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HTC’s enterprise-only Vive Focus makes using VR easy

Too bad it’s only being sold to enterprise customers in the US.

Angela Lang/CNET

Virtual Reality can be an incredible, unique experience -- but most of it has a painfully high barrier to entry. Most VR setups require an expensive PC and an unwieldily headset weighed down by wires and adapters. There are a few cheap, simple options, like the Oculus Go, but they don't have enough power to do anything truly interesting.

But between that expensive, unwieldy option and the cheap, less immersive alternative, a new middle ground of VR devices is emerging. Facebook's Oculus already unveiled its high-end standalone VR platform with the Oculus Quest. Now, HTC is bringing its competitor to the US market: The Vive Focus.

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Well, at least it's bringing it to US enterprise customers. Technically, the Vive Focus beat the Oculus Quest to market -- but until now, it was only available in China. But the company is now bringing the platform to the 37 new markets, including the US, as part of a push to bring VR to businesses. Thursday, the company announced the Focus would be available to developers for $599 and to enterprise customers for $748.

HTC told us a consumer version might be possible in the future, but it has no specific plans at this time -- and that's a shame, because the Vive Focus might be the most comfortable VR headset I've ever used.

Angela Lang/CNET

That sounds almost like a small, dismissive factor -- but ease of use and comfort are incredibly important when it comes to the VR experience. Getting into a game on the original, PC-based HTC Vive is a ballet of positioning sensors, managing rat's nest of cables, plugging in multiple connectors, syncing controllers and setting up computer software and fighting with a series of cloth head-strap to get the VR headset to fit just right.

The HTC Vive Focus? It's barely more difficult than putting on a baseball cap. The Focus' headgear is easily the simplest I've ever used, managed almost entirely by a single adjustable dial in the back that sets how tight it is. There's also a strap over the head that can be tweaked, but most of the time, I didn't have to touch it. This is the first VR headset I've ever worn that I could just pull on and use.

Maybe that's why HTC is hoping the product will catch on with enterprise customers -- as a small, lightweight and easy-to-use headset, it's much easier to fit into an office or training workflow than a traditional VR setup. The company envisions the headset being used for collaboration, teleconferencing, design and training -- but we only examples of the latter at the headset's San Francisco launch event.

Like most VR demos, these mock-enterprise experiences ran the gamut from brimming with potential, to incredibly frustrating. One demo placed me in the role of a Volkswagen employee sorting inventory in a warehouse -- with an onscreen training robot telling me out to verify my ID, scan parts and deposit them in the proper transport container for other workers to use later. This was a well-thought-out, immersive program that immediately familiarized me with the tenets of the job, and it really helped sell the potential of VR as a training tool.

Even so, that potential is only realized if the training is actually enhanced by the virtual reality experience. Another demo I tried saw me merely clicking on a locker to equip a hard hat before walking out into a construction zone to watch a prerecorded character give a lecture. Standing and watching a speech on tool safety isn't something I really need a VR headset to do.

The Vive Focus offers a solid self-contained VR experience, and it's one that's beating the Oculus Quest to market -- but the two headsets aren't quite equal. Although both headsets boast Snapdragon 835 mobile processors and a 2,880x1,600 resolution, HTC's headgear ships with just one motion controller, as opposed to the dual 6DOF controllers that ship with Oculus' kit. It costs more, too -- the Vive Focus will sell to developers for $599, while the Oculus Quest will sell for just $399 when it launches in spring of 2019.

Angela Lang/CNET

HTC is trying to fix at least one of those problems -- alongside the company's push for Enterprise, a 6DOF Vive Focus developer kit was announced. This is basically an add-on that gives the headset six extra sensors and a pair of motion controllers. It worked fine in the Volkswagen demo, but it needs some work: my had movements were accurate, but a little jittery.

At the end of the day, it's exciting to see how far VR has come in the past few years -- from complicated setups with PCs and wires, to simple, comfortable devices that do almost everything by themselves.

Here's hoping the technology will be used for more than worker training soon.