Earlier this week, I was invited to demo the upcoming HTC VIVE XR Elite headset in Soho, London. I've been very curious to try the new device since its announcement earlier this month, especially as it's the first consumer-focused, high-end headset released by the company since the original VIVE in 2016.
I'm seeing a lot of comparisons out there right now, contrasting prices, specification and performance with the Meta Quest 2, Pico 4 and Meta Quest Pro. I'll save my thoughts on comparison for the end, the main body of this piece will focus on VIVE XR Elite as a product and device in-and-of itself. Bear in-mind, I’m not a journalist nor do I write reviews, these are just an industry person’s thoughts on a brief amount of time with an unreleased device.
The VIVE XR Elite is remarkably small and light in both modes. The headset includes the standard “headset mode” whereby the battery pack and strap are attached, much like other VR headsets. However, you can also use the device in “glasses mode”, removing the battery and strap, leaving glasses-style temples to hold the device on your face. Of course, without the battery, this setup requires a cable connection to either a battery pack, a wall outlet or a PC. This could be ideal for some PC VR experiences like racing sims, or for media viewing. In “glasses mode”, the XR Elite looks and feels much like a VIVE Flow, though of course with full 6DOF VR functionality.
When it comes to the full VR experience, XR Elite performs about as you’d expect. The screens are crisp, boasting two 1920x1920 displays at 90Hz refresh rate, coupled with pancake-style lenses allowing for up-to 110° field of view in a surprisingly compact and lightweight form factor. The headset features millimetre IPD control ranging from 54-73mm, and dioptre adjustment on each lens, allowing me to input my prescription and use the headset without glasses. When it comes to audio, XR Elite brings a pair of decent embedded speakers in the head-strap and dual microphones. The room I was in was loud so it’s hard to judge the audio, but it sounded akin to what I’m used to with Quest 2. Bizarrely enough, HTC have chosen to forego the 3.5mm headphone jack, which is a huge disappointment for me. XR Elite does support Bluetooth audio, but for a medium that relies heavily on ultra-low latency to function comfortably, this isn’t ideal. I did ask if the USB-C ports on the device supported audio and did not get a certain answer, though the placement of the ports would make this an uncomfortable and unlikely scenario.
However it is worth talking about the augmented reality and mixed reality experiences, of which I tried two. First of all, I tried Maestro, where the player conducts an orchestra. In front of me was a full orchestra on a virtual stage, but when I turned around behind me, all I could see were my surroundings. It’s a puzzling use of mixed reality, as during gameplay you’re focused entirely on the orchestra who are in an entirely VR environment, and when the music ends, the VR world fills in the entire view, and behind you is now a cheering virtual audience of NPCs, making the mixed reality view largely useless, unless there was something I missed.
The key issue with this demo, was that the framerate of the virtual environment did not match the frame rate or frame pacing of the passthrough video feed, creating a very jarring experience when in any position where I could see both environments. However when the VR environment enveloped the entire 360-degree view, the frame rate shot up to a much smoother level, though I don’t have specific readings. Like most standalone VR devices since 2020, the XR Elite is powered by the Snapdragon XR2. This is accompanied by 12GB RAM and 128GB on-board storage.
The Maestro demo was also notable for mixing hand-tracking with controller tracking. I used a controller in my right hand, and my actual hand on the left side. The controllers are standard-fare for a VR device in 2023, following the basic design and layout guidelines set by the original Oculus Touch controllers in 2016. A single analog stick is featured on each controller, followed by X, Y and menu buttons on the left controller, and A, B and VIVE buttons on the right controller. Each controller also adorns both grip and trigger buttons, and a large and familiar tracking ring at the top.
The hand-tracking worked well, but latency was noticeably higher than what I’m used to on Quest devices, as well as less accuracy when pinching. Though as we know, this is largely software-based so I’m sure this will be improved over time. In fact, if the latency can be reduced, I’d say the XR Elite could be a good contender for the first device to release a controller-less SKU thanks to the headsets size and weight.
The second was a mixed reality version of YUKI, a bullet-hell game where your controller becomes the player character, as you move them around and shoot flying enemies in a way very reminiscent of how as a child, you’d pick up a toy and play. Unlike the main game, this existed entirely in passthrough-AR, which I felt really added to that feeling of playing with a toy, in a positive way. The frame rate and pacing were much more in sync during this demo, and it was a really great example of how powerful AR can be with a large FOV like the XR Elite allows compared to current Optical AR devices.
The passthrough is a fairly high resolution, still not quite at the point where you could read a text on your phone through it, but much higher than we’re used to with Quest 2. While the 3D depth wasn’t particularly strong, the depth sensor was not enabled on the devices I used, so I won’t comment further on that. In terms of comfort, the XR Elite was quite comparable to the Quest Pro, albeit a little lighter and with less pressure on the forehead. However, much like Quest Pro, the headset doesn’t have a top strap, meaning the headsets compression around the head is what keeps it in place. The issue I have with this is to keep it comfortably in place, I needed the headset fairly tight which could, at times, take away from the light-weight feeling, not to mention the magnetic facial interface could use stronger magnets, as it would easily come off when adjusting the headset on my face.
So, where does VIVE XR Elite fit in the VR/AR market? There’s no apples-to-apples comparison. The closest comparison appears (at first) to be to Quest Pro, which features a similar form factor and price point. But they boast vastly different feature sets. The Quest Pro features self-tracking controllers with advanced haptics and built-in eye and face tracking. The VIVE XR Elite controllers are more comparable to those on Quest 2, and while the device will support eye tracking and face tracking in the future, these will require optional hardware attachments.
HTC are keen to point out that VIVE XR Elite cost is not subsidised, which has continued the discussion around Meta Quest 2 and how its low price is likely subsidised by Meta’s data collection, one of their main revenue sources in their Facebook and Instagram social platforms. I’m sure many have seen floods of VR enthusiasts claim they’d pay a lot more for a headset unrelated to a data-collecting social platform, and this is their chance to put their money where their mouth is. Some may point to the Pico 4, though it is owned and operated by TikTok owner Bytedance so it doesn’t quite fit the bill.
My personal concern is that, for the mainstream market, it won’t be a question of “data-collecting Quest 2 for £399 or data-safe XR Elite for £1299”, it will be a question of “data-collecting Quest 2 for £399 or no VR”.
This is to say nothing of content, where Meta has gone out of their way to acquire studios and fund/publish titles to lock them to the Meta Quest platform. That said, the event I attended was largely to gather developer interest, and the HTC VIVE team are working openly to get as many developers on-board as possible. It’s a pleasure to see a hardware manufacturer treat all developers with the respect and opportunity they deserve, as I feel the Quest store approval process is far too harsh. While I don’t have confirmation, I would assume Viveport will become available as an option for XR Elite standalone content.
Ultimately I think the VIVE XR Elite is a stellar VR device. It feels high quality, it’s exceptionally small/light and if you can swallow the price tag, it could be the ideal way to experience many VR and MR applications. However, that price tag will be tough to accept for all but the most diehard VR enthusiasts, and much like Pico, HTC will have their work cut out for them to compete with Meta on the content-front.
VR in 2023 is going to be an interesting look into the industry’s future, with VIVE XR Elite, PS VR2, Pico 4, Quest Pro Quest 2 and Quest 3 (expected) all providing different experiences at different price points with different focuses.