HTC is about to launch yet another consumer headset into the cooling, but still contested, virtual reality/augmented reality marketplace, the HTC VIVE XR Elite. In advance of the device’s launch, HTC invited me to try out its new headset.
The XR in the headset’s name stands for extended reality, an all-encompassing term that covers both virtual reality: a full 3D environment that shuts out the real world, and augmented reality: graphical elements overlaying the real world that are projected in 3D. The Vive XR Elite, unlike its predecessors, is not just a VR headset.
Since the launch of the first Vive in 2016, HTC has continued to pump out VR headsets with mixed results, all the while being circled by competitors eager for their slice of the VR pie. The original Vive was joined by the more commercially-orientated Vive Pro, the slightly poorly-positioned Vive Cosmos consumer headset, and then the beast that is the Vive Pro 2. Meanwhile, business users were exclusively provided with the Vive Focus and its two successors. Finally, there was the Vive Flow- an underpowered standalone VR headset, but with a slimline design that I felt was the shape of things to come.
And I was right.
The HTC Vive XR Elite forgoes the bulky VR headsets of yesteryear and instead squeezes two 1920×1920 screens (a combined resolution of 3840×1920 pixels) into a lightweight headset very similar to the Vive Flow. It’s not quite as svelte as a pair of sunglasses, but it’s much, much better than the lump of plastic that is the Vive Pro 2.
This new member of the Vive family features inside-out tracking so there is no need to mount IR base stations to your walls. It also has a proper passthrough camera allowing for immersive augmented reality applications and games, as well as being able to view the real world at the touch of a button when in VR. The device can be used both as a standalone headset or connected to a PC for more demanding games and applications.
The Vive XR Elite is very much a “pick-up-and-play” device. There are no cables, no base station syncing and, if using it as a standalone device, no pairing with a PC.
There’s a little bit of set-up required to adjust the device to your eyes. First I had to remove the clip-on cloth gasket around the lenses exposing two adjustment tabs. As well as being able to adjust interpupillary distance (the distance between your pupils), like all the other Vive headsets, the XR Elite can also adjust each eye to your optical prescription.
Pressing the lenses to my face I adjusted two little tabs until the view was clear, matching that of my prescription glasses. This is great as don’t need to squeeze the headset over your glasses (or remove them and accept a bit of blurriness). The IPD is set up via a dial as with other Vive devices. It was all quick and easy. Once I was happy, I placed the headset over my face and pulled the harness over my head.
The headset rests more on the bridge of your nose than pressed tight into your cheeks like other VR headsets, making things a bit more comfortable. The device uses a battery pack, which by default is attached to the harness at the back of your head. The battery is designed to serve as a counterweight to the actual headset. The device can also be configured with regular eyewear-style folding arms, for a seated experience.
Audio comes out of tiny speakers in the arms of the harness. This means no earcups over your ears. The audio sounds good, whilst still allowing you to hear what’s going on around you.
The image in the headset display was crisp and clear. HTC has done away with the Fresnel lenses, which have concentric stepped rings (similar to lighthouse lenses) to reduce the lens thickness and weight. The XR Elite instead uses regular pancake lenses so no annoying Fresnel rainbows or reflections. There was also no need to carefully position the headset to find the tiny clear sweet spot like the previous Vive headsets (especially the unforgiving Pro 2). This and being able to dial in my prescription mean that not only was wearing the device a lot more comfortable, but it was also clearer than any other VR display that I’ve experienced, really bringing the high-resolution VR world to life.
The slimline headset design is complemented by more contemporary-looking controllers, HTC doing away with the touch-sensitive Vive wands. The new XR Elite controllers feature proper joysticks as well as triggers for each hand and are similar to those shipped with the Vive Cosmos.
I was very keen to try out the new Vive’s AR abilities- “in-headset” augmented reality being a new one for me. The AR demo was a shooting game called Yuki, a standalone app running on the device’s internal processor. With me positioned near a wall, the game had creatures appearing, as if infiltrating my real-world surroundings through portals. I was tasked with shooting these creatures whilst weaving my hand around to avoid the animated character perched on the controller getting hit by enemy fire. Overall, it was a good test of the device’s inside-out tracking capabilities, proving to me that HTC has come a long way from the very iffy tracking of the Vive Cosmos.
As fun as the XR Elite is delivering VR and AR experiences as a standalone headset, for me the meat of the device is as a PC gaming VR headset. The device’s out-of-the-box wireless connectivity was of particular interest.
Untethered PC VR gaming is achieved with Vive XR Elite via a Wi-Fi network connection. For the demo, HTC used an optimally positioned Wi-Fi 6E router positioned some 2-3m from the headset connected to a gaming laptop.
The demoed PC VR game was the celebrated post-apocalyptic shooter, After The Fall. The VR experience was immediately far better than that of my Vive Pro 2. The lighter headset and not having to worry about wires made the game feel more immersive. The tracking, of both the headset and the controllers, was perfect, at least on par with the Vive external tracking station set-up. The controller tracking was spot on, even when pulling my virtual gun toward my side for reloading.
It’s worth noting that, lenses aside, the XR Elite doesn’t bring any technical improvements to the actual VR display over the Vive Pro 2. It’s more of an evolution than a revolution, but still quite a step up. I feel that this is the consumer VR headset that HTC has been working towards over the past seven years.
With the XR Elite, HTC has drawn on the work it has achieved in refining the experience offered to professional users with the Focus range and the more casual Flow VR device. The result is a “metaverse-ready” extended reality headset that accommodates both casual standalone gaming and applications as well as high-end experiences when connected to a PC.
The Vive XR Elite is a multi-use headset providing untethered and standalone casual VR and AR experiences, as well as the potential for providing enterprise and commercial training/education experiences. I’d say that from a design point-of-view, alone, the XR Elite would be a worthy upgrade for many PC VR owners.
I walked away from the HTC demonstration feeling that I’d just experienced the VR headset that I’d been promised all those years ago. It’s a comfortable, nice-looking device that serves both casual users and enthusiasts.
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