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HTC’s newest headsets signal end of Vive’s 5-year “VR for the home” mission

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Today’s VR-centric ViveCon 2021, presented by HTC’s Vive division of VR headsets, kicks off with two new headset models slated to launch this year.

That’s probably the headline HTC wants VR fans to focus on—hooray, new stuff to strap to faces—but a closer examination of both headsets (and feedback directly from HTC’s executive team) puts a damper on that, at least for any average consumer interested in buying either.

The Vive Focus 3, HTC’s newest “all-in-one” untethered VR headset, competes directly with the Oculus Quest 2, but it costs a whopping $1,000 more than the Facebook-branded option, at $1,299 MSRP. And the Vive Pro 2, a long-overdue spec bump to 2018’s Vive Pro, resembles the earlier model all too much while costing either $799 by itself or $1,399 for its “full kit.”

Those high prices aren’t accidents, as the HTC Vive department is full-speed ahead with a focus on business, enterprise, and public entertainment centers (aka “VR-cades”).

HTC doesn’t want to go downstream

When pressed, Vive General Manager Dan O’Brien confirmed that this month’s event has zero announcements in store for its Vive Cosmos line of headsets—which he also admitted is the company’s “consumer offering for PC-VR.” That’s not great news for VR fans outside the enterprise sphere. The Cosmos’ default inside-out tracking remains wonky, even after getting firmware updates, and its default controllers are an unfortunate mix of heavy and power-inefficient. Something like ViveCon would’ve been a great time to offer assurances for either current or future Cosmos customers. The silence there, as far as I’m concerned, speaks volumes.

When pressed about Oculus as VR’s top-selling consumer option, O’Brien was frank: HTC wants to make its VR money from upfront purchase revenue, not from “downstream” opportunities. He described at length the business model of “some brands” subsidizing expensive hardware at a lower MSRP “with the hope of monetizing downstream on shared services” and “maybe using data-mining tactics to understand user behavior and then run a program that also generates downstream income.” (It’s not hard to piece together who he may be talking about.)

O’Brien is instead bullish about targeting companies in the manufacturing and intensive training sectors who “can find the return-on-investment (ROI), their savings on efficiencies, and time to market, within six months of buying” Vive headsets.

But follow-up questions reveal that HTC isn’t necessarily interested in consumers who are willing to spend more for untethered Quest-like options. On paper, the untethered Vive Pro 3 sure seems like a sexy jump from Quest 2. The only spec they have in common is the Snapdragon XR2 as an SoC. Vive Focus 3 is otherwise an across-the-board jump: a 120-degree FOV (compared to Quest 2’s 92 degrees), a default refresh rate of 90 Hz (up from Quest 2’s 72 Hz default, which can scale up to 90 Hz and beyond), 8GB of RAM (up from Quest 2’s 6GB), and a “5K” display that offers a 170 percent jump in pixel resolution over Oculus’ latest model.

Plus, its granular interpupillary distance (IPD) slider will be great news for many head shapes and sizes that don’t conform to Quest 2’s backwards, cost-saving IPD slider. (That remains a sticking point for me, since every time I use Quest 2, its ill-fitting IPD leads me to headaches within 30 minutes of strapping in.)

Vive Pro 2: Resolution, and little else

I’m cautious to call Vive Focus 3 superior to Quest 2, since I’ve yet to test the headset, but I can already call out one major issue: HTC’s unwillingness to unlock its tethered, Android-powered software suite for consumer-facing software. O’Brien confirms that this decision has enterprise in mind, because HTC “doesn’t want to put any concern for our business customers… that their users would access consumer content.” Womp, womp.

With Quest 2’s rise in sales of both hardware and software, it’s no secret that VR apps are shifting away from dedicated PC-VR and toward Android-based ecosystems. Focus 3 will support both tethered PC-VR via a USB 3.0 cable and wireless PC-VR via the Wi-Fi 6 protocol, which is great news for consumers with libraries on PC storefronts. But its Android software restriction will make Focus 3 a tough sell as a future-proofed Quest rival. (That high cost includes a full HTC warranty, repair, and customer service package, to be fair.)

Meanwhile, Vive Pro 2 only improves upon the original HTC Vive Pro by boosting its frame rate and pixel count—and that’s good news for anybody who has stayed within the Vive ecosystem (complete with its tracking boxes and compatible accessories) and simply wants to jump to 120 Hz refresh and a 260 percent higher resolution than 2018’s Vive Pro. But that assumes you’re a fan of the Vive Pro’s design, weight, strap, FOV, and built-in speakers—and that you’re not interested in perks found in 2019’s eye-tracking Vive Pro Eye.

I’ve yet to test Vive Pro 2, but on paper, its resolution is arguably the only real selling point compared to the Valve Index headset, which retails for $499 by itself (and, in my humble opinion, surpasses the original Vive Pro’s elements in every way imaginable, especially FOV). When pressed on one of the Vive Pro’s worst aspects—its dated, heavy wand controllers—O’Brien basically tells consumers to buy Valve’s Index Controllers. I’m not kidding: “Customers have gravitated to the Knuckles, and we want to be supportive of that,” he says. (Sadly, this means anyone buying the $1,399 “full kit” is getting saddled with the old wands—and that means the kit in question is arguably targeted to non-gaming customers by default.)

There’s no place like home?

HTC could astound us all by announcing another Cosmos headset or update by year’s end—or maybe resurface its augmented reality-minded prototype, the Vive Proton, though O’Brien didn’t mention the latter in our call. Even if that were to happen, I was left with a clear indication that HTC is done with the consumer-facing sector. He had much longer answers to offer about business strategy and enterprise customers than he did about consumer-facing products and plans.

If you’ve been holding out for a great, forward-thinking home-VR option from the HTC Vive division, think of this year’s ViveCon as a very, very loud breakup letter. It’s over.

Listing image by HTC

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Bethesda VP offers apology for Starfield’s absence on PS5

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Bethesda Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Pete Hines talks to GameSpot about Starfield.

This week, Microsoft and Bethesda confirmed that Starfield will be coming exclusively to Xbox Series X/S and PC next year. And while that kind of exclusivity deal had been hinted at and heavily suspected by many since Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda’s parent company, the announcement still came as sad news for PlayStation 5 owners hoping to play the upcoming space epic.

Bethesda Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Pete Hines said he can certainly understand how PS5 owners must feel. In a video interview with GameSpot Wednesday, he offered his sympathy and an apology to PS5 owners upset about the move.

“I don’t know how to allay the concerns of consumer and PlayStation 5 fans other than to say I’m a PlayStation 5 player as well and I’ve played games on that console and there’s games I’m going to continue to play on it,” Hines said. “But if you want to play Starfield [it’s] Xbox and PC. Sorry. All I can say is I apologize because I’m certain that that’s frustrating to folks, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.”

Look on the bright side

At the same time, Hines seemed to suggest that Xbox Cloud Gaming could provide a way for players who don’t have an Xbox or a gaming PC to access Starfield through the “Xbox ecosystem.” Hines mentioned that Xbox chief Phil Spencer “has talked about how they’re looking to expand that and… looking to bring Xbox games to folks who don’t own a Series S or X or even a PC but want to play the games that we’re bringing to Game Pass.” That’s an apparent reference to Microsoft’s recently announced plans to expand Xbox Cloud Gaming to many Smart TVs and generic web browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Edge.

Hines also said Starfield‘s exclusivity could help its developers focus on the gameplay experience rather than compatibility with additional platforms. “I’m here to tell you, and any [developer] will tell you this, [when] you go to fewer platforms, your development gets more streamlined,” he said. “You’re not worrying about, ‘Well, how does it work on this box versus how does it work on that box…’ We’re not making it on that box, so it just needs to run as well as possible on this one [and] on a PC. A narrow focus always helps…”

That statement echoes comments Bethesda producer Todd Howard made to The Telegraph this week, when he said that “by focusing on those platforms [Xbox and PC], you really get to lean in a lot on making it the best it can be for those systems.”

In that interview, Howard also said he had “a little bit” of reservation about not having a PS5 version of Starfield. “You don’t ever want to leave people out, right?” But Howard also suggested that Xbox Cloud Gaming means “we see it actually opening up more and more and more so that people’s ability to play our games—via Game Pass and other things—their ability to play our games doesn’t go down. It goes up dramatically… I will just say I want everybody to have the ability to play it in some fashion.”

Back in October, Howard said it was “hard to imagine” a game like the upcoming Elder Scrolls VI being exclusive to Microsoft’s platforms. But that was before Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda was finalized in March, at a time when Howard admitted the two companies hadn’t fully discussed the details of any multiplatform publishing agreements. “We haven’t gone through all of that, to be honest,” he said at the time.

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Facebook begins tying social media use to ads served inside its VR ecosystem

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Everything we’ve feared about the Facebookening of Oculus and its virtual reality ecosystem is starting to come true.

A Wednesday blog post has confirmed that Oculus, the VR-specific arm of Facebook, is now displaying advertisements in select VR games and apps to their players. As Facebook has since emphasized in emails sent directly to the press, these ads will leverage “first-party info from Facebook to target these ads”—and FB has yet to announce any limitations for what Facebook account data may be leveraged. (Ars Technica was not briefed about this news ahead of the announcement, and we did not get the opportunity to request the comments that other members of the media received.)

FB’s additional clarifying statements about biometric and use data inside of VR are carefully worded to clarify that the company does examine specific use data as it sees fit, and for now, that data won’t apply to its new advertising platform. Facebook says it processes and keeps track of the following data, uploaded by users while connected to any Oculus services:

  • “Weight, height, or gender information that you choose to provide to Oculus Move [a pre-installed fitness suite]”
  • “Movement data” that Facebook uses to “keep you safe from bumping into real-world objects”—in other words, every single way your head and hands move around within VR and relative spatial data about the rooms you play VR within, which researchers have concluded can be used to create a recognizable biometric profile after only minutes of training
  • “The content of your conversations with people on apps like Messenger, Parties, and [Oculus] chats or your [Oculus] voice interactions”

For now, Facebook continues to tell users that “data that are processed on the device” are not uploaded to Facebook servers, which include “raw images” from Oculus headset sensors and “images of your hands” in its hand-tracking interface. Meanwhile, if you’d like to know how much of your use data inside of Facebook (and Instagram and other FB-connected services) might be leveraged by its combined advertising network, clear the rest of your day’s schedule and dive in.

Today’s announcement emphasizes that this advertising option is meant to generate “new ways for developers to generate revenue. The thing is, Facebook itself created a revenue blocker for VR game and app creators up until now, since its “app policies” agreement has always forbidden third-party advertising services inside of any products. Now that Facebook can operate the advertising platform and skim revenue off the top, things have changed.

How rapidly will the downstream soon run?

Facebook itself suggests that advertising is a key element in its VR business going forward: “This is a key part of ensuring we’re creating a self-sustaining platform that can support a variety of business models.” It also admits that product pricing can vary with advertising in the mix: “It helps us continue to make innovative AR [augmented reality]/VR hardware more accessible to more people.”

That news is unsurprising to anyone who follows Facebook’s quarterly financial results, which revolve largely around its targeted advertising platforms that deftly move from app to app and from service to service. Meanwhile, rival VR hardware manufacturers like HTC have loudly shot back at Facebook’s cheap-hardware sales approach.

Recently, HTC Vive general manager Dan O’Brien said the following to Ars Technica:

When pressed about Oculus as VR’s top-selling consumer option, O’Brien was frank: HTC wants to make its VR money from upfront purchase revenue, not from “downstream” opportunities. He described at length the business model of “some brands” subsidizing expensive hardware at a lower MSRP “with the hope of monetizing downstream on shared services” and “maybe using data-mining tactics to understand user behavior and then run a program that also generates downstream income.”

But also: notice the official mention of augmented reality in Facebook’s Wednesday pitch. The most recent Facebook Connect presentation revolved around Oculus research and hardware, included a wide-open pitch hosted by longtime Oculus lead Michael Abrash. He spoke of the company’s ambitions for Google Glass-like hardware that people may one day wear in public, full of real-time virtual images embedded in your nearby surroundings and high-level processing of all nearby audio and conversations. While we aren’t surprised that Facebook might want its eventual always-on-your-face device to tap into its advertising ecosystem, today’s announcement is a clear warning: if such a product should reach the market, it, like the $299 Oculus Quest 2, could very well be priced to move—but at a cost outside of shoppers’ dollars and cents.

As a reminder, all new Oculus-branded hardware going forward requires a Facebook account to work. Meanwhile, hardware sold before that rules change went into effect will require a ToS agreement beginning January 1, 2023. And the company’s combined ToS can penalize users for creating phantom or dummy Facebook accounts for the sole purpose of enabling connected Oculus VR features; by agreeing to that ToS, Facebook can void your account and its related purchases, should they be found in violation of its rules.

And as Facebook continues acquiring VR-focused video game developers, particularly the makers of megahit Beat Saber, those fully owned development houses could reasonably become prime targets for Facebook’s internal advertising tools. Big companies don’t acquire successful, smaller ones for charity, after all.

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New Picard S2 teaser taunts us with return of Q, time shenanigans

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Patrick Stewart returns as Jean-Luc Picard in the second season of Picard, coming to Paramount+ in 2022.

We aren’t getting a second season of Picard until next year due to the pandemic delaying production, but Paramount+ has been dribbling out images and short teasers in the meantime. The latest teaser gives us our first look at the return of fan-favorite Q (John de Lancie), an extradimensional being with power over time, space, the laws of physics, and reality itself.

(Spoilers for S1 below.)

As I wrote in my review last year, the series is set 20 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. The first season opened with Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) having retired to the family vineyard. His bucolic existence was interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) who pleaded for his help. Alas, Picard failed to save her. She was killed in front of him by Romulan assassins belonging to a radical sect known as the Zhat Vash, who is dedicated to eradicating all artificial life forms. Picard discovered that Dahj was actually a synthetic, technically Data’s “daughter,” and she had a twin sister, Soji, who was also in danger.

Resolved to save Soji, Picard asked Starfleet for a ship, but he had been gone a long time, and his entreaties were rebuffed. Never one to admit defeat, Picard amassed his own scrappy crew over the next few episodes for his unauthorized rescue mission. The crew included Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), a skilled thief and pilot of the ship La Sirena; Raffi (Michelle Hurd), a former Starfleet intelligence officer and recovering addict; Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill); and a Romulan refugee, Elnor (Evan Evagora). 

Soji was found working at a Romulan reclamation site within a decommissioned Borg cube. She had become romantically involved with a Romulan named Narek (Harry Treadaway) who was secretly a member of the Zhat Vash. His mission was to seduce Soji in an attempt to discover the location of her home planet, with the ultimate goal of destroying all the synthetics there.

Of course, Picard and his ragtag crew ultimately foiled that plan. And it was revealed over the course of the season that Picard was dying, although since the show had already been renewed for a second (and possibly third) season, we didn’t get an honorable final farewell for the character. Instead, Picard’s consciousness was preserved and transferred to a snazzy new synthetic body. The Federation lifted the ban on synths, and La Sirena and her crew headed off for new adventures.

Season 2 brings back the main cast, including Brent Spiner, although he will be playing Dr. Altan Inigo Soong instead of Data. Michael Chabon has departed as showrunner (he remains on the show as executive producer), replaced by Akiva Goldsman and Terry Matalas. Last year’s notable guests included Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis, reprising their roles as William Riker and Deanna Troi, so there were plenty of rumors about the possible return of other Star Trek: The Next Generation characters. Patrick Stewart personally invited Whoopi Goldberg to reprise her role as Guinan in S2 during an appearance on The View, and Paramount dropped an initial S2 teaser in April, on First Contact Day, that strongly hinted Q would return and the second season would play with time.

That teaser was just a tour through Picard’s empty home, set to Stewart’s voiceover ruminations. “The true final frontier is time,” Stewart/Picard reflected. “Time can turn even our most impulsive, our most ill-considered actions into history. What we do in a crisis often weighs upon us less heavily than what we wish we had done. What could have been. Time offers so many opportunities—but never second chances.”

The true final frontier is time. This short teaser dropped on First Contact Day in April.

The teaser ended with a Queen of Hearts playing card evaporating into dust, leaving just the “Q,” followed by de Lancie’s unmistakable voice chuckling and saying, “The trial never ends.” As every ST:TNG fan knows, Q notoriously put humanity on trial in that show’s finale, “All Good Things…,” with Picard forced to prove humanity’s potential to the Q Continuum. De Lancie confirmed he was indeed shooting scenes for seasons 2 and 3 of Picard (they are being filmed simultaneously) in a series of Cameo messages, of all things. He will appear in as many six episodes. In one message, de Lancie revealed that when he was first asked to return, he requested that the producers not make him wear tights again. (“You just don’t want a 70-year-old guy running around in tights.”)

The new teaser opens with Picard returning to his family vineyard, calling for Laris (Orla Brady), who strangely isn’t there. As a distraught Picard wonders what is happening, we hear Q answer, “Excellent question, Jean-Luc,” before commenting that Picard looks “a bit older than imagined.” And then Q appears, also looking older and more distinguished—and not wearing tights, per de Lancie’s request. “Welcome, my friend, to the very end of the road not taken,” Q continues.

Time has been broken, it seems, and we get glimpses of all the changes that have been wrought by… whatever it is Q has done to the flow of time. We see Elnor and Raffi fleeing for their lives, Soji dressed all in white and looking very VIP, Rios in a snazzy new Federation uniform with new insignia, and Agnes Jurati in civilian garb. Most shocking of all: Seven of Nine awakens in an unfamiliar apartment, and when she looks in the mirror, her Borg implant is gone. Ever the optimist, Picard insists, “We can save the future, and I will get us home. Together.”

The first season of Picard is available for streaming on Paramount+.

Listing image by YouTube/Paramount+

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