HTC Vive Focus is one of the most famous standalone VR headsets. I have always been intrigued by this device, since the first time I’ve read about its reveal at an HTC event: I don’t know why, maybe because of the azure color that is my favorite, maybe because it looks so informal.
Three months ago, I’ve been so lucky to get one for free thanks to the kind loan of Mister President, that gave me one during the #30DaysInVR event to “experiment a bit with it”. The first time I tried it has been great: it has been the first standalone headset that I’ve tried, so I really felt the freedom of being without cables, able to move inside all the room: it was magical. Experimenting with it, I’ve been able to discover the pros and the cons of such a device. This also let me write various articles about it, like this one on Vive Focus streaming, this one on Focus instant preview for Unity or this other one highlighting the updates of the v2 runtime.
I realized that I never wrote a comprehensive review of this device and so I’m here today to remedy this error of mine. The time has come: how is the Vive Focus? Is it worth your money?
Let me tell you…
I had no box for this headset, I just got the device from the hands of Vive China President. I can’t show you a personal unboxing video for this reason. Luckily, Youtube is full of videos of HTC Vive Focus unboxing… so, here you are one:
The box contains the headset, the facial interface, the charger and some help guides. Looking at the video, I have to say that while the box looks very classy, the quality of the inside content arrangement is not fantastic. You open the box and find the device and the accessories but you don’t say “wow” as when you open the Oculus Go box, for instance. I know, actually, who cares, the most important thing is having the device, but I also like looking at the details and for a premium headset like the Focus I expected something more in the packaging.
The Vive Focus headset is a bit big. When I published this photo of the Oculus Go and Vive Focus together, a lot of people got surprised by its dimensions.
The Focus looks pretty bulky mostly because it has a lot of rigid parts: the frontal part of the device has like two rigid wings that follow the shape of the head and also the rear part, that the user can use to secure the headset to the head, is rigid. This makes the perceived dimension of the headset even bigger than what it actually is.
The frontal panel of the Focus shows you a little air vent to let the device cool down and the two cameras for the inside-out tracking. The funny side of these two cameras is that when you wear the device, they seem like your new eyes. Wearing a Focus, everyone looks like a cyborg, half human, half HTC robot. Once I saw a girl drinking beer with the Focus on and she reminded me of Bender of Futurama drinking alcohol. It was funny.
On the top of the headset, you can find the USB-C port and the power button. There’s also a mysterious slot that I don’t get what it is for: if you open it, you will find two gold-colored filleted holes. Maybe they’re useful to add accessories to the Focus, or are secret gadgets that will let HTC get control of all our heads. I don’t know, but I’m intrigued by it.
Next to the USB port, there is another sink to let the device cool down: when the Focus is doing heavy calculations, if you put your hand next to this opening, you will feel cold air coming from it.
On the left and right side, there is nothing, just the wings that give the device its original design.
On the bottom, there are a lot of things:
- A slot to insert an external SD-Card;
- A little lever for the IPD adjustment mechanism;
- The two volume up/volume down buttons;
- The 3.5mm jack to add your headphones to the device;
- The integrated microphone.
Honestly speaking, most of the time you won’t use the features of the bottom part of the headset, because:
- IPD setting and SD Card inserting are operations executed once in a while;
- The Focus has volume controlling features on the controller as well and is far more comfortable to set the volume from the controller;
- Since the headset has integrated audio (like the Go and unlike the Mirage Solo), most of the time you won’t attach your personal headphones. It is great that HTC offers this possibility, though, for the moments when you need more privacy (if you know what I mean).
The interiors of the headset feature a leatherette face mask, two lenses, the sensor to detect if the headset is worn or not and two speakers for the integrated audio.
On the back, there is the classical knob to secure the device to your head. What is different from other headsets is that there is a little cushion, in leatherette as well, that tries to make your headset comfortable even on the rear side.
The overall impression of the Vive Focus is the one of a design that tries to make VR less formal, less targeted at techies only. Even the choice of the azure color contributes in that… it is a device that seems a bit like a toy. For people wanting a more classy design, there is the white version, that looks more professional. The fact that HTC lets the user choose the color of the headset is a customization feature that at the moment the Focus shares only with Daydream View devices and is in my opinion important: if we think that one day we will all wear XR devices, we should all be able to wear an XR device that fits our personality… exactly as we do with all other clothes. I really appreciate this choice by HTC and I hope that will be extended to other colors as well.
What I appreciate less is that the device looks a bit too big and also a bit less refined than its competitors (e.g. Oculus Go). There’s something in the choice of the materials and the colors, especially in the black parts, that in my opinion needs some little adjustments.
The Vive Focus controller is a remote similar to the one of various mobile headsets, in particular, it is similar to the one of Daydream platform.
It fits well in the hand, but it could have been a bit more ergonomic: it doesn’t follow exactly the shape of the hand (as Go’s controller). It features a touchpad (to be used with the thumb), a main trigger (to be used with the index), two additional buttons (one is to trigger the main menu, the other one I still haven’t got why is there) on the top and two lateral buttons to increment/decrement current volume level (very very handy!) on the side. There’s also a status led that should be white. When it is red, there something that is not working well. The remote works with two AAA 1.5V batteries.
The controller is a 3+ DOF one: it is a 3 DOF device, but Vive tries, using some magic, to infer also some data about its position. While I prefer this to the pure 3 DOF of the Go, I have to say that this emulation doesn’t work very well, mainly because… it is just impossible to infer positional data using IMU sensors in a reliable way. The result is that anyway, the controller feels more natural in the VR world because it doesn’t seem like a remote rotating around a fixed point next to my chest, but follows a bit better my movements. Since one of the latest updates, the controller can work with both the left and the right hand, so the Focus is now suitable for left-handed people.
In the upcoming times, HTC will upgrade the runtime of the headset to add 6 DOF controller emulation. This is possible because the device, using the two frontal cameras, will basically track the hands of the user and so will be able to detect the exact position and rotation of the controller in any moment, providing that it will be in the field of view of the cameras. This feature is not implemented yet and will come in Q3 2018, so I can’t tell you if it works well or not. But the fact that without changing the hardware I will be able to use a 6 DOF controller is just fantastic, in my opinion.
As with all the standalone headsets, currently, the headset requires you to recalibrate the controller every time you wear the headset. This is necessary to establish a common reference system between the headset and the controller, that use independent IMU sensors. To calibrate, you have to push one of the two top buttons of the device for some seconds, while you point the controller in the forward direction. Notice that on the contrary of what happens with Oculus Go, it is not the controller deciding the reference system of the headset: the calibration stage serves only to find a common reference system between the controller and the headset, but it is the headset deciding what is the VR world reference system. This also means that you can’t use the Focus in a comfortable way while you’re lying down as with the Go since there’s no way you can initialize the headset so that the VR forward direction is the real world up direction.
A last notice on color: even the controller of the device comes in two colors, white and gray.
One of the most amazing features of the Vive Focus is its instant-on feature. Thanks to its peculiar shape, wearing it is super fast and super-easy: you put it on your head and it immediately fits well on it and the only thing you have to do is lower the rear part and close the knob to secure it to your head.
No other VR headset works this way. All the other ones are more complicated to wear and/or require to play around with straps to make them fit the user’s head. With the Mirage Solo my first seconds have been of disappointment, because I couldn’t find a sweet spot for it to stay comfortably on my head. With the Focus, instead, it is all a matter of seconds, I just love it. Ah, and it can also accommodate well people wearing glasses.
While the headset is a bit bulky, on the head it is comfortable: it doesn’t feel heavy at all. The leatherette is comfortable and make the headset easy to be cleaned. Maybe I’d prefer it to be a bit more fluffy, but it is ok even like this. The rear cushion improves the sense of comfort even more.
Regarding the region next to the nose, the headset leaks a little bit the visuals of the real world and this is not positive: the headset doesn’t enclose me completely.
The comfort of the Focus is approved. Regarding the comfort of the controller, the above considerations hold: it is ok but it could be a bit more ergonomic.
Vive Focus features a 3K AMOLED display, for an overall resolution of 2880 x 1600 pixels (for comparison, the Oculus Go has a resolution of 2560 × 1440 and the Rift 2160 x 1220). The refresh rate is 75Hz and the FOV is 110 degrees. The device mounts Fresnel lenses and thanks to the mechanism described above, it lets you adjust the IPD to fit your eyes.
The resolution feels really good and the images inside are pretty sharp: coming from an Oculus Rift CV1, I found the Focus graphics astonishing. I have to say that it still has the same problem of most VR headsets, that is: there is the screen door effect. SDE is little, but it is surely noticeable: it is one of the first things that non-VR-techies notice of VR devices and everyone that made tests for me have reported clearly seeing pixels inside the Focus.
Lenses aren’t bad, but IMHO are the weak part of the graphics of this device: I’ve noticed a lot of circular god rays while using it, especially in the loading scenes featuring a black background and the Vive/Vive Wave logos. Furthermore, they force you to look straight: the more you look far away from the center, the more the view becomes distorted. The lenses, while at the center offer good visuals, next to the borders suffer from a high spherical aberration… and all the areas in between are in an intermediate quality from these two extremes. My advice is to not move your eyes too much while you are inside a Vive Focus. HTC has to work on its lenses: the ones of Mirage Solo, for instance, are surely better.
Regarding the graphics of the applications, the Focus is based on Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 reference design, so it has good horsepower, but it can’t compare at all with the performances of a tethered headset. So, if you’re looking to play Robo Recall on the Focus, you can’t. You can only run experiences with a number of polygons suitable to a mobile headset.
With Focus you have 6 DOF inside-out tracking, meaning that you can move in the real world with your headset on your head to move inside virtual reality. How does this tracking perform?
My answer is “positively”. I’ve been able to move along various offices, even going out the main door and walking on stairs of my building and the headset still kept tracking my position during all this process (see the below video). So, with the Focus, you have theoretically a “world-scale” tracking, that allows you to move everywhere for how much time and how much distance you want and it keeps tracking you.
There are some little problems, though:
- Since the tracking is based only on two RGB cameras, it stops tracking you when you’re in an unlit place or you’re facing a monochrome surface (e.g. if the two cameras can only see a completely white wall, they’re obviously unable to understand your position from two all-white images);
- The tracking appears slightly less fluid than the one of tethered headsets or the one of Mirage Solo;
- If you move for long distances, it drifts a bit: I tried moving 25-30m circa in one direction, then returning back to the initial position and I discovered that the position in the virtual world was slightly different from the starting one: circa 1-2 meters on a horizontal plane and 50cm on the vertical plane. In this, the Mirage Solo is better.
Anyway, for standard usage, it works really well.
The Focus automatically calculates a 2mx2m Chaperone from your initial position and warns you if you go out this area by showing you an azure fence, a popup and slightly graying-out your visuals. This is a pretty rough way of offering boundaries checks and I admit I’m not a big fan of it: the system has no idea of the shape of the room and its content, obviously, so having an arbitrary 2m x 2m cage centered in a random point where I turned on the headset offers poor info to me. This is part of the compromises that currently HTC has made on the device: and the Mirage Solo offers a similar functionality, so I guess that it is a compromise everyone is making at the moment (the Mirage Solo has even the absurd choice of obscuring all your visuals when you go out the safe area o_O). If it annoys you, you can anyway easily disable it by accessing the options of the device and turning off the related flag by going to Settings -> More Settings -> Headset & Space -> Safety Virtual Wall.
If you just want to use the device to watch some movies, you can also disable the 6 DOF tracking so that to increase a lot the battery duration.
Estimated battery life for the Vive Focus is around 3 hours for standard use. If you activate passenger mode, transforming the Focus in a 3 DOF headset (e.g. for watching movies), the lifespan of the battery extends to 4-5 hours.
The battery management of the Focus is very smart: when I remove the headset, it goes in standby mode after some seconds and after a lot of time in standby mode, it turns off automatically. I love that I have not to care that much about the battery of this device: I use it and then I lazily leave it on my desk, knowing that it will manage wisely the battery when I won’t use it. This is not standard: with the Oculus Go, I have to explicitly turn off the headset because in standby mode it drains off completely my battery after many hours.
I’m satisfied with headset battery management. Regarding the controller, it also manages batteries life well: I’ve still not changed the batteries.
In the upcoming time, Seagate will release the VR Power Drive, a power bank of 5000mAh that can almost double your playtime with the Focus (and also offers 1 TB of data storage).
Thanks to the v2 update, Vive Focus has introduced or is going to introduce a lot of cool features, that are absent in most of other standalone VR headsets, like for instance:
- Possibility to play SteamVR games on your PC with your Focus headset thanks to Riftcat VRidge software. Thanks to Riftcat, your Focus will be seen by the PC as an HTC Vive and the controller as a Vive Wand. This means that you can play on the Focus all PC VR games requiring only one VR controller or the Xbox controller. Of course, when Focus controller will become 6 DOF, this feature will be even more powerful. I’ve tried it and this feature works, even if it requires a powerful 5GHz local Wi-fi network. This means that the Focus is the first headset that can work as a standalone 6 DOF headset and as a pseudo-tethered 6 DOF headset (if you want some pieces of advice on how to set this up, check what I’ve written in the post about v2 tracking);
With the latest version of this feature, it is also possible to play Beat Saber with the Focus!
- Use your hands as the controller of the headset thanks to the bimanual gesture tracking. This feature will be officially released in Q3 2018;
Gesture tracking has been recently showcased at the MWC 2018 Shanghai and as you can see, it is pretty promising since the gestures have also an associated positional tracking:
- Get notifications from your phone about incoming calls and messages and answering directly from the headset (this feature is currently available only for HTC phones). Currently, it is also possible to connect the Focus headset as a Bluetooth headset to all Android phones and use the headset to answer phone calls, after you’ve accepted the call via your phone. I’ve tried it and it works well;
- Use your phone as a VR controller. This is very interesting since your phone can become a controller with a bit touchscreen area and this can enable a lot of new apps, like for instance playing a guitar in VR.
I’ve tried the game Flashing Beat that shows a preview of this functionality: it is really interesting, since the big touch area of the phone lets you play the guitar in a more realistic way in VR, it is more immersive than using any kind of remotes that I’ve tried until now. I also envision using the phone also to interact with the headset menus or to perform gestures like swiping and zooming that can be very interesting for a lot of applications.
- Stream Android apps from your phone to your headset (this feature will be available in Q3 2018 and probably will be available only for the HTC U12+ phone). This can be cool to watch series on Netflix with a big screen in front of you in VR, as if you were at the cinema. In this the Focus emulates the Mirage Solo, that lets you install Google Play apps on your headset;
- Passthrough mode: this is one of the features that I love the most: if I want to see my surroundings to answer a phone call, drink a bit of water or high five my friend Max, I’ve just to double tap on the power button to be able to see my surroundings and do what I want. This passthrough is not a flat image, but is a 3D passthrough, thanks to the two frontal cameras. The problem is that currently it is black and white and it is also a bit distorted, so it causes me eyes strain. But it works and is effective, so I love using it: I even used it to make a video of VRception where I used virtual reality inside virtual reality;
- Possibility to stream the device through Miracast: if you have a Miracast receiver (e.g. Screen Beam Mini 2), the Focus can stream its undistorted content to it easily thanks to a built-in feature;
- Voice commands: this is a feature that has been showcased at MWC Shanghai and that will come in the upcoming times: if you’re too lazy to use the controller, you can give vocal commands in the various Vive Focus menus. I guess that in the far future, this will lead to a vocal assistant inside the Focus, as we have Siri on Apple device and Cortana on Windows ones (but this is a speculation of mine). I suggest the name of “Tony” for this assistant :D;
- Augmented reality: thanks to a hack developed by me, it is possible to develop prototypical augmented reality applications with the Vive Focus… of course we’re not at HoloLens levels, there are a lot of visual issues, but it is cool nonetheless
The advantage of using screen-through AR is that it is possible not only to augment the reality, but also to modify it. See this experiment of mine of watching a world made of edges. This can have awesome artistic applications, as my buddy Max says.
This is HTC Vive’s promotional video with all the latest announced features.
What I want to highlight is that the device is capable of a lot of interesting things, and is continuously improving. So, if you, like me, love to experiment with VR, the Focus is a device that you may like.
The UX of the Focus could be better. From runtime v1 to runtime v2 it has continuously improved and fixed various macroscopic errors. Now I think that it is good enough, but I don’t find it optimal yet. The UX of a headset like the Oculus Go is more natural and intuitive.
The reasons why I say this are for instance:
- It is not clear in the various apps if the “click” is to be performed with the main trigger (index finger) or with the touchpad (thumb finger): in some apps, it is used one, in others the other one and in others, both are accepted;
- In general, there is not a complete coherence in the interfaces of the various menus. For instance, while the various menus have an interface made by HTC, the “More settings” section is just a mirror of standard Android settings 2D page;
- The graphical appearance of the various menus is not enough refined, it appears a bit rough;
- I don’t find doing some common operations immediate (e.g. I’m talking about searching apps or looking through the installed apps).
I’m not saying that everything is bad: the UX is usable and there are also positive things like for instance:
- The tooltips on the virtual controller that remind the user what the various buttons are for;
- The Viveport Home menu that is super cool and let you feel on a super-high platform on some alien planet.
What I’m saying is that the UX needs various refinements to become visually appealing and easy to be used. IMHO it is not recommended for the average consumer.
If you want to have a look at it, this is a tour made by me inside my headset:
Vive Focus lets you play your apps from Viveport, or most precisely from Viveport M, that it is the mobile version of Viveport. This app ecosystem is very unripe: playing around with some of the apps found there, I’ve played mostly with:
- Prototypical apps;
- Porting of Gear VR apps that IMHO suit very bad with a 6 DOF headset;
- Apps completely in Chinese (good luck in understanding them);
- Games with mediocre graphics or gameplay.
Of course there are also interesting applications: for instance something you should absolutely try is the Visbit 8K video player that lets you see videos with astonishing quality (especially if you download them locally: they look marvelously, as the player made by Carmack on the Go)… but a great number of apps are below my personal quality threshold.
The reason for this unsatisfactory quality is because Viveport is a new store (Oculus Go has been able to use the Oculus Store that has been launched years ago) and the Focus is a rather new hardware, that has not been officially launched in the Western world yet, so few people are developing for this platform. I’m sure that with time passing by, Viveport will get better, but at the present time of writing, IMHO it doesn’t guarantee a satisfactory experience for the end user.
Of course, the ability to use Riftcat VRidge means that you can play more than 500 SteamVR games on the Focus, and also with the 2D apps streamed from the HTC phone to the VR headset (especially movies). This is a palliative for the lack of apps, but IMHO until the Focus will have a satisfying dedicated VR store full of intriguing apps, it will miss to appeal the average consumer.
Vive Focus uses the Vive Wave development platform, that is a bit like the OpenVR for standalone headsets, in the sense that it is an SDK + runtime that works on various mobile headsets, like for instance the ones of HTC and Pico. This means that developing with the Vive Wave SDK, you can create programs that can work with various headsets and this is a huge advantage.
The disadvantage is that this is a new SDK, so if you were used to using OpenVR or the Oculus Utilities, you have to learn something new from scratch. Another disadvantage is that it is currently poorly documented and it needs a bit of patience to make things work (for instance: I needed a bit of time to understand how to request Android permissions on the Vive Focus). And if you try looking for help on Google, you only find a rolling thimbleweed.
Anyway, it is not difficult to learn, so as soon as you do some practice and you have some patience, you can develop for the Focus in Unity without problems.
The Wave SDK has various updates programmed for the upcoming months and one of the most interesting ones is the possibility to preview the applications developed in Unity directly on the headset without performing the deploy (something similar to what I tried developing myself).
The SDK offers you various APIs that let you experiment with all the features of the Focus: for instance, you can get the raw stream of the two cameras (and I used it to create the AR mode).
Other things that don’t belong to the other paragraphs:
- The headset needs quite a while to startup: it spends something like 30 seconds showing you Vive and Vive Wave logos before actually loading the Home Page;
- The headset has now a super-handy shortcut to take screenshots by just pressing the power and volume down button (I detail this process here);
- The external SD card can give you more than 2 TB of additional space;
- The use of USB-C means that the device is USB 3, so transferring data to it is very fast (this is very important also for development);
The headset is currently officially sold only in China for 3999RMB, that is circa $600, for the white version and 4299RMB, that is circa $650, for the electric blue version.
In the rest of the world, you can only buy a dev-kit requesting it on HTC website: the cost will be $650. The official price for the final consumers is still unknown, but rumors talk about a slightly lower price, maybe around $550. Currently, HTC considers the Focus as a dev-kit in every country that is not China.
HTC has just teased that official worldwide distribution will start “soon”.
My final impressions on the Focus is that it is a great device, with a lot of features and the perspective of future updates that will make it even more powerful. It has an original design, it is comfortable, it has great specifications (resolution, framerate, etc…), it offers or will offer soon a lot of functionalities. It is a device worth having, for someone like me that loves virtual reality and wants to experiment with it. Every time I look at my Focus, my head fills with ideas of things I could try implementing with it, like mixing camera stream, 6 DOF tracking, gesture recognition, etc… Damn: I’ve always so little time to do what I want.
I also love using the passthrough and using the Focus to do things of my everyday life with the VR headset on: if you follow me on the social media, you surely have seen pictures of me reading books or watching football matches with the Focus on my head.
But this is me: I’m a techie. If I want to use the Focus pretending that I’m just an average user, someone that wants to have fun in VR, the Focus shows all its drawbacks: a perfectible UX and an unripe apps ecosystem. The funny thing about the Go and the Focus is that they’re perfectly complementary devices: the Go is awesome to enjoy some casual time in VR, but from a techie side, it is just a headset with no features; the Focus has awesome technological features and opens a world of possibilities, but it doesn’t give its best as a device to play with. That’s why I am happy to have both on my desk.
Other issues with the Focus are the lenses, that are far from optimal, and the fact that is a standalone headset, so you can’t run super-powerful apps on it. And I would love to have two 6 DOF controllers, I hope that HTC will implement this feature.
Anyway, the pros outperform the cons. And regarding the price, if it will be around $500-$550 it will be perfectly fair for what it offers.
Should you buy it?
As you can read from all my previous analysis, the Focus is a device mostly targeted at professionals and enthusiasts. Buy it if:
- For you, the more features in a headset, the better;
- You can afford it (of course);
- You are a VR professional: for sure offering consultancies on the Focus can be interesting. Thanks to its potentialities, it can be used in a lot of fields;
- You are in an R&D department or you like experimenting with devices: with the Focus, there’s room to experiment with lots of stuff;
- You are a software development studio and want to exploit the fact that currently, Viveport is unripe so there is more opportunity to shine by publishing a high-quality app. Plus, for sure HTC will give you more support since it is looking for high-quality apps;
- You love China.
Don’t buy it if:
- You have almost no technical knowledge;
- You just want a device to play games or enjoy your time once in a while with VR experiences;
- You want a completely refined device;
- You want to spend the least possible;
- You want the best positional tracking technology on the market.
- You absolutely want two 6 DOF controllers.
In the first four cases, go for the Go :). In the fifth one, pick the Mirage Solo. In the last one, buy a Pico Neo or wait for the Oculus Santa Cruz.
I hoped you loved this long journey inside the Vive Focus. If this is the case, please support this magazine by sharing this article on your social media channels and by subscribing to my newsletter!
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