Valve and HTC's Vive stand at the precipice of VR's future, but they may have a long wait

HTC: Mainstream VR is 3-5 years off

The small piece of blue tape is almost lost in the pattern of the carpet in the darkened hotel room.

There is no furniture, no lights, just a bit of illumination coming from the adjacent, connected room.

I shift my weight from left to right foot and inch a bit closer to the blue tape.

"You don't have to be right on it."

The owner of the voice hands me a mask of sorts, a thick wedge of hard, curved plastic dotted with little sensors and lenses; a set of loose elastic bands dangles from the back.

"Put this on."

I slip the device onto my head and suddenly I'm in a perfectly white room, its unmarred floor marked off into perfect squares by barely visible lines. The lines mark off squares in every direction, disappearing into the distance. I notice small gray plus signs floating in the air around me. They seem to mark the corners of invisible squares.

Someone slips headphones over my ears and then a pair of plastic controllers, each shaped like an elongated ice cream cone, floats into view.

"Grab these."

I reach out, but I can't see my hands. I grasp the controllers and they float in front of me as I move them around.

"Now walk forward."

Vive wireless controllers

It looks like I can walk forever, but I know in two, three, four steps I'll walk mask-covered face-first into a wall.

I cautiously step. And step. And step.

Suddenly, blue lines illuminate a barrier in front of me. I reach out slowly and touch the real wall of the real hotel room I'm really standing in. I know it's there, I can feel it; I just can't see it.

Vive wireless controllers

I'm told to trust the blue lines, called the chaperone. They will make sure I don't break a nose or fatten a lip by walking into something solid while I play in something entirely virtual.

I find — as I explore the depths of an ocean, fail miserably at impressing a genocidal artificial intelligence, cook and paint pictures in the air — that I have about 15 feet in every direction to walk before I collide with reality.

Vive wireless controllers

Fifteen feet by 15 feet in which I can be anything, do anything, go anywhere. This is virtual reality inched that much closer to the holodeck — that countless imaginary tech dreamers envision when they think of the future of entertainment.

But that small patch of virtual space comes with a cost beyond the unannounced price of HTC's Vive virtual reality headset: The device, which can produce 1080p video at 90 frames per second, will tether its user to a computer.

It's the only way the headset can deliver that level of fidelity and response time, I'm told. And users will need to mount or place two small boxes to or near the ceiling in two corners of whatever room they'll be immersing in. Those boxes, nicknamed lighthouses, constantly measure the room, the player, the headset and controllers with invisible lasers to ensure precise controls and notify the player before they run into a wall, coffee table, child or dog.

The controllers, which up until this month also required wires, are now wire-free.

The Vive puts you into those worlds more deeply than anything I've experienced to date.

In my relatively short time with the technology, I got a feel for how reactive the tracking was. There seemed to be virtually no lag between my head movements or hand movements and my view and the movements of the floating controllers. Walking around inside the hotel room, head in the virtual clouds, was a different sort of experience then standing still to toy with the Oculus Rift or even playing Project Morpheus games on the PlayStation 4.

The closest I've seen to this tech is Microsoft's HoloLens, which also allows users to roam freely, but inside augmented, not virtual, worlds. And while Microsoft's system has no wires, it also doesn't create wholesale worlds for you to explore; it simply applies creations to your existing world.

The Vive puts you into those worlds more deeply than anything I've experienced to date. And that despite having to occasionally shift the cord dangling from the back of the headset away from my feet.

Those few steps you can take in each direction, steps that are tracked in the virtual world, add a surprising amount of depth to an already deeply immersive experience.

Room to move

Jeff Gattis, head of global marketing for HTC's connected products business, thinks that sense of space will not only outweigh the need for a tether and lighthouses, but also separate the Vive from the ever-growing crowd of competition.

"We think it's the best tracking system out there, and that combined with 90 frames per a second and all of the sensors we have that are interacting with those lasers, that's really what's enabling the precision tracking," said Gattis. "And I'm sure you walked away from there not feeling sick at all. There's very low latency. The performance of the unit is driven from those base stations.

"From a features standpoint, though, and what we think is our biggest differentiator from some of the other things that are out there, is that concept that we call room scale, which is simply the ability to walk around the environment. I think when you add this additional dimension of being able to walk around the environment and explore, I think it adds an element of presence that makes it feel so much more real. Even if you're not moving around, just knowing that you can, it really takes you out of the real world and into this virtual space."

While 15 feet by 15 feet isn't a lot of room to play with (and yes, you can have less space — all the way down to sitting in front of your desk — and it will still work) as a game designer, Gattis believes that developers will find ways to turn that patch of presence into something that could feel much larger in a game.

But could this patch of space be enough to allow ardent virtual reality users to forgo the use of a real-world treadmill, or other such gadget, and still capture the feel of moving around, I asked.


"I don't think we know exactly yet what gameplay, what kind of gameplay is going to be in our VR environment," Gattis said. "That's one of the great unknowns."

"The part of taking advantage of the space, I think there is a lot of different ways, creative ways, that developers could come up with to address that. It could be essentially when you take a few steps, you walk into a portal and go to an entirely new place. Obviously with there being a 15-by-15 space, you're not going to be able to walk two miles, unless you do have a treadmill or the like.

"I think there are different things that can be done through software and design to allow an experience to span a planet or some large terrain and still stay within your small confines, but those are the big things that far smarter people than me are going to go off and try to figure out."

Gattis added that he's already seen some interesting approaches to expanding the feel of that space, but said details on some of those software solutions are for a later discussion.

"As we get closer to October, when we we're planning to unveil a lot more information about our consumer [name], consumer controls and pricing, the specs, and the content lineup," he said, "we'll be in a much better position to give you more direction around that."

Hands on, body in

Even the experience of selecting which demos you want to check out in Vive is different from the other virtual reality systems I've tried.

Standing in that white room — a room that looks like it might suddenly sprout endless racks of weapons à la The Matrix — a selection of stands topped with images suddenly appears in a circle around me, like paintings in an art gallery. To select one, I have to walk over to it, really walk over to it, and hold the trigger on one of my controllers..

But before I do, the person walking me through the experience gets me to blow up some balloons. The controller in my left hand has a smooth circular pad on its top. When I touch it, a balloon starts to inflate out of the virtual controller floating in front of me. By rotating my thumb around the pad, I can change the colors of that balloon. When I let go, it ties itself and floats away. I give one a bop as it floats off my controller, and it makes a satisfying thump noise.

After spending a few seconds floating balloons away from me in the room, I walk over to the right side of the room and select the card.

Suddenly I'm deep underwater, standing on the bow of a sunken ship. The bow, I'm told, represents the limits of the physical space in which I can walk.

This first experience is unsettling, not because I have some aversion to being deep under the water with fish and one mammoth whale, but because over the bow of the ship is a sudden, deep drop — and because I still worry I'm going to smack into a wall.

But all of that leaves my mind as I watch a whale float by me, its massive eye staring straight into mine. I reach out to touch it and, for the first and only time in my demo, I smack the wall with the controller.

I laugh nervously, but then say, almost accidentally, "Wow."

Next, I try a cooking demo.

I'm in a cartoonish kitchen; a big board shows me what I'm supposed to be adding to a large pot that rests atop a kitchen stove. I reach out and grab mushrooms, eggs, other ingredients and toss them into the pot. At one point, I turn and open a nearby fridge to grab extra ingredients.

The experience, taking place inside a crowded kitchen, never gets me to move my feet. But the controls are perfectly responsive and despite the look of the game, I still feel like I'm in it.

After making the stew, I pour it into a bowl and the demo ends.

The next demo drops me into a darkened room, an art studio in low lighting. I use the controllers to paint things in midair. The lines I draw remain stuck in space, allowing me to walk around them and draw in 3D. It's an unusual sort of paint program that I can see leading to a lot of complex and amazingly new sorts of art.

I wrap up the demo by creating a simple 3D box floating in space. Even 12 lines result in something amazing, worthy of walking around and examining from all angles.

The last demo takes place inside the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. The demo opens with me inside a lab with a very familiar Portal aesthetic. A friendly AI voice tells me I am there to be trained as a robot repair technician. The controllers are to be my tools, I'm told.

One wall of the square room is loaded up with all sorts of science-y gadgets and gizmos; another wall features massive drawers. And I can't help but notice what look like surgical theater lights in the ceiling alongside a pair of robot arms.

The voice sends me to the drawers and gives me deliberately confusing directions until I somehow manage to come upon a tiny civilization inside one, ultimately leading to its death.

Next, another wall opens up and a robot limps its way into the room. The arms descend from the ceiling and unscrew something from the top of the unfortunate robot's head. Then it pulls the head apart and the voice gives me absurdly complex instructions to fix it.

I'm able to tinker with the different pieces of the bot's brains, walking around it to see what makes it tick and scream, before my time runs out and I'm pronounced a failure.

Another wall opens up and down floats the ever-present gaze of GLaDOS. She is, of course, not surprised at my failings, but also not really willing to overlook them.

As she talks, the room is first nearly completely dismantled under me and then quickly reassembled, forcing me to move around a bit so I don't fall to my death.

Once rebuilt, a wall of the now-empty room slides away to reveal a hallway of sorts and a button a few steps away. As I walk toward it, a companion cube drops from the ceiling and then is almost immediately crushed by a wall-sized, piston-driven piece of metal. The crusher moves one section closer and crushes the floor, and then another and crushes down just as the demo ends.

It was definitely a Valve demo, but it also felt a lot like something that could become a fully realized game.

A cell phone maker and a Portal creator

It's not surprising that the most interesting experience I saw during my time with Vive came from Valve. They are, after all, a partner in the creation of this particular piece of virtual reality technology.

How a company known traditionally for creating phones partnered with a company known traditionally for making games to make a piece of innovative gaming hardware is interesting.

It started with HTC's decision to diversify its brand.

"The overall goal for us is to level up the HTC brand, so we're not moving away from smartphones but we are trying to move into some new categories," Gattis said. "So when you think of HTC in, say, a year from now, you're not thinking, 'HTC is a smartphone company.' You're thinking, 'HTC is a great consumer tech company that makes VR, they make great smartphones, they make wearables.' It's really part of our diversification strategy."

With that underway, about a year ago HTC saw an opportunity to take its first big step away from phones and into something completely different — specifically, into virtual reality.

"We saw opportunity beyond the smartphone to really leverage what we do well at HTC: which we believe to be great design capability, industrial design capability, customer experience, manufacturing capability and global distribution," Gattis said. "How do we apply these things into exciting areas outside of the smartphone? We looked at a lot of things. We looked at gaming, into media and entertainment. We looked at various wearables, but always with a lens of, we don't want to go into a category just because we can. We want to go into categories where we can bring something unique to the table."

About that time HTC CEO Cher Wang had a chance to go visit Valve's offices, which are about five minutes from HTC's.

Portal 2

"It was a casual chat to see how things were going, say hello, et cetera, and she got a chance to see this demo," he said. "It was really an aha moment, where she said this is the coolest thing ever, can we work with you on this."

Valve happened to be looking for a manufacturing partner at the time. While they had done some work with Oculus Rift, Valve was really still just confined to the software side of things, Gattis said.

"It was really that quick," he said. "This was about a year ago — last July time frame. And the decision was more or less made on the spot: Why not do this together?"

Both companies saw the partnership as the perfect fit: Valve creates great software and has a massive, impassioned community; HTC has great design, manufacturing and distribution capabilities.

So they decided to partner up to bring the Vive to market.

"Three or four months from then, we had our first iteration of the working development unit and then that ramped up to the point where we made our announcement at Mobile World Congress and GDC this past March," he said.

The end result is a system designed in partnership between HTC and Valve, powered by Valve software and manufactured and distributed by HTC.

Currently the plan is to release a consumer version of the Vive by the end of the year.

"I don't know if we're necessarily going to hit retail for holiday, but we're still very committed to that," he said.

What that means is that the first retail Vives will be sold through and

Gattis added that they've been having a lot of meetings with "excited" retailers ranging from big-box stores all the way down to niche retailers like GameStop.

"Everybody is excited about this: They see the potential for the market, the potential to sell the things around it," he said. "They see it as a great traffic driver to their stores.

"Retail will absolutely be a part of our strategy, but that would be closer to a first-quarter [2016] strategy."

Valve directly backing a virtual reality headset can't help but lead to some big questions, all of them centered around which games will be coming to the Vive — and if any of those titles will be exclusive to the VR headset.

"Our hope is to have some Valve stuff for the Vive," Gattis said. "Nothing has been committed to in terms of the product lineup yet.

"The games will be distributed from the Steam VR store, that is the storefront by which people will get the initial content."

That said, the Vive will run on an open platform, which means other storefronts could pop up over time.

Is this VR's time?

It seems like it's just a matter of time before virtual reality becomes mainstream and people are doing things they only read about or saw in science fiction books, movies and television shows.

The big question is how much time.

I asked Gattis how long he thinks it will be before VR goes mainstream.

"I think it takes time," he said. "In my experience, being around this for awhile now, I think the one thing we know regardless of the project, brand-new novel innovations take a while to adopt. It's just a matter of how quickly you can go from early adopter to early majority to mass market. We all want to get to mass, but there's a path you go through to get there.

"I do think these early years, I think it's going to be about innovators, and people like me who go out and buy gadgets because we like to try them or are willing to put up with some things to just have the experience. Those same people right now are buying 4K TVs. There's not a lot of content there yet, but they see the promise of it."

So VR's first audience will likely be early adopters and gamers. Specifically, the Vive's first audience will be gamers and Valve enthusiasts, Gattis believes.

"I do believe that the three- to five-year time frame is when you're going to see prices come down and more and more entrants in the market, both from hardware and content point of view," he said. "The technology will start to branch out beyond gaming into entertainment, into some of these other vertical markets.


"Think about watching a sporting event where you're sitting on the field, or concert where you're on stage and can switch between that or being above stage and it's a fully immersive experience. I think that's where it starts to become a mainstream thing, where everyone has VR in some flavor."

Knowing that VR might take a bit to fully hit, Gattis said HTC is fully vested in the technology.

"We're in this category," he said. "We're very bullish on VR as a category.

"To be honest, we think what we are working on now with Valve is going to be the optimum VR experience. But we also know there will be other types of experiences."

And they're looking into those too.

"Look at things like mobile phone-powered solutions, even all the way down to Google Cardboard: Those are all things we are exploring as well. We see a series of products from HTC in this category."

Eventually, one of those form factors, or perhaps a future, smaller, less expensive version, will finally take hold, and HTC wants to be there when it does.

"For us it's let's show people what we think the best VR experience is with Vive," Gattis said, "but then continue to iterate on it from there.

"Count on the fact that we're in this for the long haul."Babykayak