Having sold off key smartphone assets last year, HTC now focuses substantially on Vive virtual reality devices, so it’s using the 2018 Mobile World Congress Shanghai for two major pushes: expanding the capabilities of its standalone Vive Focus headset and teasing the prospect of future 5G cellular-enabled products.
Currently available only in China, the Vive Focus will launch elsewhere in the world in the “near future,” HTC says. While the roughly $600 Focus was designed to operate independently as a standalone VR headset with 6 degree of freedom (DoF) tracking and its own 3DoF controller, HTC has recently touted its upcoming ability to wirelessly stream Viveport and Steam VR content from a computer. Now it’s demonstrating how fast and responsive the streaming will be.
Using a new version of Riftcat VRidge software over a 5GHz Wi-Fi connection, the Focus is able to stream the hit rhythm game Beat Saber from a PC. This is no simple feat, as Beat Saber requires players to respond quickly to second-by-second changes in songs, slashing blocks in sync with the music.
PC streaming is expected to expand the Focus’ supported game collection with hundreds of titles, albeit only when users are near their computers. The updated version of VRidge supporting this functionality will be released on Viveport M “in coming weeks,” and users will be able to pair Vive Focus, Xbox, and third-party controllers directly to the PC to control streaming titles.
Ahead of the Focus’ global launch, HTC also announced that it will bring voice assistant support to the device in the future, and provide incentives to get more developers to create apps for the headset. The company announced that Viveport developers will be able to “keep all the profits until September 30th, 2018” and is offering to ship Focus development kits to 20 countries right now.
On the 5G front, HTC also announced that it has signed a deal with China Mobile to cooperate on popularizing both VR and 5G cellular services in China. China Mobile previously announced a 5G Devices Forerunner Initiative to help bring new 5G products from multiple vendors to market, and the leading Chinese carrier partnered with several handset manufacturers at the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona at the end of February 2018. HTC’s participation will begin with China Mobile retailing Vive VR headsets, while HTC works on new 5G-ready devices.
The partnership could benefit both companies. Live streaming of virtual reality content directly to standalone headsets is expected to be one of 5G’s major early breakthroughs, as 5G will be the first cellular standard with the low latency and high bandwidth VR hardware needs. Back in February HTC licensed Qualcomm’s 5G-capable X50 modem for unspecified future products, which at the time seemed more likely to include sequels to its remaining U-series smartphones.
One hitch with the HTC-China Mobile deal is that China is working towards “broad commercialization” of its 5G network in 2020, while the United States and other countries are planning commercial 5G offerings in 2018 and 2019. Under the arrangement, HTC will prepare 5G devices for a large-scale China Mobile trial and assist with new application concepts for 5G. As HTC says that its goal is to “advance the development of 5G technologies into our daily lives, and also to accelerate mass adoption of VR/AR,” it’s possible that we’ll see its first 5G VR devices well before 2020, albeit with a carrier outside of China.