One of virtual reality's greatest challenges is the upfront investment: too often, users can't justify the hundreds or thousand dollar-plus upfront cost, given the lack of content and the technology's lack of permanence. Evolutions like the all-in-one Oculus Quest have changed the equation somewhat, and PlayStation VR has happily rolled on to sell millions of units worldwide.
So how does HTC, makers of the Vive and the recently-released Cosmos, stay relevant? In an embargoed briefing with Kotaku Australia, the company showcased their upcoming HTC Vive Cosmos Series and a future roadmap where users can buy products offering a gamut of AR and VR experiences.
The most tangible news for regular consumers today, at least, is the new headsets. HTC already released the HTC Cosmos last year, and you can still buy that today through HTC direct or certain stores from $1149. That's the middle headset in the "Cosmos Series", with the higher-end Cosmos Elite and a newer, more affordable Cosmos Play headset.
What's neat is that each headset has an interchangeable faceplate, so users can buy into the cheaper Comsos Play and change out the faceplate if they want to upgrade to one of the higher end headsets. Australian pricing for the Cosmos Play wasn't available at the time of writing, but the Cosmos will still retail for around $1299 in Australia, and its six-camera faceplate - which tracks height better than the baseline Cosmos Play - will sell separately for $349 from Q2 this year.
The Cosmos Elite is basically HTC's premium gaming VR package, with the Vive Pro targeted at commercial or business-grade applications. It ships with an "External Tracking Faceplate" as standard, two Vive controllers and two SteamVR base stations for $1699, and it'll be available sometime in March. But if you're upgrading to the Cosmos Elite separately, the External Tracking Faceplate will sell for $349 separately, and it works with the original Vive or Vive Pro controllers, and the original basestations as well.
The original Cosmos is getting an upgrade as well. It's called Cosmos XR, and it's a nod to where HTC thinks their future lies. Available as another standalone faceplate as part of a developer kit from Q2 this year, Cosmos XR adds 3D passthrough cameras to the existing Cosmos. In practice, that means developers will be able to incorporate objects from a user's real-world environment into gameplay. There's more detail to come about this at next month's Game Developers Conference, where HTC will talk more about how the Cosmos XR works.
It's an interesting view into HTC's thinking, though. The idea is a little akin to the interchangable mirrorless and DSLR camera market, where users buy into an ecosystem with a camera body and lenses that can be used on past, present and future cameras with the same mount. The base specs of all Cosmos Series headsets share the same resolution, same LCD panels, same lightweight chassis, PSVR-like headstrap and flip-up capability. Where HTC is headed is to offer alternative plates that allow users to choose the VR/AR experience they want to have, whether that's a headset that exists in a fully virtual world, one that's exclusively designed for AR, or something that incorporates elements of both.
So for Australians looking to get into VR before Half-Life: Alyx drops, the Cosmos Play will be HTC's most affordable alternative. HTC's Australian country manager, Thomas Dexmier, argued that the Cosmos Elite was ideal for games like Superhot and other shooters (Alyx wasn't expressly mentioned, but it's a given considering the reloading mechanics in the trailer) thanks to the extra cameras and base stations. The more affordable headsets only have in-out tracking cameras mounted on the face of the headset, and while that's fine for some games, the tracking loses accuracy when you swing your arms behind your head or back (as often happens during twitch shooters or games with boxing-style movements).
It's a great time to launch a new headset, too, given Half-Life: Alyx launches on March 23. HTC's Dexmier said more PC gamers hadn't given VR a go yet because of disappointments with the first generation of consumer headsets, or a lack of interesting content, and Alyx might convince some users to pull the trigger on VR.
"We think [Alyx] is going to drive a bit of a shift from traditional hardcore PC gamers to VR. They haven't jumped to VR yet because of a lack of relevant content for them, or something that would be exciting enough to say, 'I'm going to give this VR thing a go.' So the timing works for us," he said.
I asked whether HTC would provide a special bundle around Alyx, but Dexmier wasn't sure whether HTC would have an Alyx package in place by March 23. "It's not clear to me as to whether or not we'll have the ability to do some cross promotional activities ... if we can't do proper Half-Life call outs in our marketing activities, we'll find creative ways to produce content," Dexmier said.
Either way, HTC in Australia has a natural advantage: they'll have a new headset, and Valve won't. HTC still has to compete against the vastly more affordable Oculus Rift S, which sells for $649 locally, which is almost as what HTC are charging for the Vive Wireless adapter at $479.
Now you don't get a new Half-Life every year. But does a new Half-Life in 2020 count as a killer app these days?
HTC certainly hopes so.