The HTC Vive debuted in the first week of April, bringing high-end virtual reality on the PC to consumers. HTC says it managed to ship all of the units that it promised to early buyers during the month of April, and now it continues to work on its backlog for shipments.
Now the company hopes to stoke the momentum behind the Vive, which has an advantage over the better-known Oculus Rift from Facebook’s Oculus VR division, with its own marketing push.
I caught up with J.B. McRee, senior manager for product marketing at HTC. His job is to help build the case for VR in the living room, or “room-scale” VR as partner Valve has called it. The Vive can be played in a larger area in a room, but it also draws up a safe zone where you won’t bump into your furniture. Part of the challenge is that a lot of people don’t have the room to fully exploit the Vive in a physical space, and another problem is that it requires spouse approval to set up a couple of sensors in your living room and connect the Vive to a big display.
But McRee believes that once people start using the Vive for apps such as Google’s Tilt Brush, they’ll be quite happy with all of those trade-offs. To date, there are more than 200 apps on the Vive.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: I have a Vive at home. It’s been fun. I wonder what sort of reaction you’ve heard from folks generally. What do they think of the initial units?
J. B. McRee: As you know, we’ve been trying hard for quite a while to get it in the hands of as many people as possible. We’ve been able to gather quite a bit of feedback around that. A lot of our focus before launch was, one, making sure we had a robust content library at launch, which I think we were successful with, and making sure the out-of-box experience, the setup procedure, was as seamless as possible. We worked hard on that and I think we did a good job.
So far people have been excited about it. People are very attracted to the immersiveness they feel through room-scale VR. Being able to get up and walk around the environment is something people really enjoy. Controllers as well. Controllers are very difficult, and we got those at launch for everybody. People enjoy the controllers. Overall I’d say the feedback’s been very positive. The most critical stuff has been around shipping. People wanted everything at one time. But within the first month we shipped every unit we were supposed to deliver in the first month.
GamesBeat: You hit all the pre-ordered people in that time frame?
McRee: When people pre-ordered we gave them an indication of the month in which they’d receive their unit. It was one of those things where, if you ordered and we said April, around April 20 people started to get antsy. We had a small but vocal group of people. But every single person we said we would ship to that month, we shipped to them successfully.
One of the cool things about Vive being connected to the internet is that we can push out updates to it. It doesn’t matter if someone buys the kit now or six months from now. We’ll continue to put updates our and it’ll continue to have the best functioning and tracking possible. You may remember that we released what we call phone services, where you can pair your phone with Vive. You get phone calls, calendar invites, text messages, things like that. There’s a companion app that lets you created canned message replies.
We’re working on what we call Vive Home. It’s out now, but it’s in a very early stage. Think of it as the place you’d go between VR experiences. You can customize it with different widgets and shortcuts to applications. We’ll continue to push out new and unique things like that through updates.
GamesBeat: Is it in all territories now?
McRee: I don’t know the regions off the top of my head, but it’s definitely global. It’s in the teens, I believe, as far as countries we’ve been shipping to.
GamesBeat: Do you think people are buying new PCs at the same time?
McRee: Yes, I think so. A large majority of people — gamers, most likely — have PCs that are either capable of running VR or close to it. For them maybe it’s just a graphics card update, something small. But for a lot of people who don’t have a PC — they may be a Mac user, or just aren’t a gamer — they’ve been buying PCs. We have three different partners we’re considering Vive-optimized, people building PCs we’ve tested in-house to know that they work well. They meet our recommended specification. We indicate that on our website so people can click into one of these partners and get presented with options that we guarantee would work well with the system.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard a lot about the MSI one here. That’s dual-card?
McRee: This is the single-card. They do have an SLI one as well. But this is the single-card solution. It’s a full-size 980 inside here. The three partners are MSI, HP, and Alienware.
GamesBeat: Are those all laptops, or is it a mix of desktops and laptops?
McRee: MSI’s the only one making laptops we partner with right now. Tons of other people are building laptops that would work with Vive. They meet the recommended spec. We just haven’t tested them and made sure they work well like that group of three. We also have what we consider recommended components, like graphics cards. Currently there’s no bundling, but we’re looking into that.
GamesBeat: Do you get a sense of how large a space people are setting up? Is there an average?
McRee: That’d be an interesting thing to know, how much space people make for it. The cool thing about Vive is that you don’t have to use room-scale. You can use it seated or standing. But clearly room-scale makes it unique.
The minimum space for room-scale is around five by six and a half feet. You have to develop against that minimum amount of space, so everyone develops their apps to work well in that space. If you go to set it up for room-scale in a smaller space, it’ll tell you there’s not enough room. But you can always do standing or seated without any minimum. At the other end, the maximum is no more than five meters — 16 feet, four inches — between the base stations. Anywhere you want to position those, so long as the distance is less than that, you can set up room-scale.
The cool thing about the chaperon wall, which you’re probably familiar with, is that it doesn’t have to be a square. You can configure it around tables or sofas or anything like that, so you understand the perimeters of the play space.
GamesBeat: I wonder if people are setting up internet cafes or arcade-like things.
McRee: In Asia, yes. We’re working on quite a few of those. There are some announcements around the corner. I had somebody tell me about something this morning. Brookhaven Experiment, a kind of zombie shooter game, they’ve kicked off a partnership with us for some cafes over in Asia. They’ll be showing off a large number of them.
GamesBeat: It seems like a good way to help it take off, to get more people into it.
McRee: Yeah, to gain awareness. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and now that we have it in the hands of consumers, a lot of them are showing it to other people. They become the evangelists for us, raising awareness. We’re also in retail in quite a few places in the U.S., so people have the opportunity to try it for themselves.
GamesBeat: What’s the best argument you’ve heard somebody make to convince their spouse to let it in the living room?
McRee: Oh, gosh. [laughs]
GamesBeat: I’m going to face that myself pretty soon.
McRee: My girlfriend was very understanding. It’s my job, after all. You could say the same thing.
GamesBeat: At least it’s not a camera trained on you.
McRee: It’s cool, because once you put these up– right now, clearly, if you were using tripods in your house, maybe it doesn’t look great. But think of it like a satellite speaker. Mount it in the corner of the room and forget about it. Put it on a bookshelf. Tuck the Vive away. I have an older house where I have a cabinet that sits in the wall, so everything goes in the cabinet. Whenever I want to try it, I pull the laptop out, set it on the shelf, and the base stations are positioned up on little ball mounts.
GamesBeat: I need a little toy chest or something like that. See if that’ll work. I have a 12-year-old who invites friends over now to show it off. They love Tilt Brush.
McRee: Everyone loves Tilt Brush. It’s funny. Sometimes I get people in there and they say, “Oh, can I do more design-ey stuff?” It’s a constant battle. How detailed do we let the design tools get? Some other really cool ones are in development from other companies that allow you to things well beyond that, like CAD applications. Tilt Brush is cool because anyone can pick it up.
GamesBeat: Do you know how many apps are out now?
McRee: It’s a lot. It was 117 on launch day, in the morning. It got up to 136 by the afternoon. I believe we’re over 200 now. 204 exactly. Which is phenomenal for just a month.
GamesBeat: Do you have a sense of what’s particularly popular right now?
McRee: You can sort Steam by popularity. I’m constantly in there searching by reviews and ratings The one that’s gotten the most overwhelmingly positive feedback lately is Space Pirate Trainer. People love that.
GamesBeat: I tried that. I needed a little more space in my room for it.
McRee: That’s a good one if you have six or eight feet. A lot of stuff in The Lab — have you tried The Lab yet? Tons of things. The photogrammetry, a lot of people like that. People like the bow and arrow there. The cool thing about that is you can do it in any size space, because they have the feature where you can navigate with your thumb. People have been very positive about that.