Hands-on: HTC Vive Focus Brings Best-in-class Displays to Standalone VR, For a Price

Now available in China, and quite possibly on its way to a wider release, HTC is prominently showing its new standalone Vive Focus headset at MWC 2018 this week. The company says the Focus is positioned as the premium option among the incoming wave of standalone headsets; of course, premium features are never far from premium price.

Photo by Road to VR
The Vive Focus is a standalone headset which means it has everything needed for a VR experience built directly into the device—including the battery, processor, graphics, and display—rather than relying on a docked smartphone. Powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chip, the Vive Focus is in the same class as the Lenovo Mirago Solo, but has a few defining features which HTC says makes it the “premium” option.
For one, the Focus uses the exact same pair of lenses and best-in-class displays as the upcoming Vive Pro, the company confirmed to Road to VR at MWC this week. That means it has largely an identical visual experience as the Vive Pro in terms of resolving power, field of view, and display performance (though the Focus is running at 75Hz to the Vive Pro’s 90Hz).
With a 1,600 × 1,440 OLED display for each lens, the Focus also has a resolution advantage over the Mirage Solo’s LCD display (1,280 × 1,440 per lens), and, because it’s using a pair of displays instead of a single display, it also offers an IPD adjustment, which means the lens-display pair can be dialed into the sweet spot more precisely for a wider range of users.
Bottom of the Vive Focus showing IPD adjuster, volume buttons, 3.5mm headphone jack, and one of the hidden speakers | Photo by Road to VR
Beyond the displays, the Focus also includes a fan for active cooling (ostensibly allowing it to run at higher performance without overheating), and built-in speakers which are hidden in the headstrap.
But these extra features put the headset into a questionable price bracket for casual users. Going on the device’s Chinese starting price, the Focus comes to about $525 USD, even after removing typical Chinese tax (which I have admittedly neglected to consider in prior writings about the headset’s converted price).
Solid Tracking for Your Head, Iffy Tracking for Your Hands
Photo by Road to VR
Spending time with the headset today at HTC’s booth at MWC 2018, I found that the headset’s inside-out positional tracking (made possible by the pair of cameras on the front) was very responsive, and the rotational tracking felt just about perfect. Using the headset for about 10 minutes on the show floor, I didn’t see the image jump even once, which is a very good sign. Granted, it was a very well lit environment (which is helpful to the cameras), but also had people milling about on the show floor (which is harder for the tracking to handle). There’s always edge cases when it comes to computer vision, so we’ll need more time with the headset to see how it handles in a wider range of environments, but so far the tracking seems viable.
The controller, which only has a 3DOF-capable rotational sensor, was an entirely different story. Although they use the headsets position as the origin point of the controller in order to achieve a sort of ‘3DOF+’ feeling, the controller is simply being asked to do more than it’s capable of. Its rotational data is used to try to estimate some positional movement, but it rarely mirrors your actual movements and ends up feeling really wonky. This is compounded by the fact that the controller moves through space in large steps (relative to your head) rather than smoothly, which just looks odd.
Your first instinct is to use the controller like a 6DOF controller (since the headset tracks in 6DOF), but you quickly realize it can’t stand up to that demand—in five minutes of playing a cover shooter with the headset, I had to hold a button on the controller to recalibrate its forward position at least every minute.
For more casual use-cases, like selecting items on menus and playing less active games, the controller is likely to be more reliable (as we’ve seen with Gear VR and Daydream’s 3DOF controllers). But developers building for Focus will need to be careful about the limitations of the controller since it will be tempting to design with the the headset’s own 6DOF tracking capabilities.
Vive Pro Lenses and Displays in a Standalone
Photo by Road to VR
Given that the headset is using the same lenses and displays as the Vive Pro, it’s no wonder that the visual performance is almost identical. The resolution is a bit of a step up from other mobile VR headsets (most of which use a single 2,560 × 1,440 panel split into 1,280 × 1,440 per lens), and a larger step up from first-gen VR headsets like the Vive (which has a 1,080 × 1,200 per lens resolution). The field of view, which matches the Vive, feels plenty wide for getting lost in the virtual world.
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The screen door effect is still visible, but reduced compared to other headsets, and the pixels are compact enough that I can’t quite see the subpixels. There’s some visible mura that’s easier to spot at some times than others (typical of OLED displays), but not too bad, a bit of ghosting to be seen if you’re looking for it during fast motion, and the usual ‘god rays’ (which shouldn’t be a surprise given that the headset uses the same Fresnel lenses as the Vive and Vive Pro).
Continued on Page 2: Mobile-class Graphics »
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