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HTC’s Vive Cosmos virtual reality system features a variety of headset and faceplate options. (HTC Photo)

While the long road to mass consumer adoption of virtual reality technology is still being built, HTC remains hard at work on the vehicles that will take users on the journey. And based on his repeated use of car-related metaphors, CEO Yves Maître is excited to be driving.

Six months into his new role as the head of the Taiwan-based consumer electronics company, Maître visited HTC’s North American headquarters in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood last month to talk about what’s ahead for a key competitor in the VR space and discuss the company’s latest iteration of its Vive Cosmos line that debuted today. 

In another era, it’s a trip that would have been dominated by talk of smartphones and nearby partnerships, as HTC built the original hardware for Microsoft’s Windows Phones. In what Forbes labeled a “reshuffling of priorities” at the tech giant, today the talk is virtual and augmented reality, new headset hardware, 5G and more. HTC is hoping to rebound from a 2019 when revenue dropped 57 percent to $333 million.

“Four thousand people, you can drive,” Maître said, referencing the size of HTC and offering the first indication of the Frenchman’s love of automobiles. “When you are driving a big company like Microsoft, you don’t have the steering feeling. When you drive your bicycle, you have the steering feeling, but you don’t have the power. At HTC you’re kind of in between — it’s not Formula 1 or IndyCar — but it’s a lot of fun.”

Maître joined HTC this past September after a 14-year stint at telecommunications giant Orange. He took over for Cher Wang, who remains HTC’s chairwoman of the board. 

HTC CEO Yves Maître. (HTC Photo)

With HTC competing against Sony’s PlayStation and Facebook’s Oculus Rift for what’s forecast to be an $18.8 billion VR/AR market in 2020, the drive right now is toward innovation in what HTC regards as the three pillars of that business: create, play and distribute.

“At HTC, we don’t want to be No. 1 in create,” Maître said. “Our friends at Valve are doing much better than us, that’s why we’re partnering with them,” he added in reference to the Bellevue, Wash.-based game developer.

HTC also has no desire to compete with the wireless carriers to be No. 1 in distribution — although Maître said the arrival of 5G will change the category dramatically. HTC is building its own “5G Hub” for the home and office environments.

So that leaves play, where HTC’s goal is to be best in class.

After having its plans for a splashy showing at the now-canceled Mobile World Congress dashed by fears around the deadly coronavirus outbreak, HTC announced on Thursday several new elements across its Vive Cosmos line.

Three years after entering the market with the Vive headset, HTC unveiled its latest PC-based VR system last fall for $699, with such features as interchangeable faceplates, a flip-up design to switch between virtual and real worlds, and improved visuals.

The new Cosmos products are intended to improve further upon that release and they include:

HTC Vive Cosmos Play. (HTC Photo)
  • Vive Cosmos Play: Aimed at new-to-VR users, the 4-camera inside-out tracking device has the ability to grow over time to meet expanding needs through the addition of a full range of faceplates. The company calls Play ideal for entry-level VR adventures and applications such as “Viveport Video,” “Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs,” “The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets,” and “A Fisherman’s Tale.” It offers a more affordable and simple-to-use VR option for public experiences in business or museum environments. HTC said the price point for Play is still being considered.
HTC Vice Cosmos XR. (HTC Photo)
  • Vive Cosmos XR: A stand-alone edition and faceplate for Vive Cosmos that incorporates high-quality XR passthrough cameras. Debuting as a developer kit in Q2, Vive Cosmos XR allows a near-complete passthrough field of view that utilizes the majority of the VR display to integrate real-world and virtual content. Virtual objects can be brought into real-world environments and overlays of the real world are blended seamlessly into the virtual one.
HTC Vice Cosmos Elite. (HTC Photo)
  • Vive Cosmos Elite: Aimed at the most demanding VR entertainment enthusiasts, the Elite pairs the performance of external tracking alongside the flexibility of inside-out technology. By using Lighthouse base station technology, users will be able to experience the power and precision of SteamVR tracking. Elite also supports Vive’s ecosystem of peripherals including the Vive Tracker and the Wireless Adapter for an untethered VR experience. Vive Cosmos Elite includes a pre-installed External Tracking Faceplate, 2 SteamVR base stations, and two Vive controllers. The bundle will retail for $899 USD and be available later in Q1. The External Tracking Faceplate will also launch globally as a stand-alone accessory in Q2 for $199 as an upgrade for either Vive Cosmos or Vive Cosmos Play.

Dan O’Brien, HTC’s North American president and global head of enterprise, said that the new products fit squarely into how HTC wants to perform in the “play” category mentioned previously.

“We’re giving our customers flexibility on cost and experience, bringing them all the way up to the best performance they can possibly have,” O’Brien said, referencing the ability to add new plates to the introductory level Cosmos Play. “Your system starts to grow with you over time and you’re buying into a chassis system.”

HTC North American President Dan O’Brien. (HTC Photo)

O’Brien also said that HTC has been improving the tracking for the last four months on the Cosmos — after it was criticized out of the gate — and that it is now as good as anything on the market that is inside-out tracked.

He said the ramp up to greater consumer adoption of VR technology is similar to what HTC experienced with smartphones.

“We were making smartphones before they were called smartphones. We’ve seen this adoption cycle and curve many times,” O’Brien said. It takes time to put together development engines and development tools and to educate the application developer base and get them a store and an economy where they can monetize their work.

HTC is also targeting the enterprise market, which so far has produced more tangible use cases for virtual and augmented reality.

As a global company of 4,000, HTC leans heavily on more than 150 employees in the Seattle region to manage its product, sales, marketing and operations. There are also creative labs which handle a lot of the far-reaching innovation by prototyping and proving out the future of software and hardware experiences.

Describing one of those innovative possibilities, O’Brien described something called “Project Proton” — much lighter glasses that sit on your face that will offer a 5G viewing experience and combine the worlds of create, play and distribute. The “future of HTC” is supposedly similar to what Panasonic unveiled at CES in Las Vegas last month.

For his part, Maître likes to imagine glasses that turn dark and become VR and then lighten back to reality. What he sees in his own mind is also the trajectory of the company as a whole.

“We started with smartphones and one day I hope my successor will have these glasses,” Maître said, again repeating his wish for more players to flood the market in different ways. “Build the road … build the road.”

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