I’m a huge fan of hardware experimentation and prototyping — enough to enjoy looking back at abandoned designs and forgotten products that either never made it to market or were replaced by more memorable sequels. While iteration is a necessary part of the innovation process, a successful company generally settles on a single, polished final design that will work for the largest number of people. If the product’s great, the company will be rewarded with the opportunity to release an improved sequel in the future.
This week, HTC went in the complete opposite direction with its Vive VR headset lineup, which was already somewhat confusing. It began by announcing three new Vive Cosmos models, bringing the “family” total to four, then showed two concept Proton glasses designs that it hopes will inspire community discussion toward a final product. Since HTC was already selling Vive (refurbished), Vive Pro, Vive Pro Eye, and standard Vive Cosmos tethered VR headsets, plus Vive Focus and Vive Focus Plus standalone models, that means customers will soon have eight or nine different Vive choices, plus at least one more on the horizon.
Since most of its rivals offer one, two, or three headsets, HTC is becoming the VR world’s poster child for “too much choice.” It has also drifted away from mainstream affordability, apart from offering a refurbished standard Vive at the somewhat iffy $400 price point. Yet it offers a bewildering array of semi-premium headsets, including $600, $700, $800, and $900 options with completely different displays and tracking systems, non-standalone and standalone capabilities, and so on.
I understand how this came to be. Originally, HTC followed the “polished single design” model, refining myriad possibilities down to the original Vive, a very nice headset that history will probably record as being too expensive. Instead of whittling Vive down as Apple famously did with the iPod mini and iPad mini, winning a larger audience, HTC added more to Vive to create higher-end Pro and Pro Eye models, and dipped into the standalone market with Focus. Unsurprisingly, the more expensive headsets largely gained traction in the enterprise market rather than with price-conscious consumers. So HTC went back to the “consumer” drawing board with Cosmos, again hitting too high of a price point, so it decided to find ways to make that model less and more expensive.
Now there’s a family — a big family. Apple would have killed old models off or never released some of the new ones, but HTC has kept virtually all of them around in some way. Some are hedges against specific VR technologies; the upcoming Protons appear to be responses to recent mixed reality trends.
One of the big issues appears to be a lack of confidence in Cosmos’ new inside-out tracking system, which was the subject of numerous poor reviews last year. As a result, HTC wants prospective Vive users who care about “precise” input to consider the $899 Cosmos Elite model with external tracking, or a similarly equipped $899 Vive Pro bundle. Unless you think Valve’s well reviewed, premium Index is a benchmark for consumer affordability — at $1,000, it’s not — HTC might be pricing itself out of the consumer VR market.
Contrast this with Facebook’s super simple Oculus family. There’s a $399 Rift S for PCs, a $399 Quest for standalone and PC use, and a $150 standalone Go, which the company is largely downplaying at this point. There aren’t any fancier models, and Oculus suggests it isn’t going to release one until it’s had adequate time to test the new technology in its own offices. Meanwhile, the widely admired Quest is completely sold out across the world, due to apparently strong demand and manufacturing constraints. Both Rift S and Quest use inside-out tracking systems that have been widely praised compared with the Cosmos implementation.
I won’t say that HTC needs to follow Sony’s approach to VR, because there’s only one PlayStation VR SKU, and Sony hasn’t chased enterprises or tiered its consumer offerings (yet). Focusing narrowly on one model has enabled Sony to sell the PSVR for as little as $199 with games, and consumers have rewarded that pricing and focus with 5 million unit sales — substantially more than any other tethered VR headset.
HTC doesn’t need to offer only a single model or go consumer-only, but its lineup would profoundly benefit from similar streamlining. There shouldn’t be a “Cosmos” and entry-level “Cosmos Play” — Cosmos should be the $399 or $499 entry-level model, and if it’s more expensive, it should work better than the $399 Oculus Rift S. On the standalone side, does anyone really need a Vive Focus, Focus Plus, and one or two Proton models with similar performance? Similarly, there shouldn’t be a Vive Pro, Vive Pro Eye, Cosmos Elite, and Cosmos XR — there should be at most two models, if not a single Cosmos with straightforward professional faceplate updates.
It’s possible that HTC is planning a massive culling of its lineup, and is just waiting for the right time to drop the axe on a bunch of older models. But there were already too many Vive headsets before, and the lineup now is just silly; even trying to locate each model on the Vive website is a chore. Does anyone expect the company to properly support all these headsets (to say nothing of the different tracking and camera systems used in four different Cosmos faceplates) and related accessories going forward? Wouldn’t it be less expensive to manufacture and stock just one consumer faceplate instead of two or three?
My read is that the current array of choices is a guaranteed formula for disappointment, if not near-term abandonment. The risk of everything flopping — 10 headsets splitting 1-2 models’ sales — is the reason some ideas are best vetted internally at the prototyping stage, rather than sending them out into the marketplace to succeed or fail on their own merits. I would much sooner have a single viable Vive headset option than a collection too large to parse or support.
For HTC’s sake, I hope that the Vive family gets cleaned up soon, lest the company squander the good will it has built up. Even if that means getting rid of old products or nixing some of this week’s new ones, no one will shed a tear if what remains is reasonably priced and compelling given the near-term state of the VR marketplace.