HTC cofounder Peter Chou launches XRspace to bring social VR to the masses

Virtual reality (VR) has been given a renewed sense of purpose due to a global pandemic that has led billions of people to adapt to a new “remote” world order. And Peter Chou wants to be at the forefront of this resurgence.

Chou, the HTC cofounder who stepped down from his CEO role at the Taiwanese technology giant back in 2015, has made no secret of his interests in the VR space. He was at the helm when HTC started working on its own VR headset, and he later joined Hong Kong-based visual effects studio Digital Domain Holdings to help steer its VR content and production. Then at MWC in Barcelona last year, Chou teased an entirely new project called XRspace, with the promise of a new extended reality (XR) platform that embeds “social” into the very fabric of the virtual experience.

Twelve months on, and Chou was gearing up to officially launch XRspace to the public at MWC 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis struck, forcing MWC and myriad other events to pull the plug while leaving technology companies scrambling to reschedule their big reveals. Despite the impact it had on Chou’s plans in February, the global pandemic might actually work out rather well for XRspace, as companies and consumers seek new ways to interact in a world where social distancing is the new norm.

At a global announcement streamed on YouTube today, XRspace finally revealed all.

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What is XRspace?

XRspace is an end-to-end social VR platform consisting of hardware, software, content, and services — its stated goal is to bring XR to the masses by “redefining how people connect, socialize, and collaborate in the virtual world.” What we’re essentially talking about here is the Metaverse.

The XRspace Mova head mounted display (HMD) is touted as the “world’s first 5G consumer mobile VR headset,” powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 Mobile XR platform. Crucially, it needs no additional controllers to navigate the virtual world, relying entirely on hand motions and gestures — in other words, the XRspace Mova is a fully self-sufficient unit. But what XRspace is really touting here are the experiences available through the headset.

Above: XRspace Mova

So far, VR has pretty much been a medium embraced by the gaming fraternity alone, though other industries have begun to take note in recent years, such as health care. Many developers are convinced that what VR needs to thrive are truly social experiences, which is why Facebook last year launched Horizon, a VR world designed for its Oculus headsets where people can meet with friends and strangers, create personal spaces, play games, and more.

In a similar vein, XRspace is launching XRspace Manova, a virtual world filled with interactive and social content across education, gaming, health, entertainment and more. In Manova, people can hold work meetings, learn in virtual classrooms, stroll around a city center, visit the beach, go to the cinema, and even dance in a night club.

Above: At the beach with XRspace Manova

Above: In a night club with XRspace Manova

XRspace pitches Manova as a “social reality platform” that transcends space and time, with each user represented by full-body avatars that look like them. Moreover, the Mova HMD sports optical sensors that are paired with “proprietary scanning technology” to interpret hand gestures and analyze real-world spaces to recreate physical locations inside a VR application.

To get its platform up and running, XRspace has enlisted the support of a slew of partners from across the tech, telecom, and creative content realm, including Qualcomm, Deutsche Telekom, Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom, GQ, Vogue, and Getty. XRspace has also teamed up with real estate partners such as Taiwan’s YC House to enable house-viewings to take place in VR, with users able to freely navigate a home beyond pre-defined routes that are typical of the restrictions imposed by 360-degree photos and videos.

The COVID-19 effect

In truth, we don’t really know what impact — if any — the global COVID-19 crisis will have on VR, and there have been false dawns in the past. But if ever there was a time for VR to flourish, now would seem like as good a time as any. Online course enrollment is already surging through the pandemic, countless telehealth startups have raised big bucks pretty much entirely down to COVID-19, the construction sector is on the cusp of a massive digital transformation as the $11 trillion industry tries to get back to work, and high-profile companies such as Twitter and Facebook are going all-in on remote-working.

What many of the existing remote solutions lack, though, are immersive experiences that can properly replicate real-world scenarios, which is where VR could come into play — and were already seeing potentially game-changing VR applications come to the fore.  VentureBeat writer Jeremy Horwitz recently sampled a new collaborative workspace app for Oculus Quest called Spatial, which basically enables holographic VR meetings. Of his experience, he wrote:

I’m not often at a loss for words, but as I re-entered the real world after my second holographic media briefing this month, I realized that I was struggling to speak or type. Mentally, the sensation was awe — my sincere belief that I had just experienced the future of remote work and meetings.

Elsewhere, Facebook just launched its $1,000 Oculus Quest enterprise headset to all businesses, just weeks after revealing that the pandemic was driving demand for Oculus products. During the investors’ call, Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he wished the company could make more devices than they currently are able to, though he conceded that the COVID-19 crisis won’t necessarily lead to a permanent transition to virtual or augmented reality. “It’s possible that [the pandemic] accelerates some of the trends around virtual or augmented reality, but I’m not sure what will happen there long term,” he said.

So while it’s not a foregone conclusion that COVID-19 will kickstart a VR revolution, there are enough ingredients at the moment to at least say that the next year or two could be a fruitful time for VR, with lecture halls, gyms, and movie theaters likely to be subject to significant social distancing measures. XRspace caters to each of these scenarios.

Above: XRspace in a lecture hall

Above: XRspace: Keeping fit

Above: XRspace: Watching a movie

In terms of what is actually launching today, the company said that it’s opening registrations for an early-access developer kit, constituting the headset and SDKs. Pricing for the developer kit will be announced in June, and the consumer version of the product will be made available starting in Q3.

However, XRspace was a little vague on what is actually launching today — it said that developer kits, SDKs, and developer support will be “readily available” from today, though it’s not clear how this can be the case if the company isn’t revealing its pricing until June. So the finer details will likely emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Whether XRspace succeeds or fails will depend on many factors, one of which is pricing. When the company reveals all the costs involved, this will give us a better idea of whether this really is a “mass market” product as it claims it is.