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The $499 HTC Vive Flow is VR for people who don’t like virtual reality

After years of focusing on business-oriented virtual reality, HTC in November is launching a $499 entertainment-focused headset called the Vive Flow, with pre-orders starting globally today.

The new Vive Flow looks radically different from most HTC Vive devices. It’s a stand-alone piece of hardware modeled after a pair of sunglasses, and at first glance it could pass for booster A reality headset, and not just one VR one. But behind the slightly misty-eyed mirror shades, you’ll find a lighter version of the previous Vive headphones — except for a few key features.

HTC Vive Flow

Vive Flow features focus on the dials inside the headset.

The Vive Flow, which was largely leaked before HTC was revealed today, is a compromise between capability and accessibility. The device has a 1.6K display per eye (HTC did not provide the exact resolution) with a 100-degree field of view with a refresh rate of 75Hz. That’s a bit more limited than the 120-degree, 90Hz rate you’ll find on the more expensive Vive Focus 3 and about the same refresh rate but lower field of view than the original Quest. It’s also slightly comparable to the Oculus Quest’s refresh rate before the last upgrade and a little more narrow than the 110-degree field of view.

Two front-facing cameras handle motion tracking from the inside out, and HTC plans to support hand tracking as well, although the feature wasn’t available during the pre-launch demo and didn’t give an exact timeline for its rollout. It uses the latest generation Qualcomm XR1 chipset (unlike the Quest 2’s XR2), has a respectable 64GB of storage but – unlike the Focus 3 – there’s no expansion card slot.

The lightweight hardware is a big selling point for HTC. “We wanted something lighter, more wearable and easier to travel with,” says Dan O’Brien, HTC’s head of virtual reality. The Flow weighs 189 grams, compared to about 500 grams for the Oculus Quest 2, and has a hinged design that folds up to fit in a $49 carrying case.

HTC Vive Flow

Unlike previous Vive headphones, the Vive Flow will not come with a controller. Instead, you wirelessly connect the headset to an Android smartphone and use the phone as a remote control/touchpad. Similar to the Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR remote controls, it’s basically a virtual laser pointer with buttons for selecting items and calling up the home screen.

Leaked images showed the stream connected to a black box, which some people have speculated might be an external computing device. It’s actually a $79 battery pack that should let you use the headset for four to five hours. The Flow technically has its own battery, but HTC says it only lasts a few minutes — it’s designed to let you switch power sources without turning off the headset. So you’ll need either the HTC battery, which is sold separately from the headset, or (according to HTC) any 10,000mAh power bank and USB-C cable.

HTC Vive Flow

In addition to device control, phone connectivity lets you mirror Android apps, call up a virtual copy of your phone’s home screen and let you run apps like streaming video services in a floating window. The headset doesn’t pair with iPhones, and while HTC didn’t rule out future support, it did point out that there are serious drawbacks to iOS running well with Flow.

HTC wants people to use Vive Flow for immersive but often static visual experiences. So you can watch a 360-degree video or sit in a virtual environment, but you can’t use apps that require full virtual hands. (This excludes most well-known VR games.) Camera tracking gives you a more natural experience than a headset that can only detect the angle of your head, but the app’s catalog and somewhat loose eyeglass-style design mean you probably won’t wander.

HTC says Flow will launch with 100 apps and 150 support by the end of the year. In addition to uses such as video streaming, the release announcement promotes the Tripp Meditation app and MyndVR virtual reality therapy service designed for seniors. You can also interact with VR social spaces like Vive Sync and watch video streams, something that’s proven popular on augmented reality goggles. Flow will support a limited subset of apps on HTC’s Viveport Store, and users can subscribe to a discounted, flow-focused $5.99 per month Viveport app subscription service.

HTC Vive Flow with Phone Controller

Photo: HTC

The Vive Flow appears to be primarily offered as a VR headset for people who find current VR headsets too complicated or intimidating. O’Brien describes the device as something that’s easy to put in a bag while traveling without worrying about extra pieces like controllers. “We wanted to make something very easy and flexible,” he says. Rather than competing outright with gaming headsets, HTC is trying to create a new category of its own.

HTC’s focus on older users (“the massive Boomer population,” a MyndVR representative said) is part of that strategy. This is the drive to get a design that looks like glasses rather than the straps you’ll find on most headphones. “There is a user out there who really wants this thing not to be intimidating and easy to turn on and off,” O’Brien says, and that’s what Flow is designed for. The result has a lot in common with the now discontinued Oculus Go, but with a slicker look and upgrades like inside-out camera tracking.

My short experience with Vive Flow has been a mixed bag. In fact, the flow is remarkably light – presumably in part because HTC drained its battery. But without a strap system to keep the headset in place, the screen kept sliding down my face and blurring the top half of my VR experience. HTC plans to offer replacement, interchangeable face gaskets to fit different sizes, and one of them worked better than the original. But I still had to be careful while turning my head, and the feeling of balancing the headphones well wasn’t entirely comfortable.

The Flow was significantly more bearable than the “glass-style” VR headset I’ve tried previously. It still feels a lot more unstable than the Focus 3, Quest, or practically any other major headphone, and there’s no alternative strap option for people who want a more secure fit. There’s a diopter adjustment dial so you can change focus on each eye individually, but like the Quest 2, you can’t change focus while you’re actually looking at an image — you have to take off the headset, twist the notch wheels, and turn it back on.

The smartphone-based console, Vive Flow’s biggest departure from the standard VR design, makes sense in theory but awkward in practice. I used an Android device provided by HTC which worked fine as a VR laser pointer. But thanks to the long-running trend of larger phones, I can barely get my hands around an HTC phone to tap virtual buttons on the screen. It’s also an odd choice for any headset aimed at older users, who are significantly less likely to own smartphones.

HTC Vive Flow

Soft interchangeable gasket between your face and lenses.

Hand tracking can partially solve the interaction problem. But the gesture interfaces remain frustrating or miss and usually require lifting your fingers to perform good movements, which also seems like a bad option if your hands have limited mobility, and I wasn’t able to experience the HTC version in my demo. O’Brien says HTC is still working with options for other control systems — its plan is to release the headset and then tweak its design based on how people use it.

Overall, it’s not clear that HTC’s focus on portability is key to winning over VR skeptics. Companies have been promoting “VR you can throw in your bag” for years now, and outside of people whose jobs include headphones, I haven’t seen anyone cite that as a selling point — while I’ve even heard praise from skeptics about bulkier headphones for being comfortable. HTC also says people will feel less awkward wearing this goggle-like design in public places like airplanes. As someone who’s already worn a VR headset on a plane, I’m not sure that’s enough to erase its basic weirdness.

There isn’t really a clear audience for streaming in the US market. It’s much more expensive and less feature-rich than the Facebook-powered Oculus Quest 2 but without specialized features that might make it attractive to other businesses or organizations. (Film festivals and schools can use a no-frills VR headset for 360-degree video, for example…but Flow isn’t.) HTC has built social apps like Sync that can have a relatively broad appeal. But outside of the meditation and video options, the Flow demo didn’t provide a great sense of its daily value. I’ve mostly found small games I can play occasionally, not gadgets I’d spend $499 to get access to.

But HTC has built a strong base of VR business hardware, and for now, it seems content to launch Flow as an experiment. At the very least, you won’t find another flagship headphone like it – even if it makes you sound like a bug.