Today I want to talk with you about the interview I made with China Regional President of Vive, Mr. Alvin Wang Graylin. Yes, you’ve read it well, I interviewed for one hour the president of Vive China and I asked him about the recently announced Vive products, China XR ecosystem and VR in general. It has been a super-interesting talk and I hope you’ll find it great the same way I did.
How this interview has born
It has all begun some weeks ago, when I started interacting more on the social media with Mr. Graylin, especially because of the upcoming launch of the Vive Focus. There I started appreciating the fact that he was not only a very influent and competent person in the VR field, but he also had a sincere passion towards VR (e.g. he couldn’t wait to watch Ready Player One) and a very open attitude towards all the other VR enthusiasts (e.g. he answered online questions and such). Furthermore, he had a very interesting personal story: he was born in a non-rich Chinese family, then he moved to the US where he studied hard to enter the MIT and then he became a very successful business person. Now he’s president of Vive China and of VRVCA, a very important investment fund dedicated to VR.
I quickly became a fan of his (that’s why everything you’ll read here in this article is clearly biased in this sense) and thought it could be very valuable to spend some time talking with him.
So I asked him for an interview: I expected the classical “No, I’m very busy, maybe I’ve half an hour free at 4 a.m. of February, 30th 2079”, while actually he agreed immediately. My groupie-mode was immediately triggered. I couldn’t believe it.
Later on, his collaborators Xin Liu and Teresa Wang made the interview actually possible by arranging all the logistic stuff and I really want to thank them for their awesome work.
When the day of the interview came, I was terribly ill: I really seemed a ghost. My classical luck. Anyway, I managed to take some stimpacks (are you into Starcraft, too?) and pretend to have more energy than I actually had for the required hour. But of course I haven’t been an optimal interviewer, I admit it.
Regarding Mr. President, he confirmed his great attitude: at the beginning he was a bit uncomfortable because of my questions about things he couldn’t answer to (I could read in his expression something like “Why does this Italian guy want to make me lose my job by asking questions I’m not allowed to answer?”), but then when we entered a bit more in confidence and I stopped asking him NDA-related questions, he relaxed a bit and things went smoothly. Anyway, during the whole interview, he was very positive, very kind, always showed his passion, and especially, never made me felt his superior importance. In the end, it was like talking with a friend, it was awesome.
It was great talking with him about all the topic I was curious about, like Vive Focus, Vive Pro, Vive v2, Vive AR, China, VR investments and personal success. Anyway, before you go on, I have to warn you that he hasn’t revealed me anything he couldn’t tell me… so don’t expect super-breakthrough news. But there have been some interesting cues…
Since the interview was so important, I decided that it was worth recording it: here you can find the complete video of my Skype call with Mr. Graylin. It’s a bit long, but it’s very interesting. Also, the audio quality is not top-notch, but it’s the first experiment of mine in this sense and I also had some technical issues, so please forgive me
If you prefer watching videos over reading text, have a nice watching!
(I want to hugely thank Massimiliano Ariani and Giada Egrotelli for having helped me in editing this video)
If one hour of interview is too much for you, I’m providing you a list of the questions I made him, with a summary of what he answered and a little commentary of mine. I know, professional magazines write complete transcripts of interviews, but first of all, I don’t have a slave to write the transcript (I’m too poor!) and then I think that writing the transcript of a so long interview would just become an enormous wall of text that no one would read.
Anyway, next to each question, I’ll provide you the exact time at which you can find it in the video… so if you’re interested in listening to the exact answer to a particular question, you can do that very easily!
(For the questions, I want to thank Massimiliano Ariani and Enrico Speranza for having helped me in brainstorming them)
The Vive Focus is an awesome 6 DOF standalone device. Why did you decide to ship it with a 3 DOF remote? We all enthusiasts wanted two 6 DOF controllers! (0:48)
Here Mr. President answered me that when designing a new product, it’s not easy to find a balance between something that is usable, stable, meets the needs of most users possible, has a reasonable price, etc… Of course, a lot of compromises have to be made.
HTC Vive has worked hard to have a standalone device with 6 DOF controllers, but the solutions they were able to find were not satisfying because they were not user-friendly (required re-calibrations, etc…) or they worked only in certain environmental conditions or they were unstable. So they decided that instead of offering a premium but poorly-implemented experience, it was better to offer an inferior but optimally-implemented one, so they added support only for the 3 DOF remote. This is a choice I personally understand, since the Pico Neo hyped me a bit with its two 6 DOF controllers, but from the reviews at CES 2018, it seems that the tracking of controllers is unreliable, so the device at the moment is not usable.
Anyway, Mr. Graylin highlights the fact that the remote of the Vive Focus works so well that it can emulate someway the sensation of having a 6 DOF controller in your hands, especially in certain contexts like action games. In fact, the Vive Focus is having a lot of enthusiastic feedbacks on the web and even personalities like Tony Parisi from Unity are praising it.
He added that “It’s only a matter of time before we’ll have 6 DOF controllers“, because “everybody is after the same goal after all”. At these words, I completely got excited! Now the question is: when?
When will the Vive Focus be available for us Western people? (4:51)
HTC Vive has made this choice to market this device in China first. When they’ll have enough market data from China and if these data will be positive enough, they have all the intention of releasing it in the rest of the world. So, basically, they want to test this device in their own home market before starting a worldwide distribution. It has sense.
How will Vive Focus compete with the cheaper Lenovo Mirage Solo and the more complete Oculus Santa Cruz? (6:11)
Here the vision of Mr. Graylin is that the VR market is still so unripe that talking about competition has little sense. There are just companies that try to do their best to meet the needs of VR users, that are trying different form factors to see what works best. There is the common mission of pushing VR to mainstream adoption and then, maybe, there will be the competition.
The Vive Wave program includes a lot of Vive competitors, but that’s ok, because Vive’s mission is giving to the greatest number possible of VR users a high quality VR experience. Of course, I have to add that Vive Wave program has also been started to let Vive establish his dominance in the Chinese VR software market.
He closed his answer with a little gibe to Oculus: “We don’t want to be the price leaders, we don’t want to sell a product that costs $200 with minimal features. Everyone that puts on a Vive, should expect the best experience possible“. While I grab popcorns, I have to say that the two companies have clearly two different missions: Oculus wants to take 1 billion people in VR (Facebook is a social network and needs users), HTC wants to offer a VR experience with the highest quality possible to its pro users.
With which controllers will the Vive Pro be shipped? (8:49)
We all want to use the new upcoming Vive Pro with Valve Knuckles controllers, but most probably this won’t be the case at the beginning. Knuckles are made by Valve and HTC can’t control their release date. And it seems that the release date of Knuckles will not come at the right time for the Pro: “We don’t expect Knuckles to be part of the initial release” has said Mr. Graylin. That has added that of course when Knuckles will be available, there could be bundles selling the new Vive with the new controllers by Valve.
So I asked him what kind of controllers we can expect for the Pro: Road To VR said that they’ll just be Vive 1 controllers with Steam VR Tracking v2 sensors. I asked him to confirm this. He didn’t answer me… and this made me think that the answer is no and that HTC has some great controller of its in production… maybe something similar to the Oculus Touch. Notice that is just a speculation of mine… I think that if the answer were simply “controllers are the same of v1”, he would have already said it clearly. And I’m not the only one thinking they’re hiding something cool…
I’ve got a few pairs and was asked to hold off showcasing product with them. Pretty sure they have somethin up their sleeve. They usually do
— Jim Bradbury (@BradburyJim) January 15, 2018
He hinted me to wait a little while because they will reveal more information about that in the upcoming times.
Why the Vive Pro has two frontal cameras? Did you add it for the developers or… ? (12:35)
They basically added them to empower developers, because they think that with them, developers will be able to make awesome things and invent even applications that HTC engineers hadn’t even thought about: when Vive Trackers were released on the market, no one was expecting a full body VR solution made with them, he says… so they want to be surprised by us developers. And I hope that we won’t disappoint them…
At the end, he added that of course HTC Vive’s engineers are working with them too… and of course he couldn’t tell me what he was talking about. This made me think that they have something up their sleeve even regarding the frontal cameras: inside-out tracking? A super Chaperone that can track the environment? Mixed reality applications? I’m pretty hyped about what they could be working on!
Some days after this interview, during a recent event, Mr.Wang Graylin together with the president of HTC have talked about some amazing possible uses of the dual cameras: they thought about an improved Chaperone system, but they’ve been also impressed by a Japanese dev that has implemented basic hand tracking with them. This latter use could let people use the Vive Pro without controllers, as if it had an embedded Leap Motion inside.
Can you give me an order of magnitude of the price of the Vive Pro? (14:04)
He said that pricing information will be revealed “in the very near future” and the only thing that he can tell me is that the device is targeted towards professional users and prosumers, so it will be more expensive than all the products for consumers.
What about the Vive 2? Can you say something about it? Will it be disruptive as the Vive 1? (15:08)
He obviously can’t tell anything, apart from the fact that their mission is to ship a product that for the time it will come out it will be the premium product for its users, offering the best VR experience possible. Once again he highlights that HTC is clearly aiming at offering a high quality VR experience.
Then he added that for most of the things that we’re expecting in next gen, like eye tracking, there are 3rd parties add-ons that can already provide them (e.g. Tobii for eye tracking).
And what can you say about Vive R&D? Are you working on AR, too? (17:58)
“We don’t see AR and VR as different technologies, they’re part of the same continuum”. I think that this statement says it all: they’re researching in both technologies, as all companies in this field… because in the end, they’ll merge in the same device. And honestly speaking this statement is clearly understandable even by just looking at the Vive Pro, that with those two frontal cameras is for sure an MR device and not only a pure VR one.
About R&D he has been pretty vague, telling that the purpose is making Vive products more immersive, comfortable, accessible, etc… What has been interesting has been again the idea of a common ecosystem working together: HTC is investing in lots of companies and startups all around the world that are making research in a particular sector of VR and this makes the compound R&D of HTC very powerful, because it is distributed along a lot of smart people.
Chinese VR market is different from Western one because there are more mobile headsets, more arcades and a more professional use of VR. Are there other differences? And in 5 years will the Chinese and Western market become similar or will they evolve in a different way? And how? (20:32)
He said that China is very fast in adopting every new technology. In China, gamers and consumers are only 50% of the people buying VR: the rest is made by companies buying VR hardware for enterprise usages. And we’re talking about every kind of industry: military, arcades, schools, etc… (of course, this is possible also because of the great push that Chinese government is giving to Chinese XR ecosystem).
The market in China is competitive like crazy (trust me, much more than in the West), so companies want to offer always cutting-edge solutions to stay ahead of the competition, so the adoption of a new technology is always faster. In the West, instead, companies tend to be more conservative.
In 5 years, things should converge and the Western and Eastern market should become more similar. Of course, there are lots of companies that will fail during this process (he said that there are more than 200 VR brands currently in China! And they can’t all survive…).
When I asked him about the standalone form factor, he said me that while PC-based VR will be always alive and kicking to offer top-notch VR experiences for professionals, “Standalone is a trend that will become the mass market product”. He added that in every industry, the best is never what reaches mass market adoption: Ferrari and Lamborghini offer premium cars with the best experience possible, but they’re not mainstream. The Sedan is a good-enough car and is a mainstream one. VR standalone devices will follow a similar route, offering a good enough experience, affordable and usable for everyone: he’s a strong believer of the standalone form factor (I’ve some doubts about it for the short term, but in the long term I think he’ll be right).
How can a Western XR company be successful in China? (25:00)
He said that China is a difficult market for foreign companies… a lot of western companies have tried having success there and failed against a local competitor: for instance, Ebay has fought and lost against Alibaba and Taobao. He said that it is perfectly doable (for instance Microsoft managed to be successful there), but you must have:
- Local know-how;
- Speed of execution (do you remember the “crazy competition” part?);
- Patience in understanding the market (don’t rush at the beginning);
- Find local support (it’s better if someone from the government supports you);
If you have a local Chinese partner, this can help you a lot: now you understand why Oculus has entered China with the support of Xiaomi.
Is China trying to taking the lead in VR? Does it want to become the VR heart of the world? (28:00)
He said that of course everyone tries to do the best that he can: China is a great economic power, it has the biggest consumer market, it is having a very fast adoption of VR… so of course if things are going this fast, there will come a lot of innovations from there. He’s proud that the first 8K (actually 2*4K) VR headset is going to be produced by Pimax, that is a Chinese company. So, China is not only a copycat country but an innovating one.
Will a common worldwide VR metaverse be possible in the future or China will have its walled VR garden? I mean, will it be possible for us all to meet in a common space or we and Chinese people will have different social VR experiences in the same way we currently have different social networks? (30:25)
Mr. President answered to this question saying that the Chinese government wants to control social networking and the media space. This has been its politics over the last 70 years and this probably won’t change. So it is very probable that most of the western social VR products won’t work in China, exactly as most western messaging apps and social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc…).
But we could all meet together using some Chinese software. We started talking about WeChat, that is the most used messaging system in China and that works well even in the West (I use it myself and I can assure you that it is true… the problem is that here in the West very few people use it). So, if we all used some kind of WeChat VR to meet our friends, we could have a common platform where we all people of the world could meet together in the metaverse. The problem, in my opinion, is that I don’t think that our western governments would be that happy that our data is held in Chinese servers, controlled by the Chinese government… I don’t think that something like that would be in the likes of our Western countries. It’s all about politics and power. So, probably, we’ll continue having a separation of ecosystems even in VR.
Then we made a small talk about WeChat and he remembered me that while ten years ago in China people still used cash a lot, now China is maybe the first cashless society (almost everyone now pays using WeChat and Alipay… things are evolving super-fast!).
When will be the right moment for an investor to invest in VR? (34:39)
Here Mr. Graylin gave me an important lesson: “If you’re an investor, you have to be ahead of the market. If you invest when the market is hot, you’re probably going to lose money“.
He then added that if, as I think, 2019 will be the year that VR will take off, the right moment for investing was 2-3 years ago. This reasoning is made considering that usual exit cycles are around 4-7 years. He added that in every revolution, the big players that will dominate (and with “big players”, I mean something like Google, Apple, IBM) usually come to light in the first two years of the new technological trend. And then they evolve and become bigger and bigger until they make the old market leaders go away and this signs the transition to the new technology.
It is very hard that big companies survive technological shifts maintaining their lead and in fact, he bets that in 10-20 years, the companies that are currently in the top 10, won’t be in the top 10 anymore. This has always happened in economy and will continue to happen (I wonder if this means that he’s worried about the future of HTC, too…)
When will VR take off? (37:52)
According to his opinion, 2019 will be the year when we will start seeing “real momentum”. This is coherent to the predictions of Unity CEO John Riccitiello and also with the predictions of mine (yeah!). Then he thinks that to become widespread as mobile phones (and so to reach the dream of Mark Zuckerberg) we’ll need 5-7 years.