The HTC Vive is the beginning of a fundamental change to the way we compute. While other authors are reviewing the HTC Vive itself today, I will talk about the evolution of the platform and software ecosystem.
(Image source: Anshel Sag)
I’ve spent the last year deep inside Virtual Reality, putting on every headset and trying every experience, good or bad. The experience that most caught my attention and left me wanting more was the HTC Vive. It started last March at VRLA where Valve (HTC’s partner in creating the Vive) debuted the first developer edition. Over the course of the year, the HTC Vive and the experiences that it brought continued to become better, deeper and more numerous.
One expectation was always that the HTC Vive was going to be the ‘premium’ VR product alongside Google Cardboard, Samsung Electronics GearVR and even Facebook’s Oculus Rift. This had to do with the fact that it came with motion controllers and ‘roomscale’ VR. Another expectation was that the HTC Vive would command a premium price, which at this point it does at $799.
But the HTC Vive isn’t ‘premium’ just because it has some of the best tracking and designed controllers ever made. The HTC Vive is ‘premium’ because it delivers the more encompassing VR experience from the platform, SteamVR, to the hardware which includes a VR HMD (head-mounted display), motion controllers, base stations and a plethora of software. Valve’s Steam platform for PC games has 120 million active monthly users for a reason: PC gamers love Steam and they trust it. The same can be said about developers who consider Steam the best place to develop and launch a game if they want grassroots support, feedback and more importantly success.
The HTC Vive also has some tricks up its sleeve. The Vive will be an evolving piece of hardware that improves as they roll out new features via software updates. One feature (not ready in time for this article but should be available at launch) is Bluetooth connectivity between your Vive and your Android or iOS phone. This feature allows your Vive to get notifications from your phone, including calls and messages without you having to take off the headset. I expect to see more features like this to continue to roll out over the life of the HTC Vive.
My experience with testing the HTC Vive was extremely positive, I had tons of fun using the 50+ experiences. Yes, there are great games like AudioShield, #SelfieTennis, Space Pirate Trainer, Cloudlands VR Minigolf and Raw Data. However, there are also applications like Tilt Brush and Sculpt VR for drawing and modeling as well as sandbox applications like Modbox.
But the depth of the HTC Vive goes beyond that with applications like Valve’s app ‘The Lab’: a combination of games, travel experiences and science experiments. The purpose of ‘The Lab’ is to help developers and VR enthusiasts understand what’s possible with the HTC Vive through unique experiences using the Vive’s controls and HMD. The Lab is like Valve’s own Nintendo Land for VR; it’s meant to show what the platform is capable of through mini games and experiences, what Valve calls ‘pocket universes’.
Many of these pocket modules are already being supplanted by developers’ own applications. Realities.IO application is a photogrammetry application built in Unreal Engine 4. It starts out with a very realistic globe as its UI and takes you around the world to experience different places in photogrammetry. This application has more functionality than Valve’s own and could be crowdsourced to increase the amount of places people can go. In addition to Realities. IO, Universe Sandbox has blown everyone’s mind I’ve shown it to. It’s a complex, flexible and fun application that lets you simulate almost any type of solar system, planet or galaxy. Realities.IO taxed my Advanced Micro Devices Radeon Fury X the most, but it also had the most complexity and delivered the most ‘godlike’ feeling in VR. The educational implications of these apps are huge when you realize they can help inspire students to be astronauts or rocket scientists.
There are also productivity applications like Virtual Desktop and Envelop VR. Virtual Desktop is already available while Envelop VR is in beta. Virtual Desktop helps fill usability holes that the HTC Vive has in simple VR content viewing. This makes sense because Valve doesn’t try to fill holes by paying for content or creating first-party experiences. Instead, they want to enable developers to make the best applications and to create natural competition and growth within the Steam ecosystem. Their VR Developer Showcase earlier this year made it extremely clear that the event was about the developers and not the Vive or themselves.
Yes, an HTC Vive and PC are around $1,800 brand new. However, many early adopters already have their own gaming PCs and will only need to upgrade. Hardware requirements will slow the uptake of VR relative to expectations as I wrote last year. At this early stage, VR attracts passionate users and those most willing to spend money. General consumers seem less willing to spend $500+ on headsets…until they’ve had an experience like the HTC Vive. Once someone tries VR as good as the HTC Vive, all bets are off. The potential for VR becomes real and unlimited. The HTC Vive delivers a new and unique experience with serious depth, even to people who have tried VR before. The HTC Vive and SteamVR convert the skeptics and the curious into believers and even some into evangelists.