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HTC’s latest VR headest doesn’t need external trackers, but it feels like it does

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It doesn’t have any external trackers, but it felt like it needs them

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

After starting out as extremely limited versions of their PC-powered counterparts, standalone VR headsets are starting to get pretty advanced, at least on paper. The most recently announced example of this is the Vive Focus Plus, a self-contained headset that HTC first revealed last week, and which we were able to try for ourselves at Mobile World Congress 2019.

The most obvious upgrade the Vive Focus Plus has over the original Vive Focus is its controllers. Instead of the single controller you got with the original Focus, you now get two. More important however, is the fact that they both now support 6 degrees of freedom (or DoF) rather than the 3DoF found on the original. What this means is that as well as tracking how they rotate, they can also be tracked as they move around.

There are two triggers on the rear of the controllers in addition to a trackpad and buttons on its top.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

The amount of buttons has also increased compared to the original controller. Rather than a simple trackpad and single trigger, you now get two triggers, a trackpad, and two face buttons. That allows for a lot more functionality, but in my demonstration I only needed to use a single trigger and the trackpad.

While PC-connected headsets like the original HTC Vive and Vive Pro have tracked their controller’s movement using external base stations, with the Vive Focus Plus all this tracking is done by the headset itself. There are limits to how much it’s able to track (it will lose track of a controller if you hold it behind your head for example), but so long as your hands are broadly in front of your body then the headset’s sensors should be able to see and track them.

The result, in theory, is an experience that’s similar to the room-scale tracking that the HTC Vive has only been able to offer on the PC before. You can stand, you can walk around, you can crouch, and the headset should be able to keep up with your moment.

The headset is battery powered, and charges over USB-C.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Having the ability to walk around means that the Vive Focus Plus needs to show you which areas of your virtual area are safe to move around. It does this by rendering blue gridlines in the air when you come close to walking out of your playspace. While the PC-connected Vive has you manually define this area using one of the motion controllers, the Focus Plus creates this zone around you automatically. When you put on the headset, the Focus Plus considers that you’re in the center of your playspace, and it generates the barriers around you automatically.

Internally, the specs of the Vive Focus Plus are similar to the existing Vive Focus. It’s still powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, it has the same AMOLED 3K display with a resolution of 2880 x 1600, and it still charges over USB-C. HTC claims you’ll get around three hours of battery life from a 30 minute charge, although a representative from SimForHealth, the developer behind one of the demonstration experiences at the show, conceded that they sometimes see the headset’s battery life dip as low as a single hour with intensive use.

Externally, the design of the headset has been tweaked slightly with more padding for your forehead to better distribute its weight, but it’s a very similar piece of hardware overall.

Removing the need for external base stations while still offering 6DoF controllers is certainly ambitious, but when I got a chance to try out the Vive Focus Plus for myself it didn’t feel as though the inside-out tracking was quite up to the task of replacing them. From the moment I put on the headset to try a demonstration, there was a slight wobble as it seemingly struggled to understand that my head was staying more or less still.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Unfortunately, things got worse as I moved through the demonstration, which was a nurse training simulation produced by SimForHealth designed to teach you how to change a PICC line dressing (the medical tubes inserted into someone’s arm that allows them to be hooked up to an IV). The experience tasked me with assessing the patient, following proper hygiene procedures, and changing the elements of my dressing in the correct order.

This meant there was lots of bending down to pick up equipment, interacting with a virtual patient, and teleporting around the virtual environment, but unfortunately the headset’s tracking frequently wasn’t up to the task. At one point during the demonstration my virtual hands drifted away from me. At another, I suddenly became seven feet tall.

Most disorientating was one occasion when I teleported outside of what the Vive Focus Plus believed was my “safe” playspace. Logically, I wanted to walk forward to be on the correct side of the blue grid lines, but because I knew I’d been teleported slightly, I could no longer trust myself to not inadvertently walk into a wall.

Trade shows like MWC are a difficult place to demonstrate products at the best of times. There’s a lot of radio interference, and the show floor is a mix of brightly lit booths and occasionally very dark areas of shadow. It’s the kind of environment any headset would struggle to track itself, and that’s before mentioning that the software I was using was also a work in progress. But regardless of the reason, the Vive Focus Plus simply didn’t track me very well during my demonstration. We’ll have to see if that improves once we get to fully review the HTC Vive Focus Plus.

Outside of the tracking issues however, the overall graphical quality of the headset was acceptable considering it was running on a mobile processor. The 3K display didn’t exhibit too severe a screen-door effect, and the graphics were a little bit block-y but were otherwise crisply rendered.

Both the VR experiences being shown off by HTC for the Focus Plus were enterprise focused, and the company has been clear that these are its target users for the headset rather than consumers who might use it for entertainment. In addition to the SimForHealth demonstration I tried, there was a factory training experience produced by Immersive Factory.

Additional forehead padding has been added to the headset to increase its overall comfort.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Targeting business users is likely to have given HTC different priorities for the Vive Focus. A headset might need to be taken into a new location for onsite training for example, or quickly installed in a conference room for one day of training every once in a while.

But this also means the Vive Focus Plus isn’t quite the next generation gaming VR headset that you might have hoped it would be. The tracking prioritizes convenience over accuracy, and HTC has been keen to show off the business apps for the headset rather than any games.

This isn’t true of the competition. Oculus’ chief technology officer John Carmack recently called the upcoming standalone Oculus Quest headset a games console that’s going to compete with the Nintendo Switch. With two 6DoF controllers of its own, the Quest is otherwise a pretty close competitor for Vive’s new standalone headset.

The Vive Focus Plus will be released at some point in the second quarter of this year at a price that’s yet to be announced.