This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, HTC unveiled a new headset as part of its Vive virtual-reality line. The Vive Pro isn’t an entirely new generation of VR hardware, but it’s an impressive incremental upgrade, boasting integrated audio, a 2880 x1600 display that matches Samsung’s Odyssey as the highest-resolution consumer headset, and improved ergonomic design. (How much will it be? Great question. When will it be? Another great question!)
It’s a nice machine, so far as I can tell from a headset that I’ve never worn, and judging from its specs and early hands-on feedback it’s absolutely an improvement on the initial Vive experience. But while the Vive Pro might look like the most important announcement to come out of the Vive press conference, the headset is really second fiddle. The real big deal, and the thing that could significantly change VR’s mainstream prospects for the better, is HTC’s wireless adapter.
The adapter—which, like the Pro and so much else at CES, has no price or release date—beams the video and audio output from your VR-capable computer straight to the headset, doing away with what any VR adopter knows is otherwise a maddening tangle of wires. If it works in non-controlled environments (a question that persists with any new tech like this), this could be one of the biggest things to happen to virtual reality since the unveiling of the original Oculus Rift.
To put it as simply as the cords themselves, the massive proliferation of cables and connectors and interlocking tethers that comes with setting up and using any current-gen VR system is the biggest barrier between virtual reality and the mainstream. I’ve had a Vive for months, and even as a professional videogame critic, I find the entire apparatus so complicated and aggravating that I don’t pull it out unless I absolutely need to. Wearable technology is already a hard sell to people outside the tech bubble—turns out people don’t like things that make them look silly!—and VR’s cable management problem makes that even worse.
In virtual reality, though, cable management becomes not only a setup and transportation problem, but a cognitive one. Learning to keep track of the tether attaching you to the virtual world is an essential and tricky skill that you have to master if you have any interest in spending considerable time with a headset on. And the more attention you devote mentally keeping track of where the cables are—is it on my left side? Behind me? How much slack do I have? —the more fragile VR presence is. Without presence, your brain’s acceptance of the rules of a virtual world, you’re just staring at a screen, even if that screen gives you the illusion of an all-encompassing world.
HTC’s wireless adapter isn’t the only wireless solution on the market, but it’s the first one being pushed by a major VR manufacturer alongside a headset—which is valuable ammo for the argument that VR is ready for mainstream adoption. A wireless VR world is a better one: it makes the technology easier to set up, easier to transport, and easier to get into.
In the current virtual reality landscape, early adopters become evangelists of a sort, demoing the best experiences for their friends and relatives outside of the tech world. Wireless tech makes this a better, more fruitful opportunity. It’s one less impediment to showing people the fantasy that has hooked so many of us on virtual reality: the fantasy of actually visiting another place, embodied and whole.
Is that enough to push VR, finally, into the mainstream? Maybe not. But it’s certainly a start.