HTC announces Vive Focus and Vive Wave

Yesterday, during Vive Developer Conference in Beijing, Vive China president has announced two great news for the company: the standalone headset Vive Focus and the mobile VR platform Vive Wave. The event has taken place in China and these announcements will regard only the Chinese market, but I think that in the long term these Vive efforts will expand to all the world, so it is interesting to know them. Let’s see them all in detail!

Vive Focus

There were rumors of a 6DOF standalone Vive headset since a lot of time (remember my post on Google I/O for instance?). Finally, Alvin Wang Graylin, president of Vive China, yesterday has unveiled it at VDC. I was pretty thrilled to finally see the revolution of VR: the first commercially available standalone headset with positional tracking. Knowing that Vive, when entered the desktop PC VR market, has completely disrupted everything (thanks to room scale and its open ecosystem), I was sure that they were going to change everything once again. Actually… yes and no.

The Vive Focus has, first of all, a weird look: it seems to me the son of the Acer Mixed Reality headset and my old walkman. It has a weird curved form factor and seen from the outside it can seem everything but a virtual reality headset: it seems more a toy (thanks to that azure color), a cute robot, an audio cassette player or a scuba diving mask. The design is between the toon and the retro-style and the two cameras that are on the front seem a bit two eyes, that’s why when I see people wearing it, to me it seems that they’re some kind of cassette-playing-cyborgs :D.

HTC Vive Focus
In this image, I can’t stop from seeing a girl with an audio cassette reader on her head. Can you play a song for me? (Image by Engadget)

Jokes apart, the design has been studied so that to offer comfort and easiness of use: Richard Lai reports on Engadget that the headset is far more comfortable than the standard Vive. On Vive Focus website there is a big stress on the “instant-on” feature: the headset has that weird shape so that putting it on your head becomes easy and fast. If this is the reason, well, I really welcome the choice of Vive.

 

Someone in the communities kept asking if this was a new Gear VR by Vive. The answer is no no no:

  1. It is standalone: it doesn’t need a PC, nor a smartphone. It works on its own, completely (as Hololens, for instance). Specifically, this is a headset based on Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 VR reference design;
  2. It is 6DOF. You can move in space with this device and thanks to the two cameras that it has on its frontal plate (the two “eyes” of the cassette player), it can scan the environment around you and offer you room scale everywhere you wish.
HTC Vive Focus
The happy toaster is looking at its companion remote. If Google wants us to see the headset as a piece of fabric, HTC wants us to see it like a toy (Image by Engadget)

Being standalone means that the device can’t obviously have the computational power of a tethered headset and it is prone to problems like overheating. Engadget journalist reported to have seen overheating warnings popping up throughout all his experience: surely he was using a demo device that had been squeezed completely that day, but this shows how this can be an issue for this kind of device, especially if you have to use it for long sessions. About tracking quality, we’re talking about a high-quality one (the one provided by Qualcomm). The only reported tracking issues have been in the crowded demo area: being full of moving people, sometimes the system couldn’t track the environmental feature correctly and the tracking had glitches. This is quite an extreme situation, that would create issues in all inside-out tracked headsets: when the conditions are more normal, the tracking has been reported as good.

HTC Vive Focus review
HTC Focus on another person. Look into his eyes! 😀 (Image by Engadget)

About the specs, HTC hasn’t said that much. But considering that this device is based on Snapdragon reference design, I think that they’re very similar to the one expressed in its reference sheet:

  • AMOLED display with 2560×1440 resolution (that is used to serve both eyes)
  • Framerate 60Hz
  • FOV between 90 and 120 degrees
  • Integrated 3D positional audio
  • Wi-Fi connectivity
  • Bluetooth connectivity

Reading the review on Engadget, that mentions a FOV similar to the one of the Vive and a resolution slightly better, I think that these could be the right specs. The only thing for which I have some real doubts is the framerate, that seems too low for me for an innovative solution proposed by HTC: I hope the Focus has at least 75fps.

HTC Vive Focus review
Vive Focus. Notice the system with the knob so that you can make the device fit your head (Image by Engadget)

The headset itself features integrated audio similar to the one of Oculus Go, with the speakers included into the HMD next to the predicted positions for the ears: the review says that integrated speakers quality is not top-notch, but they do their job well. On top of the cameras there’s a little grill, maybe to help the advice in not overheating. The device also features:

  • An interpupillary distance dial;
  • A headphone jack (so that you can use your super-expensive quality headphones instead of the integrated ones);
  • Volume changing buttons;
  • A micro-USB socket.
HTC Vive Focus review
Headset and controller. Notice the buttons on the upper part of the device (Image by Engadget)

As you can see, this is a very complete high-quality 6DOF headset. There’s one thing where he clearly deluded me: the controller. Vive Focus comes with a damn 3DOF remote controller, similar to the one of Gear VR. I know that mobile headsets are mostly used for watching Netflix and similar things for which the remote is very effective; I know that the remote is easy to be carried and the remote, being little, increases the portability of the whole device; I know that remotes are very practical. I know everything. BUT I WANT TO USE THE POWER OF MY HANDS IN VR!! I want Oculus Touch, Vive Knuckles or whatever you like. What’s the purpose of having 6DOF freedom, of having the ability to move in every environment if I can’t interact properly in those environments? Vive has been for long the dominant headset on the market because it offered room scale + controllers. Why doesn’t it offer the same things now in the mobile space? WHY??

HTC Vive Focus review
The remote of the Vive Focus: as you can see, it is very similar to the one of Gear VR (Image by Engadget)

Anyway, the controller is a Bluetooth one and offers a touchpad and two buttons on the top side, one trigger button on the front and volume controller buttons on the right side. It is reported in the review that it is not that super-ergonomic. There’s no smart mechanism like in Daydream to keep the controller attached to the headset when not in use.

The software platform is Viveport with Vive Wave (I’ll explain Wave in further details in the next chapter of this article). Viveport is a store already full of content, so Focus’s users will know from day zero what to do with their device.

You may recall that this should be the case for the Chinese version of the headset, while the Western world one should have featured Daydream platform and should have been made in collaboration with Google. Without any known reason, HTC decided to kill this project. Many journalists suspect that the reason is that the Vive Focus should have to compete here with the Oculus Go device that is terribly cheap ($200) and could not sustain such a battle. To me this has little sense since the Go and the Focus are two very distinct products: Oculus Santa Cruz is the natural competitor of Vive Focus, not Go… Go is just a 3DOF cheap headset to watch 360 videos and go to social networks. Vive Focus has the potential to do much more.

HTC Vive Focus review
Headset and controller. Notice the buttons on the upper part of the device (Image by Engadget)

We don’t know what this choice will mean: maybe the Vive Focus will be distributed as-is all over the world, featuring Vive Wave and Viveport for everyone. Or we bad 老外 (foreigners) don’t deserve to have the Vive Focus device at all. Anyway, I’m very sad about this decision.

About availability, again we don’t know. Maybe. Do you remember the game Spark of Light, that I reviewed here on my website some time ago? It is a very cute puzzle game for Gear VR and Daydream and recently it has been chosen as one of the few demos for this new headset (kudos to its developers!). In their press release, they state that

The HTC Vive Focus will be available in 2018, first in China followed by the rest of the world later that year.

This gives us a rough timeline for the release of Vive Focus all over the world. And seems to confirm us that the device will be actually sold worldwide.

About the price, instead, we have no idea. Qualcomm development kit is very expensive and costs $1500. But it is just a reference design sample, can’t represent the price of a finished product that is produced in large quantities. Once someone said that the price for the standalone Vive would have been similar to the one of the Vive v1, so I expect something around $600-$800.

HTC Vive Focus
The sentence in Chinese say something like: “explore the world, it is full of interesting things”. I think it is some kind of word pun, since searching the last three characters on Google Translate, I actually found “Focused” as the translation and the device is the Vive Focus. [Thanks to S. for having helped me in performing the translation!] (Image from VR Scout)

And that’s all that we know about Vive Focus. I’m excited by this device since after all those rumors on 6DOF headsets, finally one has been publicly announced. Feedbacks are positive, so I think that this is a well-crafted product. What really worries me is the lack of controllers: Oculus Santa Cruz has been demoed with awesome Touch controllers and that astonished everyone: with them you have the ability to use immersive VR in every environment, interacting naturally with everything. With this device you can not: you have the ability to move everywhere, but what is the point of moving if you can’t interact properly? At the moment to me, Vive Focus seems a mix of Oculus Go and Santa Cruz, that risks being too expensive to compete with the first one and too limited to compete with the second one. Then there are the classical problems of available content and price. The final price of the headset will decide a lot about its future success, especially in a market, like the Chinese one, where most people buy mobile headsets because they’re cheap. I think that Vive has made an interesting step forward, but has to choose carefully its next moves if it wants to disrupt the market with this device.

Anyway, Vive seems very confident on Focus and Mr.Wang answered to me on Twitter saying that in his opinion it opens the next chapter in the VR industry:

Vive Wave

Vive Wave is the second big announcement of the day. It is a new mobile platform dedicated to the Chinese market that mixes the functionalities of Daydream and OpenVR.

HTC Vive Wave VR platform
Vive Wave logo(Image from VRScout, by Vive)

I say that it is like Daydream because it tries to unify the hyper-fragmented market of Chinese mobile headsets. As I’ve said, in China mobile headsets are pretty popular because they’re cheap and this big demand has created a huge offering with hundreds of manufacturers offering their VR products, each with its proprietary content platform. This is surely a mess. Vive has seen the opportunity to take control of the market and grabbed it: Vive Wave offers a runtime compatible with all Android devices (provided they’ve version 7.1 or above) to run VR experiences on every kind of phone. It guarantees highly optimized VR performances (e.g. <20ms motion-to-photon latency, Asynchronous TimeWarp) so that the user can always enjoy high-quality VR experiences. The preferred source of content for Wave is of course Viveport. This means that, in Vive plans, every Chinese headset in the future will be able to run Viveport content through Vive Wave. This would make Wave the common platform of all the Chinese VR market, unifying it completely.

HTC Vive Wave VR platform
Raymond Pao explains the features of the Vive Wave framework (Image by Engadget)

Every kind of headset can run Vive Wave, both mobile headsets and standalone ones: the Vive Focus will use Wave of course. From a developer point of view, this is pure gold: it means that he/she can develop once using the Vive Wave SDK and then the application can work on a multitude of headsets of different kinds. Wave SDK contains various functionalities tied with Viveport, so it offers the possibility to handle easily subscriptions, in-app purchases, leaderboards, achievements and so on. The multiplayer features will work with different devices, so a person using the Focus will be able to interact easily in a social VR environment with another one using the Pico. Of course, Wave supports Unity & Unreal out of the box, so the developer can continue using the tools that he/she loves most. Vive has even made a special partnership with Unity so that now from Unity it is possible to publish content to Viveport with just one click. Wow.

HTC Vive Wave VR platform
Vive Wave key features. As you can see, it mixes Daydream and OpenVR features (Image from Vive website)

I said that it is a bit like OpenVR too because the system is completely open. It has been conceived so that it is possible to integrate external accessories into the VR experience using the Vive Wave SDK, as it is possible to integrate new devices inside an OpenVR application on a desktop PC. Let me make an example: I’ve said that I’m annoyed by the fact that Vive Focus doesn’t have 6DOF controllers. I could take a Leap Motion, put it on my headset, write a Wave SDK driver for Leap Motion and then easily use Leap inside my VR experience on the Focus! The customization possibility has been one of the features driving success to the SteamVR ecosystem on desktop and now Vive is making the same awesome thing on mobile with Vive Wave, that has the potential to become the standard de facto in the mobile space, at least in China. For enterprise applications, having the possibility to customize everything is fundamental and offering it has been a really smart choice.

If you have an OpenVR application, Vive claims that you should be able to do the porting to Vive Wave platform in less than one week. Spark of Light developers are very smart and took only three hours to do that! (Kudos to them, again). This claim shows how they put a lot of effort in making porting operation easy. The problem, in my opinion, is how to port the UX from using 6DOF controllers to using a 3DOF remote. Spark of Light had already a version working only with a remote for Daydream and Gear VR, so their job has been easier… but I can’t imagine how Job Simulator could port its game to Vive Wave. Vive suggests that the game could remain 6DOF and use “external accessories” to work thanks to the above mentioned scriptable drivers, but if the “external accessories” are not sold with the headset, almost no one owns them and the game is doomed to fail.

HTC Vive Wave VR platform
Vive president playing with Spark Of Light game (Image by Pillow’s Willow)

Of course such a powerful idea can’t work if Wave is supported only by the Vive Focus, that’s why Vive partnered with a lot of important Chinese VR devices producers, like Pimax, Hisense, Quanta, and Pico that are ready to implement the platform on their devices; and with software producers (like Pillow’s Willow of Spark of Light) to offer Vive Wave ready content since day one.

Vive Wave is a smart idea by HTC because it lets developers build once and deploy on a lot of VR devices. And it helps also the Vive Focus in having additional features thanks to the integration with possible additional accessories. I found it awesome. Mr.Wang has highlighted the fact that HTC is dominating the PC market in China (where Facebook, and hence Oculus, is not friend of the government), controlling the 82% of the total market (even if these numbers are in contrast with the ones reported by YiVian some time ago, where another vendor called DPVR was reported to have overtaken HTC), but the PC market in China is only the 20% of the total VR market.

HTC Vive Wave VR platform
Vive China president shows the numbers of the Chinese VR market (Image by Engadget)

Vive Focus and Vive Wave are its plans to attack the 74% of shares that regard standalone and mobile VR headsets. We’ll see if their attack plans will be successful in the upcoming times.

UPDATE: Mr. Wang Graylin has kindly given me some numbers to show that their sales data are correct. For instance, he pointed me an image regarding the VR headset sales of JD (a website that is like Amazon in China) on single people festival on 11/11: HTC Vive is clearly dominating, with DPVR not even appearing in the chart. This should be an indicator of the fact that his data is more reliable than the one reported by Yivian.

VR headset sales in china
Sales of VR headsets in China on November, 11th. See how Vive is clearly dominating over competition (Image by JD)

And that’s all for today! What are your opinions about the Vive Focus and Vive Wave? Let me know in the comments!

(Header image by HTC)

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Skarredghost

AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I’ve no idea what I’m doing.

I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I’ve still not waken up…