In the last few years, VR has gone from a one horse race to having a number of different players.
For a long time, Oculus alone was the VR scene. Then last year, PlayStation revealed its Morpheus headset. And the likes of Samsung and Razer have headsets, too.
Then earlier this month tech firm HTC - best known for its smartphones – entered the VR fray, teaming up with software giant Valve to produce the Vive headset. And this could even be the first VR ‘full’ headset to reach the market.
“We’re going to deliver a consumer product to stores this calendar year,” HTC connected products marketing boss Jeff Gattis tells MCV.
“That’s a pretty big step for the industry. So far VR has been confined to hobbyists and tinkering. Oculus and PlayStation have done some great things, but everything’s been developer editions with no firm release commitment.”
HTC has been looking to get involved in the VR space for some time now – but it was only through its partnership with Valve that it was possible.
“We see VR as a once in a generation technology,” Gattis says. “It’s not just about changing the way people play games, but how people interact with computers.
“We’d explored the space, as had Valve. It had built a baseline platform but it hasn’t got great hardware expertise – to put it lightly – but it has a great software experience, access to thousands of developers and hundreds of millions of users on Steam. Yet it lacks that hardware piece, so it was a nice fit.”
While HTC is primarily targeting gamers with the Vive, it has made plans to reach a wider audience.
“Gaming is the obvious pushing off point because there’s pent-up demand there, but we’ve really looked at it from a broader point of view,” Gattis explains. “We’ve announced partnerships with HBO, Lionsgate and Google – we’re looking at entertainment, education and training experiences.”
"If you’re a developer you might
be intrigued by VR, but unless
there’s a real market out there
it’s hard to invest."
Jeff Gattis, HTC
There are tech companies like HTC insisting VR will change everything. But where is the proof? Critics seem to – on the whole – like it. But will the wider market?
“VR will reach the mainstream. I feel pretty strongly about that,” he says.
“But it will take time. I don’t think VR will be a 25m unit industry next Christmas. But to get it to the mainstream, the first step is we need people to make commitments to deliver a consumer product – that lights a fire under our competitors.
“If you’re a developer, you might be intrigued by VR, but unless there’s a real consumer market out there, it’s hard to invest resources in building content. That’s the next big piece – continuing to court developers to get a variety of content out there.
“And if you’re not a gamer, you might think that VR isn’t for you. We want to change that perception and let people have the experience, whether that be watching your favourite film, experiencing other types of entertainment content, all the way through to using Google Maps to walk through the streets of London. Those experiences are ready from a technological standpoint, but it’s a case of getting them fully developed and making them available to consumers.”
One of the criticisms faced by VR is that some users suffer from headaches and motion sickness. And it’s a problem HTC says must not be ignored.
“We use a 90HZ refresh rate on our screens. That’s an important aspect for us. Some headsets only run at 60, and that can cause a fair amount of problems,” Gattis explains. “We use 70 motion sensors in the headset and wireless controller which enable precision tracking with little latency. We’ve found that to be a big driver of motion sickness. You turn your head and there’s a one-second lag. That’s what’s driving you crazy, along with the slow refresh rate on a screen.”
If HTC really wants to go beyond the core gamer, it needs to come up with a marketing solution. Because a bit like motion controls and 3D, VR is not something you can really show off with a TV ad.
“We’re planning a virtual reality road show,” Gattis says. “We want to be at popular events, developer conferences and universities, letting people experience this. The challenging thing for all of us in this category is that there is no way to describe VR. There’s no way to convey what it does without letting them put the thing on their head and experience it.
“We’re going to make a big push to get this in front of people and let them experience it and get excited about it. That’s also going to help broaden the overall adoption.”
Given that VR is such a try before you buy experience physical retail is at an advantage over online.
“We’ve had an overwhelming response from retailers who are trying to get their hands on the technology and talk about what floor displays would look like,” Gattis says. “Retailers are excited. They know it’s a huge traffic driver. The fact that it’s such a hands-on experience is really conducive to the physical retail industry.”
HTC is at least aware of the obstacles that VR must overcome, and is taking measures it believes will help it to do so. But the Vive still faces one issue that isn’t easily solved – it is going to
have a rather high price tag. And it’s this that might slow the VR ‘revolution’.
“We want to deliver the most premium VR experience the world has seen. That’s not marketing speak, but more about where Vive is positioned in the market. This is at the high end,” Gattis says.
“Starting with the premium experience, even if it has a slightly higher price point, is the right thing to do from a strategic point of view. The price can always come down as the market grows. We know there is some pent up demand there, so there’s not so much price sensitivity early on. But to get the broader consumer adoption we’re all hoping for, the industry will have to drive price down to make it more accessible.”
He concludes: “Whether we do that with Vive, or other form factors and devices, we understand the importance of driving price down to achieve adoption.”
WHAT RETAIL THINKS:
Charlotte Knight, GAME
“We are really excited about VR and we know that the gaming community is too. It is certainly the next big thing in the industry and as much of a game-changer as the Wii and Kinect were.
“The most exciting thing about VR is the limitless potential that it offers: developers can build immersive experiences that have never been possible before.
“The biggest challenge that we foresee is how accessible the new technology will be to mass-market customers, both due to the expertise required to use it and price of entry. At GAME we will be leveraging our store base and knowledgeable staff to demonstrate and guide customers on this exciting new technology. We will also have several compelling trade in offers to make VR affordable for every customer.”
Robert Lindsay, Games Centre
“VR is, on paper, a potentially game-changing innovation within the games industry. In the right hands games will become an experience rather than a diversion and story telling will become an emotional and physical journey for the player. It will engage even the most cynical non-gamer and fire the imagination of those open to a new sensory experience.
"But my fear is that it is another expensive peripheral fad that devs will struggle to get to grips with and it will end up as a bolt on element to the increasingly unimaginative slew of sequels and reboots that seem to make up the bulk of the release schedules. I also fear that it will become an expensive add-on gimmick that will only serve as an excuse for developers to create games with little more than ‘look, you can turn your head and see all around you’ going for them. And with bottom lines being king and the need for studios to produce huge triple-A titles that generate astronomical returns on investment, I suspect we are more likely to see Call Of Battle Creed 7 - Now with VR!”
Alison Fraser, ShopTo:
“VR has the potential to stay long-term into the next console cycle but that will be the big test of the technology, and how streamlined they can make the tech over the next few years – smaller, lighter headsets – will play a big part in that.
“It’s a genuinely new gaming experience – not just a plastic add-on. VR is the desirable hardware that gamers crave.
“It has the potential to open up non-hardcore gaming, too. Will VR produce the new Wii Fit or similar unexpected retail hit? But due to price this could be further on in its lifecycle.
“Our main concern is motion sickness. And online retailers could suffer where bricks and mortar benefit from the ‘try before you buy’ scenario.
“Other concerns are over promising and under delivering for the high price. This kit can’t disappoint at launch or future sales will surely be in jeopardy.”