VIRTUAL REALITY tech is one of those things we’ve been thiiiis close to really making practical for some time now, and pretty much every VR unit I review nudges the dial closer to seeing it become a practical reality (see what I did there?)
The HTC Vive Flow is very much part of that trend, correcting a lot of the issues which have plagued VR headsets in recent years (like all the cables), although it’s still not quite there – but it’s a lot closer than it was before.
The basic design is a set of largish goggles – think a cross between a pair of aviator sunglasses and old-timey mad scientist goggles – and with a weight of just 189 grams, they’re very comfortable to wear. The magnetic clip-on eye-shade adds to the comfort as well, at least from my experience.
The two eye pieces have a resolution of 1600×1600 each, and are diopter adjustable, which means people who normally wear glasses can, in most cases, still use the headset.
It is important to understand the HTC Vive Flow, while a VR headset, cannot magically turn 2D images into 3D ones – 2D content will still be 2D. 3D content, however, will indeed be rendered in 3D, and quite effectively too. The viewing resolution experience the device offers is very good – not as sharp as a 4K or 8K TV, but comparable to 1080p in my view.
The 75hz refresh works well and I didn’t have any issues with simulation sickness or dizziness after using the headset. There’s also a pass-through feature (in black & white only) so you can see what’s going on in the world around you if needed.
The HTC Vive Flow is designed to be connected (via Bluetooth) with an Android smartphone (sorry, no iOS support yet), with the phone doubling as a controller (you can see the ‘laser beam’ represented in the VR view). Oppo were kind enough to provide an Oppo Find X2 Pro smartphone to accompany this review, which was greatly appreciated.
The VR headset has an internal battery life of about 30 seconds for active display and about 5 minutes of ‘sleep mode’ – long enough to hot swap power banks, in other words; the regular power source is a user-supplied powerbank, connected by USB-C.
The power source needs to have a minimum 7.5W output; I did the testing using a Belkin Boost Charge Power Bank 10K and it functioned flawlessly.
Perhaps the most important innovation in the Vive Flow from a User Experience perspective is there’s a little fan in them which stops the screens from fogging up when you’re wearing them.
I cannot overstate just how much of a game-changer this is. Pretty much every VR headset I’ve reviewed previously has had issues with the lenses fogging up, meaning I had to keep taking the unit off to clean the lenses. Not an issue with the Vive Flow – I didn’t have to clean the lenses once, even after using for more than 30 minutes at a time.
The unit’s onboard OS allows access to several experiences via an HTC Vive account including a range of VR experiences, 360 degree videos, and some games. Some are free, a lot require either a purchase or a subscription to Viveport Infinity (there’s a free trial period and some free VR games included with the unit purchase).
Perhaps the biggest attraction from a consumer point (besides the VR thing) is that you can mirror your phone’s screen inside the VR headset and watch videos, as well as play some games (because you need the phone to be a controller it’s pretty difficult to play things effectively – my attempts at playing World of Warships, World of Tanks and Diablo Immortal are best just swept under a rug.
The really big issue the HTC Vive Flow faces is that only works with a limited number of Android smartphones – there’s no iPhone or laptop support, and it doesn’t work with your cheap or older Android phones either.
This dramatically limits its usefulness – as already noted, this review wouldn’t have been possible without Oppo providing a phone, because literally none of the other phones I had available were compatible with the device. HTC are apparently working on expanding the compatibility of the device, but as it stands iOS users are on the bench for now.
The phone mirroring system the HTC Vive Flow uses is a great idea, but I found it had its limitations with the Oppo X2 5G the unit was reviewed with.
I could sit and watch YouTube videos to my heart’s content (not in VR, but still in a more intimate setting than just flopped on the couch with the cat climbing on me), but when I tried to watch Netflix or Disney+, I’d get maybe a minute or two before the phone shut down and rebooted, disconnecting the VR headset and refusing to reconnect the phone mirror thing until I rebooted the VR unit as well.
This was disappointing because the experience of watching content streamed from your phone to the Flow was otherwise quite like having a 200in screen which you don’t have to share.
There were no issues with the headset itself or the software it was running, beyond a lacklustre selection – the games available are largely pretty generic VR experiences of the kind we’ve seen plenty of over the years. I wasn’t expecting another Blood & Truth or Half-Life:Alyx, but the lack of high-level experiences on offer just reiterates this is more of an “experience” device rather than a gaming device.
To be fair, it is not pretending to be a serious gaming platform either – HTC have been pretty clear that it’s more of a VR “break from reality” device than something for playing the latest games on.
Indeed, the marketing explicitly describes them as “The immersive VR glasses for on-the-go wellness”, and on that front they do very well. The 3D/VR experiences on offer (such as walking along a beach) are very well done and very pleasant, as are many of the 360 degree videos you can access (I particularly enjoyed one from Discovery Channel about swimming with Mako Sharks).
What I can see it being very useful for is gamers who live in shared accommodation with limited TV access – they could use the Vive Flow as their own personal YouTube or Twitch viewing screen and lie on their bed watching gaming videos/streams to their heart’s content.
While still having some drawbacks, and not being well suited to gaming, there’s still some appeal for the HTC Vive Flow – but at this stage, I don’t think it’s AUD$749 worth of appeal unless you’re really into VR tech, like the idea of being able to take “wellness breaks” wherever you are, and have a top-end smartphone.