It's been a little over a year since the first Vive headsets were shipped out to early adopters, so GamesIndustry.biz caught up with HTC's GM of Vive Dan O'Brien and VP of global VR content Joel Breton to assess the first year of their headset, and the enthusiast VR market in general. Unsurprisingly, O'Brien declared year one of the HTC Vive a success.
"We actually met our targets, what we thought we would sell in terms of volumes," O'Brien said. "We don't release our numbers publicly, but we're actually very happy with it. We've also started to really penetrate the non-game space and the enterprise space, and all those use cases. We knew those areas would pick up as game developers actually solved problems like locomotion, movement and social cooperative experiences. The enterprise industry just picks all that up and starts using it in their own experiences. So we see a wide berth of growth in those industries and verticals as well.
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"In terms of our first year, 2016, it was really a kick-off year. 2017 is the ecosystem year where we turn our attention to partners to come work with us. That's why we came out with the Tracker and opening up the ecosystem of things that could work with a tracked headset. We have Viveport, and having a store dedicated to non-game content, and the growth of things like subscription... We're using a lot of different tactics to actually grow the industry."
Breton was similarly upbeat about the Vive hardware's performance, but given his oversight of VR content it was perhaps understandable that he quickly shifted his comments' focus to software. Specifically, he addressed a criticism that has been made against all the VR headsets to some degree: the lack of AAA content.
"These big AAA teams that solve problems in engineering and performance just as a matter of their everyday business are just the kind of teams we need working on VR to help solve these issues"
"Very large and high-production games take a while to make, as we know," Breton said. "Being 15 or 16 months into commercial launch, there's a lot of stuff still in the oven that hasn't even been announced that we're salivating to see what the reaction is. But there's a lot of stuff that has been announced. I don't know if you got to see Doom or Fallout yet. Doom is actually really refreshing. I was worried about it before I got the headset on just because it's such a fast game, but they understood that and worked around it.
"These big AAA teams that solve problems in engineering and performance just as a matter of their everyday business are just the kind of teams we need working on VR to help solve these issues. Ubisoft now has a very strong understanding of VR development, and they've developed a lot of best practices for what works and what doesn't, specifically around motion. So now other developers and teams can go into those experiences or games and say, 'Oh, I get it. I see how you handled this issue that I'm having, or how to really develop great content.' They have some other great things coming as well. Basically every AAA company right now has a team in VR, so that's the exciting part for me."
That's not to downplay the contributions of developers from outside the AAA space, as Breton noted they've largely been the reason the VR headsets didn't have to hold back their launches for multiple years for AAA software support to materialize.
"People have to be pretty thankful to the indie industry for quite honestly picking up year one on its shoulders with some pretty interesting things and a whole lot of things to try," Breton said. "It also taught the industry a whole lot of problems to solve around locomotion, movement, interactions, building from the ground up versus porting...
"There was a whole lot that was learned in year one. And I think based on what we've seen with the current adoption rate and what we've seen with the players and partnerships and brands getting involved, it's all moving in the right direction. This Q4 and 2018 will be super interesting. There's going to be more content coming that will give VR that strong endorsement. People want to see deeper, bigger depth experiences, easier-to-use hardware and products, and those are problems we're willing to go solve."
"We understand now much more clearly the challenge to wireless and nausea and latency. Those were math problems to solve, and it took a little while to get through those"
There are other well documented problems for VR to solve, but O'Brien was impressed by the strides the market had made to addressing some of them already. Specifically, he said he hadn't expected that the high-end VR headsets would have wireless solutions this year, and while they haven't been rolled out worldwide yet, the Vive TPcast wireless adapter and Oculus' Santa Cruz wireless Rift prototype suggest it's only a matter of time.
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"There's a path to closure on that issue," O'Brien said. "We understand now much more clearly the challenge to wireless and nausea and latency. Those were math problems to solve, and it took a little while to get through those. I actually didn't think in year one there would be a laptop that would support VR. By the end of the year, I think there were nine, and there are even more this year."
While mobile VR headsets had solved key problems by being wireless and comparatively inexpensive from the get-go, O'Brien downplayed the idea of them as products competing in the same market.
"My own personal theory is quite honestly, the phones and rotational VR experiences are much shorter," O'Brien said. "They're kind of a gateway to get people excited about the possibility of it, but they're limited. You're looking around and being dragged through an experience that might not be the interactive thing that we all want VR to be... What I think the phones are going to work really aggressively toward achieving is positional tracking and six degrees of freedom. They're working toward that experience; we're already there. And if the phones are trying to get there, that gives me confirmation that I've built the right experience."
Rather than see that as a threat, O'Brien framed it as another selling point for VR content creators to work on Vive.
"From a developer standpoint, they're in a good position if they've built for Vive," he said. "Because as the phones mature and the technology matures on the phone side and they do get to six degrees of freedom and input and interactions, what content are they going to use? They're going to use the content that was originally built for the Vive, so now those developers are seeing a whole other market they can monetize their content with. I think from a developer standpoint, if you build for the Vive, you're actually future-proofing the content you're going to sell on multiple platforms later."
Despite that, he doesn't see mobile VR and enthusiast VR ever hitting a convergence point.
"I think they're going to survive in tandem," O'Brien said. "I don't think they necessarily compete with each other. I think they'll bring different levels of experience... I look at it and think there are different tiers of this product and there are going to be different tiers of this VR world. One of the challenges we still have early on here is defining those tiers and letting people know what they are. Everybody thought Cardboard would be this ubiquitous thing that would just be happening very quickly and naturally, but in reality it's just become an intro piece [lasting] less than 5 minutes."
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"We have to make a more mass appeal product they can take out of the box and go use right away. Those are problems for us to go solve with future iterations"
Regardless of how mobile VR and enthusiast VR may intersect in the future, O'Brien was optimistic about the entire industry.
"We see VR as continuing to grow," O'Brien said. "We see other hardware partners coming in and building more headsets. You're going to see more headsets, and that wouldn't happen if we really felt like the industry wasn't going to move forward. There's still a lot of opportunity. But we see too that as the industry grows, we see innovators, we see the early adopters. We've built a product for them. They can handle it. They can handle drivers, troubleshooting, the setup experience, plugging in base stations and doing all these things.
"As we want to get to an early mass [market] and double-digit year-over-year growth numbers, you have to make some more changes to the product. We have to make a more mass appeal product they can take out of the box and go use right away. Those are problems for us to go solve with future iterations. But we do have a consumer today we're very focused on that's still very much an early adopter and innovator, and [we're] building out the experiences and content that they're really interested in using."
Breton agreed, stressing that this holiday in particular will be huge for the industry.
"Both the things that are public and the ones that aren't but are close to being announced, it's going to be a phenomenal year for gaming, both for VR and for Vive specifically," Breton said. "I think VR is destined to become a genre or subset of gaming. It's not going to take over gaming like some people projected, but it's going to be a set of games that work really well in VR that aren't as great on flat screens. So that's what we're working hard with our partners to enable and to make sure that come this holiday, you will not have a lack of AAA games."