HTC’s follow-up to its commercial-level HMD, the Vive Pro 2, takes aim at both professional and high-end gaming users.
When HTC released the original Vive it had the fledgling market to itself. Six years down the track the Taiwanese tech giant has competition coming at it from all angles.
Whilst the original Vive Pro was aimed pretty much exclusively at industrial and commercial users, the Vive Pro 2 is also being marketed as a premium VR solution for decerning gamers. And I really can’t blame them for doing so. The replacement for the original consumer-orientated Vive, the Vive Cosmos, improved the visuals but fell short on several other aspects.
You won’t find the new Vive Pro 2 in your local consumer electronics retailer. For consumers, the only way to get a Vive Pro 2 is via the Vive website. Even then, in the ANZ region, it is only available as just the headset- no retail package includes the necessary IR base stations or controllers. They are available separately, but I guess that HTC anticipates the Pro 2 as being an upgrade for existing users that already have the accessories.
Out of the box, the Pro 2 looks almost identical to its predecessor. It’s a big headset, weighing about the same as the original Vive, but less than the Vive Cosmos (with the Tracking Faceplate).
The first thing that that I noticed when I picked it up was just how robust it felt. The original Vive and Cosmos feel like they are made from eggshells in comparison. Whilst I don’t think it’ll bounce; the Vive Pro 2 seems built for a bit of abuse.
The front of the headset has two pass-through cameras and a full array of sensors (as opposed to the reduced amount on the Cosmos Tracking Faceplate). The left side of the headset has an on/off button and a button for adjusting the distance between the lenses and your eyes. Handy for people with large glasses (although, I could still wear glasses and have the lenses right up close without rubbing against them). The right side has a dial to adjust the IPD (interpupillary distance), i.e. the distance between your eyes. Adjusting this dial also brings up a cross which is useful for finding the sweet spot when you put it on.
The left side of the integrated audio headset has volume controls and on the right side the mic mute button. The audio components can be removed and a third-party audio headset used in its place. There are a couple of plastic disks included that are used to cover the headphone connectors, if they are removed, to keep things tidy.
Unlike the base Vive Cosmos, Oculus Rift S, and the myriad of Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets, the Vive Pro uses SteamVR infra-red Lighthouse base stations for extremely precise tracking. These aren’t cheap and need a higher level of technical expertise to position and get up and running. As OG Vive/Cosmos owners, we already had the base stations mounted to the office walls and a pair of Vive controllers. Whilst a pain to initially set up, this extra effort pays dividends in that the base stations track the headset and the controller to a much higher degree of fidelity than any other method.
The Vive Pro 2, needs both the Vive Console software and SteamVR to work, the same as the Cosmos. Neither SteamVR or the Vive Console are particularly intuitive bits of software, but despite previous form, I had no issues getting the software to recognise the Pro 2 and get the base stations tracking the headset and Vive controllers.
Putting on the Pro 2, as with most VR HMDs, it took a while to find the sweet spot- the point which you need to position your eyes over the lenses to clearly see the display. It seemed smaller than the original Vive’s but similar to that of the Cosmos. A bit of careful adjustment and I was good to go.
The Pro 2’s stated 120-degree wide field-of-view was glorious compared to what I’ve been used to with the Vive Cosmos. The Cosmos has a 110-degree field of view on paper; but this translates to about 90-degrees, in practice. With the lenses as close to my eyes as possible the Pro 2 presented me with a breathtakingly wide vista.
Checking the horizontal and vertical FOV with the ROV Test FOV & Resolution SteamVR environment suggested that the horizontal FOV is more like 110-degrees horizontal and 80-degrees vertical. In any case, practically speaking, both the horizontal and vertical FOV are fine in normal use. The normal human horizontal line of sight is 124-degrees and vertical optimum eye rotation is 55-degrees (which explains why I had to really strain to see the Pro 2’s 80-degrees). As with all VR, you are supposed to move your head and not your eyes, but you still have pretty good peripheral vision with the Vive Pro 2.
The Vive Pro 2, like all of HTC’s HMDs, utilises Fresnel lenses to keep the lens thickness down. Tiny concentric rings (which are raised on the inside of the lens) are used to increase refraction without the need for thick lenses. I’m not a fan. The downside of this tech is that bright objects can often produce a glare. Properly fitting the HMD minimises the effect, and you do kind of get used to it. I also noticed, after lazily putting on the headset, that the rubber flaps that go over your nose were visible, partially obstructing the view.
It sounds odd, but I think that the lenses are spaced too far apart. If your eyes get tired, and/or you have the lenses positioned far from your eyes or the headset is not fitted properly, you may see a circular shadow in the middle of your view as the binocular effect gets disrupted. This happened a few times for me.
The Vive Console software defaults to an automatic resolution and display frequency, which may not be optimal. The Vive Console does have a choice of one of five settings which can be manually applied: Performance (2448×1224 @120 Hz), Balanced (3264×1632 @90 Hz), High (3672×1836 @90 Hz), Ultra (4896×2448 @90Hz), and Extreme (4896×2448 @120 Hz). I’ve no idea why there’s no 3672×1836 @120 Hz. These resolutions are the combined resolution of both eyes, the Vive Pro 2 having a pair of 2448 × 2448 low persistence LCD panels.
At first, I was unable to attain a resolution above 3672×1836. The 4896×2448 resolution requires the use of something called Display Stream Compression (DSC). This a visually lossless compression intrinsic to the DisplayPort 1.4 standard that enables the transfer of the large amount of information required for 5K resolutions. This means not only do you need a beefy GPU to access the Ultra and Extreme settings, but you also need one that is compatible with DSC. Of course, the Vive Pro 2 is backward compatible with DisplayPort 1.2 for use with older equipment at lower resolutions.
After a bit of backward and forwards between the Vive boffins in Taiwan, I found that I needed to disconnect one of my three monitors (which was overloading the GPU driver) to achieve the Pro 2’s top performance settings. I was already pretty impressed with the Pro 2 running at the 4K 3672×1836 resolution. Switching on 5K (4896×2448) blew my mind.
I must confess that the correlation between the resolution in the Vive Console and that of SteamVR escapes me right now. There’s a possibility that SteamVR is downsampling the visuals according to GPU power, but I can’t see it, as the visuals are still very crisp. It’s something that I will however spend some time looking into. Like all things GPU-related, spending some time tweaking the VR display could make some gains in both visual fidelity and performance.
The first thing I tried on the Vive Pro 2 was theBlu, an immersive underwater VR experience that was the first thing that I tried on the original Vive. Standing on a reef some 20m below the surface of the ocean, I watched as realistic-looking fish darted around me. Just as amazing as the first time I watched them, but this time with no pixelated screen door effect.
Of course, a 5K display running at 120Hz is fine for a six-year-old title like theBlu, but you have to be realistic when it comes to the display preferences of more complex games. I tested the Pro 2 on a PC sporting an Intel i9 10900K CPU and an Nvidia RTX 3090 GPU. Quality VR needs a high spec machine to get the most out of it.
With modern graphics cards favouring higher resolutions, the higher fidelity image afforded by the Pro 2 at the Extreme setting didn’t give me the performance hit I was expecting at all. The crisp visuals were complemented by a framerate that didn’t skip a beat in most VR applications.
The improved pixel density means that gauges and readouts in Microsoft Flight Simulator were clearer with practically a zero drop in performance using the sim’s default VR settings. Looking out of my plane over California, both the scenery and airports looked well-defined and photoreal.
In Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) not only were the gauges easy to read (important when flying a F/A18 low level over Dubai) but try as I might, I could not make myself queasy doing spins and loops, the framerate being rock solid. Flying the UH-1 chopper over Las Vegas was breathtaking.
The high pixel density really comes into play with VR racing games like Project CARS 3. Whereas at low-resolution distant car become pixelated dots, with the Vive Pro 2 they retained their shape. Project CARS 3, surprisingly was the game that really seemed to push the RTX 3090.
It’s not just about games. HTC is keen to point out that whilst the company appreciates that the technology is sought after by the high-end gaming community, the Vive Pro 2 is intended as a commercial/industrial VR solution.
I took a 3D Sketchup model that I’d made, based on a picture that I drew as a kid, and send it into VR using SimLab Composer. The Pro 2 performed without fault, enabling me to walk around the model with stunning clarity. As the Vive Pro uses industry-standard tracking and controllers, the software was fully compatible with the new hardware.
The better resolution and the wider field of view make watching movies in the free Bigscreen app like sitting in a cinema. I’ve previously found watching movies, especially 3D movies in VR to be a very compromised experience with washed-out details. The Pro 2 changes all that. Again, using Bigscreen, I found it feasible to present to in a hosted room using the desktop, having it reproduced crisp and readable in VR for a potential audience.
Even with LCD screens as opposed to the OLED of its predecessor, the Pro 2’s colours were vivid and the blacks black (and not grey). I stared long and hard at the display and couldn’t see a pixel out of place (in fact, I couldn’t see any pixels at all, the dreaded screen-door effect being a thing of the past).
The Pro 2 also features detachable earphones that do a reasonably good job of reproducing audio. It didn’t seem as loud as past Vive HMDs, though. The Deluxe Audio Strap for the OG Vive used to nearly deafen me. The supplied review unit also had a quiet AC hum when there was no other sound. Not really a dealbreaker, but I could definitely hear it. The dual microphones are decent enough for chatting, but I’d not be using them to stream or produce professional audio.
The Vive Pro 2’s default controllers, which are available separately on the website, are identical to the controllers released with the original Vive six years ago. It would be nice if HTC adapted the Cosmos controller for tracking, or even just and a joystick to the Vive wands. Still, they do work, they are robust and they are tried and tested. In fact, the Vive trackers have now become pretty much the de facto industry standard.
For most users, the Vive Pro 2 will be an over-the-top extravagance. At AU$1299/NZ$1449 for just the headset, it’s very expensive. If you’ve already invested in an OG Vive or Vive Pro and have the base stations and controllers, the Vive Pro 2 makes for a decent upgrade. Vive Pro 2 owners can opt to use their existing Base Station 1.0 and Vive controllers, if they have them, or go for the updated Base Station 2.0s that can be purchased separately. If you can find them, you can even use Valve’s Index Knuckles controllers for fully immersive per-finger tracking.
For a seated experience, you only need one base station. This worth noting if you are only going to be using the Pro 2 for something like Microsoft Flight Simulator, where you are not going to be turning around or needing a controller. You can always pick up the extra accessories later.
The modular nature of the Vive ecosystem is one of its big draws and what makes the system so versatile. Additional upgrades such as the Vive Wireless Adapter, which untethers the headset, and the Vive Face Tracker, which adds facial recognition, increases functionality. With more trackers, other body parts can be tracked for use in specially-designed VR applications.
HTC’s Vive Pro 2 is the step up that I’d hoped that the Vive Cosmos would be. It may not be cheap, but for gamers wanting the very best VR experience, it should be very appealing. The unit is robust and utilises a versatile, pretty much, industry-standard VR system. I can see the Pro 2 becoming de rigueur not only in VR arcades but also across many commercial and industrial VR installations.