Virtual reality isn’t just an immersive way to play video games — it can also make you healthier. We’ve already seen how the Oculus Quest 2 has changed lives with its engaging exercise apps, and now the VR vets at HTC want to give you an easy way to escape a hectic day and take some time for your mental well-being with the new $499 HTC Vive Flow.
These “immersive glasses” aim to reduce the friction of jumping into VR, with a super-compact design that you can throw on anywhere to jump into a quick meditation session or watch an episode of your favorite Netflix show.
The HTC Vive Flow’s travel-friendly design and wide selection of apps is compelling, but it comes in at a steep price — and requires you to have an Android phone. Wondering if they’ll be worth the splurge? Here’s what I think after an hour of hands-on time.
HTC Vive Flow release date, price and preorders
The HTC Vive Flow is available for preorder now for $499 and will start shipping in November. Those who preorder before the end of the month will get a free carrying case as well as a digital bundle of “seven pieces of content,” according to HTC.
HTC is also launching a new tier of its Viveport subscription service built specifically for the Flow. This new $5.99-per-month option will give you access to a bundle of apps that focus on things such as wellness, brain training, casual gaming and productivity. That plan will join the existing Viveport Infinity subscription, which gets you hundreds of apps and games (including popular picks like Superhot and Moss) for $12.99 per month or $99 a year.
A compact VR headset that just looks like giant glasses
The HTC Vive Flow is one of the most compact virtual reality headsets I’ve ever gotten my hands on, with a design that basically looks like an oversized pair of sunglasses. I wouldn’t exactly walk around in public with one on (not that you really can with these things), but I’d feel less conspicuous wearing these during a flight than I would with, say, a typical VR headset like the Oculus Quest 2.
The Vive Flow’s black plastic design is accentuated by a dark gray mesh fabric face covering, which attaches magnetically and can be easily popped off and replaced (additional gaskets will be available for purchase in wide and narrow sizes). This way, if you’re passing the headset to someone else, you can each use your own covering to avoid spreading any nasty face germs.
I’m not quite sure why the Flow has two reflective eye covers — these aren’t actual glasses you can see through — but they certainly help set it apart from other small VR headsets. On the inside, you’ll find diopter dials for adjusting the focus of the headset so that you can see clearly. These were easy to adjust and allowed me to fix what was initially a somewhat blurry image quality when I first put the headset on. The Oculus Quest 2 features only a single focal adjustment slider by comparison, so I appreciated the option to adjust each eye individually on the Flow.
Unlike most VR goggles that wrap around your head via a headband, the Vive Flow wear much like traditional glasses — complete with movable arms on either side that you can adjust to fit your noggin. I felt a tiny bit of pressure on my temple when I first put the Vive Flow on, but thanks to the headset’s airy 6.6-ounce frame, I was pretty comfortable for most of my hour or so with the device.
A good mix of apps for meditation, play and work
The Vive Flow is being positioned as an easy way to jump into a quick meditation session wherever you are, so the first app I tested on it was Tripp, a popular wellness platform currently available on various VR devices. And as a first-timer, I was pretty impressed.
I started my meditation session in a virtual, colorful forest, and eventually began floating upward into the sky and playing a little focus game that challenged me to collect coins out of the air. As someone who’s dabbled in audio-only meditation apps like Calm, I really appreciated the added visual element that Tripp delivers, and the sensation of physically moving through a virtual space felt relaxing and engrossing. Tripp starts at $4.99 per month and is already available on Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, but it seems like an especially great fit for the compact, pick-up-and-play experience that the Vive Flow aims to deliver.
Netflix was next on my list, and it works similarly on the Vive Flow to how it does on other VR headsets I’ve tested. I sat in a virtual black theater while I fired up some “Friday Night Lights” and had an easy time zooming in and out while adjusting playback. Again, Netflix in VR is nothing new, but given the Vive Flow’s compact design, I can see this being a better option for watching movies on a plane rather than using those tiny, grainy screens on the seat in front of you.
I got a taste of how the Vive Flow can be used for work while testing Vive Sync, HTC’s virtual reality conferencing app. Once I joined a meeting, I sat in a virtual outdoor space, with options for doing things like sharing files and presenting videos. I don’t personally see myself using an app like this often, and I’d have to try it with other people to see how it truly holds up in everyday use. But it certainly seems like Vive Sync could provide an engaging change of pace from the nonstop Zoom calls we’ve all been on for the past 18 months or so.
To get a sense of how the Flow works as an everyday gaming device, I tried out Space Slurpies, which is essentially a more immersive, intricate version of the classic snake game we all used to play on our Nokia phones. I had a bit of a harder time with this one, as controlling a three-dimensional snake in virtual reality using just an Android phone didn’t feel very intuitive (you will be able to pair a Bluetooth controller when playing Android games via screen mirroring). Still, there were a few moments where I got into a good groove, and there was some fun to be had taking in the many colorful creatures whirling in and out of view.
The HTC Vive Flow delivered some pretty solid performance for such a small headset — I’d put it somewhere between a mobile-powered headset like the Samsung Gear VR and the stand-alone Oculus Quest 2 based on my limited hands-on time. Games and apps looked sharp and moved fluidly, but I’d put the visual quality closer to something like a previous-generation console rather than a high-end PC.
Apps like Tripp and Space Slurpies looked fairly colorful and crisp on the headset’s 3164 x 1778 display, and I could see a decent amount at once, thanks to the wide 100-degree field of view. The headset’s 75Hz refresh rate (which dictates overall smoothness) allowed content to render pretty fluidly. To put those numbers in context, the Quest 2 features roughly an 89-degree field of view and a resolution of 1832 x 1920 pixels per eye, and can pump out a smoother 90Hz refresh rate for games and apps. You’re making a slight trade-off on overall smoothness with the flow, but you will have a wider field of view.
I was impressed by the Flow’s spatial audio speakers built in to the inner sides of the headset, which allowed me to clearly hear what was happening on-screen even in a busy outdoor space with people talking. If you want more immersive audio, you can also pair your own Bluetooth headphones.
The one big catch
There’s just one big catch to all of this — you’ll need to pair the Vive Flow to an Android phone in order to use it. This isn’t the first VR headset to have such a requirement, and the fact that your phone (and an external battery pack) are doing some of the heavy lifting is likely part of why the Flow is able to be so compact. You can even access your device’s home screen right from the headset to check emails, browse the web or launch entertainment apps without taking the Flow off.
But such a requirement limits the amount of people that can use the Flow, and as an iPhone user, I’m a little bummed that I won’t be able to use HTC’s new headset with my current device. You’ll also have to supply your own portable battery to power the Flow, or buy one from HTC. This all makes the $499 Flow feel like an especially steep investment compared to the $299 Oculus Quest 2, which is completely stand-alone, offers room-scale VR experiences and even includes controllers for playing games.
The HTC Vive Flow is a neat concept. Even the most compact VR headsets you can buy right now are still pretty bulky, and the idea of being able to throw a lightweight pair of glasses on to quickly escape into a meditation app or virtual movie theater is compelling. But when that experience costs $499 — and requires you to have an Android phone — the Flow starts to sound like somewhat of a niche purchase.
Still, we’re eager to spend more time with HTC’s super-compact virtual reality glasses, especially to see how they stack up to our favorite VR device in the Oculus Quest 2. In the meantime, those willing to make the splurge can preorder the HTC Vive Flow now.