We’ve Never Seen Anything Like HTC’s Standalone VR Headset
VR is getting better and better, but it’s also getting more expensive. HTC’s newest high-end headset unveiled at CES, the Vive XR Elite, follows a similar playbook to Meta’s recent Quest Pro, and possibly Apple’s expected device as well. It raises a question: Are we really ready for the rise of $1,000 VR devices? The standalone Vive XR Elite is stylish and looks much more compact than the Quest Pro, and it’s trying to test higher-end waters.
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The $1,099 headset, available for pre-order Thursday, will arrive in late February — remarkably quickly for a CES product. This means it will be available alongside the PSVR 2 connected to Sony’s PlayStation 5. While less expensive than the Quest Pro, the XR Elite costs as much as buying a PS5 and a PSVR 2 combined. It’s far from an impulse buy. But the device, which reduces the VR form to a pair of almost goggle-like glasses and includes mixed reality capabilities that could enable AR applications, looks set to solve how we’ll use the metaverse for more in our lives than just games, simulations and fitness.
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No other company has really hit this challenge. But this Vive headset looks, more than ever, like it’s a step towards future AR glasses.
The XR Elite’s battery strap is detachable and goggle-like arms can be added instead to further reduce the size.
“We see where mixed reality is going to create a whole new set of use cases. We know the use cases for virtual reality are great. I think the AR side is great as well,” Dan O’Brien, the manager HTC’s Vive overall. told me in a talk at CES in Las Vegas. He admitted that HTC tried to make an AR device in 2015, but stopped due to complications. O’Brien sees 5G and cloud computing as a key next step. “You need a 5G network, a really powerful network to make AR go to scale — you need a cloud infrastructure to deliver those kinds of wearables.”
The XR Elite is primarily a standalone VR headset, and it looks like an impressive piece of tech: it has a popular Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chip much like Vive’s existing Meta Quest 2, Quest Pro, and business-focused Focus 3. But it adds a higher-resolution 110-degree Field of View, 2K resolution LCD screens for eyes that can run at 90Hz. There is also an increased RAM of 12 GB along with 128 GB of storage. It can connect to a PC to run SteamVR or HTC’s VivePort software, or connect to Android phones. But its potential as a bridge to AR experiences seems like the most impressive feature.
However, these are just the specs. The XR Elite is a VR headset with a similar proposition to previous models, but with enhanced capabilities. Its compact size is the most surprising part: at 340 grams, it’s less than half the weight of the Quest Pro. The hot-swappable rear battery provides about two hours of battery life. It’s made even smaller by removing the rear battery strap and adding goggle arms that can turn the headset into a modified pair of VR goggles that can simply be plugged into an external USB-C charger or battery for power . It is small enough to fit into a compact tube carrying case.
XR Elite in its carrying case, which looks more portable than any other VR headset I’ve seen.
But that compact size comes with a twist: Instead of sitting on top of the glasses, the XR Elite uses adjustment dials, or diopters, which can change the lens prescription instantly without having to wear glasses at all — for some people. at least. The diopters only accommodate up to -6 prescription, but my vision is over -8 for myopia. It’s a challenge HTC faces with its even smaller Vive Flow phone-connected VR glasses, which also used the glasses-free approach.
The XR Elite has a dedicated depth sensor on the front, along with color pass cameras that could eventually show mixed reality experiences, similar to the Quest Pro. The Quest Pro doesn’t have the Elite’s added depth sensor, but makes up for it with its onboard cameras.
A front-facing camera (part of a motion-tracking suite), and also a depth sensor for measuring spaces and AR layering.
The XR Elite can also be further customized. While the device doesn’t have its own eye tracking tools on board, eye and face tracking add-ons are coming later in the year. The headset controllers are the same standards that HTC has for the Vive Focus 3, which follow the same game controller playbook as the Meta Quest 2 and others. But HTC already has its own line of body trackers and wearable VR wristbands, and more accessories could follow.
O’Brien admits that the mass market appeal of VR and AR isn’t here yet. “I think developers will use cloud computing, being able to get their content into the metaverse much faster and much more efficiently,” he said. “If you think about the streaming business, these streamers, these TikTokers, all these kids creating really compelling, fun experiences that just draw you back? That’s not in the metaverse today. We need to create more opportunities for less sophisticated inclusive content creators to engage and then create more [of an] economy”.
O’Brien sees cloud computing, powered by eye-tracking’s ability to compress graphics data through a technology called foveated rendering, as a way to eventually shrink processors in future headsets, making them more small and to fit more people.
The headset doesn’t work with glasses: instead, it has a prescription diopter inside.
My concern is with the limited recipe options at the moment. “As we move towards much lighter glasses, people will certainly bring more of their prescriptions in the future,” says O’Brien. “Right now, what we can do is just try to address the majority of the market as best we can with these kinds of setting changes, because we have to make the headset lighter. We have to more comfortable ones. And if you’re going to have these big eye-relief areas inside these headphones, they’re going to stay really big.”
O’Brien sees the included VR controllers as optional one day, maybe even left out of the box and bought separately, but not yet. Hand tracking is not reliable enough. “Handprinting needs to make massive strides over the next two to three years to really become much more of a natural means of entry.” But O’Brien suggests it’s a way to make future headphones more affordable. “If a user can just put on glasses and interact with the content [with their hands]it will be a much less expensive product.”
This product has been selected as one of the Best of CES 2023. See other Best of CES 2023 award winners.