HTC has finally got its wearable tech act together. With its new Under Armour Band partnership, which stole the show at CES 2016, and the imminent arrival of its HTC Vive VR headset, it's set for a huge year.
We caught up with Claude Zellweger, VP of design at HTC, in Las Vegas to talk about some of the decisions over at HTC, and how the company views the maturing wearable market.
The first question was about its inaugural fitness tracker. Previously called the HTC Grip and announced at MWC 2015 in Barcelona, the device was missing in action for almost a year before it surfaced as the Under Armour Band. And while Zellweger was reluctant to talk about the problems with the original Grip, he told Wareable that HTC felt it had a much better chance of success by launching with Under Armour.
HTC partnered with Under Armour for its tracker, rather than go it alone
"One thing we've done is taken a look at the way we want to approach the market and we decided that our strongest bet was to go with a really strong partner," he said.
Right now tracking on the wrist isn't accurate enough, so we would be betraying the athletes if we were telling them it was
"The truth is with wearables, it's a new category for us, so we saw an opportunity that was much bigger to be able to pitch it on our own. We wanted it to come out of the gates with the marketing, product and story being super tight."
With the market so crowded now, especially for a version one product being launched into a field where Fitbit is on its 10th activity tracker, it's no wonder that HTC was wary of launching alone. And Zellweger was clear about why he felt Under Armour was the best possible partner.
"It's a bigger market now, so there's more opportunity. The mass market is phenomenal," he said. "Under Armour is the most aggressive sports company in terms of growth, and it has a bold vision for technology – it's not cautious about it."
Wrist-based optical HR is growing, but accuracy issues have prevailed
One of the fascinating aspects of the Under Armour Band launch was that it came as part of the Under Armour Health Box bundle – and despite having a built-in heart rate monitor, the band ships with an additional chest strap.
"We've done a lot of studies and we want to be authentic to our customers, especially with Under Armour on our side," Zellweger said.
"Right now [heart rate] tracking on the wrist isn't accurate enough, so we would be betraying the athletes if we were telling them it was."
"We're just being honest. This is great for all-day tracking and all the benefits that gives you. When you're running you need more accuracy. We're just being open about that."
It's a bold claim by HTC, and one that could open them up to criticism about the quality of their own tech. However, given that we've seen issues with accuracy across Fitbit and Garmin products, it's a savvy move that could curry favour with hardcore athletes.
When you're running you need more accuracy. It's just being open about that
We spoke to Zellweger the day Oculus Rift announced its $599 price tag, and while we couldn't get him to spill the beans on pricing, he was keen to point out that, in his opinion, the HTC Vive was a complete system.
"Nobody has a complete offering like we do. We have the whole package: the controllers, the room scale tracking. I think a lot of people will be all in with our package. We're going to announce the price soon," he said.
After trying all of the upcoming headsets, the HTC Vive is our current favourite here at Wareable. We asked Zellweger which aspect he was most pleased with, and the answer wasn't hard to predict:
"Our Lighthouse tracking technology," he said, without hesitation. "Integrating the sensors was a big challenge. We did hundreds of prototypes, and there was a lot of learning there. We had to make sure the design not only incorporates the technology, but also celebrates it."
The HTC Vive is the only headset for Steam's virtual reality service
But making the HTC Vive comfortable and usable for everyone was also a challenge:
"Figuring out all the adjust abilities for the headset, people have different shaped heads, male and female," Zellweger continued. "We're really proud to have found a solution that fits a lot of people really well. We worked a lot with ergonomics to make it as universal as possible. Having a good centre of gravity during VR is important."
If you combine really great narrative with a really great solution, you have something that is really seductive
One of the key questions for brands like HTC is what people will be playing or doing on their headsets once the magic of the launch dies off. Which games will endure and what will be the killer experience that makes others fork out hundreds of dollars?
"It's a matter of keeping people interested in the game," he said. "If you combine really great narrative with a really great solution, you have something that is really seductive."
But Zellweger reckons that VR will quickly expand beyond just games: "I can see a rapid expansion of non gaming items. I'm thinking about things that are very interactive. Once it becomes more purposeful where you can do things like architecture, I think you will see a lot more people getting interested."
Both the Under Armour Band and HTC Vive are nothing if not ambitious. But we'll have to wait a little while longer to see if HTC's two discerning partnerships will result in domination of fitness and VR, the two hottest areas of wearable tech in 2016.
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