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 series, which it first released in 2016. Vive helped establish the modern VR industry, and the Focus 3 is one of two major brands (unlike PCs) or console-connected headphones. in the market alongside Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2.
But as Facebook extends its leadership position in consumer VR, HTC has voluntarily eliminated itself from the competition. Launched for pre-order last month, Focus 3 is designed for businesses, research institutes and other professional companies. Equipped with a small suite of apps that attract few consumers, it comes with HTC technical support and other business-centric features. At $ 1,300, it costs more than four times the $ 299 base price of Quest 2. Again: if you want a device for playing video games, exercising, or using most VR social spaces, don’t buy HTC standalone headphones.
So why write about it? Because I like the hope that in a few years it can change. The Vive Focus 3 is a polished, first-class piece of hardware that feels good in a consumer product, but Quest’s Facebook-shaped luggage doesn’t weigh it. It feels like a formula for building a truly competitive home VR hardware – even though HTC isn’t playing it yet.
Focus 3 is HTC’s third generation of stand-alone headphones or VR systems that are completely separate and not connected to a computer. It’s also the first Focus to really look like a finished product. If the 2018 Vive Focus and 2019 Focus Plus had a weird, posterior look, the Focus 3 has a nonsense matte black design reminiscent of large goggles, with a glossy front panel where you’ll find four cameras that handle head and hand tracking.
HTC headphones are bigger and heavier than the Oculus Quest 2; it is closer in size to the original Oculus Quest. But its design makes it much more comfortable than the original Quest or Quest 2 with its shoulder strap. The Focus 3 comes with a fabric and plastic headband that tightens with a ring at the back, similar to the Elite strap that Facebook sells for $ 49. VR headphones can still be tricky to use without a headache, but the Focus 3 is more comfortable than most, as long as you’re careful to get a good fit.
The big selling point of the Focus 3 is the 5K display (or 2448 x 2448 pixels per eye, compared to the Quest 2’s 1832 x 1920 collection), which has a refresh rate of 90 Hz and a 120-degree field of view (compared to 110 degrees for most consumer headphones). The screen is not as sharp as Shadow professional headphones, but it is as sharp as what I have seen in the consumer system. While there is still a substantial black ring around the field of view, it is slightly less intrusive than most of its competition. The only real downside is some significant “god rays” – a side effect of some VR lenses that can bring light beams into high-contrast images.
The maximum performance of Focus 3 is hard to judge in practice because HTC’s software range is very limited – you won’t find graphically demanding games that clearly go beyond it. But there are also no red flags on its SnapDragon XR2 – the same chip used in Quest 2 – even with the higher resolution display requirements. The headphone tracking worked perfectly for me in bright and dim light, especially compared to previous Vive Cosmos cameras during startup, and the battery lasted only three hours with a shy combination of 3D experience and web browsing comparable to Quest 2.
I don’t like the Focus 3 using directional speakers instead of headphones; as with basically all speaker-based headphones, some of the sounds leak and belong to the people around you. But it’s less noticeable than, for example, the Valve Index speaker leaks, and the sound itself usually sounds great. (There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack and the ability to pair with a Bluetooth headset.) The only weird note is the unusually powerful fan, which also blows a very light wind on your face – which, like the gods above, is noticeable but not usually annoying. .
Meanwhile, the Focus 3 is packed with thoughtful little hardware features. Its face mask is padded with a soft, non-absorbent material you’ll find in a comfortable pair of headphones, not the porous padding used by many headphones (including Quest 2) – so you can easily clean it after sessions instead of making a sweat soak a foam ring. The battery is replaceable and is located on the back of the headset for better balance. The four-light Charging Indicator gives you an instant and detailed picture of how much battery you have. It comes with a microSD card slot to expand the default storage of 128GB, and a wheel at the bottom that lets you focus on the headphones, rather than the cumbersome three-setting slider of the Oculus Quest 2.
Features like removable batteries are more useful for business customers – who want to use headphones all day – than the average consumer. But they make up a well-made device with bells and whistles that Facebook either doesn’t have or is sold separately.
The controls in the Focus 3 are a big step over the previous Vive. HTC has kept the shape of a controller like the original Vive stick for years, but fortunately Focus 3 has been given a standard Oculus Touch-style interface: each motion controller has two triggers, two face buttons, a menu button and an analog stick, and is shaped to fit your hand. Like most Vive headphones, 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 as the controllers last much longer than the headphones and both charge in an hour or two.
Unfortunately, Focus 3 controllers still seem to be cheap compared to much cheaper Oculus Touch controllers – or in this case, Focus 3 headphones. The main launchers also have a clear click, but they trigger strangely just before you hit it. It creates a confusing delay if you drag them quickly and repeatedly, like typing letters on a VR keyboard, and it simply feels pointless if (like me) you just learn not to pull the triggers completely.
Put your hardware aside, and Focus 3 drives home how important native application ecosystems are to stand-alone headphones. Focus 3 has a small “Business App Store” with specialized productivity tools and a few games, but you can’t even buy apps directly from within it; you will need to open a separate window to get a license that will put them in your library. Businesses can use their own software or use some of the default applications, such as Vive Sync, a virtual meeting room.
The most widely consumer-focused app I’ve found is Firefox, which works like any VR browser: normal websites appear on the screen in front of your face, and WebXR sites allow you to click a button to get a web-based VR experience. WebVR is a frustrating reminder of how efficient a network is could be to VR. It easily supports lightweight VR applications and games such as a Beat Saber-type rhythm game called Rider of the Moon. But there is also no clear demand for building or optimizing these applications – so most will remain in the experimental or technical demo phase. While the network holds the promise of easy cross-platform VR, it is no substitute for native application trading.
It’s not a knock on the Vive Focus 3 because I think HTC is right to avoid the consumer market. Facebook is likely to support the very cheap Oculus Quest 2 with monumental advertising revenue elsewhere, and has acquired a library of first-party games that HTC is currently unable to match. HTC’s Viveport PC VR store has always seemed to be the shadow of the Oculus Store or Valve’s SteamVR, and a sudden jump into mobile VR would make the gap even clearer.
Nonetheless, HTC has built the first product that feels like a potential competitor to Oculus mobile devices, and the VR world needs such competition. Facebook has funded a lot of great experiences, but also alienated some VR fans with its aggressive Oculus-Facebook integration, especially as it begins bringing ads to Quest. Some developers experience pressured by market power. And while the PlayStation’s upcoming PSVR 2 could offer solid indirect competition, it still doesn’t have a Quest-style standalone design. But Vive Focus 3 shows that making a real competitor is more than possible – at a price.
Photographer: Adi Robertson / The Verge