Tomorrow will see the release of The HTC Vive, which looks set to revolutionise the VR marketplace. But in reality this is the culmination of a long journey – one which both HTC and its partner Valve have been travelling for quite some time.
Long before Vive both HTC and Valve were looking at VR technology. By 2012 VR technology was already beginning to creep back into people’s thinking. The launch of the Oculus Kickstarter campaign by Palmer Luckey in August that year was a game changer. Almost overnight the Oculus Rift transformed from an interesting prototype to a major breakthrough.
But while attention was focused on the Rift, Valve was already getting to work. In 2012 it created a system with a simple head-mounted display, a camera and some April Tags to facilitate tracking. These are similar to QR codes and are used for augmented reality tracking. Early prototypes were promising, but were big and ugly and had some quality issues. The freedom of movement excited the developers but they were uncertain how they could get it to market.
At the same time, HTC was looking for ways to progress beyond being a simple smartphone company and felt that VR was a good vehicle to help them break out. It was an exciting new medium, it was growing fast and would be difficult to stop. It made sense for them to therefore be at the head of development.
Claude Zellweger, the designer best known for his work on the HTC One smartphones headed up an advanced concepts team to look into the idea. It was this which pioneered the periscope-like Re camera and the Re Grip wearable – both of which were bold little products, but gradually Re drifted away from the company’s overall marketing message. Peter Chou took over and renamed the department HTC Future Development Lab.
Now they began exploring various new technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) before eventually deciding to venture down the latter route. From the very beginning their approach was the same as they had previously taken with smartphones. Get in early and at the top end of the market. And just as this project was coming to fruition, Valve came into contact with HTC.
By this time (2013), Valve had made progress with real-time tracking in VR but it was still a long way from building its own headset. With the Oculus Rift Kickstarter programme already attracting huge amounts of public investment there was no need. Instead it decided to collaborate with Oculus and claimed to have no immediate plans to release its own VR hardware.
However, somewhere down the line the relationship soured. Nobody knows for sure what happened but pretty soon Valve was meeting with HTC to hammer out a deal. As soon as that happened they were intent on building a headset.
Since then it has progressed quickly. They have tinkered with the tracking technology and redesigned the exterior to look much sleeker and more attractive. The days of function over form are long gone and instead the two are working in harmony.
The result, as it now comes to the market, is something that many people are touting as a market defining piece of technology. Whether it will indeed fulfil this promising start remains to be seen. But for now it’s done much to take VR technology onto the next level.