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HTC unveiled its high-end consumer virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive Cosmos, today. It ships on October 3 for $700, and I had a good hands-on demo with the system, for which preorders are opening today. And I talked with a couple of HTC executives after my demo, and I quizzed them about how the company designed the headset.
The HTC Vive Cosmos represents the high end of the consumer virtual reality market. It is an engineering marvel, but it still has to balance a number of difficult tradeoffs, such as cost, visual quality, accessibility, and mobility. HTC has done what it can to attack each one of these design vectors.
I interviewed Dan O’Brien, the general manager of the Americas at HTC Vive; and Drew Bamford, the corporate vice president at HTC Creative Labs. They walked me through the genesis of the HTC Vive Cosmos, which formally replaces the original $800 HTC Vive that debuted for the consumer VR market in 2016.
The new VR headset is like a new generation of the high end, where you are connecting a VR headset via wires to a PC. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: Are the controllers different?
Dan O’Brien: The main difference here is that the controllers are tracked by the headset. They use inside-out tracking, using the six cameras. With all those cameras, we get a very wide FOV, 310 degrees. That allows us to track the controllers in most normal positions you’d move them to. If you do go outside of that FOV, we use the gyro to fill it in.
GamesBeat: Are there a lot of sensors here?
O’Brien: It’s LEDs eliminating that pattern. Then what happens is the cameras use computer vision to match the pattern and track it.
GamesBeat: Are the triggers and buttons all the same?
O’Brien: No. We’ve added quite a few controls to this. We think the industry is converging on a de facto standard. We added the X, Y, A, and B buttons. Then we went from the trackpad for your thumb to the joystick. We had a lot of requests for that, particularly from gamers.
Drew Bamford: Most gamers are used to a joystick.
O’Brien: They want that analog feedback from a joystick.
Bamford: It gives you a more natural feel. Someone who’s been playing games for the last 15 years, you’ve always had a joystick in your hand.
O’Brien: There is a bit of mapping to do to go from the old controllers to this, but it’s not too difficult.
GamesBeat: When is this available again?
O’Brien: It starts preorders on the October 12, and then full channel availability on October 3. It’s priced at $699. The current Vive CE is $499.
GamesBeat: Will you keep the two different SKUs?
O’Brien: No, actually. The current Vive CE is going to be out of channel, likely, in the next few weeks. You won’t be able to get that product anymore. That’s coming to a long, storied end of life. I’m not sure how many products have made it that long in the CE space.
GamesBeat: You’re pushing the higher end with more content packed into each new release, it seems.
O’Brien: Yeah. If I could break it down for you, it’s really three key areas. This is a very consumer-focused product. It’s going to replace the current CE product in the market. We looked at three areas that we could address for the next premium PC-powered product. We wanted to address it with our hardware technology and what we could do there, giving a simpler, easier product to set up and use; a better and easier software experience with the Vive Reality system, an experience of being able to move between worlds; and a third area around a robust content offering.
It will work with your entire Steam library. It will work with your Viveport library, as well as Viveport Infinity. With Infinity, in the preorder phase, if you buy in that phase, you’ll get 12 months of Infinity, which is more than 700 titles. If you buy after that you get six months. It’s still a very valuable content package.
On the technology side, for the hardware, we did a lot of things. We changed up not only the resolution and the fidelity going to an LCD screen that’s full RGB—now it’s three subpixels for every pixel. It’s a clearer, higher visual experience. We also changed out the halo design for better weight distribution. You can flip it up to go from your virtual world to your real world very easily. That’s customizable. The headset is still customizable even then. You can remove the audio.
On the front plate, it comes with six inside-out cameras out of the box, giving you that 310 degrees of coverage, which is the largest area of coverage for any inside-out tracked headset. But you’ll be able to remove that and add other mods to it. The first mod will be available in Q1. That’s the Vive Cosmos external tracking mod. You’ll be able to put a Steam VR outside-in tracked plate on it, and it will work with your existing wands or your knuckle controllers. If you’re into using the Vive Tracker for peripherals, you’ll be able to use that as well.
It’s a headset that was designed to work over time throughout the ownership. We’ve rebuilt how the headset would be used. It’s an easy out of the box experience. We rebuilt the software experience and we have a strong software offering from a content perspective.
GamesBeat: Are there any new titles that you’ll have ready for launch? Are people creating for the higher resolution already?
O’Brien: It will work with your existing library, more than 1,700 titles on Viveport and more than 3,000 on Steam, as well as more than 700 in Viveport Infinity. There’s a robust content library, and a series of new content pieces are coming out with it.
Vive’s been standing on that space of encouraging developers to launch their content everywhere. We think users are going to take advantage of all that content, as opposed to being limited to one space.
GamesBeat: What would motivate somebody to upgrade at this stage? Would they want to have more content created for this resolution?
O’Brien: I’d say the majority of the content—if you look at where the industry is going, between competitive headsets, where we’ve gone with Pro—it’s not something a lot of people have to go and rework for, to get that resolution. We’ve made it pretty easy, from the existing OpenVR SDKs, to scale. We’re not asking developers to rework.
Some of them will, that want to put script in, where you’re reading objects in your virtual space. But this thing gives you—it’s future-proofed. It gives you the ability to use it over time. The external tracking mod, you have the outside-in experience from the base unit. It’s easy to use. You don’t have to set up external tracking sensors. Then, if you want to use your external tracking sensors, you can do that.
GamesBeat: Does it get more accurate with more sensors?
O’Brien: Yeah. Lasers and outside-in tracking have proven to provide one of the highest forms of tracking accuracy. The inside-out tracking with six cameras has been highly accurate, but laser tracking—it’s tough for cameras to overcome what a laser can do. We have a lot of experiences where users are still going to want that level of tracking, and we want to give them those options.
Bamford: Particularly professionals in certain areas. With our laser tracking accessory, you can track things even if you can’t see them when you’re in VR, which is helpful in a lot of professional training scenarios.
GamesBeat: Is there a possible option to go wireless with this?
O’Brien: Yes, the product will support the wireless accessory as well. That will be made available right at launch. The same accessory that works for Pro will be able to work for Cosmos.
One reason to choose this headset over the original Vive, for example, or to upgrade from the original Vive, is if you have a scenario where you want to be able to move it to different locations. You don’t have to pack up your base stations, pull them off the wall, and reassemble everything in another location. It just plugs into a PC, or even a high-powered laptop. You can use it relatively easy as a mobile solution.
GamesBeat: Is setting up a new space easier, then?
O’Brien: It’s much easier. We didn’t show you the actual room setup, but when you do that you can look through the front-facing cameras to see the room and just draw your boundaries. It takes about 30 seconds. It’s very easy. That was one of the main design goals for this product, to really smooth out all of these transitions, from the out-of-box situation, to the setup, to putting the headset on, to going in and out of VR with the flip-up feature, and then finally going through the new user experience with Viveport Infinity content. We wanted that to be as smooth a journey as possible.
We’re competing against all of these consumer products like tablets and phones and TVs that are so easy to engage with. We think that as an industry, VR needs to be competitive there as far as removing all the friction.
GamesBeat: Do you think this is the same kind of product that enterprise wants?
O’Brien: No, I think that we built this with intention for the consumer market. We think some enterprises—we make all of our hardware available to our enterprise and professional customers as well as consumers on the Pro series. We do that very intentionally because we don’t want to upset people as far as what you can or cannot buy.
We do have enterprises and professional scenarios that have found, if they can do that experience—pop-up showrooms, pop-up LDEs, where they don’t have to bring base stations, that’s a high interest for them, to be able to do that. It just makes it easier for them to be portable and on-the-go.
GamesBeat: What about the other vector to work on, taking the price lower?
O’Brien: We introduced the original Vive at a higher price point than we’re introducing this one. We’re introducing this one purposefully with—it’s not always just about price. We think price is one of the friction points, but it’s also about user experience and content consumption. If you got the super-low price and you don’t have these other pieces, it’ll still struggle to hit the mass adoption space.
These are the concerted areas where we felt like we could make a good effort to solve these problems, and we could still maintain what the Vive brand is meant to do, which is bring the best VR experience in any of the tiers it goes into. This is about maintaining and delivering our premium VR experience at the consumer level. We’ll continue to do that over time with our enterprise portfolio as well, what you can be doing there. We brought eye tracking natively to that headset this past year. You’re going to continue see that. Whether it’s all-in-one, consumer, or enterprise, that’s our goal and our intent.
GamesBeat: Do you see an opportunity to take something into an Oculus Quest-like space, something entirely different for the lower end?
O’Brien: It’s about, can we deliver that premium experience to end users? That’s an interesting space, the all-in-one space. I think you’ll see us to continue to evolve our 5G portfolio with consumer-led products in the XR space. That’s an interesting space to partner with mobile operators. You saw something like our 5G hub. We have one on the table.
We’re starting to combine those technologies with our immersive portfolio. That solves real friction points. When you’re tethered to wi-fi, that creates just as much of a problem as this cable does. You can only go so far. 5G gives us a little more ubiquity.
Bamford: To really get a small form factor at a low price and high fidelity today, you need either a PC, or in the future you’ll be able to do cloud or edge GPU rendering to get that high fidelity. That’s where we’re aiming as a brand, that premium experience. If you don’t have a 5G capability or a modem capability — we have more than 100 years of modem expertise at our company – you’re going to be pretty limited three years down the road.
GamesBeat: Is this 5G ready?
O’Brien: Not right now. This is PC-enabled. We’re talking about a modular story. The first mod-capable product, being able to work with Steam VR and Steam VR tracking. Then our mod story will continue to grow over the next year. We’ll have more functionality.
GamesBeat: So 5G could theoretically be brought in through mods?
O’Brien: There’s a lot to come for us in what we’ll announce about what the products will be able to do over the next year. It’s pretty exciting. It gives users and developers a lot of options to say, “Okay, I can buy this one thing and it solves a lot of problems over time for me,” instead of iteratively buying everything because it has one new thing. We wanted one new thing that can do many things. It’s future-proof.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on this?
O’Brien: Here’s the thing. When we took out the original Vive CE, I went around and visited almost every automotive company and several aerospace companies. They told me everything I needed to do in order to service them better. We built Pro, and then we built Pro Eye. We built a lot of SDKs and all these other bits that would make it even easier. We built a tracker so they would be able to bring other objects into their virtual space. These were very professional-driven requirements.
The consumer space drove very clear requirements around setup problems, ease of portability, ease of use. We wanted to attack those problems. At some point you have an inflection point where it’s time to bring up the resolution, time to bring up the experience, give a lighter headset to consumers. But since day one we’ve been building out the requirements of what should be in the next consumer headset. What can we and should we solve with that product?
Bamford: Some of the technical components took longer to incubate, like the inside-out tracking in the controllers. We’ve worked on that for some time. Some other elements of it, like Dan said, we’ve been collecting these requirements over time, but we’ve developed over the last 12-18 months.
GamesBeat: The CE is knocked out here, then. Is anything else knocked out on the enterprise side?
O’Brien: No, no. What you’ll see is that Pro and Pro Eye are both Steam VR tracked products. We think those products, with Pro Eye having native built-in eye tracking, support very specific use cases that developers have been working on and our professional customers have been asking us for. They need the higher fidelity with the tracking accuracy. They want to be able to track other objects that are not in their field of view.
That has a very specific customer where we think it’s going to go. You’ll continue to see us grow that road map in what we can do for enterprise and professionals. They’re willing to bear the price of that innovation. For consumers, we’ll continue to innovate at more consumable prices in what we can bring to the consumer level.
GamesBeat: This doesn’t have the eye-tracking, then?
O’Brien: No, it’s not built in.
GamesBeat: What does the native eye-tracking accomplish?
O’Brien: For enterprise and professionals, a lot of them are using it for training. A lot of them are using it for understanding what the user—for something like product introduction, Kellogg did a whole series with introducing a planogram of new product and where to put their new product. They discovered not only where to put a new product entry on a planogram in a store, but how to cause an overall cart lift. There were no interviews at the end of the session.
GamesBeat: When you train people you need to know exactly where they’re looking.
O’Brien: Right. Or if you’re trying to max out the panel with foveated rendering, you can get eight times more resolution out of a foveated object, because you’re taking down more resources off of other parts of the panel where your pupil isn’t looking. There are benefits on the resource side. There are benefits on the data tracking and data knowledge set side.
The Air Force is using it to understand how the human body reacts to crisis scenarios in the cockpit, and whether to throttle up the simulation or throttle it back, depending on how well the pilot is handling the situation. Some very interesting studies are happening around eye tracking. But developers have only had access to that hardware for maybe six months. We’re just starting to scratch the surface on the different use cases. The user research is awesome, because it’s very honest and truthful. You can’t fake your eye movements.
Bamford: There are incredible opportunities in user interface as well. I don’t know if you’ve seen the demos, but with eye tracking you no longer have to select with your controller. You just look at the UI and press a button. It’s an incredible efficiency gain. When I first heard that idea, I was quite skeptical, but having experimented with it, it’s a major step change.
O’Brien: In Major League Baseball, what they attempted in the very beginning was an accessibility test. Could you select objects? Could you select things in VR with your eyes instead of a head gaze? They were able to do that, so you could just stand in an experience with a bat. The first experience they built used both a controller and a bat, and you had to hand things off. It was really clunky. Some really cool stuff there.
Ovation, with the speech, is another one, where it was 80 percent more accurate when tracking your pupils than with head gaze. You’d be looking over here, but your eyes were heat mapped down to the display telling you your keynote speech. Now you’re creating better oratory communication. It’s impressive stuff.
GamesBeat: Eye tracking adds a fair amount of cost that you wouldn’t want to have here, though?
O’Brien: The consumer user experiences for eye tracking aren’t there yet. A couple of years down the road, I think eye tracking becomes table stakes for AR headsets, MR headsets, or VR headsets. The use cases and the proper usage of the data will be much more well-defined at that point too.
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