United under the banner of virtual reality, there’s a three pronged assault on the future of videogames. Alongside the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, HTC’s Vive has been created in collaboration with Valve for one of the more expansive and immersive first attempts at VR, which encourages you to stand up and move around within a digital world.
We went hands on with the system a short while ago, before speaking to JB McRee, Senior Manager of Global VR Product Marketing for HTC, about Vive’s position alongside its rivals, its unique features and how developers are taking advantage of the new tech. Oh, and the all important question of when it will be made available to the public!
TSA: With Oculus Rift having sparked this current virtual reality movement and Sony having the potential mass market for PlayStation VR alongside the PlayStation 4, do you see yourselves as the dark horse in this race?
JB McRee: It’s an interesting thing, as you know. Have you done a demo with HTC Vive?
TSA: Yeah, I managed to try it out at Paris Games Week.
JB: Awesome, so as you know, one of the most difficult things about marketing VR is that people really have to try it to understand how cool it is, and Vive specifically because of how room scale is so uniquely different than other VR experiences that people may have tried.
So it makes it difficult to figure out unique ways to talk about it, and that’s something we’re working through as time progresses, but it also makes marketing it very easy once somebody’s had the opportunity to check it out. People tend to be very, very positive about it and usually share that with friends and family. We’ve been lucky to get a lot of positive PR out of it.
I think, in the beginning, it’s going to be interesting to see how things move forward. HTC strives on having world class design and distribution, and things like that are really going to help us create and distribute the final product when it comes to market. Also, we’ve got Valve as a partner. Anybody in the gaming industry is very aware of the power of Valve and developers are really excited about the opportunity, because the go to market opportunities for Steam are kind of unmatched by anyone.
So I think as time progresses and we get ready to make more announcements, I think you’re going to see an uptick in the publicity and the coverage that we receive, and we’ll start to become a more common player in the market. There’s no doubt that it’s capable of doing that, it’s just going to take a little bit of time.
TSA: You mention that partnership with Valve, but how did this come about? You seem to both bring two very different sides of the business to the table.
JB: We’ve actually been looking at VR for quite a while; we’ve been looking at different types of things outside of mobile technology. As you probably know, Valve’s also been working on VR and for about three years now they’ve been working on it and creating the highest fidelity and most immersive experience possible, but they didn’t really know how to make the hardware.
I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the guys talk about their hardware production, but they would basically just buy parts off eBay, buy cellphones, pull screens out of them and built them into the hardware reference platform. Early last year, our executive leadership were invited over to Valve to look at the demo, and just like most people, they were blown away. It’s just that really compelling thing and the fact that we’d been looking at VR for quite a while, the conversations developed very quickly and very organically, because obviously, HTC has design and global distributions and Valve has community and a really, really good software stack and hardware reference platform.
So we brought to the equation what Valve needed, and at the same time, Valve brought to the equation what HTC needed. It developed really quickly into a close collaboration, so there’s not many things that go on that don’t include both parties. Everybody has a seat at the table when decisions are being made, and we’re really excited about the opportunity to move forward with Valve.
TSA: How important was it for you to have something that goes beyond what your competitors can do, with this full room VR?
JB: Yeah, you know, everybody always looks for that differentiating feature. When you think about smartphones, you try think about what those key features people are going to want to talk about, as well as what are the things we can talk about that other people don’t.
So I think we’re really lucky to have that’s so unique and differentiating. It’s definitely nice and makes my job easy when I can quickly point to the fact that we’re doing something nobody else is doing.
Even beyond room scale, having positionally tracked VR controllers designed for VR interaction at launch is going to be key for us. It’s going to be the first end-to-end full solution to VR that’s coming to market. It’s important for us that we provide a very premium experience and so we’re really focussing on that aspect and trying to bring to market what can be considered by many as the most compelling and immersive VR experience.
TSA: The thing that struck me is that it’s definitely the first time you can really get up and walk around, as though it’s Star Trek’s Holodeck, but could that be a limiting factor for you, that you do need to have all that space, in addition to buying the VR hardware and having a high-end computer to power it?
JB: Yeah, so clearly you will need to have a different type of hardware to what you need for Google Cardboard! Our system and equipment is a lot more detailed than others as well, because you need at least one Lighthouse base station – two provides the best experience – you’ve also got the controllers and the headset, cables, and obviously a high powered PC. Understandably, there’s a lot of equipment involved. We’re prepared for that, and again, we’re very focussed on the premium experience, so we’re not going to sacrifice the quality of experience for accessibility.
But I think it’s important to know that Vive does not require that you have room to use it. It allows you to have a broader experience if you have room, but Vive can be used seated with one Lighthouse base station, just like other VR systems. You can also use it standing, or in room scale you can use it all the way down to the size of two yoga mats, and then that expands out to 15 by 15 feet.
So it doesn’t really matter how much space you have, though obviously for the coolest experience, you need to have a large space with no objects or no objects where you need to understand where they are. However the system can scale, we can take into consideration objects that exist in the room and those can be mapped in space. We’ll also take into consideration dynamically changing environments, with children or animals that may enter into the room in real time.
We’re leaning on our developers what that looks like for people, where if you had a small space and I had a large space, what would content look like for you and what would it look like for me? We’re leaning on them to figure out how content scales in those environments.
I think most people who know Vive would like to have a room scale experience and a large one. I think people are going to fight for that. A lot of people have their entertainment rooms with their TV and their speakers, and being able to set a Vive up in a room like that without having to modify much of anything is a very unique capability. But even though people think that’s the only way you can do it, it’s definitely not required.
TSA: Yeah, you have a superset of capabilities with what your system can do…
JB: You said a superset? I like that, I’m going to use that. [laughs]
TSA: [laughs] You can have that one for free! You mentioned the yoga mats which made me chuckle, and it just popped into my mind to ask, is anyone making something like a yoga simulator?
JB: You know… not that we can talk about? There’s people looking at all kinds of stuff.
I use that explanation because you don’t have to even be a yoga person to understand what that looks like. Using any other kind of object, people start to think about physical objects in the environment, and that leads to different questions, and as I mentioned we’ll be able to take into consideration thinks like that. Yoga mats are just something easy to reference.
But can you imagine yoga and sweating with a Vive headset on?
TSA: [laughs] Now that you mention that, maybe not…
Do you see developers looking for the lowest common denominator though? With gameplay that will work across all three platforms, rather than exploring room scale and unique capabilities of each?
JB: Yeah, and I think that’s important if you’re a developer and you want to make money and have your content accessible by many people, you want to try to create something that works across all systems.
Again, that’s where we would hope the developers would come up with creative ways to make their content scale, either for seated or for room scale. Valve is making it very easy for developers to, once they’ve created their content, export it to different systems. How they do that is a question for Valve, but they’ve been very open in their ability to try to allow people to create with the tools that they provide, but then have that be capable of running on different types of system.
I definitely think that’s going to be a common concern for people, and even the fact that we are the only ones with positionally tracked controllers to start, it’s an interesting dynamic as well, because Oculus is headed there. They’re going to have Touch, and it’s going to come out some time in 2016. Currently they’re using the Xbox controller, but people know that Touch is coming as well and so they’re definitely thinking about that now.
TSA: I think the elephant in the room is when people are going to be able get their hands on Vive and how much it’s going to cost. Initially you spoke about the end of this year, but that’s getting really close and there’s not much time left to announce these things!
JB: It’s kind of interesting, because in the beginning, around March, we made the announcement that we were going to have units available later in the year, that we were going to have something coming to market commercially. We gave a little bit more information a few months ago that while we were still going to have units available by the end of the year, we weren’t sure yet what that looks like, and people thought we were backing away from doing something bigger which we hadn’t even formally announced. At this point we haven’t announced any dates, so I would take anything you read online with a grain of salt.
We’re really excited to talk about it and there’s no doubt that when the time comes to make an announcement, we’re gonna make sure that everyone’s aware! I make the example of us being able to announce Vive without any leaks – it was a really exciting thing for us – so when the time comes, we’re going to make sure everyone’s aware that it’s happening, and we’re going to use our social channels to do that.
We plan on having units available later in the year and a broader roll out in Q1 of 2016.
TSA: Is there anything holding you back from making the announcement, whether it’s needing to scale up production or even something like developers not being ready for launch yet?
JB: Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that we’re just really focussed on providing the best experience possible and ensuring that we have a complete solution with the type of content that requires at launch. If it means that we need to potentially move dates around, I don’t think we’d hesitate to do that. Right now, we’re sticking to the plan that we’ve had for quite a while.
Like I said, we haven’t really formally announced anything, so it’s not like we’re backing away from anything, but I don’t think that would be a bad thing if we did need to make an announcement and then move things around. It would be to ensure that the experience is positive.
As you can imagine, a huge weight is on our shoulders because we’re going to be the first ones to market. It’s important for the industry as a whole for the first products coming to market to provide a very premium experience so that people take VR seriously. We’re definitely not taking that lightly, so we’re ensuring that when the time comes we’re ready.
Thanks to JB for taking the time to talk to us. Make sure to check out our impressions from a session stepping into some of the demos and games coming to HTC Vive, and you can head to htcvr.com and follow the HTC Vive social media channels for more.