Viva la Vive – HTC Vive interview

Virtual reality hit it big in 2016, and in terms of specs the HTC Vive sits on top of the pile. Jonathan Easton speaks to Vive senior manager of product management Graham Breen about the future of the platform, content delivery and shaking up interactivity.

How’s the Vive doing? Is it meeting expectations?

Yeah, it is. It’s been a pretty exciting rollercoaster since we went public in the news, and actually started selling it. That was the really exciting part, actually seeing the first customers ordering last year and then in April when the first ones got their deliveries. Since then, we’ve seen a few exciting things. 

There’s been uplift in general demand and also uplift in where people can buy it from as well. Initially we started selling on our own website, but now it’s available across a range of retail stores, whether that’s Currys PC World or Game. It’s also available at online retailers – Overclockers UK and Scan for example. 

That’s all a response to increased demand we’ve had from the market – it’s been a really exciting 12 months since we first went live with pre-orders last year.

As a result of Brexit and the “recent currency valuation changes”, as HTC called it, the Vive increased in price from £689 to £759. Is that a permanent change, or is HTC monitoring that with a view to adjust?

I think I could probably say a lot more if I could give you a massive outlook picture of what’s going to happen in the macro environment. I think what’s important is that we’re making sure that Vive is competitive, is well priced for customers, and sits properly within the market environment. 

So at the moment, like you say, we’re priced at £759 and that’s something pretty well received among consumers, it’s something we’re comfortable with. You have to remember what’s in there and this is what’s also important for people buying Vive. It’s the sheer amazing experience they’re getting for that £759. So yes it’s the HMD – the VR headset – but it’s also the fact that they’ve got the two handheld controllers as well. They’ve got the full package there and of course the two base stations to allow them to move around. So we think it’s actually a very competitive price for what we’ve got now. 

Are you seeing many consumers upgrading their PCs or buying new ones so that they can run Vive?

The PC market’s really interesting as there’s always a natural upgrade cycle and there are always certain things that drive that. Probably the most interesting thing in the last 12 months is that the key card manufacturers have launched cards that are being marketed as ‘VR ready’ – one of the key drivers for that upgrade cycle now is VR. We are seeing demand for Vive and VR-ready PCs increasing, which is good news for us and good news for the PC industry.

“At the moment we’re priced at £759 and that’s something pretty well received. We think it’s actually a very competitive price for what we’ve got now.”
Graham Breen, Vive

What do you think is the main reason that a large portion of consumers are gravitating towards Vive rather than the other options on the market?

For me – and I’m talking somewhat personally here – it’s the fact that it lets you behave as you really do in real life. You see here I’m waving my hands around while talking to you, I’ve got two hands! We move around, we interact with the world around us. That’s what Vive lets you do, and it lets you do it on a human scale. If you want to interact you’ve got the hand controllers there, you can work in any direction you like, you’ve got the full 360 experience. 

It’s important because that really opens up the whole ecosystem to developers as well. When people can start to behave as they do in normal life then it opens it up for them to build experiences for that. That all follows on to having great content that, drives the whole adoption cycle so it’s all a part of the same story. The fact that you can behave properly and act like you really would in true life opens up more and more possibilities and generates the whole ecosystem. Does that make sense?

Yeah totally, then you can see from that ethos the launch of Vive accessories at CES. Talk us through the mentality and the thinking behind the trackers and the Deluxe headset.

Something that we’ve been asked continually from developers over the past year is “this is brilliant, now how can I build a VR accesory? How can I build a gun for this shooter game? How can I build a sword?” That type of thing. So we noticed demand out there and we’ve even seen a couple of people build in independent projects, say, our existing controllers into objects that they can track in VR. Our thinking is to enable them to open up the ecosystem because the innovation comes from various developers. It’s important to give them that opportunity. 

What we’ve done as a result with the tracker is given the ability to track any object you like in VR. You can attach the tracker to something as long as it’s coded into the game or experience, then you can track anything. We showed various examples at CES such as a couple of guns and we had a company show the Tracker attached to a baseball bat where you can face any major league pitcher that your team’s going to be playing against. Another was an object that became a camera when you’re in VR. So it turned what just looked visually like a sort of square tablet shaped thing into an actual VR camera so you could capture photos in the virtual world. These are just a few ideas that people had in the short term. 

One of the more interesting ones for me out of CES was what a firefighting trainer somebody was showing from a university in Australia. They put the headset on you and then they attached the tracker to the end of a fire hose. You stood there seeing the fire blazing around you and you had the fire hose, because of course you don’t really want to train people on the job in that stress situation. 

The other item we released of course at CES was the Deluxe Head Strap. Some people who want a more premium solution with integrated headphones and we’re giving them that. For me that’s really exciting. it’s about making it a very comfortable experience because the exciting thing this year of course is that we’re seeing more and more software coming online that will hold you in VR for a long time. It’s giving people a bit of flexibility if they want that integrated headphone experience they can, and enabling the developers the ecosystem so that we’re going to be seeing more cool stuff. It’s always quite amazing when we meet up with them and we see some of the innovations that they’ve got and I’m looking forward to seeing that this year. 

“We really are focusing on what we’ve got there at the moment, making sure that’s the best experience, and making sure that we’re enabling the best ecosystem of both hardware and software around it”.
Graham Breen, Vive

Are these new peripherals an indication that we’re not going to be seeing a new Vive for a while?

Obviously I’m not able to go into any roadmap details, but I think it’s important to say that we really are focusing on what we’ve got there at the moment, making sure that’s the best experience, and making sure that we’re enabling the best ecosystem of both hardware and software around it. 

We’re going to be seeing some partners that are going to be taking the tracker to build their own solutions that they can sell to market, enabling Vive owners to have a fuller experience with more options, and making sure that that’s as strong an experience as possible. 

Gamers have been the main target market from the inception of the Vive, but how does HTC view the business/enterprise space in relation to Vive?

It’s not either/or, there’s really something in there for both of them. In terms of gaming, it opens up opportunities and possibilities that you just never had in the standard world of 2D. 

In terms of enterprise, it gives opportunities that just didn’t exist previously. There are quite a few focus areas we’re looking at where we’ve had partners building things. Also with us at CES we had Oxford University, and they were demoing software to train midwives in Kenya on the process steps to take once a baby’s born. All of a sudden you’ve taken something that was maybe seen as a fun object for some people and you can actually change lives with it. That was quite a humbling moment for me when I first did that experience and saved the young baby’s life by getting it breathing again. It starts to open your mind to some of the possibilities that we’ve got there. 

Across other industrial areas a lot of companies are using Vive. So I mentioned the healthcare side, but in generic training it allows you to replicate either stress situations or experiences that are just not possible in real life, a bit like the firefighter. In healthcare it allows people to visualise situations that otherwise you just can’t – whether that’s walking around a brain scan, or seeing close ups of the various organs in the body. 

There are a few industries that have been at the forefront of that leading it. One of which is the automotive industry. We’ve worked with quite a few partners over the past 18 months, and it’s interesting to see how they are using it as well. There are lots of parts of their business where it really works and that ranges from everything from design and prototyping right through to showrooms and everything in between. Some elements of it make for a more interesting retail experience, and other elements of it really make for a far more cost efficient and quicker design approval process. 

This is just what we’ve seen in the first year or two. What we’re finding is that more and more ideas are coming and that’s why we’re making sure that we’re giving away enough of these trackers to developers, 1,000 of them. We’re giving enough of these to developers to let some of these ideas blossom. We’re giving them the tools but the innovation actually comes from all around the VR community. We’ve got some, but it’s exciting seeing what ideas other people are coming up with; things that we possibly haven’t even thought of.

“It’s exciting seeing what ideas others are coming up with; things that we haven’t even thought of.”
Graham Breen, Vive

At the same time as VR is growing in the enterprise space we’re also seeing the growth of augmented reality. Do you have any plans to bring the Vive brand into AR, or are you very much focused on VR?

AR is very exciting. and I think we’re going to be seeing quite a lot of growth in it over the coming years, but I think VR offers something pretty unique from that as well. 

The fact that you can achieve the full immersion means you are creating a different style of experience. I referenced the training once or twice and it’s probably the easiest and best example where you can really place someone in the situation and they can learn something that they otherwise can’t. While both technologies have a future, we really believe that VR allows you to be transported to places where you’re physically not and that’s probably what’s really special about VR, it’s that ability to go where you’re not. We’re making sure that the VR market’s growing, we can support the development community in any way we can, and that we’re listening to what people say. There’s so many things that can happen in the future, but now VR is the strong focus. 

One other thing that you launched last year was Viveport, and at CES you announced ‘the world’s first content subscription platform’ for VR. Do you have any more details you can share with us on that?

I think the best analogy is the Spotify model. Where, rather than paying for individual items and then going in and paying for the next individual item, we give people the chance to go in and try a lot of things. 

We’re trying to improve things like discoverability. For example if somebody is interested in – let’s take a specific example – travel. Then there’s support for discoverability in the subscription model for them to look for apps and experiences that are able to take them elsewhere. What we are still working through, but we’ll be coming back shortly with, are the actual metrics around how that works. So I’m talking pricing and so on. 

It’s really about giving people a) choice; and b) the flexibility to be exposed to a lot of various content elements without having to take a risk by paying for it. Whether they choose to buy something some time afterwards is up to them, but giving them the exposure and the chance to try a lot things – and that’s the beauty of subscription – is that you can actually try a lot of things that are risk-free for the consumer. Like I said, the details are going to follow in the coming weeks and months. But it’s an exciting way of allowing people to experience VR. 

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