Even if you put aside its decidedly bug-eyed appearance, the leaked HTC Vive Flow is a baffling headset. By all accounts, it’s supposed to be a standalone consumer VR device that’s made for activities like meditating and streaming media. It also will allegedly come with its own take on the metaverse. In a somewhat distant feature, this sort of device might be the norm. Right now, it sounds an awful lot like it doesn’t know what exactly it’s supposed to be.
These first details about this device emerged from a Protocol report earlier this week. Then prolific leaker Evan Blass tweeted a series of images that revealed what the HTC Vive Flow looks like, its $US499 ($677) price tag, and that it would ship starting in November. The Flow, while standalone, also looks in some of these photos to be tethered to some sort of cylindrical device. In others, it appears to rely on your smartphone as a Bluetooth controller and for phone-to-VR streaming. That jives with the Protocol report, which says the headset will not ship with any controllers and will sport a chipset that’s less powerful than the one in the Oculus Quest 2.
So, in other words, gaming and any other processor-intensive activities aren’t gonna be possibly. OK. Well, supposedly this thing has a metaverse called Viveport Verse. Protocol claims that this metaverse will include avatars and cross-device functionality while also exploring a “variety of events.” The Viveport Verse apparently includes an NFT showroom? Somehow this thing will also support user-generated content. All on a not-very-powerful sounding chipset, and with content that’s been repurposed from Mozilla’s Hubs VR project.
This is a lot. In fact, it sounds like all the recent buzzwords in the wearables and mixed-reality space got smooshed together, run through a blender, and then dusted with a sprinkling of NFT. On their own, each of the Flow’s individual components might make sense. It’s far from being the only company exploring some kind of wearable home theatre. Facebook has obviously cornered the standalone gaming VR space with Oculus and has bet big on VR fitness. (It’s also cursed us with the concept of a “metaverse” to begin with.) Wearables and health tech companies have spent this past year focusing on features that emphasise wellness, mindfulness, and recovery. But together, these features and hardware don’t seem to fit together. What does an NFT showroom have to do with, as one leaked image implies, “well-being and mindful productivity?” What is a person supposed to do with just “7 free VR contents”?
Reading all this, I’m baffled as to who this headset is for. Who is the affluent, wellness-minded, early adopter who would plunk down $US499 ($677) for a VR ecosystem that hasn’t proven its mettle just yet? Who besides tech reviewers would be interested in a “casual” VR device that costs $US200 ($271) more than the well-established competition? It would be one thing if HTC were positioning this as an affordable, lightweight headset that did a couple of things well. Maybe if this was perhaps, an enterprise-minded device that focused solely on the metaverse aspect. Or a casual gaming system that launched with a decent catalogue of titles and a meditation app. But as it stands…we’re perplexed.
That’s also not taking into consideration how ridiculous this thing looks. To be fair, no VR headset looks “cool,” but this headset is downright silly. Despite the leaked lifestyle shots, I’m almost positive I can guarantee that no one will wear the HTC Vive Flow to bed. And that when it comes to meditation, the Calm app is $US70 ($95) a year, has a huge library of content, and is available directly on your phone. Most of what’s being presented here can be found elsewhere for less money, greater convenience, and significantly less teasing.
It’s not that mixed reality is doomed. On the contrary — just about every tech company out there is convinced this is the future. Facebook just dropped its “smart” glasses in partnership with Ray-Ban, Apple is rumoured to be working on a pair, as is Samsung, and Google and Microsoft have been out here for years carving their own niche in the mixed reality enterprise space. Somehow, Magic Leap found another $US500 ($678) million in funding and is barreling ahead with another headset. Razer, Bose, and a bunch of smaller brands are also putting out their own audio sunglasses. Like it or not, virtual and augmented reality is happening. Someone someday is going to crack the winning combination of hardware, software, and use cases.
But every company in this space is facing the same problems: how to stand out from the crowd and how to convince the average person that this is better than the devices they already have. In both cases, the HTC Vive Flow’s probably the funniest-looking VR headset we’ve seen in some time. But the Vive Flow is going to need more than just a distinctive design to convince people it’s worth buying without impressive features.