UPDATED 25/5/18: This article has been updated below with additional information
2018 marks the next step in the evolution of VR with the launch of the first standalone headsets. The Oculus Go has just released to great fanfare and though I am yet to try it myself, I do already have a standalone VR headset. In fact I was lucky enough to get my hands on the world’s first standalone VR headset – the HTC Vive Focus. Currently only available in China but set to launch worldwide later this year, the Focus is a level above the Oculus Go in that it actually offers full inside-out tracking and 6DOF to produce untethered VR with no room-scale limits.
So how did I get my hands on this little treat? Well the thanks (make that MASSIVE thanks) goes to the wonderful Paola Paulino who recently flew into the UAE to speak at the BETT MEA event. We actually delivered a Vive-themed session together at the conference and were already connected through Twitter so I thought I’d chance my arm and ask her if she would be able to bring a Focus over for me if I ordered it online. To my delight she agreed so with a little direction from Alvin Graylin (China President for Vive) and some last minute website translation from one of Paola’s colleagues, I was soon greeted with this photo in my inbox:
So what’s it like? Pretty awesome to be honest. The freedom to experience full virtual reality without a PC is amazing. It's super portable too - so much so that when Alex Johnson popped over to Dubai for a weekend recently, we decided to take it with us to the VRPark -
Caption: "we thought it was supposed to be BYOD"
Suffice to say we definitely caught the attention of the staff at VRPark - which operates on a combination of Vives and Star VR headsets. I even took the Focus on stage with me at the recent IoTx Conference during Dubai Future Technology Week, during a panel discussion on VR and the IoT. I did this to demonstrate how easy VR was starting to become through standalone devices and how mass consumption of VR is likely to ensue once these become more readily available.
Obviously my main focus (no pun intended) is to evaluate the device’s potential in education so let me run through a few Pros and Cons of the Vive Focus from an educational perspective:
10 Pros for using the Vive Focus in Education
The Comfort - It’s lighter than the full Vive which is definitely a positive when it comes to use with children. It’s also a comfy headset with the rear-dial (as previously seen with the deluxe audio strap) acting as a counterweight and the leather face cushion being far superior to the foam from the original Vive.
The Aesthetic – I got the blue version of the Focus (of course) and it really is a much more “friendly” looking headset than the original Vive. The bright blue and smooth lines definitely make it seem less daunting (as does the lack of wires.) My kids are definitely fans!
The Battery Life – You’re looking at 3 hours of persistent use, which is more than enough for a decent length session in the classroom. The charge is pretty fast too. Obviously this is much less than a full school day but students wouldn’t be using an HMD for a whole lesson, let alone a whole day.
The Audio – Whilst the headset has an audio jack, it also has some pretty impressive spatial audio built right in, making it easy to use with kids without the fuss often associated with mobile VR audio/headphones etc.
The Clarity – The Focus has fantastic clarity thanks to lenses with a 1,600 x 1,440 OLED display. Combined, the Vive Focus has a maximum resolution of 1,600 x 2,880 which by comparison is equal to the Vive Pro and greater than either the Oculus Go and Lenovo’s Mirage Solo. It also has a slider to adjust the inter-pupillary distance which is crucial when using VR with kids as they have smaller faces.
The Freedom – Being untethered really is amazing. Students can access immersive, 6DOF VR without being tied to a high-end PC. Using them in a group would require some supervision though - and a decent amount of space! One of the first apps that let me experience this new freedom is Vive Auto. I tested this in my garden and was able to stand next to a full-size car on a desert road then walk completely around it in VR.
The Cost – Whilst the Focus is more expensive than the Go, not needing the aforementioned PC brings the overall cost down significantly as compared to the full Vive.
Ease of Setup – Getting the Focus up and running is as simple as turning it on. The removal of the PC, lighthouses and associated power supplies and wires makes it far more practical for classroom use. Turn it on and you’re ready - perfect for avoiding time-loss during lessons.
The Storage – 64GB built in is great and more than enough for educators to get started. The addition of a micro-SD slot adds up to 2TB of additional space though! It also means that educators can side-load their own content – be it 360 media that has been produced in-house or potentially app demos produced by students.
The Controller – Yes it lacks the functionality and freedom of movement boasted by the full Vive controllers but the Focus’ remote is more like a laser pointer with a big circular button on the front and a simple trigger on the back. It’s streamlined and easy for kids to use independently. Oh and it has a little haptic action too – it vibrates!
What are the Cons of using the Vive Focus in Education?
The main downside to the Focus right now is that there is a really limited amount of content available outside of China, via the new Vive Wave platform that the Focus runs on. However wiith dev. kits being shipped to developers worldwide last month and the imminent global launch of the Focus, I think we’ll start to see much more content become available. This should include ports of some of the existing Vive titles. In fact Great Pyramid VR (featured here on the site before) is the one port from the original Vive that I already have access to on the Focus. Once more educational content is launched, this problem disappears. I do hope that the dedicated YouTube VR app turns up though since there is so much great content for students on there.
The price is the other main sticking point – especially since the Oculus Go is significantly cheaper. I personally believe that the global launch of the Focus will see a reduction in its retail price but I guess time will tell. Ultimately it will still cost a lot more than the Oculus headset but then it offers more – if you were to draw a spectrum with mobile VR at one end and the Vive/Rift at the other, the Go would be closer to mobile VR whilst the Focus is much closer to the experience offered by the top-end VR headsets (and superior in some respects.)
Another concern educators might have is the thought that you can’t see what the student is seeing using a standalone device like the Focus. This would potentially mean that you can’t direct them or guide them, especially if they are new to an experience. In truth, the Focus can cast to any Miracast device. For me that means Reflector 3 on my PC (I’ve long used Reflector as an airplay solution for my iPad but this new 3rd generation of the app incorporates Miracast )
Even better, Reflector lets you mirror multiple devices to the same screen simultaneously - meaning a teacher with access to multiple headsets could monitor a group using the Focus at the same time! It also allows for screenshots and screencasting which is great for evidencing projects or letting students evidence work. Here's a little look at the Vive Wave menu system and opening an app called The Winter that I recorded using Reflector 3:
I should point out that my wife was calling out to me if I got too close to the edge of the lawn here. So what can you do when you start running out of physical space? It's actually really easy o reset the positioning of the Focus - you just take it off! The headset is designed to recognise when you remove it and it powers down the screen. You can then move back to a central position and put the headset back on and you'll find yourself back in the same virtual spot you left off. A quick press of the controller to wake it back up and realign it and you're off again.
Is the Vive Focus a good fit for education? Realistically it is too early to say since the content is not yet there. If you look to China though, where the range of content is far greater (and in Chinese of course), use cases are beginning to emerge. This tweet from Alvin Graylin really stood out recently. (As did this sneak peek at the shared experience the students were using.)
Clearly there are some exciting times ahead for Focus users and I will be exploring the headsets role in the classroom more once the new school academic year begins in September so watch out for a follow up article towards the end of the year. I'll round off with one more MASSIVE thank you to Paola for helping me get the Vive Focus - and for being a constant source of inspiration in the VR Education space.
For a more detailed breakdown of the three standalone VR headsets, I recommend the excellent article on Medium by Alex Coulombe of Agile Lens. Find that here.
I would also like to give a shout out to Clan Virtu in the UK, whose HTC Vive videos on their excellent YouTube channel proved most useful. You can see one below and watch the rest here.
To read more about the Vive Focus, visit the official website here.
If you're a developer producing English-language, educational content for the Vive Focus, please do get in touch.
Less than a week after publishing this article, Alvin Graylin stepped on stage for the Vive Ecosystem Conference in China and a so many several major announcements about the Vive Focus. We're not just talking minor tweaks and bug fixes here - these updates transform and upgrade the Focus into a very different, more powerful beast. This clip highlights some of the key new features:
So what does this mean for the Focus in education? Well although we still don't know the global retail price, it's clear that what you're getting from the device is actually much, much more than it initially seemed to be. With the streaming of Steam and Viveport content from a PC and the conversion of the controllers to 6DOF now becoming possible, the Focus elevates itself above the other standalone headsets significantly. I spoke with Alvin Graylin earlier about these exciting new developments and asked him what he thought of the Focus' potential for education. Alvin told me "We all know that immersive education brings the best results and most engagement for learning. But VR solutions have always been hard to setup, maintain and use in the past. With a full 6DOF world scale VR Standalone like the Focus, all the friction is gone and students and teachers can focus on learning."
And yes, his pun was intended. :)