It might still be rather bulky, but HTC’s new Vive Pro brings a host of improvements that have the headset teetering on the edge of next-gen.
Today at CES 2018, HTC revealed the Vive Pro. It isn’t the ‘Vive 2’—and the original Vive will continue to be sold alongside it—but, in many ways, it raises the bar for PC VR headsets.
Improved Display Boosts Clarity
Sub-pixels Be Gone
First and foremost is the headset’s improved display, which offers 78% more pixels with a 2,880 × 1,600 resolution (1,440 × 1,600 per display). This makes a big difference in clarity of the VR world. With the original Vive’s 2,160 × 1,200 resolution it’s relatively easy to see sub-pixels (the little red, green, and blue dots that mix together to make white, and every other color you see). Looking through the lenses of the Vive Pro, not only have the sub-pixels disappeared, it’s challenging to even make out whole pixels.
Minimal ‘Screen Door Effect’
The increase in pixel density comes with an equal decrease in screen door effect (the grid-like black spaces between pixels). The screen door effect feels like it’s just on the cusp of disappearing; another jump in pixel density equal to the one we’ve seen here, and I’d venture to say it will be effectively invisible. When you aren’t looking carefully for it, especially in slightly darker scenes, you’ll hardly notice it.
With SDE Nearly Out of the Way, Aliasing and Mura Are the Next Challenge
If you hear people saying that the Vive Pro still has quite visible screen door effect (SDE), I would bet that they are actually talking about aliasing and mura.
Aliasing is what happens when you don’t have sufficient pixel density to convince your eyes that a perfectly straight line is perfectly straight, when it’s actually made up of the jagged edges of pixels—this effect is exaggerated at a distance since fewer pixels are available to render more distant objects. Anti-aliasing techniques can go a long way to hide aliasing, so how much you notice the aliasing vary depending upon the application, but it’s still there in the Vive Pro.
Mura describes inconsistencies in brightness and color from one pixel to the next. If you set the display to be completely blue, zero mura would mean that every pixel is emitting the exact same blue color and brightness when compared to its neighbors. Mura happens when the color and brightness from one pixel to the next diverges to a noticeable extent. The effect is perceived as a sort of cloudy mesh, as if looking through a very faint piece of linen over your eyes.
The good news is that the mura-correction on the Vive Pro appears at least as good as that of the original Vive (which is pretty good). However, it’s still there, and, perhaps, now an equal or slightly larger contributor to the clarity bottleneck than SDE.
And yes, these are Fresnel lenses [Update: this has been triple-checked and confirmed with HTC], so you can expect to see the same god-ray artifacts as before, especially in high contrast scenes.
Clearer, More Immersive Views
The result of greater pixel density—which brings less aliasing and less noticeable individual pixels—and solid mura-correction makes a big difference in the clarity of the virtual scene when looking through the Vive Pro. With every step forward like this, we’re getting closer to feeling like your head is really in another place (that fleeting feeling of Presence).
When I put my head in the Vive Pro for the first time, standing in the finely rendered Driftwood environment, I couldn’t help but marvel at a new level of closeness to the virtual world; our heads are so close to pushing through the window screen and out into the virtual world.
But the increase in resolution isn’t the only thing that makes the Vive Pro feel like a substantial improvement over the original Vive. The headset is also more comfortable, easier to use, and supports even better tracking.
Ergonomic and Ease-of-use Enhancements
A Better Strap Out of the Box
Let’s start with comfort. The new strap on the Vive Pro feels like an improved version of the Deluxe Audio Strap (an optional accessory for the original Vive). Yes, it’s undeniably bulky, but some subtle changes make it more comfortable, and the Vive Pro comes standard with this new strap.
The new head mount on the Vive Pro functions roughly the same as the old one—with a knob on the back to tighten the headset to taste—but a change to the design of the padding structure on the back of the head feels, at least in my 20 minutes or so of testing it side-by-side with the DAS, to increase comfort by more gently cupping the area just under the crown of the head, rather than gripping tightly against the crown like a vice (as the DAS seems to do). It also feels easier to find the comfort sweet spot compared to the DAS.
The struts that connect the display housing to the back of the strap are also further away from your temples and help make the headset feel more ‘open’ on the sides rather than totally encompassing your head. Along with what feels like better balance, the Vive Pro feels less obtrusive on your head.
The new headphones also feel less likely to accidentally flip from the extended position into the on-ear position while you’re in the middle of putting on the headset (and irksome annoyance).
Note: if you were following our HTC CES 2018 Press Event liveblog earlier, we reported that the Vive Pro has removable headphones—we’ve since confirmed that they’re actually permanently attached. [Update: After varying reports from HTC, the final word is that the headphones are detachable.]
Let me be clear: long term comfort simply can’t be assessed without wearing the headset continuously for an hour or more; the design could turn out to be terribly uncomfortable after one or two hours. At least for now though, I’m quite encouraged by the ergonomic changes.
Easier Adjustment for Glasses and Lashes, Handy Buttons Behind Your Ears
It’s also easier to use. Instead of those semi-hidden knobs on either side of the headset to adjust the display-to-eye distance (which many people seem to have never known about), there’s a single button on the bottom of the display housing which lets you easily slide the housing back and forth. That makes it easier dial in the maximum field of view, or make room for longer eyelashes or glasses. As with the original, the facial interface is flush to your face, which means there no light leak if you’ve got things adjusted properly.
Furthermore, the headset picks up a few other helpful buttons. On the back of the left headphone is a pair of volume up/down buttons for easily adjusting the volume without going into the SteamVR menu. On the back of the right ear is a mute button which deafens the dual microphones, a wonderful addition which will make it far easier to mute your yourself when talking to someone outside of the headset, without bothering virtual peers in social experiences.