HTC Vive: A Look At HTC's Virtual Reality Product Line

vive pro
Vive is HTC's flagship VR device. HTC Corporation

Vive is HTC's virtual reality (VR) product line that makes use of a head-mounted display (HMD), position-tracking base stations, and special controllers to provide a PC-based VR experience. It's based on SteamVR, and it was developed by HTC in cooperation with Valve. Valve created SteamVR and has also worked with LG to produce a competing VR headset. HTC Vive's main competitor, Oculus Rift, is not based on SteamVR.

How Does HTC Vive Work?

Vive consists of three main components: a head-mounted display, sensors called lighthouses, and controllers. In addition to these three components, the Vive also requires a powerful gaming PC. Without a PC that meets or exceeds some minimum specifications, Vive doesn't work.

When you connect the HMD to a compatible computer and strap it to your head, it uses two displays and Fresnel lenses to present a slightly different image to each eye. The displays can be moved closer together, or further apart, to match the specific distance between the user's eyes. This creates a three dimensional effect that can, when combined with head tracking, make it feel like you're really present in a virtual space.

In order to accomplish head tracking, which is a feature where moving your head around in real life changes your view inside a game, the Vive uses little cubes called lighthouses. These lighthouses send out invisible beams of light that are detected by sensors on the HMD and controllers, which allows games to simulate hand movement inside the virtual space. This can be accomplished by simply placing the sensors on a desk in front of you, but if you put them further away you can make use of a feature known as "roomscale."

What is Roomscale VR?

HTC Vive was the first to implement roomscale VR, but competitors like Oculus have caught up. Essentially, by placing sensors in the corners of a room, or a smaller play space, you can physically move around inside a virtual world. When you walk in real life, you also move inside the game. It isn't exactly a holodeck, but it's probably the next best thing.

What Are Vive Controllers and Trackers?

Vive controllers are devices that you hold in your hands to interact with a game or other VR experience. Since there are two controllers, and the same sensors responsible for head tracking are also capable of tracking the controllers, it's essentially possible to move your hands inside the virtual space of a game. Some games even allow you to make fists, point, and even pick things up with virtual hands.

Trackers are similar to controllers, but they're designed to be placed on objects or body parts other than your hands. For instance, if you strap trackers to your legs, Vive can track the position of your legs inside a game. Or if you put a tracker on a physical object, it can feel like you're really picking up and handling an object inside a game.

HTC Vive's Wireless VR

Vive uses a combination HDMI/USB cable that powers the unit, transmits data to and from the unit, and provides a picture to the screens inside the head unit. A wireless adapter was announced alongside the Vive Pro, but it doesn't require the Vive Pro to work. That means owners of the original HTC Vive can also go wireless with the same adapter.

HTC Vive Pro

HTC Vive Pro
The Vive Pro is HTC's first official update to its flagship VR product line. HTC Corporation

Manufacturer: HTC
Resolution: 2880x1600 (1440x1600 per display)
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Nominal field of view: 110 degrees
Platform: SteamVR
Camera: Yes, dual front-facing cameras
Manufacturing status: Available starting Q1 2018

Although the original Vive did receive small tweaks over the course of its life, both cosmetic and functional, through the form of revisions, the basic hardware stayed the same.

The Vive Pro is the first official update to HTC's VR product line, and the hardware was significantly upgraded. The biggest change is the display, which saw a large increase in pixel density. In face, the Vive Pro is the first 3K VR headset.

One of the biggest complaints about VR is the screen door effect, which is the result of placing a display so close to your eyes that you can make out the individual pixels.

The screen door effect was most apparently in earlier hardware, but it's still an issue with products like the Oculus Rift and original HTC Vive, both of which use 2160x1200 displays. The Vive Pro bumps that up to 2880x1600.

The Vive Pro also features a redesigned head strap to reduce neck strain, higher quality built-in headphones, and dual front-facing cameras to enable better usage of augmented reality and other creative possibilities.

HTC Vive Pro Features

  • Higher resolution: The retooled display represents a 78 percent increase over the original Vive.
  • Redesigned head strap: Better ergonomics and less neck strain from a more balanced headset.
  • Reduced headset weight: Even lighter than the latest Vive revision.
  • Premium audio: Higher quality headphones with built-in amplifier and dual microphones for active noise cancellation
  • Dual front-facing cameras: An additional front-facing camera may provide better augmented reality experiences.
  • Headset-only option: Compatible with existing Vive base stations and controllers.

HTC Vive

HTC Vive
Most of the differences between the Vive and Vive Pre were cosmetic, but the Vive did receive functional changes over time like beefier head straps and a lighter head unit. HTC Corporation

Manufacturer: HTC
Resolution: 2160x1200 (1080x1200 per display)
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Nominal field of view: 110 degrees
Weight: 470 grams (555 grams for launch units)
Platform: SteamVR
Camera: Yes, singe front-facing camera
Manufacturing status: Still being made. Available since April 2016.

The Vive was HTC's first VR headset that was sold directly to the public. 

Between the launch of the Vive in April 2016, and the announcement of its successor in January 2018, the Vive hardware did go through some minor changes. The big things, like resolution and field of view, remained unchanged, but the hardware was tweaked in minor ways.

When the HTC vive launched, the headset weighed in at 555 grams. Refinements in the design resulted in a slightly lighter version, tipping the scales at about 470 grams, by April 2017.

Minor changes were also made to other facets of the Vive over its lifespan, including sturdier and redesigned head strap components, redesigned tracking units, and a redesigned three-in-one cable.

It can be difficult to tell which version of the original Vive you're looking at, because HTC did not change the name of the product or even announce the tweaks.

However, if you have access to the box that a Vive came in, you can look for a version sticker on the back. If it says "Rev.D," then that's one of the lighter units. If the label on the head unit says it was manufactured on or after December 2016, that is probably also one of the lighter units.

HTC Vive Pre

HTC Vive Pre
The Vive Pre already had all the major pieces in place, but there are some cosmetic differences. HTC Corporation

Manufacturer: HTC
Resolution: 2160x1200 (1080x1200 per display)
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Nominal field of view: 110 degrees
Weight: 555 grams
Platform: SteamVR
Camera: Yes, single front-facing camera
Manufacturing status: No longer being made. The Vive Pre was available from August 2015 until April 2016.

The HTC Vive Pre was the first iteration of the Vive hardware, and it was released about eight months before the official launch of the consumer version. It was intended for use by developers to get a head start on creating games, so it is nearly identical to the HTC Vive in terms of specifications.

The resolution, refresh rate, field of view, and other important stats are all exactly the same when you compare the Vive to the Vive Pre. There are some cosmetic differences, but they don't affect the operation of the unit.