#523: ​Viveport’s President on HTC’s New VR Subscription Service

Rikard-SteiberApril 4th was the one-year anniversary of the HTC Vive, and HTC released the subscription service for Viveport for $6.99 to try out five new VR applications per month. I had a chance to catch up with Viveport president ​Rikard Steiber at GDC to talk about the genre differences between Viveport and Steam, future support of VR headsets beyond the Vive, their support for delivering content to China, as well as some of their arcade licensing options.


Viveport is the first subscription service for high-end and room-scale virtual reality, and HTC has a chance to leapfrog other content companies like Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube. Time will tell whether or not HTC will get into producing original content like other film subscription services have, as well as how much new and high-quality content Viveport is going to introduce to the platform each month. But for now, paying $6.99 to try out five new VR experiences a month is a great deal worth considering.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So on Wednesday, April 4th, 2017, was the one-year anniversary of the launch of the HTC Vive. And HTC announced that they're launching their subscription service for VivePort. So, Viveport is HAC's portal for content, and they've been mostly focusing on non-games, although there are some games on there. But it's basically another outlet for them to have access to other cinematic narrative VR experiences, as well as educational experiences, as well as a wide range of other experiences that may get lost within the gaming context of Steam. And so on today's episode, I have the president of Viveport, Rikert Staber, who talks a bit about the genre differences between Steam and Viveport, as well as being able to sell games within China and what's happening with the arcades there as well. So we'll be talking about Viveport and the announcements being made at GDC on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR podcast started as a passion project, but now it's my livelihood. And so if you're enjoying the content on the Voices of VR podcast, then consider it a service to you and the wider community and send me a tip. Just a couple of dollars a month makes a huge difference, especially if everybody contributes. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Reichert happened at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. That was happening from February 27th to March 3rd, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:56.360] Rikard Steiber: My name is Rikard Staber, I'm the president of Viveport and also a senior part of the HTC virtual reality team. We're here at GDC to talk to developers about some of the exciting things happening at HTC Vive. So there are basically three things going on with the technology platform, with the marketplace and content. So from the technology side, most people who think about Vive, they probably think of it as a headset. But what's happening on the technology side is that we're opening up the ecosystem for more accessories. So we're launching a tracker that you can put on anything. You can put it on a gun, on your shoe, on your tennis racket, to basically make things appear in virtual reality. So that's very exciting. The other thing we're talking about is financing. So we have a lot of people who have a PC. They are gamers. They love to get into virtual reality. But the price tag might have been a problem. So now for $40 per month, you can actually get into VR. And then on the marketplace side, we have something called ViPort. So ViPort is essentially a place where you go to find your virtual reality experiences. So think of it as an app store. And there's an app store for both experience you have in your home, things you can have on mobile phones, experience that you can find in your arcade or like your shopping mall or entertainment center, but also for your workplace. So there are apps for school or enterprise. So what we're doing here is we're announcing a couple of interesting things for consumers at home We're launching subscriptions, and I think we all you know have subscription for music now rather than downloading mp3 files We all have it for our cinema and TV experiences rather than downloading so we're bringing this now to VR so for $6.99 you can pick five apps and then on a monthly cadence you basically can keep or swap them so it's a a great way for consumers to basically discover new content and also for developers new ways to monetize. And the second thing is happening is that there's been a great interest in everything from internet cafes, shopping malls, cinema centers to have VR there. The problem for these arcade operas is that most of the software is for consumer use only. So it's like we couldn't start a cinema with 10 DVDs. We actually have to get the rights. So if you're an operator and want to talk to developers and do a deal with them separately, it's hard to do a deal with 50 operators. And if you're a small dev studio, you couldn't really talk to thousands of operators around the world. So the marketplace, we have all the developer applications already. So we're now announcing that we have the world's largest library of arcade titles. We have over 400 titles. We're now pricing so that an operator can basically get access to content for just 10 bucks an hour. So if you're IMAX or anyone and you can set the price out as you want. So it's a very affordable way to get legal content and get into the business. But perhaps the most important thing is that we can now bring our moms and have them go top of Mount Everest or use Google Earth VR and go to Paris. So we're basically democratizing access to high-end VR so that more and more people can actually know what it is. And eventually, we'll do it in your Disney World or your cinema, but also when you go to Ikea or when you're going to buy a car or look at your next vacation, but you'll do that in VR. So that's very exciting. And then on the content side, we're announcing some new titles. So you'll be doing boxing, and you're going to do table tennis, and you're going to play Bjorn Borg. But I'll show you more of that later.

[00:05:11.489] Kent Bye: It's so maybe good to talk a bit about the content genres that you are really focusing on with Viveport because I know there's Steam and they really have a lot of the games that are available for the Vive and potentially other headsets in the future. But also, you know, with the Viveport, it seems like it's more non-gaming, you know, also entertainment, film based. So how do you describe the different genres that are on Viveport?

[00:05:35.378] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, I think you're right. So, Steam is a great partner. They excel at gaming. That's what they do best. So, what we have done is that we've been looking at what are the use cases for virtual reality. And we think that game is going to be, of course, clearly important, but it's going to be used for education. It's going to be used for creativity. It's going to be used for social. You're going to have all kinds of cinematic experiences. You will have brands like IKEA, Tesla, basically any product that you have an experience with. So in China, we actually carry games and everything, because some American companies have troubles being in China, so we do everything there. But here, we want to complement Steam, sort of beyond gaming. And the reason we do that is that if you're a creativity developer, you do an education app, and you publish on Steam or some of the other stores, and what they do very well is they use algorithms to surface the most popular content, and if you have like Steam, you know, over 100 million gamers, the top content is going to be games. So you're not going to be surfaced as an education app in there. So what we do is that we promote those apps extra. And by doing that, what we will do is we'll attract new audiences to VR, like teachers or creators or the Hollywood. They would have come to virtual reality eventually anyway, but now we're going to make them come a little bit earlier. So we're trying to sort of complement the Steam and the gaming audience with some of these sort of beyond gaming categories that are going to be very big for virtual reality in the next couple of years, but we want to move that a little bit more forward.

[00:07:00.620] Kent Bye: So I know on the Steam side that there's the Steam SDK, which is a little bit platform agnostic in the sense of being able to play a VR experience both on a HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, and that's sort of made available for, depending on what platform you have, you can make that choice. It seems like with Viveport, Oculus Rift isn't enabled on some of those same experiences. So why not? Why isn't that available? And is it on the roadmap to have it? If it's a subscription service for VR, then why have it exclusive to a single platform?

[00:07:31.670] Rikard Steiber: No, I think you're absolutely right. So our ambition is to be a platform and device agnostic app store because we recognize as a consumer, you're going to have some things that are for your mobile phone. Maybe you have a game console at home, maybe you have a PC. So we want to be the place where you go to find VR experience regardless of platform or device. So for example, in China, we have a mobile app store for Daydream and Cardboard applications. Of course, if you're in the Western world, you have Google Play, and you have Apple, et cetera. But in China, it's much more fragmented. You have hundreds of stores. Every media company, every operator, every hardware manufacturer have their own stores. So there is no semi-monopoly. So we're trying to create the place for VR applications. So we are definitely looking at adding content from the other platforms onto ViPort. Both when it comes to the more high-end as well as the more sort of mobile VR. We launched the service just in Q4 last year, so a couple of months back. So of course we're trying to sort of service the Vive first and learn and together with our developers as well as with our customers. But for us to add Oculus is definitely on the books. But of course we want to have mobile developers and Oculus developers or any platform that's coming into the future. So it's just for us to sort of have a roadmap where we need to start somewhere. So that's the experience. So it's coming for sure.

[00:08:50.817] Kent Bye: So philosophically, when I look at the spectrum from like films to games, I kind of think of, you know, films on, you know, really focusing on passive storytelling and games of all about like interactive agency and that in a lot of ways VR is in the middle there of bringing the storytelling in that interactivity. And so I find it a little odd to make that boundary distinction of I think in the future it's going to be difficult to know whether or not something's entertainment or it's a game. And so, since you are kind of focusing on the non-gaming, then I'm just curious to hear a little bit of your thoughts of, over time, how are you going to adjust to kind of deal with that blurred line?

[00:09:27.465] Rikard Steiber: Yeah. No, I think definitely you're right that, especially if you think education for kids, I mean, the whole purpose of going digital is you gamify it and you make it more fun and engaging and a little bit more competitive for you to get motivated. And I think if you think that categories like social, it's not that you have social for social. You actually probably got to be social around something. Maybe you're... I love Rec Room for example, so maybe you're playing hoops or you're doing something. So I do think that there's a gamification to everything. What we found interesting though is that even though cinematic and 360 video have its limitation because it's typically a linear experience, There's a lot of interest because people know they love their Netflix or they love their Discovery TV. So, of course, they want to go into VR and have the IMAX experience, which they can't have because they can basically be in this kind of environment. They love to take the first steps with Discovery VR and hear David Attenborough talk about the underwater world and have a peek around. But I think you're right because the cinematic world and the computer graphic source of the gaming world are kind of merging. So I do think the experience we'll see starting this year will be sort of non-linear cinematic experiences, where of course you become sort of the centerpiece, the hero, and you can actually choose the path. So I think when we say non-gaming, it is not an exact science, clearly. But of course, if you have a zombie shooter or something, then we don't need to focus on that because there's a destination for that. So if you think about buying your sporting shoes, Well, maybe you'll go and look in the Nike store. Maybe you wouldn't go to Walmart to buy sporting shoes. Or maybe you do, but then you weren't looking for the price. So I think there is already today a behavior where you look for certain sporting or game consoles or something. You maybe go to GameStop or Walmart for example. It's not something new. You basically want to have this current experience to find things.

[00:11:18.792] Kent Bye: Can you talk about the genre difference between what's on the Viveport market between what's available here in America versus what's available in China because it sounds like you may actually have more content that's available there.

[00:11:30.901] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, so it is very interesting actually. So of course in China we have games, so if you're a game developer and you want to have your VR experience in China, you should publish on Biport. There are some tricky things with China and every market because in China you might be restrictions for political messages, there might be nudity, it might be tattoos, might be all kinds of interesting things that you wouldn't be aware of. So we know all those things, so we can be a good guide and a good partner to developers to successfully publish. The other thing is that creativity in the Asian market is pretty good. And I think, as you know, we're here at the Game Developers Conference, so we've all seen what's happening from Japan. And I think actually Chinese developers are doing some very interesting stuff. So I think we have just south of a hundred applications on the Viport stores that are Chinese applications, which are not even in the Western world. They're not on Steam, they're not with us either. So we are looking at helping those developers reach a global audience. So I think it's still early days. We're still in sort of year one of the Vive. So I think they will see a lot of creativity coming from Asia to the Western world.

[00:12:37.405] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it seems like there's likely a lot of the Chinese population that gets access to things like Steam through the VPN, but it's not going through the authoritative channels, and that may not always be there. So it sounds like you've gone through all the due diligence of getting things kind of officially on board with those regulations so that you can publish both to the consumers, but also the arcades there, because it seems like there's a big arcade market there in China that is a lot more robust than it is here, and maybe you could talk a bit about that.

[00:13:08.398] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, sure. So, the challenge for any arcade operator is the access to commercial licensed content, which means that if you buy software today, it's basically for private use, not for commercial use. So, in China today, we have our arcade program where we're live in over a thousand locations. One of our partners is Leuke VR. So it's growing really quickly in China. And the reason is that arcades and internet cafes never went away like they did in the Western world. So they're already there. So if you have a cinema, a shopping mall, internet cafe, if you're a hotel, you are looking to bring VR there. So that's why it's growing so quickly. And for us, of course, then, it's important to help our developers build a business. So this is actually a very important monetization opportunity for them. But also, many of the game developers have aspirations beyond doing a game. They want to build a franchise around their characters and their brand. So this is a great opportunity, actually, to get into the public. And of course, more and more cinema movies, you know, if John Wick or whatever is coming, these are brands that want to launch in public spaces. So it's also important for them to reach out through their arcades. So what's really interesting is it's good for the developers. We're providing a legal way, very affordable for an operator to start a VR arcade because otherwise they might go into piracy and just do it anyway. Especially in some markets where it's a little more difficult to go after some of these pirates. So we're providing a legal option which is very important. And then finally, we can bring our grandmas or our mothers to go to top of Mount Everest with Everest VR or maybe we want to show them the world with Google Earth VR. So people who wouldn't even think about VR will actually discover it. And I think that's just going to drive adoption much, much quicker. And I think what we found with some of our arcade partners is that they're fully booked, especially during the weekends. The average team going there is like five, six people. It's not that you are a lone person just sort of dropping in. You actually plan your weekend with your friends to go there and play Eagle Flight with Ubisoft. And there are three Hawks versus three Falcons. So I think that it's going to be a new way of entertainment, competing with cinemas or just chilling in the shopping mall, for sure.

[00:15:19.371] Kent Bye: Yeah, we were both recently at the MIT Tech Conference, and I was giving a panel discussion on... AI and VR and really diving deep and right before I presented you presented kind of starting from the ground zero of assuming people don't know anything about VR at all and you kind of walk them through as like here's all the things that are happening in VR and to me that was probably one of the best VR primers that I've seen just because there was so much footage and just kind of showing a full range. If you were to kind of summarize the major points that you try to make in these presentations How do you think about, you know, introducing people to the concepts of VR and what do you lay out for them to really start to get and understand it?

[00:16:00.257] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, I think, I mean, VR has a... Thank you, by the way. VR has a big marketing problem. It is truly like Neo and the Matrix where it sits there with Morpheus and about to take the pill and down round the rabbit hole. You can't... Morpheus said that you can't really explain the Matrix. You have to, like, experience it. And that's the truth with VR as well. So I think what's interesting is that the technology is now here for you to have your visual system, your auditory system and your physical motor system to be totally immersed. And what happens then is that your brain actually thinks it's more probable that you're on top of Mount Everest. You feel the carpet behind your barefoot toes, but when you hear the wind, you see the heights and you hear the polar bear roar and you feel the ice axe in your hand, and you get stressed out. Your Neanderthal brain takes over and you are on a mount Everest. And that experience is ten times better than your gaming experience, your movie experience, so that's why it's going to be successful. So we've been looking at what is it that you and I spend our time and money on and where can VR make a difference. So of course if you're buying a house and you're talking to your architect and you're looking at 2D drawings, of course you want to go into the house and check it out. Of course you want to swap out the IKEA catalog that we all love and Swedish to basically look at the sofa and test the different options before we buy it. So all these different areas where it's going to make sort of a radical change for us as consumers and businesses and educators.

[00:17:24.182] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that the new thing that is coming with VR that we haven't had before is this sense of embodiment where you actually get all of your physical senses that are tricked and it's really kind of hacking all of those senses and the long trajectory, you know, getting all five eventually, but right now really starting with the visuals and auditory and you know, little subtle haptics, but there's more and more ways to trick those at the higher and higher levels of fidelity. And so, you had a chance to kind of explore around and talk to researchers around the world, also recently at MIT. I'm just curious to hear, you know, what you've been hearing in terms of, you know, what is actually happening in the brain and the impact that VR is having on us.

[00:17:58.705] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, I think, I mean, one of the things that MIT is good at, they're focusing on artificial intelligence, which is so hot right now. And it is interesting how artificial intelligence will help, you know, experience, because I would say that VR is kind of an evolution of how we interact with computers. So in the PC, we started with the keyboard, we got the mouse, and then with the iPad, we started touching things. Now with VR, kind of the body, you're in the computer, your body's the controller. But as we've seen with some of these series and Google Assistant, you're talking to the computer. You're talking to an intelligent sort of semi AI being. And of course that's going to be important. So we looked at how not only AI can help the VR experience, but also how VR can help AI. So one of the things that I found was that since we're in Silicon Valley and everyone's talking about Tesla and Google and self-driving cars, actually the AI cars are now practicing not having thousand cars on the roads, but actually going into the VR space to learn. And the most interesting, maybe scary fact, is that I found some researchers at MIT are doing that, but also in Princeton. They even used Grand Theft Auto as a way to learn, where the AI learns how to avoid obstacles, because there's a lot of obstacles in Grand Theft Auto, like people with baby carriages all kinds of other stuff. So I'm not sure the AI will be a good driving experience. But yeah, so AI is learning in VR. And of course, that for flight simulators could be for anything. So I think we'll see merging of these exponential technologies take us in ways we haven't even imagined before.

[00:19:26.409] Kent Bye: Great. So what do you want to experience in VR?

[00:19:29.678] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, so currently my focus, I have two young girls, so education is really, really key. And you know, I grew up and there were some subjects in school, maybe history or maybe geography and things I could have done better. But I'm just seeing now that my girls, if they can travel the world with Google Earth VR or They can go under the water and learn about the whales, or they can go back into Jurassic Park and learn about dinosaurs. In just a few seconds, when you see a dinosaur, you see what it's eating, you see how big it is, you see how afraid it becomes when the T-Rex is roaring. So those sort of snippets that take maybe 10-15 seconds will learn you much more than you could read in a book or even see in a movie. So I do think that all these things that we're trying to teach our kids, it's going to be so much more important than we can do. And it's not just the facts, but it's also how you behave and other things. Ethics could be all kinds of things you can learn, kids. So I think I want to see more of educational experiences in the future.

[00:20:26.178] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:20:34.143] Rikard Steiber: Yeah, I think the ultimate potential is that it will become something we don't talk about. It will be like electricity. It will just be there and a normal way for us to use it in our workplace or at school. It will probably be something which is also with augmented reality. It will just be the digital world and the physical world will merge to help us in various kind of situations. It doesn't have to be entertainment. It could be anything. So I think that's where we're heading to. And as with all technologies, there's a good and a bad side. So we need to overinvest in the good side.

[00:21:05.941] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Rikard Staber. He's the president of Viveport for HTC. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I think HTC actually is the first VR company to really come out with something like this subscription service. If we look at what is happening in the film content industry, you go to Sundance, and Sundance has been changing over a number of years, and they have an acronym called a FANG, which is essentially Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google. So, over the last number of years, these high-tech companies have been coming in and changing the economics, especially with Netflix and Amazon. They're really leading the way in terms of both buying up independent films, but also funding original content. So at Sundance, I really saw that Facebook was really leading the way in terms of funding a lot of innovative VR content. Google with YouTube was starting to launch into YouTube Red and actually had one film that was showing at Sundance. But they're doing some other stuff with YouTubers within the VR space. And I have an interview with a couple of representatives from YouTube that will be diving into a little bit more what's going on with YouTube there. But both Facebook and YouTube are doing a little bit more of an ad revenue based where they're planning on eventually selling advertising. And so HTC is kind of coming out with what I see as the first subscription service for VR content, which is really quite interesting to see how this evolves. Now, at this point, HTC hasn't been investing into a lot of original content. And so if you look at something like Netflix and Amazon, that's really where they get a lot of their subscriptions, is the content that you can't find anywhere else. So with Viveport, it's kind of an interesting approach, which is encouraging you to really try out lots of different things. You just pay the $6.99 a month, and then you get like five new apps a month that you otherwise might not have tried. So I think that there's some overlap between some of the experiences that you can have both on Viveport and Steam, but there's certainly a lot of games that are on Steam that are not necessarily a part of this yet. And so if you want to see the latest and greatest content, I think go to Steam in terms of gaming. But it'll be interesting to see how Viveport is able to differentiate itself from Steam over the long run. Like I said, they're really focusing on non-gaming as a line, and I think that line is going to become more and more blurred. If you look at the elemental theory of presence, to really kind of flesh this out, I think that Steam is very high in active presence as well as social and mental presence. So a lot of making decisions and expressing your agency within unique gameplay mechanics. And Viveport, I think, is not necessarily focusing as much on that active presence, although there are still games on Viveport. I think the difference is that they're likely going to be focusing on narrative experiences that are trying to cultivate a sense of emotional presence, as well as educational experiences that are trying to cultivate a sense of mental presence. And so I think that some of the narrative experiences as they show up on a gaming platform, they don't necessarily get the best reviews and it's hard to actually surface them. So it'll be interesting to see if the 5Port's able to kind of stake a claim into some of these other narrative content that's out there. But I think that HTC up to this point hasn't necessarily done a lot of investment into original content. I know they've started to do that a little bit, but I think Facebook actually, with Oculus Story Studio and Oculus Studios, their investments in experiences like from my Ubi and the Oculus Story Studio, Dear Angelica and Zero Days VR. These are all like high level premium narrative experiences that were being shown at Sundance and HSE didn't necessarily fund anything that was being shown at Sundance this year for example. And I think that if you look at the content that's on like Oculus Home for example, that's like high-level premium highly curated content. And a lot of that stuff that's on Viveport is a little bit more experimental and they may have like a little bit less fleshed out polish when it comes to like a AAA gaming quality, but it's a lot of more smaller indie dev teams just experimenting and getting stuff out there. So I think that, you know, for $6.99 a month, you'd be able to get five new different types of experiences that you may not have, you know, chose to try out or purchase before. Now I think Viveport in terms of their actual website still has a long way to go in terms of like making the searches and I don't know it's still like very early days for Viveport I think they have a ways to go to make it like a fully flesh like okay show me all the highly rated educational experiences or cinematic experiences so I think right now there's not a huge selection of options so you can basically kind of scroll through and see everything but over time it's going to need a lot more sophisticated searching functions Now, the other thing that's interesting is just that Viveport has an official way of getting into China for game developers and content. Now, officially Steam is not available through China, but anyone that has a VPN and is able to kind of go through those back channels, there's certainly a ton of Chinese gamers that are able to get access to Steam and some of these games. But who knows how long some of those back channels will be available. So if you wanted to go through the official channels, then I think that Viveport is another way of getting games and contents into the Chinese market. And finally, I think, you know, Richard said that they're going to be eventually expanding out to other headsets. And, you know, I think it'll be interesting to see how Viveport evolves eventually. I think they're in a great place to be able to really serve the needs and market of room scale VR. And if you look at the advertising based model of both Facebook and Google with YouTube then you know I personally think that the subscription model is going to be something that perhaps people are willing to pay for at some point There's a cost of being tracked and monitored and the performance based marketing Strategies of having everything you do and say within a VR experience being tracked and connect back to your personal identity that's kind of how the advertising models are going to be working in the future and I In my original talks with AGC, it doesn't seem like they're going to really want to go down that path, but having a subscription service I think is one option for people actually paying for the content up front and then be able to have a little bit more control over the privacy of their VR experiences. So that's all I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So donate today at patreon.com slash voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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