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HTC’s Vive Focus is an impressive standalone VR headset

HTC’s Vive Focus is an impressive standalone VR headset

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Late last year HTC announced the Vive Focus, a standalone VR headset for China. The Focus signaled the end of HTC’s plans to bring a standalone Daydream headset to the rest of the world, instead seeing the company focus on its more vibrant Chinese market. That’s a shame, because I got the chance to use the Focus last week at MWC Shanghai, and it’s actually pretty great.

The Focus’ neon blue design isn’t subtle, but it sits comfortably on the head and feels a lot more ergonomic than the regular Vive. It’s powered by a Snapdragon 835 processor, and has a resolution of 2880 x 1600 with a 75Hz refresh rate and a field of view that felt every bit as wide to me as the Vive. It charges over USB-C and the battery lasts between two and three hours, according to HTC reps.

The most important spec of the Focus is its inside-out, six-degrees-of-freedom tracking, which allows you to freely move around virtual environments while wearing the headset. Like Lenovo’s Mirage Solo, this works through two front-facing cameras that scan the world around you and translate that data into your own virtual movements. 

In my brief time with the Vive Focus, it worked really well. I played a game in a large, open environment that was kind of like Super Mario in first person — I had to walk along tricky edges, jump over gaps, duck hazards, and so on. The graphics were deliberately stylized and low-polygon, so this isn’t exactly the same as running a high-end Vive game, but the basic tracking, field of view, and resolution were at least as good — in some ways better. And that’s before I even mention the fact that all the processing takes place within the headset itself, no need for gaming PC or tether.

Granted, this type of large-scale experience isn’t going to be practical for most individual users. But it got me thinking about the implications for arcade-style installations, many of which I’ve checked out in Japan over the past couple of years. Take Dragon Quest VR, for example: an impressive but graphically simple game that requires you to wear a heavy, expensive gaming PC on your back and a Vive on your head in order to walk around the arenas. With a bit of flexibility for custom controllers, something like the Vive Focus could be a far cheaper and more practical solution for this kind of experience.

For regular consumers, the benefits might be a little harder to grasp at this point. The Vive Focus starts at 3,999 yuan (~$600) in China, putting it not too far off the local pricing for the regular Vive, which has a lot more content available. But this headset is a clear technical step up from the Oculus Go (which also has a Chinese version), and its tech is only going to get cheaper over time. The ability to move your head around a virtual space is, to my mind, the single biggest difference between phone-based VR and more advanced implementations, and the Vive Focus crosses that threshold convincingly. Unfortunately, it may not be making its way out of China any time soon.