The Importance of HTC’s Viveport
Why non-gaming experiences must become commonplace for the survival of virtual reality.
Several weeks ago, HTC (maker of the Vive virtual reality headset) introduced Viveport, their own foray into a digital virtual reality content store. Previously, all content for the Vive was purchased through and managed by Valve’s Steam VR store.
While some may decry HTC’s entry into the digital marketplace as superfluous due to the ubiquity of Steam, I am here to argue that it is one of the more important steps toward widespread virtual reality adoption for one very simple reason: Viveport focuses on experience-based virtual reality content rather than only focusing on game-based virtual reality content.
In order to understand why this is important, we first need to look at the history of Steam, and where it is positioned in consumer’s minds.
Valve and Steam
Valve released Steam 13 years ago initially as a means of updating and versioning their content, while also providing anti-piracy measures and DRM initiatives. Two years later, they began selling 3rd party software through the service, creating an on-demand digital distribution platform that has grown to include content from many major publishers and studios, as well as independent developers and game houses. The service now has over 125 million registered users, and offers more than 6,000 games for purchase.
So why is this important? Because for over a decade, Steam has positioned itself specifically as the leading digital game distribution platform. It occupies a space in consumer’s minds that is inherently linked to games and gaming culture. Given that many of the early VR experiences are, in fact, games, Virtual Reality as a medium is starting out of the gate with the perception that it is a gaming medium first and foremost, built by and meant for gamers. By initially pairing exclusively with Valve for content distribution, HTC sought to link their product with the already established Steam in order to solidify the connection in gamers’ minds between the Vive hardware and gaming culture. While this was likely a wise decision for a roll-out plan, it will eventually limit the expansion capabilities of the hardware. This is where Viveport becomes relevant, and why it is such a smart business move for HTC.
The Importance of Viveport
With Viveport’s stated mission of offering a variety of VR experiences, HTC is making an explicit statement that they believe that VR as a medium holds potential that reaches far beyond game applications. As anyone with a Betamax, Laser Disk, or HD-DVD player sitting in their attic can tell you: demand for and purchasing of content is ultimately what drives hardware sales and long-term format adoption. While gamers certainly represent a significant segment of current VR users, if the medium is going to survive, content creators need to put forth a broader vision of the medium’s capabilities. While I am currently working on a case study that examines more detailed examples of business applications that are extensions beyond entertainment (which I will publish in the next several weeks), it is equally important that direct to consumer content extend beyond gaming (both in entertainment and non-entertainment applications).
The Role of Experience Designers in Broadening Content
As experience designers we are often tasked with designing to fulfill a particular user need. Certainly, we can design to meet the need for entertainment, and games would be an example of this. But entertainment doesn’t have to be limited to games. We can seek to enable interactive stories that offer entertainment that extends beyond the conventions of traditional game theory and development. Imagine an immersive and interactive “choose-your-own adventure” that you are a part of. Or perhaps a music-based experience in which you control the music, musicians, instruments, etc as they exist and change around you. These are several examples of how virtual reality is a medium that can extend beyond gaming, and how HTC can use the Viveport marketplace to capitalize on selling and promoting these varied types of experiences.
While virtual reality is still, and likely will always be, intrinsically linked to games, it is important that non-gaming experiences become commonplace. The survival of the medium depends on it.
As experience designers, we can also extend beyond entertainment and design experiences that seek to inform. For example, the medium is well suited to designing an interactive educational experience. For many, kinesthetic and tactile involvement in the learning process can increase retention and engagement, and room scale VR allows for both of these things. It’s not a stretch to imagine a future where textbook based teaching aids and tutors are supplemented by virtual experiences that allow learners to seek information in a native, intuitive, and retentive manner. Viveport has the capability to position itself as the premiere distribution platform for virtual reality based informational and educational experiential content.
Finally, designers can look to the unique traits of the medium of VR as a means of creating experiences that serve as utility. While the concept of utility is broad, it is where the tactility and room scale of true VR might be best utilized. For example, imagine using VR as a means of interior decorating. The user can input the dimensions for their own space, and then move and position different items as needed. The sense of space, proximity, and scale all can enable a better sense of the final design than a 2D or non-immersive alternative. Again, Viveport can position itself as the premiere destination for utility based experiences, particularly if these experiences are paired with brands and given away for little or no cost.
While virtual reality is still, and likely will always be, intrinsically linked to games, it is important that non-gaming experiences become commonplace. The survival of the medium depends on it. Viveport, as a dedicated non-gaming, experiential content distribution platform, is perfectly poised to help usher in this era. It is still important that Steam VR exist in order to continue the growth of VR gaming, but we must look beyond gaming in order to expand the business viability of the medium. The task now falls on developers and designers to imagine and create experiences to populate Viveport and ensure its success going forward.