Interview: JB McRee of HTC talks about Vive and the future of virtual reality

"It's going to change the way we digest information and interact with the world."

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, © Maurizio Pesce

We’re massive fans of virtual reality at Gadgette, as you might be able to tell from our Kickass Women of VR series. What could be cooler than strapping on a headset and suddenly being somewhere else entirely?

Of all the competing VR headsets in development at the moment, our favourite is HTC and Valve’s, the HTC Vive. So we met up with JB McRee, Senior Manager of Product Marketing at HTC, to talk about how development’s going, what the competition’s like, and what’s coming next.

Here’s how it went…

Hey JB. There’s loads of competition in VR at the moment – like Oculus, Playstation VR and of course HTC Vive. Do you think there’ll always be lots of big players, or do you think one or two will win out?

I definitely think it will dwindle down to some strong players. I mean currently, a lot of the people are backed, financially, heavily. You also have the support system of content partners. For us, for instance, it’s Valve [creators of massive videogames like Portal], which provides a lot of opportunities for Steam, so the developers are really excited about that opportunity. I think that gives us a really strong foot forward. I definitely think that, just like any technology, there will be clear leaders in the industry. And I think that will shake down in the next year or so.

HTC’s virtual reality offering is our favourite at the moment, but it doesn’t seem to have made waves outside tech media yet. Is that something you’re going to work on?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of funny, because when we first made the announcement, nobody expected it. Unlike with the phones…

I know! All of us at the launch were really surprised. How did you keep that under wraps?

That’s a very exciting thing for us to be able to do, unlike with phones. We always use the example of having so many more people involved with phones, whether it’s marketing agencies, or carriers, you’ve got marketing collateral moving everywhere, device images, things like that. You also have people hunting for it. Nobody knew what to hunt for with Vive. We love the fact that we were able to keep it quiet. We know that the media loved the fact that we were able to keep it quiet, it made it very exciting for them.

So as we move forward and we think about our plans for new announcements and new things we want to talk about, our goal is to try to make those as exciting as possible, and sometimes that means limiting the amount of things that we want or are willing to say now, just because we want to hold some of that stuff back. But we look forward to sharing more info, whether it’s content, design, pricing, all that stuff. We’re excited to talk about it, and when the time comes, we’ll make sure you know!

We heard rumours you leaked the HTC One M9 on purpose to distract people from Vive…

I don’t know about that. I had moved on from the phone business at that time. Honestly, if I had to comment, I’d say probably not. We try really hard to keep things under wraps. The partnership with Valve had them wanting to be very secretive, and we did too. I don’t think we necessarily needed help from anything else, and we really strive to hold back as much as possible. But just like any other phone launch, that stuff is usually out there in advance.

Isn’t it just! We never get surprises any more.

It makes it boring when you’re sitting in the crowd talking about something you’ve already talked about.

Indeed. So – the obvious question. How is Vive better than the competition?

I don’t personally like to use the term ‘better’. I think it’s important for the industry for everybody to be successful. It’s important for the industry as a whole that the first products coming to market deliver a very positive and premium VR experience, so it’s kind of a big weight on our shoulders, because we’re hoping to be one of the first ones on the market, ensuring that there’s a broader adoption.

I think what makes us different, our most unique and differentiating feature, is room-scale VR, being able to move around and explore the virtual world. You know the term ‘presence’? It’s that phenomenon of immersion. And things like room-scale are presence multipliers. It’s that feeling of naturally being able to do something that allows you to stop thinking about doing that action. Like, when you’re on a controller – it doesn’t matter how much of a gamer you are – when you pick up your controller you’re using some control to move forward, or left and right, and it kind of impacts your ability to get immersed in the experience. So for us, room-scale is a presence multiplier.

Also, having positionally tracked controllers that are designed specifically for VR interaction is a presence multiplier. Having handsets in the demo, or different items represented as different things – they have different responsibilities in different demos – it’s being able to naturally interact with objects in the virtual world, and having the virtual world react back. That’s a presence multiplier. For us, we feel like we WILL be the first and most unique end-to-end VR solution, because we have the tracking, we have the controllers, we have everything. We’re going to come to market with that first.

So you’re taking the Apple approach?

[Laughs]. I can’t comment on that. We’re taking the HTC Vive approach!

In terms of moving around rooms in VR, do you think the majority of consumers have that kind of space in their houses? That was the first thing I thought when I tried it. ‘It’s awesome, but I haven’t got this much room.’

No, they don’t. They don’t. And that’s something we’re definitely taking into consideration. One thing you can be rest assured on is that Vive itself – the hardware – can scale. Vive can be set up to work in any amount of space. It can be used as a seated experience, just like other systems. It can be used as a standing experience. You can also use room-scale in a space about the size of two yoga mats, and, as you know, it can expand out to a 15x15ft space. And at launch we’ll take into consideration static objects, so things that may exist in the room already that you don’t want to move.

Image: HTC via Facebook

What about animals and children? Playstation VR knows when your cat comes in, for instance.

Yeah, we’re thinking about really unique ways about how to approach that. We’ll potentially present the user with a series of options that allow them to understand when those things happen, because clearly you don’t want to be caught off guard, or an accident to happen. We’re definitely looking into that. But we’re really leaning on the developers to understand how they want their content to scale. The hope for them is that you have as good an experience as I do. And so content will scale differently for different people. Some content may scale better than other content, and we’re not the experts there, so we’re leaning on the developers for that.

The most compelling experience is to have a large space that is free of objects, that lets you move around, but…

…but London.

I get that a lot in New York as well!

And San Francisco! If you can just fix the housing market you’ll sell loads more.

In contrast to who Oculus and Playstation are focusing on, who’s Vive’s customer?

We kind of have an idea about who the initial market is going to be, and maybe who we want to focus on, but we’re not quite ready to talk about who those people are. I think those things can change over very short periods of time, and we’re still figuring out what that looks like. It’s obvious that in the beginning a lot of the content is going to be focused towards gamers, for a multitude of reasons. It requires a big PC, a powerful PC.

It’s not going to run on my £300 laptop.

[laughs] No. It’s less of a barrier of entry for some people, but it’s likely that people who have large powerful PCs with good graphics cards are gamers, right? And people willing to invest that kind of money. You also have early adopters and enthusaists; folks who maybe just like to have the coolest, latest new gadgets, who may be willing to put up that extra money.

It’s also important to know that the people who understand how to architect these really compelling visual and virtual experiences are currently in gaming. That’s where the expertise lies. They want to create the content they enjoy creating, and the people who likely will be buying a lot of the systems in the beginning want to see that type of content. So it’s only natural that that will be the first type of content that we’ll see, but it’ll quickly flow over into other areas.

As those solutions for architecting and that framework starts to be built, it’ll start to be adopted by other folks. And there’s no doubt – as you can imagine – that with room-scale there’s interest everywhere. Everyone wants to learn to do it. It’s a unique challenge for people. Creating for VR is one thing, but then also creating for room-scale is creating on a whole other level… like, I’m a ninja if I can do this!

Do you get developers coming to you specifically because of room-scale?

We do, yeah. We opened up the developer sign-up for dev kits with Valve, and we got an insane amount of people that wanted them. So we’re working through that list – we’ve actually stopped the sign-up now. We’re working through that list with Valve, consistently sending out more and more units as we have them available. And we’re kind of looking at that list to figure out who is most capable of creating compelling content, and trying to support them.

For some people that may mean just giving them a dev kit, for some it might mean providing additional support. Our goal is to try and give the developers the tools they need to create their vision. We’re definitely not the experts. A lot of people ask ‘Well, what do you want to be created?’ and ‘What is that really cool thing?’ And we don’t know. We’re not the experts. We’re really just giving the developers the tools they need to be successful and not trying to be too restrictive.

So you’ve had too many people. Developing for VR is a very specific skillset, and one that’s come about very quickly – how easy is it to find people that can already do it to a commercial level?

It’s definitely not difficult. There’s no doubt that demand is extremely high. There’s a lot of really talented people out there who want to create for it. I think a lot of people may think that they can’t, and not really know that they can. But once they get it in their hands they’re like “Oh, I can actually do this!” and so again, we’re just trying to provide them the support they need.

There’s no doubt that there’s tonnes of people that want to do it, they just need time, and some people need financial backing, and all kinds of things. So, again, our goal is just to support them as best we can, and hopefully give as many dev kits out as we can. I think giving the dev kits out for free is a huge hit, I know people are really excited about that.

How do you know if people are asking for a dev kit just to play with it? Is there any obligation to produce something if you get one?

There is, yeah. We have a production team that works with everyone. Valve, and us included, they’re eyes-on and hands-on with every single person with a dev kit all the time. They provide content to us so that we can look at it, review it, help make sure they’re on track, and if they need more support. I don’t know if the word ‘hand-holding’ is right, but we’re really trying our best to provide a good support system.

How do you feel about the budget headsets that are coming out, like Google Cardboard? Is that bringing more people to VR, or is it giving people a negative first experience?

I think that every headset is unique in its own way, and I think the idea of having something that’s very accessible like Cardboard – very inexpensive – is a very cool thing. It means anyone has an opportunity to get a taste of what VR looks like. Every one of those I consider a gateway to something even more awesome and even more exciting.

Image via Flickr © Maurizio Pesce

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important for the industry for everyone to be successful. It’s important that people have the opportunity to check things out that they might not have been able to check out previously, or they may not have access to things like Vive, because of the limitations; it’s difficult to scale and do demos everywhere. And so I think that stuff, in the beginning, is great. I’m really excited about it. And I think each one is compelling in its own way, a combination of price and accessibility and the ability to provide an immersive experience. And as you know, as you progress forward and have a more powerful system and a higher fidelity headset, you’re going to get a better experience.

What do you think we’ll be using VR for in a decade?

Oh man, I think everything. Honestly. It’s going to change the way we digest information and interact with the world. I’m definitely really excited about the education aspect. Thinking about growing up, for me, it was in that time when we were transitioning from taking handwriting classes to keyboarding classes, and what tools we use to learn.

Currently I know that kids have iPads and things like that in classes, so to think about the opportunity 3-5 years down the road, when kids will be using virtual reality headsets to see a computer generated simulation – and although 360 video isn’t necessarily VR per se, being able to kind of relive experiences, thinking about some important moment in history and being able to see that again and learn about it by actually being in that situation – I think that’s a really powerful tool. So I think I’m most excited to see where that goes. And know that HTC will be a part of that, and try and help that grow. I think it’s going to rewire the way people learn, and give them the opportunity to digest more information than we’ve ever had the opportunity to.

There are some morality issues around VR – lots of people get up in arms about being able to create a replica of a real person and be able to kill them, torture them and so on in virtual reality. Is that something content creators are going to have to think about?

Absolutely, I think it is. And it’s funny, because I’ve thought about several aspects of it. Yesterday someone mentioned GTA and the sort of things you do in there.

From a distance, from a gaming perspective, you don’t really think about that being very visceral. And then being in VR it almost takes it to a level where it’s like, ‘if I did that, should I be in trouble for that?’ Just thinking about making that kind of an action becomes very sketchy. So yeah, I think as time progresses we’ll start to think about what that looks like.

Clearly there’s not really a framework about how to rate content and things like that, and what types of accessibilities certain people have, and what type of things people want to create. And there’s no doubt that there’s going to be people who want to see everything, for different reasons. So it’s going to be difficult to kind of see how that progresses, and what our stance is. But we as a company definitely pride ourselves on being much more positive, and customer driven.

I definitely don’t think we’d openly support that type of stuff if it were created, but it’s kind of like the Wild Wild West, where anybody can do anything. Even when Vive goes on sale it’s just going to be “Oh, I can go buy one and I can do whatever I want with it”, so it’s going to be hard to set limitations or rules for that sort of stuff. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Maybe there needs to be a different rating system for VR games that’s separate to normal videogames?

There’s so many aspects to what the VR experience is like. When you think about things like presence, and immersion, how does that play into it? Like, ‘Ooh, yeah, it was really scary. It’s an 8 on a scary level.’ But then on a presence level, it’s not really that immersive. You know it’s not real. This other one can be a 5 on a scary level, but you feel like you’re there! So how do those compare? What does the combination of those two things come out to? It’s going to be interesting to see how that’s created. I don’t think that stuff really exists right now, but it’s going to have to come fast.

Yeah, certainly for me the Vive demo felt very real. It was the saddest thing when I took the headset off and I was just in a room. It was like coming out of an amazing film at the cinema – “Oh, back to real life.”

Yeah, welcome back! [Laughs] Someone made the analogy of it being kind of dreamlike, in that you can have really good dreams, but once you wake up you can’t really go back. With Vive, it can be very dreamlike, but you can take it off, go grab lunch, and then come back to the exact same place.

Massive thanks to JB for taking the time to talk to us. We’re beyond excited about the HTC Vive – we’re expecting to see it launch next year, but we don’t have pricing and availability details just yet. You can sign up for updates at the HTC Vive site, and we’d recommend following them on Twitter to see where their demo unit is touring.

We’ll also be holding a Gadgette virtual reality event on the 2nd of December, so if you can make it to central London, you can try the dream world for yourself. Watch this space for more info.

Main Image via HTC Vive Facebook

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.