HTC: There’s a ‘big story’ regarding the Vive’s launch games
If all goes to plan, HTC and Valve could be the first to launch a full end-to-end virtual reality experience for our homes. It’s difficult to overstate how important that moment is going to be when it happens.
Over the last couple of years VR has struck back with a vengeance – this time, the technology is ready – with Oculus, Sony and Valve all set to roll out their headsets next year. We are on the eve of a virtual reality revolution. If it fails to launch this time, it probably never will.
With the Oculus Rift becoming almost synonymous with virtual reality, it’s odd to think that Valve’s rival headset (though it wouldn’t ever admit to being a rival if you asked it), the Vive, which came later to the race, could be first to market.
Before Facebook snapped up Oculus VR for a cool $2 billion, Valve and Oculus shared a very fruitful relationship; Oculus had the hardware, Valve provided the software support. Then Zuckerberg landed himself Oculus and things changed: Valve, which had previously said it had no plans to release a consumer headset, announced it was entering the race and smartphone manufacturer HTC would be the one to build its vessel.
Sources have suggested that this decision was made because of the acquisition. After all this, the irony is that Valve might now be in a better position than anyone else. Its headset is almost ready for market, there are controllers to go with it, and it even has unique ‘room-scale’ tracking technology to let you move about your living room while playing.
A limited number of Vives will go out next month, with a wide release to take place before March 2016. But no matter how much spit and polish you put on it, Vive will be nothing without great experiences.
Valve hasn’t just spent the last three years working on Vive and SteamOS – so what is it preparing in terms of software? “Thats one of the things we’re holding back to reveal more information about but there’s going to be a big story and we’re excited to share it,” says J.B. McRee, Senior Manager of Product Marketing for virtual reality at HTC.
Could it finally be Half-Life 3‘s time to shine? Maybe a new Left 4 Dead? It’s hardly a surprise that nobody is saying more than that despite being so close to launch – HTC wants everything about the Vive to be a surprise.
“When we made the original announcement it was a surprise to probably mostly everyone,” says McRee. “For us it was really exciting because, coming from smartphones, it’s always been very challenging for us to bring a product to an announcement with people not knowing about it.
“It’s difficult for everyone these days. So we know the excitement that we gained from that so we’re trying to make sure we can try to do those types of things again so as we start to have these announcements and things we want to talk about we want to make a big bang.
“We’re exciting to tell you, believe me.”
‘If Facebook hadn’t bought Oculus, the industry would be completely different’
HTC started working with Valve on the Vive around mid-2014 (Facebook announced it was buying Oculus VR in March 2014, make of that what you will). “We had been working and looking at VR for quite a while – two years,” says McRee. “They have been working on it for about three years.”
I asked how things might have been different had Facebook not bought Oculus, and whether we’d even be sat here right now talking about a competitor from Valve. “That’s a difficult question to answer,” responds McRee.
“There’s no telling, I think had that not happened the industry would be completely different. Think about how that changed the industry. The opportunity for Oculus to take off like it did. Like you said, for some people it burnt bridges. But for Oculus, what better opportunity for them to build something that’s truly revolutionary?
“I think it’s important for the industry for people not to be too terribly competitive right now, because in order for VR to be successful everybody needs to be successful – at least in the beginning.
“So we’re not going out the door with much of a competitive aspect. We’re obviously thinking about those things, but it’s important for the industry for everyone to be successful, for the first products that roll out to deliver on a very good VR experience. That’s a big weight on our shoulders, and we’re taking that very seriously.”
That weight is shared across both HTC and Valve, which are working incredibly close to bring Vive to life. When conversations take place, both parties will be sat at the table making the decisions.
“Even though we’re designing the hardware, Valve has say in what that looks and from a performance perspective how that works,” says McRee – and it works both ways.
“We’re very involved. Very, very involved. And there are things we haven’t really talked about from a software perspective that we’re excited to share as well, that I think people will be excited to hear.”
There’s that tease again.
‘We want you to bring Vive into your home and not change the way you live’
A large part of the Vive experience – and one that sets it apart from competitors right now – is its room-scaling technology, Lighthouse, which will let you walk about while wearing the Vive. McRee tells us that the technology has “matured quite a bit” over the last few months.
“For instance, we had issues in the beginning with reflective surfaces and things like that. Our goal is to make sure that when you get Vive, whatever time that is, that you can introduce it in your home without changing the way you live to have it.
“You don’t want to have to say ‘Ok we have to take these lamps out’ and ‘We have to do this’.”
From power efficiency to the way it interacts with lights and even cats, Valve and HTC have been working to make room-scaling better and better. In October, Valve posted a questionnaire asking people how people will be using virtual reality in their homes.
Living room or bedroom? How many square feet will they have to play with? These are the things HTC and Valve need to know if Vive is going to adapt to us and not the other way around.
Then there’s virtual reality’s biggest demon, nausea, but HTC is adamant that it’s solved the problem. “I’m confident we’re now at the time where we can provide a very very good experience with minimal to no latency and an extremely high frame rate,” says McRee.
“It’s not just us. It’s the graphics card manufacturers, it’s the power supply that provides consistent power, it’s the Lighthouses being plugged into a wall socket that doesnt have any congestion in it. It’s all those things working in symphony.”
But what about when I want to play a game for an extended period of time? Can I plug in for a two-hour marathon and expect to feel fine afterwards? “That’s going to be a challenge but we’re working through that quickly,” he tells us.
“We’re doing a lot of studies trying to figure out what that looks like for extended use of VR and Vive and making sure we provide guidelines for that, but currently we haven’t seen any problems with long-term usage.”
‘We’re in no way the experts’
HTC still won’t comment on price, but we’ll tell you now that it’s not going to be cheap. “We’re focused on quality of experience more so than accessibility and so it’s important to us we get a very good experience,” says McRee.
“Whether that means the price is impacted or whether that means the minimum spec is impacted, its not going to be a decision we take lightly. That’s not to say if we release the minimum spec of one thing it won’t work on lesser graphics cards, but that’s what we consider comfortable. It may not be accessible for everybody. Nothing is ever accessible for everybody.”
After floundering for several years – despite a reputation for design excellence – HTC knows it needs to look beyond smartphones if it wants to turn around its fortunes and grow. As for Valve, the go-to-market opportunity with Steam already in place is phenomenally big. The question is: why wouldn’t the two partner up?
Even with that said, it would be remiss to say this isn’t a risk for HTC. Many of us have been wowed by virtual reality, but whether there’s a massive market potential is still not certain. In order to let virtual reality flourish, HTC and Valve are just providing the tools and letting the developers shape history.
“We’re in no way the experts,” says McRee. “What is the next big thing going to be? What are the next two, three big things? We don’t know. So we’re trying not to be prescriptive to our developers. We want the developers to do whatever they feel like they need to do.”
Virtual reality can be an incredible thing, but HTC and Valve know that, for VR hit to with impact, everything needs to be in symphony.
“You only have one first time with VR and you can never get that back.”