Virtual reality takes center stage at MWC

With virtual reality (VR) on course to become a $1 billion global business, the launch of the eagerly-awaited HTC Vive VR headset has been one of the highlights of this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.

The Taiwanese electronics company HTC set up a booth at the four day exhibition, showcasing how the consumer edition will operate when it goes on sale in April. The Vive was developed by HTC and US video game developer Valve Corporation’s software distribution platform Steam.

Similar in appearance to the Vive Pre, shown off at 2015’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Nevada, the Vive contains a number of updated features.

The package includes two hand-tracking controllers and two Lighthouse laser tracking boxes, which measure the headset’s position as users walk around.

Antonio Munoz, global account director at HTC, told Reuters: “Today at MWC we are presenting as well some of the new features and functionality that comes with the new HMD (head-mounted display), which include a front-facing camera that will allow you to introduce some new safety features, like blending the real and the virtual world and we are also introducing some functionality that combines with the mobile phone use so that you’re able to see the notifications and calls that you are getting on your mobile phone.”

As well as a gaming and video platform, the Vive is also designed to allow users to answer phone calls, read text messages, and view the user’s phone calendar.

According to Munoz, “our HMD, our headset, is connected to the PC and we run the games through the PC platforms. We, of course, are partnering with Steam who provide a huge customer base for gaming. They are the leaders in that space.”

The HTC Vive is available via pre-order, at a cost of $799 USD per unit. Munoz defended the apparently high price tag, saying it was “worth every dollar”.

“There’s a lot of technology going on in that kit,” said Munoz. “As part of the default sales kit we provide two base stations that will fully track the user within the room. We provide two fully tracked controllers and then also the HMD that includes a camera, a microphone, super high quality lenses, and also a very high resolution display. So there’s actually a lot of technology coming in that kit and we feel actually what we are providing the user is definitely worth every dollar.”

The HTC will be going head-to-head - or headset-to-headset - with the likes of Oculus Rift, Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft in a bid to become market leader in the growing VR sector. Market analysts CCS Insight believe that 13 million VR headsets will have been sold by the end of this year, a figure projected to rise to 97 million by 2020.

Rob Kerr, technology and mobiles expert for UK-based price comparison service uSwitch, says suggestions that VR is a fuss about nothing are wide of the mark.

“VR could be seen by some as gimmicky unless you try it and when you try it you know that there’s something there,” he told Reuters. “You know that it’s bringing something special into people’s lives, traveling distances you would never do yourself.”

Alido Di Diovanni, President of Summit, Canadian software solutions providers, believes VR’s future is very bright. “You can have 360 (degree) video streams all round the world, operators can send feeds, for instance, from sporting events, from museums, restaurants, and so forth,” he said. “Users could connect to those VR streams and as they connect to them they can engage users within that space, and they can engage users who maybe don’t have to have off-the-shelf phones. So a user may have got a phone from an operator that supports standard based video calling. You’d see a user net VR space and you’d be able to click on them and actually initiate a video call with that user overlaid on a 360 stream.”

The MWC ends on February 25.