HTC is taking on Facebook with a new VR headset and its own metaverse

The Flow VR headset and Viveport Verse are attempts to beat back Facebook in the consumer VR market. But the company faces an uphill battle.

Promotional teaser image for HTC Flow

HTC has been teasing its new Flow headset as a device for meditation and immersive media consumption.

Photo: HTC

HTC is set to unveil a new consumer headset at an online event Thursday: For weeks, the company has been teasing an unveiling using a "Go with the Flow" tag line, with numerous lifestyle images suggesting but not showing a device made for meditation, media consumption and similar activities. Protocol has since learned that Flow is in fact a new lightweight consumer VR headset that has been developed under the code name "Hue."

The Vive Flow is just one of HTC's attempts to regain ground in the consumer VR market. The company is also quietly working on a new metaverse-like service called Viveport Verse. The service is designed to provide real-time interaction across VR and non-VR devices, giving people the ability to attend events, gather in online spaces and create their own content.

HTC declined to comment.

A headset for media consumption

In many ways, the Vive Flow is one of the VR industry's worst-kept secrets: HTC has been teasing the device with a number of lifestyle images that feature a tube-shaped case with a leather carrying strap, suggesting portability and a small form factor. The company also registered a trademark for a Vive Flow "head mounted display" in August, and recent FCC filings spotted by RoadtoVR confirm that the company is indeed getting ready to release a new Vive headset.

Now, there's even more evidence: Documents published by the Bluetooth SIG consortium late last month spell out plans to launch a new "VR AIO [all-in-one] product," meaning a standalone headset that doesn't need a connection to a PC to run VR experiences. The device is code-named Hue — suggesting that the company is going for a sunglasses-like design similar to the Project Proton prototype it showed off in early 2020.

A source with knowledge of HTC's plans told Protocol that the new headset is being primarily positioned as a media consumption device with access to some casual gaming, and that it will ship without handheld controllers. It will also be powered by a chipset less powerful than that in the Oculus Quest 2, according to that source. However, the headset is supposed to feature 6 degrees of freedom tracking, making it more immersive than Facebook's discontinued Oculus Go device.

A metaverse for consumers

The Vive Flow can be seen as HTC's attempt to catch up to Facebook in consumer VR. The social networking giant has seen significant success with its Quest standalone, with estimates suggesting millions of units sold since the introduction of the Quest 2 last year. HTC's consumer business has largely been focused on PC VR, a smaller segment of the market with less future growth potential. Unable to match the pricing of the Quest, HTC has positioned its own standalone headsets as enterprise devices.

As part of that enterprise push, HTC also developed its own VR meeting and productivity service called Vive Sync. Now, the company is exploring taking similar ideas to the consumer space. Protocol has learned that HTC developers have quietly been building a new service called Viveport Verse, which is being billed as a metaverse with avatars and cross-device functionality.

Viveport Verse will allow people to "explore the world beyond physical space," "meet people around the world" and "explore a variety of events, from virtual tourism and exhibitions to sports events and festivals," the company states on a publicly available staging site.

The service is designed to be accessible via VR headsets as well as mobile devices and desktop computers, and will feature some sort of NFT tie-in. It will also allow people to create their own content, as well as upload 3D objects from services like Sketchfab. Verse is "an open space for users to generate rooms and 3D objects - create your own spaces with friends or an entire world," according to the staging site.

A screengrab of the Viveport Verse Protocol has learned that HTC developers have quietly been building a new service called Viveport Verse, which is being billed as a metaverse with avatars and cross-device functionality.Image: HTC

That sounds like an ambitious undertaking, and perhaps a chance to compete with Facebook's own long-delayed Horizon Worlds project. However, HTC isn't actually building its own virtual world from scratch. Instead, the company has been relying on Mozilla's Hubs product to kickstart its efforts, and is effectively rebranding a customized version of the browser maker's VR product.

HTC has also been experimenting with adding a persistent social layer to Hubs with the help of Mastodon, an open-source social network. It's unclear how exactly the two products are going to be tied together. There's also no word on when Verse will be made available to consumers, but the project is clearly in early stages, and it's unlikely that the company will make mention of it during this week's hardware unveiling. There's always a chance that HTC may abandon the project altogether.

The Flow is no Quest, and HTC is no Facebook

With or without Verse, HTC's fate in the consumer VR space very much depends on whether the company will be able to sell people on the vision behind its new Flow headset. Designed as a device for media consumption, it could fill an interesting niche in the market: people looking to primarily watch Netflix and explore a few lightweight VR apps with their headset.

However, without controllers, the device will likely offer few if any action-heavy VR games. And while HTC is teasing meditation as one application, people may not be able to use the headset for more processing-intensive workouts, which has been a major focus of Facebook's attempts to popularize VR beyond hardcore gaming.

HTC's attempts to piggyback on existing immersive and social products for Viveport Verse further shows that the company has to make do with limited resources, which will make any attempt to regain market share from Facebook an uphill battle.

Correction: This story was updated Oct. 11 to correct the name of Project Proton.

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