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 had a chance to sit down 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, general manager of the Americas at HTC Vive, and Drew Bamford, 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.
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 pre-orders on the 12th, 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 in to 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 pre-order 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.