AUSTIN, Texas—HTC's VR team was out in full force at this year's South By Southwest festival, mostly due to the upcoming film adaptation of Ready Player One. The top floor of a jam-packed, book-to-film "experience" event included an hour-plus wait to play a few Ready Player One-themed VR games, all slated to launch alongside the film later this month.
Curiously, though, the best part of the whole thing wasn't really advertised anywhere at the event. Tucked behind some giant photo-op insanity like an Iron Giant replica and a tricked-out Delorean was a piece of futuristic tech I was way more interested in: the HTC Vive Pro.
Though we took a quick glance at the upcoming Vive Pro during January's CES, this SXSW event was the first time I got to scrutinize the hardware, which will launch later this year as the first "2.0" headset in the PC-VR era. We've yet to answer a giant question mark—how much will this upgraded VR headset cost—but after an impressive SXSW test, my acceptable price point definitely shot up a hundred bucks or so.
Fit, pixels, and textures
For starters, I can happily report that the HTC Vive Pro is currently the best VR headset for anybody with a pair of glasses.
The Vive Pro's headband will snap into place in two positions: as a standard, straight-behind-the-head fit, and angled 90 degrees upward. Without any instruction or guidance, I was able to grab the Vive Pro while its headband was cocked up, stick it to my face, and then pull the headband back to fit around my head. I even intentionally wore my bulkiest glasses, and I didn't have to adjust them or struggle with sticking my head in at a perfect angle. Pull to face, snap headband down. Easy.
After doing this, I was able to use a turning dial on the headset's back to tighten the fit, then I pressed down on a button on the headset to bring the Vive's lenses as close to my glasses as possible. The result was a tremendously comfortable fit and an ample field of view for sizing up VR action in my periphery.
With that fit established, I dove into four RP1-themed game demos to test the other primary boon for this upcoming headset: a boost in internal resolution, from 2160×1200 to 2880×1600. That's a 78 percent jump in pixels, and the result was as "whelming" as I had expected. It's not perfect, "I can't believe this is VR" stuff. I still noticed a typical VR "screen door," with recognizably pixelated lines at any given moment, and the original Vive's Fresnel lenses return, complete with occasional, circular bands of light.
But I was officially in new VR fidelity territory. Lines of text were not necessarily as sharp as if someone was waving a real-life banner in front of my face, but I've tested games with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift often enough to know how blurry even their big-text content can look. The most telling moments came when HTC reps bounced me back to the SteamVR Home interface between demos, which let me look at familiar, text-filled menus and recognize an instant, appreciable jump in text and texture quality. I didn't have to teleport up to the Home interface's text menus to read them. I was good at a comfortable distance. And within the RP1 demos, I could actually appreciate detailed environment textures during high-action alien-blasting scenarios. That's never really been the case with the VR headsets I've used the most.
That's not quite the resolution jump you may hope for when reading about VR upgrades, but considering the computer specs needed to drive 2160×1200 games at 90Hz—the agreed-upon standard for VR comfort—I would argue that Vive Pro's spec choice could usher in a sweet spot of readable content that can run comfortably on consumer-grade gaming PCs for a good few years. You'll need more than a GTX 970 to get games at this resolution running smoothly; HTC sure knows that first-hand, as its gaming laptops didn't quite deliver a locked 90fps during nearly half of the RP1 demos I sampled.
Buttons, noises, games, and questions
The HTC Vive received a headband upgrade last year, complete with attached headphones, and the Vive Pro goes one further by shipping with attached plastic headphones as well. These felt perfectly comfortable during my 15-minute session and provided clear, non-distorted audio the entire time. They also come with a feature I haven't seen in many PC VR headsets: the left speaker has a pair of volume buttons attached, which makes volume adjustment that much easier in the middle of a game, while the right speaker has a single button to let players enable or disable their microphones whenever they please. I struggled to tap these buttons while juggling a bulky Vive wand, however, as they're a little small and require some precise touching, but they otherwise worked fine, and I'm still happy they're even there.
However, while HTC reps said that the speakers will ship with noise-cancelling properties, nothing in my demo proved that functionality out. I wasn't told about a noise-canceling button to attempt an A/B test, and I didn't notice any particularly dampened noise while wearing the headphones (beyond the effect of loud headphone noises drowning out my environs by default). I also didn't get to test anything with the Vive Pro's new pair of forward-facing cameras, which may very well be used for a new "VR chaperone" system; my test appeared to rely on standard SteamVR infrared tracking boxes.
While a 15-minute demo isn't a great way to confirm fit and weight distribution, I made an effort to move and dance around while testing to see if I recognized particular strain or discomfort. The HTC Vive Pro passed my VR sniff test and then some, and weight distribution made the set honestly feel lighter than the normal HTC Vive. I also noticed an added perk of the headset remaining in a perfect position as I moved around. My issues with slight astigmatism mean that I find myself often fine-tuning VR headset fits, and I didn't run into such a fit issue in my admittedly brief test.
To clarify: this session did not include a chance to test HTC's upcoming Vive Wireless Adapter, and HTC didn't have any details to share about if or when to expect a future hands-on, let alone when it will launch. (Last we heard, it was slated for "this summer.")
I would like more time with the headset to confirm exactly how it compares to the Samsung Odyssey, which also features a 2880×1600 combined resolution across its panels, but I already feel like the HTC Vive Pro has the edge in terms of comfort, panel quality, and other intangibles. From here, obviously, HTC has a price decision to make—and fast, if this thing is truly launching in "Q1" of this year. I'm not sure what the price ceiling would be for me to say that I wouldn't want to buy it, but as a particularly big fan of room-scale VR, my wallet has already started groaning at the thought.
Listing image by Sam Machkovech