We've already heard the news about HTC's Vive Focus, so it was only natural to get my hands dirty with this standalone 6DoF (six-degree-of-freedom) VR headset. As it turned out, HTC delivered pre-production units to several developers two weeks ago, in order to prep the demo area today. Soon after the opening keynote, I rushed over to the other room and managed to go through seven demos. Given the limited preparation time, the results were unsurprisingly mixed, but the best ones seem to prove that there's a lot of potential in this piece of kit.
The look and feel of the Focus is pretty much everything I expected. Compared to the original Vive, the Focus is lighter which, combined with its rotational head strap plus a new cushion (presumably made of leatherette; HTC wouldn't confirm), offers extra comfort while being worn. With the only tracking component being the dual-camera tracking module (plus what I assume to be its ventilation grill above it), the Focus has a noticeably cleaner look than its higher-end cousin. Though if I were to ever use one in a public area, I would probably paint a more subtle color over Vive's signature blue first.
At the bottom of the main body you'll find an interpupillary distance dial, a headphone jack and volume buttons, whereas the top side features just a micro-USB socket for recharging. What I didn't notice until later on is that the headset actually has built-in stereo speakers -- they are the slots almost right above where your ears would be. They obviously aren't the best-sounding speakers, but they are loud and they do the job.
HTC has yet to share details on the Focus' display; all we know is that it's a "high-resolution" AMOLED screen, and based on my own observation, the pixel density here was probably a little higher than, if not the same as, what I'm used to on the regular Vive headset. Likewise with the field of view, so the overall viewing experience was rather familiar. Other missing specs that I'm eager to find out is the battery life, how the inside-out tracker works and how the Snapdragon 835 here is optimized for VR, but HTC can't even say when we will find out.
Then there's the 3DoF Bluetooth controller. From afar, it looks like an even smaller version of Google's Daydream controller with the same button arrangement. The top side features a clickable thumb trackpad, an app-specific button plus a home button (hold down for three seconds to re-center), while the volume rockers sit on the right hand side, and the trigger is at the usual tip area on the bottom side.
In general, I found the Focus' "world-scale" inside-out tracking to work well in the less intensive apps, especially the soccer-themed game which let me practice my heading. That was surprisingly fun for a relatively basic gameplay, and there were times when I wanted to headbutt the incoming balls with more force, but I had to resist the temptation in order to avoid pulling a Zidane back in the real world.
Another app with good head tracking was a cartoonish go karting game, though I was having problems with maintaining my acceleration while simultaneously using nitro boost -- it was hard to hold down the trigger and the thumb trackpad at the same time on that small controller. I'm also hoping that the trigger will have a stronger spring mechanism in the final version.
Amongst the bunch of higher-end apps, I was very surprised by the accurate tracking in Spark of Light, a game ported from Daydream. The introduction level I played involved interacting with a glowing fairy and solving puzzles using the controller, in order to guide a boy through the woods. I could walk around the world and even bend down to take a closer look at objects, which was definitely something I wouldn't be able to do with previous standalone VR devices.
Despite the controller offering just 3DoF instead of 6DoF like the headset, it worked better than I expected, though when I was inspecting an object up close, I learnt that there seems to be a minimum distance between the headset and the tracker for the latter to function properly in the virtual world. Regardless, the head tracking was smooth throughout my demo and I was keen to play longer, but around the same time a system message popped up to warn that the Focus was getting too hot, so it was a good time to stop. Hopefully this won't be a problem later on.
I also liked the idea of Hidden Fortune, in which I had to pick out specified items in a room filled with random objects. It's the kind of basic challenge that I enjoy from time to time to sharpen my mind. While I was apparently one of the few people who completed that level, I noticed that the game stuttered from time to time. The same happened with Bowshot, with the objective being to shoot down and dodge computer viruses in their physical forms.
The most disappointing demo was the Land Rover virtual showroom: even though the car showed impressive reflections on its exterior according to the selected environments (though lacking good interior rendering like BMW's implementation in its Tango app), I noticed it subtly floating about even when I stood still. The demonstrator said this might have been to do with the crowd moving around the show floor, which is a good reminder: you should ideally be using such inside-out tracking devices in spaces without crowds or moving objects around you.
While it's never a perfect start for this kind of new technology, the developers did only have two weeks maximum to port their existing VR titles for the Vive Focus, so here's hoping that with a bit more time, they will all be able to smooth out the kinks. Having seen how well Spark of Light performed on the Focus, I can safely say that next-gen mobile VR is finally here. And hey Oculus, how's your Project Santa Cruz doing?
- This article originally appeared on Engadget.