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HTC's hands-free VR phone tool is as clever and frustrating as the Vive itself

HTC's hands-free VR phone tool is as clever and frustrating as the Vive itself

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One of the coolest things about the HTC Vive is that it helps you keep track of the real world while playing in a virtual one. But during our time reviewing it, a key element of this was missing: a phone-pairing system that would let you get calls and messages inside your headset. That element was turned on at launch, and like many things about the Vive, it's a fantastic idea that could be handled better.

Even with HTC's how-to, it took me a little while to figure out the notification tool for one reason: unlike every single other useful setting for the Vive, the pairing system isn't on SteamVR. It's in an HTC-built Vive desktop app that I had basically no reason to launch before today, while SteamVR itself has a Bluetooth setting that references pairing your phone. (It appears to have no effect.)

HTC Vive Phone Pairing

iOS support is supposed to arrive next week, but for now, you'll connect using a companion Android app, where you can toggle VR notifications for phone calls, text messages, and calendar reminders. These appear as little blue pop-ups inside the headset, and you can see more details in a sleek notification tray. But as on desktop, this isn't part of the main SteamVR interface. It's in a totally different-looking HTC VR tab, which contains the tray, a second version of your game library, and a separate Vive home environment that you can teleport around.

It's nice to have quick access to the tray, but everything around it is a little confusing. In case you've lost count, you currently have six different interfaces to check if you're looking for a given Vive feature:

  • Steam for desktop
  • SteamVR for desktop
  • SteamVR for VR
  • HTC Vive for desktop
  • HTC Vive for VR
  • HTC Vive for Android and iOS

Obviously, some fragmentation is unavoidable, and the Vive isn't the only culprit — just look at the weird process of downloading apps within apps on Samsung's Gear VR. But the whole user experience still feels like someone fought a bitter civil war inside an operating system.

Fortunately, the core of the notifications system works well. When you select a text message in the notification tray, you can read it and call the sender back, using the Vive's built-in microphone. In Android only, you get the option to send a semi-canned reply, picking from a list of phrases that you can customize on the phone app. For an incoming call, you can either accept right away, decline and call back later, or reply with a text on Android. (Calendar notifications are simpler: you just view and dismiss them.)

HTC Vive Phone Pairing

HTC is definitely on the right track here. It delivers what it promises, and it's laid the groundwork for a more full-featured, hands-free calling system. There are little things that could be better, like the fact that you have to bring up the notification panel to see what a text message actually says. But right now, the biggest problem isn't the system itself — it's that so few of my important communications involve texts and phone calls. Close friends talk to me on Google Hangouts, high-priority work comes through Slack or email, and light banter appears on Twitter. The Vive doesn't support any of it, at least not yet.

There are people who will be served perfectly by this system, and it's obviously nice to know someone can reach me in an emergency. HTC and Valve are doing something clever and unique here. It's just that they came so close to delivering an invaluable feature, then stopped short at the last minute. And they made me dig through way too many menus to find it.