The HTC Vive XR Elite is a shapeshifting, lightweight luxury of a VR headset
As someone who considers Uniqlo an extravagance, the HTC Vive XR Elite might just be the most expensive thing I’ll ever wear. Revealed at CES 2023 and set for launch in March, this is the first Vive VR headset in years with real PC gaming credentials, while borrowing from the more compact design of the mobile VR-minded Vive Flow VR glasses. I recently went to try them out over here in London, with an uneasy thought in my mind: even with a lighter design than the Vive Cosmos series, how could this possibly be worth £1299 / $1099?
The answer, at least from HTC’s perspective, is flexibility. The Vive XR Elite is an all-in-one headset with no need of base stations, and can be worn wirelessly for less demanding VR games or connected to a PC for more advanced fare like Half-Life: Alyx. Fine, but a few other AIO headsets can do that already, including the much, much cheaper Oculus/Meta Quest 2. What sets HTC’s latest apart is both the ease of connecting to a PC wirelessly, over Wi-Fi and without any sideloading shenanigans, while making the battery pack detachable to transform into an downright portable pair of VR/AR specs that can be fuelled from a power bank and hooked up to a smartphone. It very much wants to be all things to all VR fans, and at a time when the Quest line is obsessed with chasing those metaverse dollars and/or selling your personal data, that’s not a bad pitch.
First impressions: it is indeed very light. Second impressions: dammit, it won’t fit over my glasses. Luckily, the Vive XR Elite also copies the Flow’s adjustable lens diopter dials, so although their maximum short-sightedness setting of -6 was just below my troublesome right eye’s -7 prescription, I could still rotate my way to a fairly clear picture while leaving my glasses aside.
Other than a slightly tight fit around the nose, the Vive XR Elite is a comfy wear. Relocating the battery pack to the rear of the headstrap distributes the overall weight more evenly than just squeezing everything into a big block on the front, and there’s not much that needs spreading to begin with. Complete with the battery, this headset weighs 625g, nearly 80g less than the Cosmos Elite and 184g less than the Valve Index.
If you fancy getting rid of even more bulk, it’s easy enough to detach the battery pack and replace the straps with a pair of glasses-style temples. This is meant for mobile usage but you can wear the Vive XR Elite like this as part of a PC setup, albeit at the cost of its wireless-ness, as you’ll need a power cable running into it. I must say that I preferred the battery config, though, as it felt a lot more secure on my sizeable noggin. In glasses mode it’s far more front-heavy, and I’d be concerned about it flying off with sufficiently vigorous head movements.
Annoyingly, HTC didn’t actually have a desktop PC available, so I was limited to playing in all-in-one mode. Still, I got a good, extended look at how the Vive XR Elite will perform, especially since one of the installed games – Hubris – is an AIO port of a desktop-grade PC VR adventure. From some convincingly weighty first-person swimming to the questionably necessary blasting of jellyfish, Hubris gave a good account of the headset’s 1920x1920 per-eye displays and sleek controllers. The former are sharp and vibrant, while tracking for the latter is accurate and not too jittery. Not bad at all, for inside-out tracking.
Less enthusing was the naked hand tracking, which I put to the test in Maestro VR, an otherwise likeably whimsical orchestra conductor simulator. Using a controller to wave my baton-wielding right hand worked fine, but when I needed to jab my left finger at slacking musicians, it sometimes took a few moments for that hand to appear in my view. I realised that I was letting my left arm drop out of view of the headset’s four tracking cameras, and that it’s not terribly fast at re-acquiring hands once they move back into frame. Latency, too, is workable but not tangibly faster than on other gaming-focused headsets. There’s still a hint of delay on movements, even those that are right up and level with the cameras.
Generally, it’s not a patch on the Index’s controller-aided hand and finger tracking, which is a problem when Valve’s complete VR kit (including base stations and a copy of Alyx) costs £919 / $999. Normally that looks like silly money, even for arguably the best PC VR headset on the market, but the Vive Elite XR is even more damaging to your financial wellbeing. As a PC gaming device specifically, I’m yet to be convinced that this premium will be worth paying.
As a VR headset more generally, on the other hand, there is a certain appeal to the Vive XR Elite’s versatility. Its ability to smoothly run locally-installed games as well as connect to a PC gives it a wider range of compatible material than the Index, and if you really want to squeeze every drop of value out of it, you could even turn it to a pair of glasses to entertain yourself on long flights and coach rides. A luxury? Yes. Useless? Maybe not.
For more on VR, and with far fewer pictures of me looking like the Driller from Deep Rock Galactic, check out RPS pal Rick Lane's monthly Reality Bytes column.