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HTC’s next major product-reveal event is looming in May, but for at least one of its upcoming VR products, the surprise has been spoiled—by an award, of all things.

The IF World Design Guide Awards, held in Germany for decades and bestowed upon many disciplines, released its latest pool of winners earlier this month. It’s unclear when HTC’s new “Vive Air” VR headset was uploaded to IF World’s awards list, but its appearance began making the rounds on Monday after images appeared on Discord chat feeds, and then the award itself was found by VR critics Cas and Chary.

As described on its award page:

VIVE Air VR headset is specially designed for virtual fitness, optimized for high intensity with long use. Inspired by sports shoes, the new headset introduces knitted materials to VR to provide unprecedented comfort and fit. The breathable and quick-drying fabrics improve ventilation in the heated exercise. The innovative lightweight structure allows users to forget the presence of the head-mounted display to focus on virtual content. The quick-release design allows the removal of ergonomic soft components for washing.

While the award series’ decades of operation have established a reputation for covering real products as opposed to vaporware, the Vive Air could very well go back into hiding for any number of reasons—so don’t grab your pre-order money just yet. Still, this leak follows a recent HTC announcement of ViveCON 2021, scheduled for this May 11-12 as a livestreamed event, and a headset that looks like a true rival to Oculus’s popular Quest hardware—standalone, no PC, no wires, no “tracker” boxes—would sure make a splash at a two-day event, especially after 2019’s uneven Vive Cosmos.

HTC representatives did not immediately respond to questions about the award’s legitimacy.

Perks for any VR use case, really

HTC has recently announced other VR accessories, but since an early-2020 announcement of various new headset concepts, the manufacturer has gone relatively dark on the new-headset front. Considering the Vive Air award mentions a “2021” release window, its inclusion in ViveCON 2021 seems likely, though HTC may very well have additional headset announcements next month. That could even include the Magic Leap-like HTC Proton, but due to that device’s mix of high ambition and paltry evidence of real-world existence thus far, I’m not getting my hopes up.

The award’s gray-and-neon-yellow images line up with the above fitness-first description, as this VR headset model certainly resembles a pair of cross-training sneakers. That aspiration also aligns with a major segment of the VR software ecosystem: fitness. In the past two years, the wireless Oculus Quest headset line has seen a massive uptick in “trainer” apps, which ask players to move their head and arms through various rhythm-timed rings, orbs, and lines—effectively simulating traditional cardiovascular workout routines.

And as described, a total hardware revision designed for fitness could be a feather in HTC’s cap after losing so much sales ground to other VR competitors. I’d honestly love to see perks like removable fabrics, increased breathability, and better weight distribution for any VR use case. What benefits fitness certainly benefits hours-long dives into beefy games like Population One and Half-Life: Alyx. Hopefully, ViveCON 2021 doesn’t leave us hanging on crucial Vive Air questions like specs, wired-VR options, and cost.

More hidden features will soon be loosed onto Oculus Quest 2 owners.
Enlarge / More hidden features will soon be loosed onto Oculus Quest 2 owners.
Sam Machkovech

Last year’s Oculus Quest 2 VR headset remains one of the cheapest—though not necessarily recommended—ways to jump into virtual reality. But even I must admit its sales proposition became more tantalizing on Tuesday with a late-night announcement from reps at Facebook: two disabled features inside the headset are now being unlocked as a default option.

The first is a wireless-VR mode, which Facebook is calling Oculus Air Link, coming “soon” to headset-and-PC combos that run compatible Oculus software. The short version: you will soon be able to connect your Oculus Quest 2 to a gaming PC using nothing more than a local Wi-Fi connection. This feature will be supported within stock headset software, no extra apps required. And it will essentially make connecting to your PC’s VR apps work the same as the VR apps built directly into Quest 2’s storage.

“Not every network and PC setup will be ideal”

“We know gamers want to use Link without a wire,” the announcement says, and sure enough, that cry tends to be the loudest in our VR hardware reviews. No more wires in VR, the readers complain, and Facebook has responded with no more wires. But, gosh, do you really want to use this feature, folks?

Keep in mind that Oculus Air Link is “experimental.” As Facebook says, “Not every network and PC setup will be ideal.” Connecting your headset to a PC via a cable (as in, Oculus Link) is “the way to go” for most users and offers the “highest fidelity visuals possible.” Heck, its “known issues” list says that AMD GPUs can only wirelessly stream via Air Link at half the rate of Nvidia GPUs, even if you have AMD’s newest, highest-end products.

That abundance of caution for average users isn’t surprising, since wireless VR runs up against a significant burden of comfort and fidelity. If your local network can’t consistently deliver 72 fps or 90 fps of high-res images directly to your face, any blurriness or control lag can feel all the more severe. Some Oculus Quest owners already know this because they’ve tested wireless-VR modes as enabled through the third-party Virtual Desktop app, which has always required jumping through at least one hoop to get it working.

Still, with the right network conditions, Virtual Desktop has proven Quest 2’s ability to stream higher-end PC VR games to the cheaper Oculus Quest 2 with acceptable performance. And having those features built directly into the firmware could prove to be even more efficient—though Oculus’ notes suggest a maximum of 200Mbps of upstream-and-downstream via local wireless networks, which is far lower than Virtual Desktop’s maximum of 1,200Mbps. We look forward to testing and comparing the two options.

120 Hz: “Soon,” but when? And for what?

The other big-deal feature announced on Tuesday is Quest 2’s panel jumping to a whopping 120 Hz refresh, up from its current maximum of 90 Hz. As it turns out, Quest 2’s single LCD panel was rated for 120 Hz refresh rates all along—meaning it was likely sourced from production lines that were making displays at the same speed as a new standard for smartphone screens.

After a tease from one Facebook executive in February, longtime Oculus contributor John Carmack confirmed in March that the feature would eventually arrive. “Only a few existing games will be tweaked for 120 [Hz], but some new titles will consider it an option in their design phase,” he wrote on Twitter.

Facebook’s official 120 Hz announcement confirms this plan, albeit in different language: “Not many apps will support 120 Hz just yet,” according to the statement, and it won’t apply to the hardware’s default “home” environment. There’s no release date beyond “soon” for this feature’s rollout. When asked by Ars Technica, Facebook declined to offer a list or hints of what existing software may receive a 120 Hz refresh update at that point.

In Quest 2’s default use case, as a wholly wireless headset running internally installed software, 120 Hz mode may have limited impact. Quest 2 hardware is already pushed pretty hard by 90 Hz speeds, which is why many Quest 2 games, including the wildly popular and Facebook-owned Beat Saber, stick to its lowest 72 Hz refresh rate. Jumping further not only cranks the SoC (and its cooling system) that much more but will also hammer the system’s already capricious battery life.

Dreaming of updates for PC, plus productivity

As a connected PC-VR option, on the other hand, 120 Hz mode could be a serious treat, especially for PCs that are equipped to run VR games at such speeds. In particular, higher refresh rates seriously impact long-term VR comfort when sessions exceed 30 minutes at a time. My earliest tests of the Valve Index, which natively supports 120 Hz and 144 Hz modes, hinged on using that headset as a virtual work monitor for hours at a time, and what I said at the time still holds: higher refresh rates make juggling multiple, floating work screens and panels all the easier on the eyes.

But even though Facebook is vague about 120 Hz modes for default Oculus Quest 2 use, it’s somehow even more vague about the same coming to connected PC-VR (aka Oculus Link). That’s coming in a “future release,” as opposed to “soon.” I wish it were the other way around, assuming one will take longer than the other.

Everything I said above about using VR to run a virtual office is clearly on Facebook’s mind, as well, as Tuesday’s blog post included hints of productivity boosts built into the Quest 2’s “home” interface. Among those: the headset will soon allow you to place “a virtual desk on your real furniture,” and it will start adding support for “Bluetooth-enabled keyboard tracking” while inside of VR.

This will require a compatible keyboard to start, with Logitech’s K830 being the first supported model. Facebook’s latest sample GIF shows a 3D-rendered keyboard appearing in your virtual world, along with a black-and-white glimmer of your real-life hands typing on it. Go back and forth between tapping on the keyboard and gesturing in mid-air with your fingers to control VR windows and interfaces like a mouse.

This is clearly Facebook building upon its finger-tracking system, which launched as a beta within the Oculus Quest 2 firmware in late 2019, and it’s a good hint of the company’s aspirations to make VR part of a balanced work-from-home diet—even if such features feel entirely too late to the pandemic party. I’ve gotten in touch with Logitech about the K830 and plan to test it for a future article about whether Quest 2 might fit my remote-office needs. Why buy a zillion monitors when a single VR headset, as paired with smart office hardware, could produce them virtually for cheaper? (Albeit with Facebook’s embedded Oculus cameras watching the entire time.) I’ll test and follow up.