According to some spurious rumours circulating before CES, HTC was going to take to the stage in Las Vegas and announce the Vive 2, a refreshed headset complete with wireless tracking, twin 4K displays and a faster refresh rate, just a year after the Vive was made available to the public. In reality, it announced it was getting into the accessories business.
While it may sound a lot less flashy, these peripherals have the potential to enhance the VR experience in some remarkable new ways while, importantly, not fragmenting a still-fledgling audience of users and developers. The TPCast wireless adapter, quietly launched in China last year, will soon be widely available, HTC also announced, meaning you no longer have to have a cable stalking you when you're wearing the headset. Meanwhile the new Vive Tracker will turn just about any object into a controller, opening up new ways to interact with VR and 'mixed reality'. Soon you'll be able to buy these trackers for yourself, while developers will make the software and accessories that bring them to life.
It's an ecosystem of many parts, but the modular approach allows HTC to keep users and developers together, rather than launching an updated system that would leave people behind.
"We're trying to build this foundation for an accessories ecosystem," J.B. McRee, HTC's senior manager of product marketing for VR, told Wareable.
The inference is that certain games will require specific attachments for the trackers, but McRee told us that one of the gun accessories being used in our demo will work with "almost every first-person shooter on Steam", suggesting a fair amount of flexibility. We'd already heard that Valve had opened up the gates for developers to make third-party controllers, and McRee said HTC and Valve have been joint-hosting classes where people can learn to build trackers of their own too. "Before too long you're going to start seeing accessories that have these implemented in them."
During our CES demo we got to try a pair of gloves that put our hands into virtual reality - each had a tracker on the back, but it probably won't be long before we see versions where the tracker is fully integrated. Still, the pre-built modules, manufactured by HTC, are a more flexible out-of-the box option that will let players simply strap on and plug in - assuming they have the right mounts.
As for the wireless TPCast accessory, HTC said it's not yet ready to be integrated into the headset. Plus, it costs $249, which would inevitably push up the cost of the Vive were it to come attached.
HTC also announced it was working with Intel on another wireless solution for the headset, which will similarly be an add-on. "TPCast... it's all in its infancy," said McRee. "We really want those things to be refined. If we implement that we're forcing people to buy a solution that may not be what they need.
"Right now you've got a cable going to a rather large battery pack. And so these are things that will all be refined, and once we get to the point where we feel like it's refined to our specification, that's when we'll [build it in]."
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When pressed on the possibility of a Vive 2 in the future, McRee wouldn't let anything slip, but suggested that it will probably be a while before HTC can realistically implement new features like wireless at an affordable and practical level.
"The hope is we get to the point where we can integrate some of these really cool new features and functionality," said McRee. "Higher resolution displays all that stuff, they're just not that accessible right now. It's not easy to go out and buy a mass quantity of these. Plus, the games are built to be played on the current headset. If you increase that you'll then be putting stress on developers who are trying to bring things to market."
"We're trying to make sure everything aligns both from a dev perspective and accessibility to the hardware itself. As well as being able to implement some of these unique features and functionality, and right now is not the right time."
As for those new Vive controllers that popped up at last year's Steam Dev Days, McRee says they're still in the pipeline: "It's definitely something we're looking into. That was kind of a preview for something that's coming."
The Steam Dev Days were a reminder of how involved Valve remains with the Vive. "We're still super tightly involved," McRee told us. "Almost every decision from design and hardware and software perspectives are done between both teams. We definitely anticipate it's going to be a long-lasting relationship."
HTC was busy at CES, also announcing that it's making a big push into VR arcades, with the launch of a Viveport arcade store - which of course also fits nicely with the launch of the Vive Tracker.
"They're blowing up everywhere, and right now the difficult challenge is, as an arcade owner, the only legitimate way to get software is to go to the developers," said McRee. "Through Viveport we are going to create an arcade program where we can give [arcade owners] access to a large library of applications and help facilitate that process.
"Our goal is to create this foundation for the ecosystem that will define VR for decades."