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Hands On With the HTC Vive Pro: Raising the Bar for VR Headsets

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Sales momentum in the consumer space for HTC’s Vive VR headset may have been disappointing over the last year. But the company has been doing some brisk business in enterprise applications thanks to its early presence in the market, room-scale tracking, and flexible SDK. From listening to its most active customers and developers, HTC has picked off a few of their most requested features and incorporated them into its new Vive Pro. I had a chance to demo one at Nvidia’s GTC 2018, and found a number of pretty nice improvements.

Improved Resolution

The Vive Pro’s headline new feature is its improved resolution. At 1440 x 1600 for each eye, the Vive Pro offers nearly double the pixels of the current version (which is 1080 x 1200 per eye). This is noticeable when looking at surfaces with detailed reflections, or objects in the distance. For enterprise applications, the higher resolution will also help make labels and other text on dashboards and various other types of tools and equipment much easier to read. That will help the headset’s effectiveness in industrial scenarios. It’s still not like looking at a quality 4K monitor, but except for some less-visible screen-dooring, it would hold up okay detail-wise compared with a consumer-quality 1080p monitor.

The Vive Pro Is Lighter, Easier to Wear

HTC Vive ProThe Pro is also lighter than the current model, and has been designed to be easier to wear for long periods. I only had it on for about 15 minutes, so I can’t personally vouch for what it would be like to wear it for hours. But in that time it hardly bothered me to wear it, and it definitely represents an upgrade from the current version. Audio has also improved, with better amplifiers. I didn’t get a chance to demo the audio, so I can’t compare directly.

Wireless, Finally, and Bigger Rooms

The Vive Pro will also support Vive’s new wireless adapter when it’s available. While vendors like to downplay the annoyance of having a cord, I definitely found in testing that it adds an unwanted frustration to what is already the complex process of setting up a VR session. The wireless adapter operates in the 60 GHz spectrum, which should help with performance and reduce interference compared with trying to re-use a more typical Wi-Fi band. HTC also announced new Base Stations that will only work with the Pro. They double the effective range of the current Base Stations, and so can cover four times the area. This moves room scale up from approximately 5 meters by 5 meters to about 10 meters by 10 meters. Clearly that particular upgrade is aimed at institutional deployments, as not very many gamers have a 40-foot-square playing space in their home.

The Vive Pro Delivers an Upgraded Experience

Using the Vive Pro definitely made me jealous, as it’s a step up from my own Oculus Rift. There was more detail, both near and far, and an improved ability to see reflections and texture details. It also felt lighter and better balanced than the current version, although it was still quite large. That’s probably an inherent side effect of wanting quality displays, at least for now. Screen-dooring was still visible, although a bit less, which means we still have plenty of room for improvement going forward. The field of view (FOV) is also still only 110 degrees, so head movement is needed to look towards the side or down to where a dashboard might be.

Even if you can't pull off this move the WiGig-powered wireless capability will appeal to you

Even if you can’t pull off this move the WiGig-powered wireless capability will appeal to you

So What Can You Do With One of These?

There is potential for VR in every industry. It’s already heavily used in medical for training surgeons, pre-visualizing surgery, and patient care, among other applications. Similarly, industrial training and maintenance applications run into the hundreds. The improvements in the Pro version of Vive’s headset will make all of those more effective. The greater comfort and better viewing experience should also help the spread of consumer-facing business applications, like configuring cars, looking at a potential home purchase, or seeing how your living room would look with some new furniture.

Wireless operation requires a new wireless adapter that is supposed to be coming sometime soonThe latest generation of VR applications are also moving beyond providing a personal experience, and allowing teams of people at multiple locations to collaborate on a single project. It’s one thing to have a conference call to talk about a document, but an entirely different thing to have the mechanical engineers and product designers working on a car halfway around the world be able to point out details to each other

VR continues to add more capabilities in those scenarios. For example, I could pull out a virtual ruler and take measurements of a car — not surprisingly, the demo car was a model of one of Jen-Hsun Huang’s Koenigsegg super (expensive) cars.

Should You Buy a Vive Pro?

If you haven’t seen the need to take the plunge into VR yet, it is unlikely the Vive Pro will change your mind. Yes, it’s noticeably better in certain ways, particularly video resolution and audio quality. However, if you’re an avid headset user now and have the money, this is the currently the best VR headset you can buy that runs a large variety of apps and games. If you’re an Enterprise customer, you’ll need to update to the Pro if you want to take advantage of the extended room scale of the new Base Stations (doubling from 5 meters on a side to about 10 meters on a side). The Pro headset will work with your existing Base Stations, though, so you can just upgrade for the headset-only price of $ 799 if you’re not ready to swap everything out at once. And if you’re on a budget, HTC has dropped the price on a bundle including the original Vive to $ 499.

Pre-orders for the Vive Pro are open now (See on Amazon), and shipment are expected very soon.

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