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HTC Vive Pro is an Evolution in VR, Just Not Enough of One

VR needs its iPhone moment

Virtual reality continues its dress rehearsal for the big day, a time when its collection of high-tech science and gear is svelte enough, easy enough to use and engaging enough that even your grandparents are using it without any fuss or discussion.

Let’s call it the iPhone moment. 

For now, though, virtual reality, even in its latest incarnation – the HTC Vive Pro – is a slightly messy collection of screens, cables and lenses crammed into an oversized, reality-obscuring face mask. The software that runs on the Pro, and other virtual reality kits, isn’t much better when compared to the reality you’re blocking out when you strap on a mask. Games, experiences, artistry all continues to evolve at a frightening rate, but it has so very far to go before it’s anything close to what those unfamiliar with VR might expect the first time they strap in.

Witnessed from the more populated side of mass adoption, virtual reality remains science fiction. But for those die-hard fans and VR aficionados, the HTC Vive Pro might feel like a miniature revolution within the field.

The HTC Vive Pro HMD, which starts shipping this month for $799 for just the headset or $1,099 for a starter kit, increases the resolution of the original Vive by 78 percent, adds 3D spatial audio through built-in headphones and includes two built-in microphones and better light-blocking.

While the jump in resolution from 2160 x 1200 pixels to 2880 x 1600 pixels is significant it does slightly shrink the size of those dual AMOLED displays from 3.6-inches to 3.5-inches. It also doesn’t bring with it an increase in your field of view or refresh rate, which remains at 110 degrees and 90 Hz. The end result continues to be an image that look much better in its sweet spot, dead center in front of your eye, but still blurs out a bit in the periphery. I also still noticed the subtle pattern of the Fresnel lenses overlaid on the imagery in some experiences.

The subtle increase in resolution wasn’t completely lost on me, but the headset’s overall redesign felt like a much more significant improvement. Granted, if you’ve already upgraded to the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap – which adds built-in headphones and reconfigures the original headstraps – it may not feel quite as revolutionary.

The new system is far easier to use and adjust once on. You simply place the mask on your face and slide the strap over your head. There’s a velcro strap that runs across the top of your head from front to back and a dial on the back of the strap for fine-tuning, but I found once you’ve set the size you really don’t have to tinker much. The new design increases the size of the rubberized gasket that rests on your face, making it both more comfortable and better at blocking out light. And the whole thing has been reworked to better distribute the weight of the headset, more optimally centered, to make the headset feel much lighter and more comfortable.

The headphones, which can flip up to right angles, making it easy to flip them on and off without taking the headset off, include volume controls and a mute button.

Now there’s a single cable, which conveniently snaps into a cable management hook on the headset, that snakes off to a link box. This time around, the link box uses a DisplayPort cable rather than an HDMI to plug into your graphics card. That means most people won’t have to fuss around to much with finding a way to keep the system plugged in all of the time. (Most high-end graphics cards offer a number of DP plug-ins but only one or two for HDMI)

While I still spent way too much time getting the two required base stations to be recognized by my computer, by each other and to recognize the controllers and the HMD, the end result was a VR setup that, now fully set-up, seems much easier to drop into on a whim. And that’s an important step. I suspect that there are a lot of people, like me, who haven’t played much VR lately simply because it’s a hassle to start using.

Perhaps the most significant element of the new Vive Pro is that it signals the coming of two much more important pieces of gear coming for HTC’s take on virtual reality.

Vive will be getting a wireless adapter soon, making it possible to use VR without having to worry about being physically tethered to your computer. The Vive wireless adapter will be powered by Intel’s WiGig Wireless and a Li-Ion battery. The company says on the official website for the Pro that it’s coming soon.

Also coming soon, are base stations that will allow a person to increase the size of their trackable playspace from 15 foot by 15 foot to 32 foot by 32 foot. The new base stations will also be able to track multiple users at the same time. HTC calls this Steam VR 2.0 tracking and when it hits, along with the wireless adapter, users will finally have a HTC Vive 2.0.

But even with wireless headsets and an expanded playspace, there’s work to be done. The gear still needs to be lighter, easier to setup and offer a broader, more inclusive range of experiences beyond the more than 3,000 already out there.

I had a chance to test an early version of one such experience this week when I tried a beta for Awake: Prologue. Awake feels a bit like being dropped into the middle of a movie, if that movie were written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. At least, that seems to be what the group at Start VR seems to be going for. It’s a cinematic experience that has you witness to a strange tale of loss, time travel and surreality. It’s still early, but there’s great potential in the use of volumetric capture, which works to essentially capture the entirety of a human performance, from the body language down to the nuance of pained emotions. I’m not sure if the flowing graphics, which sometimes melded hand to phone, legs to chair, was deliberate or an element of the early build, but it grew on me.

Awake isn’t the Angry Birds of VR, that hasn’t been discovered yet, but it’s a strong sign of the power that virtual reality can have in melding cinema and game and proof that the full potential of this medium really hasn’t been tapped yet.

Far on the other side of that experience spectrum, removed from artistry and evocative story telling, are the likes of Superhot VR, which creates a new paradigm for first-person shooters by only moving time forward when you move. This turns every shootout into a strategic, Matrix-meets-John Wick set-piece and delivers hours of fun. And then there’s Gorn, an incredibly stupid game that I simply couldn’t stop playing. Instead of trying to reinvent the use of blood and gore that so many video games rely upon, it revels in it. You play a gladiator, the controllers turn your hands into his hands. You use bendy maces, swords, throwing stars and your fists, to absolutely decimate your pencil-waisted, elephant-shouldered, pin-headed barbarian foes, filling the arena with spouts of blood, chunks of flesh, pop-eyed heads and piles of viscera. It’s the sort of stupid fun that you should be embarrassed of, but love too much to not talk about.

I played it for so long this week that I freaked out one of my dogs – who must have thought I was being attacked by ghosts as he watched me wildly flail around in my office. The little black chihuahua wouldn’t stop barking at me until I managed to accidentally punch one of my monitors, destroying it just as efficiently as I was destroying those waves of barbarians.

Virtual reality may not be ready for the mainstream, the HTC Vive Pro might admittedly be designed to court technofiles and VR enthusiasts, but for those who have been chasing that virtual rabbit, the Pro and its coming support might just be worth the upgrade.