At this year's Mobile World Congress, the HTC Vive virtual reality headset has been adorned with an aggressive $799 price and a few small aesthetic tweaks to finalize its consumer edition look. It has also wowed and amazed everyone who has tried it, myself included. HTC is rapidly speeding toward becoming a one-product company with the Vive, but on the evidence of what I've seen and experienced today, I don't think anyone at the company should be too afraid of that prospect.
I've just come out from a demo of the Vive Pre at HTC's booth — whose performance is equivalent to the upcoming consumer edition — and all I can say are good things. Of all the VR headsets out there, the Vive is the only one that truly works for me. With the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, and even LG's new 360 VR headset, I spend most of my time in a futile battle to adjust the optics so that my eyes can focus on what's presented in front of them. It's enough to make me think I might need glasses, but then I pop on the HTC Vive and everything is crisply in focus without me needing to mess around. All these headsets are about immersion, first and foremost, and the Vive achieves it most instantaneously and realistically for me.
I'm officially a Vive fanboy
But the Vive also impresses me with the thoughtfulness put into how a user might relate to the outside world. A so-called Chaperone system uses a front-mounted camera to recreate the outside world when a Vive wearer approaches a wall or just wants to be able to see his or her environment. It's slick, it's beautifully in sync with the futuristic VR look and feel inside the Vive, and it minimizes the need to ever take the headset off. Then there's the smartphone integration, which will allow players to hook up an iPhone or Android phone via Bluetooth and either take and make calls or reject them with pre-canned messages. I didn't get to try that in the Bluetooth-flooded MWC booth, but the very idea is praiseworthy and again minimizes interruptions to the VR experience.
The Vive controllers are a big dollop of awesome, tracking my hands unerringly and simply getting out of the way. What Valve and HTC have done in the year since I last fawned over the Vive VR experience has been refinement and the elimination of pain points. The head strap, controllers, and even tiny things like the now-ridged focus adjustment dial on the right side have been through numerous iterations and generations. The product today is polished and mature, and I'm actually glad that HTC gave itself longer than the initial roadmap to the 2015 holidays for releasing the Vive.
Being a one-product company isn't so scary when that product is the Vive
For HTC, the Vive is a product that must succeed. What I'm expressing with all this praise is that I feel strongly that it will. Not because it will necessarily trounce the Oculus Rift, but simply because it's a tool for awesome new experiences and it's got the right price, ergonomics, and performance to deliver them. There's a good chance that HTC has slashed its profit margin on the Vive to the bare bone in order to make it as competitive as possible. I think that's a great move too.
I love the Vive logo. It has a chance to be as iconic as the Steam insignia that's often seen sitting next to it. I love that there's an obvious and well-known spot to go to procure more VR experiences for anyone who decides to grab a Vive of their own. It's great that HTC is selling the complete kit and only asking people to have a reasonably powerful PC. It's all coming together in a really intelligent and thoughtful way — from the branding to the granular design tweaks to the growth of compelling VR experiences — and the Vive's future looks bright.
Even HTC's Wi-Fi password has 'vive' in it
Mobile World Congress has been the venue where HTC has made its biggest moves with the Vive. Moves toward seriously and wholeheartedly committing to VR as its future. If you want anecdotal evidence of that, just visit the company's booth and try to find the phones (or ask for the Wi-Fi password, it includes the word "vive"). There are a few handsets in the middle of the space, but they're showing off the UA Healthbox, which is HTC's effort to get into wearable and fitness products. I can't vouch for how successful that will be, but HTC's partner Under Armour is the fastest growing sportswear brand, surpassing Adidas for second spot in the US, and it's been on an acquisition binge collecting a bunch of major fitness apps and services. HTC has clearly found a good partner to promote its wearables, just like it's found a good partner in Valve for its VR hardware. It's Steam VR, after all, that's doing a lot of the motion-tracking magic here.
Read more: What you can do in Vive virtual reality
Describing HTC as just a smartphone maker is no longer accurate. The whole company is pouring its time and energies into making the Vive as successful as it can be. Sure, we'll still have flagship smartphones to fawn over, but the Android phone business has been brutal to HTC (and most others) for such a long time that the company's future has to depend on the Vive. And given how good the Vive is, that's not such an awful position to be in.