Probably the single biggest request from commercial buyers when it comes to VR is the ability to ditch the cables that tether the headset to the PC. While there have been third-party accessories that do this, at CES HTC announced it would ship its own Vive Wireless Adapter later this year. Based upon Intel’s WiGig technology, it utilizes the 60-GHz band. I wasn’t able to test the adapter, but HTC says it offers a high-performance, low latency experience.
Eliminating the cable addresses one of the biggest concerns that businesses have with VR: The danger of somebody tripping over the cable. Whether it is an employee or a customer, today’s tethered headsets represent a messy environment at best, and the move to wireless will help address this. Unfortunately, HTC doesn’t plan to ship the accessory standard with the Vive Pro, instead offering it as a separate upgrade for both the standard and pro versions of the headset when it ships in the third quarter of 2018. The company hasn’t set pricing yet.
One area that HTC hasn’t addressed with the Pro is the continued need for standalone sensors in the room for six-degree-of-freedom tracking. Both Vive headsets and today’s Oculus Rift use two sensors stationed in the room to do what is called outside-in tracking. The Microsoft-based products track movement using inside-out tracking integrated into the headset, which removes the need for these external sensors. The Microsoft-based products I’ve tested do this well, but many in the industry—including HTC—still consider external sensors more accurate. The Vive Pro will initially use the existing Valve-created Steam VR Tracking 1.0 software to drive the same sensors that ship with the standard Vive headset. Later this year, when Valve releases the Steam VR 2.0 Tracking software HTC will bundle new sensors to support it. The new standard will offer an expanded ten by ten-meter coverage area, as well as the ability to use up to four sensors for additional tracking.
In all, with the Vive Pro and wireless accessory, HTC has done a good job of putting together a solid new package that addresses many of the hardware hang-ups that have caused some businesses pause when considering VR deployments. HTC says the Vive Pro will ship in the first quarter of this year, but it hasn’t announced pricing yet. I look forward to seeing how developers and companies utilize this updated technology, and how competitors respond with their own new hardware in the coming months.