We finally know when HTC’s new-and-improved Vive Pro VR headset is coming, and for how much. But what makes it better than the original Vive that debuted two years ago? Let’s break it down.
First, some very good news: the Vive Pro isn’t going to be significantly more expensive than the original Vive. When it goes on sale on April 5th, it will cost $799 USD, the same price at which the Vive debuted. To lower stock of existing units, the original Vive is now on sale for $499 (a bit lower than its promotional price from last year). That makes the newer headset a considerable investment over the older one, but not an insurmountable one, especially if you already have the budget for high-end gaming. Remember, using either of these headsets requires a pretty beefy gaming PC, with at least a GTX 970 or better graphics card.
There’s one big downside to anyone looking to get into the VR scene with the new Vive Pro: it doesn’t come with its own wireless controllers. In order to play games designed for motion controls (as opposed to an Xbox controller or standard keyboard and mouse), you’ll have to use the controllers from the original Vive or buy new ones. They go for a wallet-whomping $129.99 each on Amazon. The base stations, which allow more seamless 360-degree tracking, are also add-on. Those are $135 each.
All told, if you don’t already have the hardware in the original Vive bundle, it’ll cost you more than $1300 to get the full experience of the $500 model. That’s a real party foul, HTC.
Modern VR headsets are only possible thanks to tiny, dense high-resolution screens: they’re essential for keeping the illusion of immersion from breaking. The original Vive has a resolution of 1080×1200 in each eye, for a combined resolution of 2160×1200.
The new model will boost that considerably, up to 1440×1600 (2880×1600 combined). That’s not quite 4K, but it meets or beats most dedicated gaming monitors. The higher resolution helps to reduce the “screen door” effect of most VR headsets, where the user can differentiate individual pixels. The 90Hz refresh rate and AMOLED panels carry over from the previous generation.
What might be a bummer for some users, and subsequently dissuade them from an upgrade, is that the rather limited 110-degree field of view hasn’t been improved. To be fair, the competition from Oculus and Microsoft haven’t made big improvements here, either—a limited FOV seems to be one of the elements of the first few generations of VR headsets we can’t easily shake, like limited color palettes back in the NES days.
The original Vive used an HDMI cable for video, a USB 2.0 cable for audio, and a standard 3.5mm audio jack (with Bluetooth optional). The Vive Pro updates pretty much everything to standards with far greater bandwidth over USB-C 3.0 and DisplayPort 1.2. Audio will come over the data connection now, though Bluetooth is still supported.
The old design featured a microphone for multiplayer chatting, and so does the new one, but it includes an extra mic to enable noise cancellation on the built-in headset. There’s also “Conversation mode,” where the sounds of the surrounding room (like your significant other telling you to stop playing games) are allowed in on their own audio channel.
Speaking of audio, the built-in headphones now feature high-resolution and 3D spatial audio for better immersion. That’s an important upgrade, since the headset design means using your own headphones is more or less impossible—a big downside for audiophiles who have already invested in their own expensive equipment.
HTC says that the Vive Pro features a new cloth-covered foam pad for your face that’s especially comfortable for your nose. That’s, ya know, good, since all that high-tech hardware hanging off your face can cause some definite pressure during long play sessions. The new design allegedly distributes its weight more evenly with more points of adjustment, and lets in less light for a more dark and immersive view.
That being said, anyone who finds VR in general to be uncomfortable probably won’t be swayed by the new design. We’ll need significant advances in miniaturization and weight reduction before headsets become comfy enough to last for the kind of marathon sessions in which gamers often indulge, whether they’re advisable or not.
In addition to the original spacial tracking featured on the Vive controllers, the new Vive Pro doubles up the cameras. It carries over the ability to “see” your surroundings without removing the headset—a huge help if you “hit” one of your virtual walls. The proprietary Chaperone system, which approximates irregular surroundings like furniture for safety, is intact.
But the extra camera sensor allows the system to see stereoscopically, more like humans do. With new and improved software, that should allow for more flexible tracking of the environment, including the user’s own hands. That’s with or without the motion-tracking controllers. HTC isn’t hyping this particular capability much at the system’s launch, but it’s building a developer’s kit to see what kind of functionality this advanced tracking might be able to add to games.
The possibilities are exciting. Though presumably the field of view is limited—you’d have to look down at your hands to use them—it could allow for more dexterous manipulation of in-game elements. You could use your thumb to switch the safety on a gun, for example, or accurately play individual notes on a piano, all without needing to actually hold any hardware.
That sort of game element might not be available for a while (or at all, since developers like cross-platform tools and there’s no equivalent on the Oculus Rift). But it’s an intriguing possibility nonetheless.
Speaking of things that won’t be available at launch…
Finally, A Wireless Option
The Vive Pro has wireless capability. You can use it without a cumbersome bundle of cables running to your PC at all times. That’s awesome! But it’s not built-in, and it won’t be ready for launch. In order to play untethered you’ll need to add the Intel WiGig adapter, which is coming later on an unannounced date and at an unannounced price.
It’s a big deal. Wireless play has been something people have been waiting for ever since the latest VR boom started, and something only once available with elaborate backpack PCs or low-power mobile headsets. A company named TPCast offers models for the current Vive and Oculus Rift headsets, but it’s a third-party standard that’s also a pricey add-on. The Intel adapter will be an officially-licensed product with full support from both hardware and software. HTC says the included battery will last for “long hours,” though precise battery life estimates are frustratingly absent.
The TPCast wireless adapter costs $300 and change. It’s reasonable to guess that HTC and Intel will want something similar for their wireless hardware.
Should You Get One?
Those of you who were waiting for a hardware upgrade before investing in VR should be well-served by the Vive Pro, so long as you’re ready to invest a lot. With the headset alone costing $800 sans controllers and base stations, you’re looking at a four-figure price tag to get started. And that’s assuming you already have a powerful gaming PC. (Did I mention that high-end graphics cards are unreasonably expensive right now?)
If you’re an existing Vive non-Pro owner, it’s still a pretty significant bump over the original design. The new screens are nice, but early hands-on impressions say that they’re not quite to the point where the technology disappears (especially when games render small elements like text). The biggest additions to the design are first-party wireless and (maybe) hand tracking, both of which won’t be ready at launch.
That being the case, we recommend that most users hold off on a new purchase or an upgrade. Those without a VR headset should wait for a new entry from Oculus to hopefully provide some high-end competition. A couple of specific features, like a wider field of view or a more budget-friendly accessory bundle, could make a big difference in the value proposition. Or, you could simply make do with the much cheaper original Vive or Oculus Rift bundles.
Dedicated Vive users might want to hold off and see how those upcoming wireless and expanded tracking functions actually play out. None of the other features in the Vive Pro seem to be absolutely essential for more advanced VR games, so you’re not missing out on any potentially groundbreaking titles by holding off for a better price or a killer app.
Image Source: HTC