Let’s get this out of the way: you shouldn’t buy the HTC Vive Focus 3 for home VR.
The Vive Focus 3 is HTC’s latest virtual reality headset, part of the Vive line that first released it in 2016. The Vive helped establish the modern VR industry, and the Focus 3 is one of only two standalone major brand (as opposed to PC- or console-tethered) headsets on the market alongside Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2.
But as Facebook extends its lead in consumer VR, HTC has voluntarily taken itself out of the running. The Focus 3, which opened for pre-orders last month, is aimed at businesses, research institutions and other professional institutions. It comes with a small suite of apps that are not very attractive to consumers, and it is sold with HTC technical support and other business-oriented features. At $1,300, it costs more than four times as much as the Quest 2’s base price of $299. Again, if you want a device to play video games, exercise, or use most of the VR social spaces, don’t buy the booth standalone headset from HTC.
So why write about it? Because I hope that can change in a few years. The Vive Focus 3 has polished, premium hardware that would feel great in a consumer product, without being weighed down by the Quest’s Facebook-shaped baggage. It feels like a formula for building truly competitive home VR hardware, even if HTC isn’t playing with it yet.
The Focus 3 is HTC’s third generation of standalone headsets, or VR systems that are completely self-contained rather than connected to a computer. It’s also the first Focus to actually look like a finished product. Where the 2018 Vive Focus and 2019 Focus Plus had an odd, rear-facing look, the Focus 3 has a no-nonsense matte black design that resembles thick glasses, with a glossy faceplate where you’ll find the four cameras that handle the head and hand tracking.
HTC’s headset is bigger and heavier than the Oculus Quest 2; it is closer in size to the original Oculus Quest. But the design makes it much more comfortable than the original Quest or the Quest 2 with its standard strap. The Focus 3 comes with a fabric and plastic headband that tightens with a ring on the back, similar to the Elite strap that Facebook sells for $49. VR headsets can still be a pain to wear without getting a headache, but the Focus 3 is more comfortable than most, as long as you’re careful to get a good fit.
The Focus 3’s big selling point is a 5K display (or 2448 x 2448 pixels per eye, compared to the Quest 2’s 1832 x 1920) with a 90 Hz refresh rate and a 120-degree field of view (compared to 110 degrees on most consumer headsets). The screen isn’t as extraordinarily sharp as Varjo’s professional headsets, but it’s as bright as anything I’ve seen in a consumer system. While there’s still a noticeable black ring around your field of view, it’s a little less obtrusive than most of its competitors. The only real downside is some prominent “god rays” – a side effect of some VR lenses that can introduce halos of light into high-contrast images.
It’s hard to judge the Focus 3’s peak performance practically, as HTC’s software selection is extremely limited – you won’t find graphically demanding games that clearly push its limits. But there are also no red flags with its SnapDragon XR2 – the same chip used in the Quest 2 – even with the demands of the higher-resolution screen. The headset’s tracking worked perfectly for me in bright and dim light, especially compared to the earlier Vive Cosmos cameras at launch, and my battery lasted just under three hours with a mix of 3D experiences and web browsing, which is similar to the Quest 2.
I don’t like the use of directional speakers in the Focus 3 instead of headphones; as with virtually all speaker-based headsets, some of the sound bleeds out and is audible to those around you. But it’s less noticeable than, say, the Valve Index’s speaker bleed, and the audio itself generally sounds fine. (There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack and the ability to pair Bluetooth headphones.) The only odd note is an unusually loud fan that also blows a very light breeze across your face – which, like the one above said god rays, is noticeable, but not usually distracting.
Meanwhile, the Focus 3 is packed with thoughtful little hardware touches. The face mask is padded with the soft, non-absorbent material you’d find on a nice pair of headphones, not the porous padding many headsets (including the Quest 2) use – so you can easily clean it after sessions instead of having to deal with it. with a sweat-soaked foam ring. The battery is removable and is located on the back of the headset for better balance, with a four-light charging indicator that gives you an instant detailed view of how much battery power you have. There’s a microSD card slot to expand the standard 128GB of storage, as well as a wheel on the bottom to let you focus the headset, rather than the clunky three-setting slider of the Oculus Quest 2.
Features such as removable batteries are more useful to business customers – who may want to use a headset all day – than the average consumer. But together they make up a well-made device with bells and whistles that Facebook doesn’t have or sell separately.
The Focus 3’s controllers are a big step up from previous Vive designs. HTC stuck with the wand-like controller shape of the original Vive for years, but it’s thankfully given the Focus 3 a now-standard Oculus Touch-like interface: each motion controller has two triggers, two face buttons, a menu button, and an analog stick, and they’re shaped to to fit in your hands. Like most Vive headsets, they use built-in rechargeable batteries instead of disposable AA batteries – which sacrifices the immediate convenience of a replaceable battery, but also feels significantly less wasteful, especially when the controllers last much longer than the headset and both in charge for an hour or two.
Unfortunately, the Focus 3 controllers still feel cheap compared to the much cheaper Oculus Touch controllers – or, for that matter, the Focus 3 headset hardware. Also, the main triggers have a definite click, but strangely they fire just before you hit them. It creates a confusing slowdown if you pull it quickly and repeatedly, like you do when hitting letters on a VR keyboard, and it just feels pointless if (like I did) you just learn not to completely cross the triggers. to fetch.
Put the hardware aside and the Focus 3 makes it clear how important native app ecosystems are to standalone headsets. The Focus 3 has a small “Business App Store” with specialized productivity tools and a few games, but you can’t even buy apps directly in it; you have to open a separate window to get a license that puts them in your library. Businesses can use their own software or use some of the standard apps, such as Vive Sync, a virtual meeting room.
The most widely consumer-oriented app I’ve found is Firefox, which works like any VR browser: normal websites appear in a box in front of your face, and on WebXR sites, you can click a button to launch a web-based VR. open experience. WebVR is a frustrating reminder of how powerful the web could be be for VR. It easily supports lightweight VR apps and games like a Beat Saber-style rhythm game called moon rider. But there’s also no clear demand to build or optimize these apps – so most of them remain in the experimental or technical demo stage. While the web holds the promise of simple cross-platform VR, it’s no substitute for a native app store.
That’s no knock on the Vive Focus 3, because I think HTC is right to avoid the consumer market. Facebook is likely subsidizing the super-cheap Oculus Quest 2 with its monumental ad revenue elsewhere, and it’s acquired a library of first-party games that HTC can’t currently match. HTC’s Viveport PC VR store has always felt like a shadow of the Oculus Store or Valve’s SteamVR, and jumping into mobile VR abruptly would only widen the gap.
Still, HTC has built the first product that feels like a potential competitor to Oculus’ mobile VR, and the VR world needs that kind of competition. Facebook has funded many excellent experiences, but it has also alienated some VR fans with its aggressive Oculus-Facebook integration, especially as it begins to introduce ads into the Quest. Some developers feel pressured by its market power. And while PlayStation’s upcoming PSVR 2 could offer solid indirect competition, it still won’t feature a standalone Quest-style design. But the Vive Focus 3 proves that it’s more than possible to be a true rival – at a price.
Photography by Adi Robertson / The Verge