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Vive Flow is HTC’s newest “all-in-one” VR headset, coming October 15 for $499

After a few ho-hum announcements earlier this year, HTC’s virtual reality division has returned with arguably its boldest (and most mysterious) product launch yet: the HTC Vive Flow.

The new headset, whose basic concept leaked on Tuesday via a massive Twitter image dump, will be available for preorder at some point today (perhaps right now, as this story goes live) for $499. Unlike HTC’s Vive Pro line, this new VR headset does not appear to prioritize gaming or other higher-fidelity use cases.

Instead, this all-in-one headset—whose massive, outward-facing lenses resemble something from a Venture Bros. henchman’s outfit—appears to have casual users in mind. Today’s announcement highlights apps that focus on “meditation,” “brain training,” and “collaborating and socializing,” and the latter example requires using HTC’s own Vive Sync virtual conferencing software. Additionally, promotional materials provided to Ars ahead of today’s reveal mention simple VR games for the platform, like Space Slurpies. (No, I never thought I’d type the words “space slurpies” in an Ars article, either.) The headset does not currently include any way to connect to gaming-grade computers, either wired or wireless, to run higher-fidelity VR experiences.

Instead, Vive Flow supports two types of Android smartphone connections. One requires a “5G” connection and HDCP 2.2, which are used to wirelessly mirror content from your phone to your virtual reality world. As of press time, this use case appears to hinge largely on video-streaming apps (even though Vive Flow’s built-in hardware appears perfectly capable of loading and presenting video). The other is a simpler Bluetooth connection, and this is required to turn an Android smartphone into a VR controller. HTC has yet to clarify how to use Vive Flow without a connected Android smartphone.

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From the sound of Thursday’s announcement, Vive Flow includes enough onboard material to run VR experiences all by itself: a processing unit, a battery, built-in speakers, and some form of “inside-out” tracking, apparently powered by at least two outward-facing cameras (one beneath each of Vive Flow’s tinted, outward-facing lenses). The system will include support for external battery packs for longer sessions, and users can connect their own Bluetooth audio headsets if they prefer those (but not any headset with a 3.5 mm headphone jack).

HTC sent a pretty basic description about Vive Flow to Ars Technica ahead of its formal Thursday reveal, including a few intriguing sales pitches. The best is the headset’s pair of “diopter adjustment” dials, which will allow users to fine-tune the focus of each eye independently. Additionally, the device’s hinge mechanism appears to adjust to a variety of head sizes and can neatly fold down for the sake of fitting into an attractively slim carrying case.

And while we suspect Vive Flow is an underpowered VR system (more on that in a second), HTC says it only weighs a paltry 189 grams, compared to 532 grams for Oculus Quest 2. Should you be willing to sacrifice power for comfort, the information we have thus far—along with video sequences that emphasize sweat-reducing airflow—looks optimistic on that front.

Many questions remain—and not just about the massive bug eyes

Enlarge / HTC would arguably prefer you not hem and haw over its Vive Flow headset’s specs. That’s probably easier to do if you live in a hip bungalow like this person.

As of press time, however, an HTC spokesperson declined to clarify any of our technical questions. Thus, we’re left wondering many things, which we’ll hopefully be able to update once the device goes on sale today.

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Will the headset support “six degrees of freedom” (6DOF) movement, like Oculus Quest? Or will it be limited to the seated-only 3DOF standard seen by the (now-discontinued) Oculus Go? Does its inside-out tracking system support existing HTC VR controllers from either the company’s Vive Pro or Vive Cosmos lines? How about a version of hand-tracking, like the Oculus Quest 2? Will a connected smartphone appear within Vive Flex’s VR worlds as a perfectly tracked hand, or will it work as a less-accurate “relative” pointer like on Oculus Go?

In terms of its built-in display, so far, we only know that Vive Flow offers a 100-degree field of view and refreshes at a rate of 75 Hz. These stats make it a smidge better than the original Oculus Quest‘s 72 Hz refresh rate and both Quest headsets’ 90-degree FOVs. But does the Vive Flow screen system consist of two separate panels (a la Oculus Quest 1) or a single panel (a la Quest 2)? Is HTC using LCD or OLED technology? And what exactly does HTC mean by “3.5K” pixel resolution? This figure could mean a pixel resolution somewhere near 3,500×3,500 pixels per eye, or roughly four times the pixels per eye on Oculus Quest 2. That would be fantastic.

And what exactly can we expect in terms of processing power, RAM, battery life, and other hard specs? That question is made trickier by Vive Flow’s choice to embed all processing within the headset itself as opposed to relying on an external “processing puck,” like Magic Leap.

HTC invited this comparison in early 2020 after announcing the HTC Vive Proton as a concept, which looks remarkably similar to the final Vive Flow. That original concept device was meant to work as both a virtual reality and “augmented” reality device. It was supposed to alternate between filling your eyes with a fully rendered world and superimposing 3D objects onto your real-life environs. Vive Flow, conversely, appears to be entirely about VR instead of letting you peer through to the real world.

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We generally assume the worst about a brand-new device when it leaves processing specs off its announcement list. But if HTC can strike the right balance between entry-level performance and state-of-the-art comfort, it might prove to be a delightful non-Facebook alternative for media and teleconferencing uses cases—something that the casual VR market desperately needs. Thanks to immediate preorders and a “November” retail launch, we’ll hopefully have answers in both spec-sheet form and eyes-on impressions quite soon.

Listing image by HTC