HTC plans to introduce a new flagship AR / VR headset next month that will reestablish its presence in the consumer virtual reality space. The company isn’t planning to release full details until CES on January 5th. But HTC global head of product Shen Ye spoke exclusively with The Verge about what it’s trying to achieve with its new design: a small, light all-in-one headset that promises full-featured virtual and augmented reality.
“It’s about taking all of these advances that we made in not only the design aspects, but also the technology aspects, and building it into something that’s meaningful and that’s appealing for consumers,” Ye says.
Based on an image shared with The Verge, the unnamed headset has a goggles-like look with front- and side-facing cameras. Buyers will be able to use the headset for gaming, entertainment, exercise, and “even some of the more powerful use cases,” including productivity and enterprise tools, says Ye. It will get two hours of battery life, be fully self-contained, and support controllers with six degrees of freedom as well as hand tracking.
One of the headset’s key features will be outward-facing cameras that pass a color video feed to users’ screens, allowing for mixed reality experiences. This mixed reality option still seems fairly experimental — when I asked what buyers might use it for, Ye highlighted HTC’s ongoing relationships with developers and said the best use cases would probably appear after release. “We’re at this phase where the tech is solid and we’ll start seeing some really cool experiences,” Ye promises.
The forthcoming headset is the one HTC previously teased with minimal details in October. At the time, we speculated it would be a successor to the Vive Flow, a consumer-oriented headset introduced last year. For now, however, HTC isn’t confirming this. It describes the device as the application of lessons it learned from making the Flow and the Vive Focus 3, a higher-end headset for businesses. And its combination of virtual and augmented reality puts HTC’s headset in the company of Meta’s recently released Quest Pro and Apple’s yet unannounced AR / VR device.
Color passthrough was a selling point for the recently released Meta Quest Pro, and HTC was cagey about directly comparing the two — but Ye offered a couple of potential differences. For one thing, the new HTC headset will have a depth sensor, something Meta considered but ultimately scrapped. That could allow for more efficient tracking and more sophisticated mapping of users’ physical environments. Ye says the headset could have a better dynamic range than other color passthrough mixed reality options on the market; he described reading text on a laptop or phone screen through HTC’s cameras, something that’s rarely possible inside Meta’s Quest Pro.
Beyond that, the new headset sounds more full-featured than the Flow (which originally shipped with a smartphone-based control scheme) but lighter and less bulky than the Vive Focus 3. “We’ve made our new headset one of the lightest that’s on the market,” Ye claims — although we still don’t know how light that is. The image HTC shared doesn’t show the headset’s strap setup, but Ye’s mention of exercising in the headset suggests it will be more stable than the Flow, which had a tendency to slip off of my face. “We spent so much time doing ergonomics,” says Ye. “The Flow was the first time we did that glasses form factor. And we learned a lot, actually, from it. I can say that when we see things that can be improved, we will always improve it.”
“We’re in an era when consumer VR headsets have been massively subsidized by companies that are trying to vacuum up and take personal data”
We don’t know if HTC’s device will have eye tracking, another feature the latest Meta (and, based on rumors, Apple) headsets lean on heavily. But when asked, Ye noted that the Vive Focus 3 got eye tracking as an optional modular upgrade, something HTC frequently offers for its headset. He also cryptically responded that HTC was working on sophisticated privacy protections that would prevent anyone from accessing data locally or remotely from the new headset’s cameras, including an encrypted local partition that stores the data. “That will somehow slide into that question you asked eventually,” he says.
HTC hopes its privacy promises will help differentiate its headset from Meta’s alternatives. While we don’t know how much the headset will cost, Ye heavily implies it will seem expensive compared to the $399 Meta Quest 2. “We’re in an era when consumer VR headsets have been massively subsidized by companies that are trying to vacuum up and take personal data to provide to advertisers,” he says. “We don’t believe the way that we want to approach it is to compromise on privacy.” The Vive Flow launched at $499 and the Focus 3 at $1,300, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the new headset falls somewhere between those points.
The Quest 2 has benefits besides a low price, though. Meta has funded or acquired a slew of good VR experiences, while HTC has historically lagged in that department, although it’s offered some unique options like its Viveport subscription gaming service. The new headset will offer standalone VR experiences through Viveport, and it can connect to a PC wirelessly or via a cable to play desktop VR games. Ye says the goal is to have a “broad range” of experiences when people pick up the headset.
Last year HTC declared itself temporarily out of the consumer VR game, at least partly because it didn’t want to compete with Meta’s heavily subsidized headsets. So what’s changed since then aside from Meta raising its prices? For one thing, HTC has launched two standalone-ish headsets in quick succession and built its capabilities in the process. “We’ve always had kind of a vision of what we think is a good experience for consumers,” Ye says. “We know how to build the best tech and now we also know how to build super-small form factor devices. It’s those learnings that allow us to feel like we’re now ready to make something that’s really exciting.” But it probably doesn’t hurt that Apple and Meta are gearing up for a fight over the future of consumer VR — so if HTC wants to join the fray, its window of opportunity might be closing.