Phil Chen: A state of the VR nation with the HTC Vive founder

360 degree video and Cardboard are bad for business according to the VR VC
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Google Phil Chen and you'll see a common description for him: 'founder of the HTC Vive'. However, it's a tag that Chen himself admits he stumbled upon, rather than sought out.

"Founder of the HTC Vive isn't that accurate," he explained to Wareable. "Founder of VR at HTC in the device that became the Vive is more accurate. It was a skunkworks mission."

The story begins in 2014, just 12 months or so before the then HTC CEO Peter Chou surprised the tech press by announcing the Valve-powered headset at MWC 2015. Leading up to the reveal HTC's handsets, in particular the popular ONE range, were the subject of critical acclaim but mediocre sales meant that the Taiwanese company's share price was in turmoil.

"HTC had always been a mobile-only company," said Chen. "When I started the company was worth maybe $2 billion, and went up as high as $35 billion, but it then went freefall down – in 2012, 2013. So, in 2014 I started looking outside of mobile."

Along with a select few other HTC executives, Chen – who at the time was HTC's chief content officer – was tasked with looking beyond smartphones for a saviour. A non-mobile white knight to breathe new life into the struggling company.

When I first saw the Oculus I thought it was the silliest thing

"We went on a technology pilgrimage and, long story short, we came up with a list with 10 pieces… from wearables, to IoT, to robotics," Chen told us. "Virtual reality was at the bottom of the list."

That position wasn't helped after Chen tried the Oculus Rift developer kit for the first time. "To be honest, when I first saw the Oculus I thought it was the silliest thing, especially being a mobile veteran," he explained. "What I saw was basically two phones up front… just the silliest thing ever.

VR versus: Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive

"But, in our pilgrimage, I stopped by MIT and an alumni there, Alex Rigopulos, the guy who created Guitar Hero, was working on Rock Band VR and he was the first person to tell me to take VR seriously.

"He connected me to Palmer and the guys at Oculus but the Facebook thing was happening and we weren't able to explore anything. It was originally all about Oculus but it couldn't happen and eventually, I was led to Valve."

Phil Chen: A state of the VR nation with the HTC Vive founder

A happy accident then and Chen's founder label is definitely more apt.

Valve and HTC's headset, which went on sale in April this year, is widely regarded as the most complete VR experience – despite Oculus' head start. But, despite the success, Chen didn't hang around.

"On day one, along with as the PC Vive, I wanted to push mobile VR for HTC," he said. "HTC naturally being a mobile company – there was no reason not to go that route. But I couldn't get it going. I thought it was silly not to have a double-armoured strategy to start building our own platform.

"HTC is very much a hardware-first company and, although now it is developing its own Viveport and its own platform, to me it's a little too late.

"I'm obviously delighted in the way the product turned out in terms of development, but I wasn't as delighted in the direction that HTC wanted to take it. Hence, I left to start my own VR funding business."

Read this: The best HTC Vive games to look out for

Presence Capital was born in 2015 and describes itself as "an investment firm that believes virtual reality and augmented reality are technologies that are going to transform our world." It's made up of Chen along with partners Paul Bragiel (ex-Uber) and Amitt Mahajan (ex-Zynga).

"We started investing 18 months ago and we've now done 28, 29, maybe 30 deals," Chen said. "It's incredible. The amount of new ideas we come across is amazing. We are the most active VC in this space. And we're the small guys. The Davids amongst the Goliaths.

"We look at the whole hardware and software stack and things we think are missing from the stack – we invest in those spaces."

Pressed on a standout company from the list of startups Presence has invested in, Chen picks out BigScreen – a "Virtual Reality LAN party" where you share a virtual scene with other, real, people; with a version of your computer display floating in front of you. The idea is you can collaboratively work, play games or even watch movies with your pals, in the same 'place', without being confined by your physical location on earth.

"You can login and see your screen in London, I'll login in Hong Kong and we can work, or whatever, in a remote workspace," he explained. "It goes along with this new millennial working space. People want to be freelance, they don't want to be tied down – they want to work remotely. It's social VR in a very tangible way."

Showdown: The best VR headsets to buy right now

How does Chen see the near future of VR now that the industry is enjoying its most prolific period since the ill-fated experiments of the early 1990s?

"I compare VR to the console business, it's predominantly games based now," he told us. "For it to be truly mainstream it needs to hit the entertainment consumption space."

The problem is, according to Chen, that there's too much emphasis on an old capture methods within VR experiences at the moment.

"360 degree video is the wrong capture method for VR," he said. "Volumetric capture needs to work for creatives, movie directors, filmmakers and the like to create this new medium. I think it's a mistake that 360-degree video and VR are almost synonymous now.

"For a general sense of space, 360 is fine. But if you want to truly tell a story – to zoom in, zoom out, gauge reactions and create empathy and emotions – it's terrible for those things. The picture is not yet beautiful. It's not there. I don't think we're far off though… maybe a year."

With Chen somewhat responsible for arguably the best consumer VR experience available right now we thought it was only right to get his thoughts on HTC and Valve's rivals.

"PlayStation VR is great for the industry," he told us. It'll do five, maybe seven times what Vive and Rift will do – so it takes VR to the masses and that's a good thing. Google Cardboard, on the other hand, is not good for VR. Daydream is much higher-end but Cardboard isn't helpful."


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Paul Lamkin


Wareable Media Group co-CEO Paul launched Wareable with James Stables in 2014, after working for a variety of the UK's biggest and best consumer tech publications including Pocket-lint, Forbes, Electric Pig, Tech Digest, What Laptop, T3 and has been a judge for the TechRadar Awards. 

Prior to founding Wareable, and subsequently The Ambient, he was the senior editor of MSN Tech and has written for a range of publications.

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