HTC ushering in the era of high-end virtual reality

HTC announces Vive

Consumers who really want to cross over into the uncanny valley won’t complain about the $200 Vive premium over the Oculus Rift that HTC announced yesterday at Mobile World Congress.

The uncanny valley is that shocking feeling that people get when they interact with virtual reality that is uncomfortably but not actually real. The crossing over sensation is often described using extremes such as wonder and revulsion. Those gamers, VR enthusiasts, developers and researchers compelled to experience this are ready to spend $2,000 to $3,000 for a headset and computer upgrade. Consumers who find this exciting but confusing and too expensive might start a bit more slowly with an inexpensive Google Cardboard.

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What many news reports missed is that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Vive consumer edition priced at $799 includes the hand held tracking controllers and the Oculus Rift doesn’t. Oculus has announced hand tracking controllers for availability later this year, but they are not included in the $600 price.

There is a spectrum of virtual experiences available to consumers ranging from Google Cardboard, to Oculus Rift to the HTC Vive. But spectrum isn’t quite the right word because the design focus of each product is different. Cardboard is an awe-inspiring first introduction to VR designed to put the user into short 360 degree video and games and it is priced low enough for advertisers to give away.

The Oculus Rift is a top-tier spec’d device that immerses the consumer into an alternate reality without experiencing motion sickness because it operates at 90Hz with very low latency derived from a high performance PC tethered to the headset. Oculus Rift experiences are described as seated or standing experiences. People playing games or engaging in other kinds of virtual reality experiences tend not to move more than a few feet in either direction.

The HTC Vive is designed to support 360° room-scale VR tracking, that lets the user walk into and explore virtual worlds. Like the Oculus Rift it shares top-tier spec’d hardware and is tethered to a powerful PC with a long cable. The additional room-scale movement and tracking with hand-held controllers increases immersion into the virtual setting. The engineering and build quality of the laser and infrared wireless controllers let the user interact with the virtual world but more importantly – the user moves in accurate concert with the virtual setting and virtual beings.

In the latest release HTC has added a much needed camera to the headset that is part of the Chaperon system that alerts the user with a blue virtual wall when they are about to step beyond the virtual reality space, exceed the length of the tether cable or bump into a wall or object.

It’s still morning in the nation of virtual reality though. There will be many changes. Vendors will introduce new hardware about once a year. But most of the changes will be in software to improve performance, add features, fix bugs and make the headsets render virtual reality in buttery smooth fashion. To do this HTC has partnered with Valve for both the SteamVR virtual reality software framework and a software management system that will deliver updates to the headsets. More games mean more sales.

Last week Valve and Unity jointly announced a Unity plugin at the Vision VR/AR summit. Unity, named after the company, is a game authoring system that enjoys about 50% market share. The plugin will let Unity developers move their games from Oculus to the Vive with a rebuild. Though Unity has brought much standardization to VR development, head tracking, hand tracking and positioning is still proprietary, so to take advantage of the best features tracking dependent interactions will require platform-specific optimizations.

It is also a safe bet that HTC will partner with PC makers and retailers to bundle the Vive with PCs optimized for VR like Oculus has.

HTC said that it would begin shipping in April, slightly after the Oculus Rift ships. Both represent the beginning of consumer adoption of VR that is accelerated by Samsung’s Gear VR headset costing about $100 that is powered by some models of its smartphones and Google Cardboard costing less than $15 that is powered by Android phones and iPhones.

In two years, VR could cost much less as game and experiential content such as 360 degree video become widely available, the average PC becomes fast enough to run VR applications and the costs of headsets are driven down by volumes.

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