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HTC Vive Flow wants to be your portable VR escape glasses

The phone-connected $500 goggles arrive in November; phone VR is back, sort of. We tried them.

HTC Vive Flow
Russell Holly/CNET

It has been six years since HTC made its first VR headset. But the company's latest product, the Vive Flow, takes a totally new approach. The phone-connected VR glasses, coming later this year for $500, can make their own prescription adjustments. That means you don't need to wear glasses at all, provided the Flow's prescription-adjusting range fits your eyes. And, for one of us, it did: At last, we could ditch our glasses.

HTC would prefer we not call the Vive Flow a VR headset. If asked, the company would tell you these are smart glasses designed to be taken with you everywhere and used when you need to escape reality for a moment. But they're not exactly glasses, either. You can't see through the massive mirrored domes unless you activate passthrough cameras as in other VR headsets

The Vive Flow marks a return to phone VR, a territory that's felt abandoned recently, but could pick back up based on what Qualcomm has indicated is coming in 5G from a variety of manufacturers. The Flow looks exactly like that type of phone-powered headset, but also could be a placeholder for more advanced ideas to come.

The sides fold to make the Vive Flow nicely compact. You put them on exactly the same way you put on any other glasses, with no need for an elastic band or weird strap. They fold down and fit into a carrying case that you can easily tuck away in a small backpack or handbag. They do need a battery, which doesn't come included: An exposed USB-C port on the side allows you to connect any battery you like to power the glasses.

Unlike stand-alone VR headsets like the Oculus Quest 2 or Vive Focus 3, these glasses are phone-connected, and require that phone to power apps and experiences. They can be tethered via USB-C, or content can be streamed wirelessly over a local connection.

But one of its wildest features is that prescription-adjusting diopter tech. When you have the Vive Flow glasses on your face, there's a set of dials over the lenses counting from zero to six. These diopter dials turn to match your prescription, which means no more ordering separate lens inserts or trying to stuff your glasses into a headset as long as your prescription is within this threshold. You could hand this headset to five people with five different prescriptions and a small adjustment would make the display perfectly clear for all of them in moments. But these glasses only work up to a -6 prescription; any more, you're out of luck. The glasses also lack any interpupillary distance adjustment (a common feature on other VR headsets), so if your eyes are a little closer or farther apart than what is considered average you might feel eyestrain during extended use. 

The 100-degree field of view of the lenses and the 3.2K resolution display with a 75Hz refresh rate work with HTC's Viveport user interface, much like its other VR headsets, and will work with about 50 apps at launch. But there are no controllers included with the Vive Flow, and it doesn't support hand tracking. Instead, the Flow uses your phone to navigate. Specifically, a certain range of compatible Android phones, as there's currently no support for iOS. HTC Vive America head Dan O'Brien didn't confirm what chipset was in the Flow, but it may not have the same Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chip as the Quest 2 and Vive Focus 3 do. In a lot of ways, the headset looks like another example of the type of phone-driven smart glasses Qualcomm's been promising for over a year.

HTC Vive Flow
Russell Holly/CNET

Trying the Flow in person: Phone-connected VR revisited

A Vive app on the phone connects with the headset and turns the phone into a sort of laser pointer, or a three-degrees-of-freedom controller much like earlier VR headsets like the Oculus Go and Google Daydream View used. Some parts of the phone can be seen while in VR: There's a set of button zones on the screen, for instance. You can point with your phone and tap the top part of your screen to select something. While the 6DoF headset (which allows moving around and leaning forward like most other VR headsets do, using its onboard cameras) encourages you to stand up and walk around within some premade safety boundaries, the controller sort of permanently floats around in front of you no matter where you are holding the phone on your person.

CNET's Russell Holly got to try the hardware in person in New York. A few apps were demoed: a mindfulness exercise from Tripp, and a fun game called Space Slurpies from Starcade Arcade. The headset can also cast anything from your phone screen, turning the goggles into a second display for videos, browsing, email or apps, much like some other 2D display glasses. The Flow headset can also cast to a nearby TV with Miracast.

If you want to see the world around you without taking off the headset, two cameras on the front enable a passthrough mode much like the Oculus Quest 2 has, showing a fuzzy grayscale image of the world not terribly different from what you get with the Oculus Quest 2. You might need this passthrough feature, since Vive Flow doesn't allow you to draw up your own play-zone boundaries. The Flow can create automatic 6-foot and 10-foot boundaries from within the headset, but these may not line up properly with your home space. If planning to use the Vive Flow to join a meeting happening in the Vive Sync conference app, you had better have a lot of open space to walk around in to safely see every angle of the meeting without tripping over stuff.

HTC Vive Flow
Russell Holly/CNET

Next steps: A possible launchpad for where phone-connected 5G glasses are heading 

According to O'Brien, the Flow's return to HTC consumer-focused glasses is linked to their being phone-connected, too. Unlike the company's other VR products, the Flow is a mobile accessory. Right now, the glasses don't necessarily do all the things full VR can, and may not be as easy to control. But O'Brien hints that accessories for Flow could be coming next, possibly as soon as early next year. Whether those would be tiny controllers or wearable bands remains to be seen. Lots of companies are all trying to get to small, portable glasses-size devices right now in a variety of ways, from basic smart glasses to developer-focused AR headsets. The Vive Flow looks like a different idea, slowly evolving VR into a glasses form. "We're all trying to solve different friction points and we're all testing the market in different ways," says O'Brien. "As the market matures, ultimately we'll all be wearing these glasses, and they'll have tiny little speakers, and we'll plug them into our USB connections, and the glass shades will just change based on the environment, whether it's going to be an AR experience or a VR experience." 

O'Brien was discussing the further-off future, but in the here and now the Vive Flow is aiming to work with global carriers, and possibly be a model headset to test 5G-driven VR apps and content. The Flow seems, in that sense, like a foot in the door for HTC's Vive brand to get into the mobile business.

It also seems like an obvious move to eventually link the Flow glasses with fitness trackers. Meditation and biofeedback are a natural fit. Some advanced VR devices like HP's Omnicept are already exploring putting heart rate monitors in VR headsets; the Oculus Quest Pro could add more sensors, too, while VR fitness app Supernatural already pairs with an Apple Watch. If the Flow is really aiming to be a general meditative wellness device as well as a portable immersive viewer, it would make sense to show heart rate changes through a paired watch in the future.

"If you have a wrist tracker that's tracking your elbow position, your wrist position [with accelerometer], and it tracks your oxygen, your heart, and all these other things that can tell the product what it's doing, there's huge value in that," says O'Brien.

Right now, the Vive Flow stands alone, with no extra accessories. There are a lot of really great ideas here, but who is this headset for? MyndVR, a company that delivers experiences and mental exercises for an older audiences, will be one of the launch apps. The headset's smaller weight and size could also help people wear it more casually for longer periods of time. That said, the prerelease interface I tried didn't seem like something a new VR user would understand on their own without frustration. While the Flow's ability to work with your phone is cool, this whole thing really feels like it could benefit from a separate controller. 

The HTC Vive Flow starts at $499: less expensive than HTC's Vive Focus 3 stand-alone headset, but you still need to buy a 10,000-mAh battery from HTC separately or provide your own, and the carrying case to keep the Vive Flow safe is sold separately unless you take advantage of the preorder starting Oct. 14. (Also, you need a compatible phone.) That price may seem high compared with the Oculus Quest 2, but the Vive Flow is also a lot more interactive and immersive than something like Facebook's $300 Ray-Ban Stories sunglasses (which do, however, work as glasses). In the prerelease form we were exposed to, the HTC Vive Flow is a series of incredibly cool ideas in need of an interface to bring it all together. By the time the retail model is ready for review, hopefully that will have changed.