Interview: Ryan Hoopingarner On HTC Vive’s Release And The Way Forward For VR

We’re at a very interesting point in time for VR. It’s coming up on half a year since the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive first launched to market, with PlayStation VR releasing in the very near future. With that in mind, we can already see some of where the market is heading and how games and developers are evolving to suit.

The excellently named Ryan Hoopingarner, HTC’s Director of Product Marketing, sat down with us to discuss where the Vive is now and where it’s future lies.

TSA: Let’s talk about the state of Vive at the moment, where you’ve now had four and a half months on the market?

Ryan: I think really well! We’re happy where things are today, especially having been the sole distributor in the beginning. Every Vive that was sold was sold through the HTC Online store.

Meeting customer demand [is hard], and especially at the feverish pitch that things were at that point, even if you meet every single date that you committed to, which we were fortunate enough to keep. People were displeased with how few commitments we made at times, but we wanted to make sure we were as accurate as possible…

TSA: Yeah, because you were very cautious about when you were actually going to release, only very vaguely saying 2015 for such a long time.

What have you seen in terms of people accepting the high price point for getting into VR?

Ryan: I think when you look at the VR market, there were some expectations set very early on and across the board for what people could hope for from a VR experience of the calibre we’ve reached. Once we saw the actual pieces of hardware come to market, it was higher than had originally been stated.

We set out to achieve a particular goal and a particular experience, and I think if you look at the components that are in the box and what those cost relatively, we are happy with the price we were able to achieve and where the price stands today.

Really our focus when it comes to sales is now expanding people’s ability to try it and to buy it. So for anybody that has a particular retailer that they’re most comfortable purchasing from, we’re starting to make a lot of inroads. We have more brick & mortar retailers picking up Vive all the time, more demo experiences that people can go to, and then opening up to online retailers as well.

We need to make sure it’s readily available for anyone that wants it and make sure that the demo experience isn’t something that you have to wait for PAX or Gamescom to try, that they can walk into a store any day and try.

TSA: And that’s such a big step, to actually get people able to try it.

Ryan: It is, and for the past year, the main question has been how you tell somebody what VR is like without actually putting the HMD on them. While we do our best to put an HMD on absolutely everybody that wants one – especially at an event like Gamescom, where demand is going to outweigh what you can get through – we’ve made big strides with mixed reality implementation and the way that we cover that footage.

If you are at an event like this, but someone doesn’t have a chance to actually stand in line and go for the demo, if they see that broadcast of the mixed reality experience, you get a much better impression of what the world actually has to offer.

Looking at just screens, stills or gameplay footage direct from the HMD is a very narrow view of the world you’ve created. That immediately goes away once you’re actually playing because, no matter where you look that world persists, but if you’re forced into that field of view of the person that was in the demo, it doesn’t really do it justice to the overall virtual world.

I think mixed reality gets us one step closer to letting people realise what VR has to offer them, without having to actually go and demo it themselves.

TSA: I completely agree, but there still was a nice point from our Vive review where I posted a video from Project Cars which had just gained Vive support, and a few people commented to say it was surprising to see just how much my head was moving as I played!

TSA: Coming back to the subject of price, the fallout from Brexit saw you raising the price of the Vive in the UK, which isn’t really going in the direction people would want. Is that an awkward reality for you to face in quite a key market?

Ryan: I think, when you look at the global marketplace, price and currency are two different things, right? The price of the product is the price of the product, but how that then becomes an individual currency fluctuates, and so it changes accordingly.

TSA: One of the big reasons I hear for why people aren’t interested in getting VR, either right now or in general, is with the actual games available for the systems. A lot that I’ve played don’t manage to break out of being a tech demo, do you see, perhaps with your own help as well, us getting more larger, “AAA” games in the near future?

Ryan: I mean, when you look at the last six months and the next six months, the most exciting elements are threefold. There’s the smaller teams doing newer things and blazing a trail for what VR has to offer, and I think some of the most exciting things I’ve seen coming from those teams are fundamental shifts in the way VR is approached, whether it’s a change in locomotion, a change in menu system…

I’ve talked about menus and things like that a lot today, and people often roll their eyes. It’s probably just because I’m too close to it…

TSA: Well, the nice thing with Vive is you can take a step back… [laughs]

Ryan: [laughs] Nice. I’m glad that was your pun and not mine… Given enough time I would’ve gotten there too!

Coming from the cellphone space, and we were talking about it in the team last night, there were things that we didn’t know at first. You didn’t know how to move an icon on the screen. Very early touchscreen phones, you did something like press the icon, and then you probably still had some kind of cursor and you would move that around… it wasn’t until in a span of two years, it just became ubiquitous to press and hold something and then drag it.

I think we’re still working through what that kind of stuff looks like in VR. We have a surprising amount of 2D elements in the VR space today. Every time I do see a new experience and it has you interacting with a message or settings or things like that, and it’s something new and different. There’s no reason for it to just be there [in front of you] when you’ve got the whole world to work with.

So I think it’s those smaller teams that are taking those risks and doing those things that are otherwise uncomfortable, and I think people are going to see that, but when you look at E3 and the success and the reaction to the announcements by the Bethesda team with Fallout and Doom, and people being able to engage with these worlds that they’ve come to know and love, that’s incredible. I think people are going to take a different spin on that as well, so that while you have those two fully realised experiences, it’s more about the idea that people want to engage with those worlds.

Other unique spins on that are like what the ILMxLAB team did with Star Wars and Trials on Tatooine. It’s really powerful for people to take this world that they know and be able to stand in it for the first time.

I guess another completely different take is with what Valve has done with DOTA. DOTA has an incredible presence on Vive today, and at no point are you actively engaged in playing a match. That’s not to say it’s a lesser experience, and if anything it’s an entirely new way to look at it, whether you are in that overworld and looking at the map and the viewing screen with the stats, or if you just choose to go and stand on the playing field and be, like, shoulder to shoulder or shoulder to shin with these crazy characters. That’s also something we can look forward to, and people are starting to realise you don’t have to commit to designing the same game that you’ve made over and over again, but in VR.

TSA: Finally, I’d like to ask what’s going on with setting up your own marketplace in Viveport. You’ve been so closely tied to Steam up until now, so what was the reasoning for that?

Ryan: So, Viveport is complimentary to Steam, not any competition, but in China, Viveport has launched and existed for some time, and it is your place for all VR content, while Steam is not in China in an official capacity. So Viveport is the place for people to get all their VR content.

The announcement at VR LA, talking about the westward and global expansion of Viveport, is very much outside of the game space. One of the things we’re continuing to see is that those people who are engaged in VR are interested in all things VR, even if their introduction to the VR space was through games.

There’s a reason why the IKEA experience continues to trend at the top, because once you bridge that gap…

TSA: Swedish furniture shopping is clearly the next step! [laughs]

Ryan: [laughs] Of course!

No, I think it just goes to show that people’s interest is in all that VR has to offer and not just games. So we’re going to work with partners outside that traditional gaming space, to see what other types of experiences we can bring to market.

Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to talk to us. You’ll be able to see our own experiences with HTC Vive and mixed reality a little later today, as well as read about CCP Games’ latest, very Tron-like VR experiment.

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