A pair of VR glasses, almost: The XR Elite shows how hardware will likely evolve.
Out of a small, black drawstring bag, I take out a pair of unusual black mirrorshade glasses. I show them to my son. I tell him they're VR. A Quest 2 player, he looks surprised.
The HTC Vive XR Elite feels like some sort of impossible future step towards the next generation of VR and AR. These bug-eyed, glossy goggles seem to be a way to make smaller, self-contained mixed reality happen. But that tiny portable dream has quite a few complications.
It's not just the foldable goggles, you see. There's a battery pack strap, too. And the VR controllers. And, optionally, an adapter so that these small goggles actually fit over your glasses, if you wear glasses. The XR Elite is a kit, and it's pretty similar to the Meta Quest Pro. But, if you want to strip it down to a smaller size, and run from a separate battery pack or a laptop, you can do that.
HTC's aggressive next step in VR hardware feels more like glasses than Meta's Quest Pro, for sure. It's a sign of the evolutionary steps that are going to come for all VR/AR hardware.
I tested the Vive XR Elite over the course of a week, using the device with a number of apps and games in standalone mode, both in VR and in mixed reality modes using the passthrough cameras. I used the controllers, but also the onboard hand tracking. The XR Elite also works as a connected PC VR headset, but for the purposes of my time with the device I focused more on what it can do on its own. I wore it over my own glasses, and didn't put in contact lenses and use the prescription-adjusting lenses included. I used HTC's own adapter to fit the hardware over my glasses, to see how that would feel.
The Vive XR Elite, much like the Quest Pro, is a VR headset in a different form. And while it can do "mixed reality" -- which is, effectively, a blend of video captured from the real world with its cameras, on top of which gets overlaid VR objects and experiences -- there aren't many apps yet that do very much with its mixed-reality features.
But this $1,099 VR headset, available ahead of Apple's expected mixed-reality device and Meta's Quest 3, also feels like a stepping stone to some future-form product that isn't entirely here. Yet.
Next to the Meta Quest Pro, the deconstructed design of the Vive XR Elite looks shockingly small. That's mostly because a lot of the components are optionally removable here (the head strap battery pack can be left behind, and you could plug the XR Elite directly into a laptop for power or use your own battery pack). But also, the design of the eyewear is indeed smaller. The mirror-glossy front panel isn't as wide as the Quest Pro, and the lenses are more compact.
That also means that the XR Elite either can feel a bit too tight on the face without glasses, or end up exposing even more outside ambient peripheral vision when worn with them. HTC calls this a "mixed reality mode" benefit, and like the Quest Pro, the sensation is like wearing literal VR glasses, where you're peering at a different world through your lenses while still seeing bits of everything else around you in the periphery. That may sound distracting, but over time my eyes got used to it.
The XR Elite didn't work at all with my glasses when I demoed the hardware a few months ago in Las Vegas, but a new magnetically attached bracket allows the headset to perch over my glasses, resting a padded support on my forehead. This spacer needs the battery head strap attached to stay on my face without falling off (in glasses mode, it wouldn't stay on my face in this configuration, and it lacked a nose piece). And in that mode, the whole headset looks and feels like a slightly shrunken Quest Pro.
The LCD displays, which have a resolution of 1,920x1,920 pixels per eye and an effective field of view of 110 degrees, look great for the most part. When wearing the headset on top of my glasses, I found the optics more distorted than with the Quest Pro. But non-glasses wearers who wear the headset closer to their eyes may not feel the same. It's fascinating that this headset can adjust its prescription automatically, between a range of 0 and -6. That still means I'm out of luck for my eyes, which are -8 plus. A separate slider also moves the lenses closer or further apart to accommodate for inter pupillary distance.
Audio comes in through the side arms, an ambient spatial audio like the Meta Quest Pro that means no headphones are needed. Unlike the Quest Pro, the XR Elite doesn't have a headphone jack.
The swapping out of parts to transform from glasses to full-headband battery pack mode is a little clunky. The two plastic glasses arms detach by unclicking, and the adjustable battery pack headband snaps into the holes in their place. I worried that the headstrap's flexible plastic might wear down or break over time as I kept detaching and reattaching it, though.
One part of the XR Elite that isn't small, though, are the controllers. HTC includes a pair of the same Oculus-like USB-C rechargeable plastic controllers that were included with the business-focused Vive Focus 3. There are standard triggers, buttons and analog sticks, but these controllers feel too large for the compact XR Elite design. The Quest Pro, by comparison, has new and smaller controllers that also have their own camera-based tracking. It would have been nice if the XR Elite got a controller upgrade to match, especially to make the whole experience more portable.
The XR Elite doesn't have included eye tracking like the Quest Pro, but a future extra add-on will offer it if you want to pay up. I don't mind it not being onboard.
With a Snapdragon XR2 chip and a full pair of motion VR controllers included, the XR Elite runs standard VR apps and games just fine. It also connects wired or wirelessly to PCs to run VR, much like the Quest 2 and Quest Pro. The advantage here is that you could just use the headset in glasses mode with a PC and get a far smaller tethered headset than most of the competition offers.
The XR Elite has built-in full motion tracking, using its own array of four cameras and a depth sensor. Setting up a room for VR works just like the Quest 2, painting boundaries onto the room using the passthrough cameras.
The XR Elite's hand tracking has also worked pretty well so far. Much like the Quest, hand movement gets interpreted to show your virtual hands on-screen, which can pinch objects, tap virtual buttons, or scroll through menus. Most of the time, you'll still go back to the controllers for more accurate and detailed controls (many apps require the controllers).
HTC's Viveport platform has many of the same games and apps as the Quest, but it's lacking a number of games and exclusives, so it feels comparatively like a subset. However, when connected to a PC, you can tap into HTC's Viveport apps or Steam VR.
You can hunt around and find some apps that use passthrough cameras for mixed reality on the Vive XR Elite, but they're hard to come by. Much like the Meta Quest Pro, these are the first semi-mainstream mixed reality VR headsets in the wild, and existing VR apps maybe aren't necessarily finding an incentive to support these new devices just yet.
Maestro (a music conducting game), Figmin XR, and art apps are part of the initial offering, and the results feel similar to what the Quest Pro produced. I actually like the Quest Pro's mixed reality a little better -- for some reason, the XR Elite's color passthrough camera video comes off as flatter to me, and occasionally distorted.
You could, maybe, use this headset a bit like a Magic Leap or HoloLens for certain mixed-reality uses down the road, depending on whether those apps emerge. But by then, there might be new hardware you should just wait for.
The Vive XR Elite, in my week of use, just seemed too fiddly and sometimes glitchy to be something I'd get used to. The system software didn't seem as refined as Meta's, either. But the smaller form and the way it fit over my face became something I appreciated more as I used it.
If only these were truly as useful as everyday glasses, though. Much like many early AR glasses like the nReal Light, the design still feels way too awkward to be comfortable. And the strange unclipping headband feels too fragile. I loom back on the chunkier Quest 2 and at least appreciate its clean design in comparison.
However, the XR Elite can pack down to be more flat than most VR headsets and is far more portable than the Quest Pro. But this feels like a weird middle step for VR, a "growing pains" product that suggests that future evolutions will be better. And at $1,099, that means you should absolutely wait this round out. I prefer the Quest Pro's software and OS more, which feel more polished, and the Quest's app library also outshines what Vive has.
But this is clearly where headsets are heading. Expect Apple to take a similar path, for sure; maybe a less awkward one. But smaller displays and modular designs will be a trend to watch.