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VIVE Flow impressions: A lifestyle device, not a gaming VR headset

VIVE Focus impressions

Disclaimer: HTC invited me to a preview event to try the device, a week before its launch. Written alongside Rosie Collins.

The VIVE Flow cannot be compared to the Oculus Quest… mostly. A lot of people will be confused by how to categorise it, but it’s important to say that comparing it to Facebook’s headset would lead to more confusion than factual transparency. If anything, it sits within its own world where it offers a range of comfortable experiences, with slightly less power and designed for comfort. It is not a gaming rig, or one which can run sophisticated experiences. It’s a wellness device, first and foremost.

That may disappoint some people, who may have wanted HTC to run back into the consumer arena with a standalone VR contender. But the direction is a little different, and perhaps tactical. Instead of facing Facebook head-on, the company is instead stepping into the wellness space where it fits into a peaceful lifestyle. If so, its success would be dependent on not just its specs, but also the developer ecosystem which will pick it up come its November launch. It is also dependent on how tolerant people will be of the price; at £499 / $499, it is a more expensive headset with fewer capabilities compared to the Oculus Quest. While it is meant to be defined separately, it’s still an unfavourable comparison.

If you want a more wide-ranging device that can run many more experiences, with more sophisticated controls and at a cheaper price, the Oculus Quest 2 is a sound decision. But for the smaller group that wants a truly lightweight and meditative device to relax with, and does not intend to dip into more complex experiences, the VIVE Flow’s ergonomics are fit for purpose.

The hardware of the VIVE Flow

The most impressive hardware feature is its weight. At 189g, it weighs more like a chunky chocolate bar than a tech device sitting comfortably on the head. The lightweight element is important for extended sessions, and the glasses fit well. The lenses had dials that can configure their focus, which is a seamless way to make the vision clearer. The ability to pop on a pair of glasses and see 6DoF VR experiences instantly is significant for ease of entry; no guardian system to set up, or complicated menus to navigate.

Additionally, being able to set up anywhere, efficiently and quickly, is important to note for those who are deploying a large number of headsets. Many hospitals, for example, don’t have the space for a room-scale VR experience anyway; to be able to pop on an HMD literally anywhere and escape into good quality environments is an important improvement.

Additionally, it features an active cooling system that ensures that the headset does not fog up, and keeps the face non-sweaty for extended sessions. No-one likes a soggy head during a workout session, and it ensures it keeps its colder temperature. The demo session did not include any exercise experiences, so I couldn’t test it out further.

It also features:

  • 100-degree field of view;
  • 3.2K resolution with 75 Hz refresh rate;
  • 3D spatial audio.

All that being said, it is not a powerful rig that can run more complex experiences. Nor does it use anything more complex as a controller than an Android phone. And I mean only an Android phone; it is not yet usable with iPhones, which is a massive limiter on its use at launch. This severely halts its usability as a device, which may make it more tricky to import experiences to the device.

VIVE Focus impressions. Photo credit: Tom Ffiske
VIVE Focus impressions. Photo credit: Tom Ffiske

Software: Lifestyle and meditation

The VIVE Flow is more dedicated to more relaxing devices. For streaming, it works like a treat, with watching Disney+ is a fun way to look at content. But above all, it was the meditative TRIPP experience that was my favourite. It was like sitting in a trippy tunnel of good vibes, as the guided meditation relaxed the user through breathing exercises.

The meditative qualities are its biggest strength. It seems to be perfectly geared for the affluent relaxers who want to step out of reality, sagging into sofas as they lie back and chill. But because of its control input, it is focused solely on those relaxing apps with limited control inputs. If a user wished to expand further, they may see a limited array of titles compared to other competitors. If there was a 6DoF control method, I can see the headset getting more pick-up.

Ironically, I can see the headset working well for events as well. Imagine a rollout of lightweight headsets that are easy to put on and use, to view simple experiences. For the organisers of the event who are carrying the headsets, a lightweight option is ideal for transport.

Meditative with the VIVE Flow. Photo credit: Tom Ffiske
Meditative with the VIVE Flow. Photo credit: Tom Ffiske

Lack of AAA support

This device will likely be savaged by the not insignificant community of VR users who expect all new devices to be built around AAA gaming and see anything less than that is seen as a failure. However, for those working in healthcare, community work, education – anywhere that people may be newer to using VR and/or need to be onboarded quickly – devices like the VIVE Flow could see a large uptake.

The familiar form factor is far less scary for people who are unfamiliar with tech, and the lack of complicated controllers is a benefit in many situations. As the Quest controllers could put off someone who becomes anxious about understanding how to use all the buttons and may choose not to even try an experience as a result. Likewise, training up staff at a school or hospital to be able to support their service users will be even simpler with devices like this and be far more likely to gain traction and start helping people on a larger scale.

Defining itself against competitors like the Oculus Quest 2

I left the event feeling like I saw something with a lot of promise. Hardware comfort is an aspect many people neglect to mention, focusing instead on games, games, games. And while content is a vital factor, many shoppers care more about comfort and looks more than other factors. Some may be turned off by the bug-eyed look (including my mum), or the higher price. But it’s a bold take that may attract some users.

The VIVE Flow will live or die on developer pick-up who can navigate its unique qualities and make bespoke and lovely experiences. If the ecosystem is there, then it’ll soar. But until then, it is positioned as a wellness device for the folks who want a dedicated relaxation tool.

Perhaps the most confusing element is how the company has labelled it. ‘Immersive glasses’ implies that users can see through the device in some way, like a pair of specs. Not so; it is more like goggles if anything else, where the user cannot see through it in any way. I would more define it as a lifestyle headset, closer to its form factor.