Oculus VR: 'We are just scratching the surface'

Oculus VR: 'We are just scratching the surface'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 10th 2014 at 10:00AM

Co-founder Nate Mitchell tells us how close the pioneering headset is to a commerical release

It's the company that literally kickstarted the current virtual reality craze.

Oculus' headline-grabbing Kickstarter campaign, which far exceeded its target, resulted in the first viable VR headset that developers could use to create the experiences they had always dreamed of. And while rival devices have emerged in recent months - most notably, PlayStation's Project Morpheus - Oculus Rift remains the poster boy for this game-changing technology.

We caught up with Oculus VR co-founder Nate Mitchell at GDC - just days before the firm was acquired by Facebook for an impressive $2bn - to find out how the pioneer of modern virtual reality is edging closer and closer to putting the technology in consumers' hands.

What was your reaction to Sony’s unveiling of Project Morpheus?

We’re super excited to have more people in this space. More developers and more companies investing in virtual reality means more resources put towards games. I think it means a bigger audience that’s going to get into VR faster, which means more people to sell to.

That’s really been the ‘Catch 22’ for developers. There’s a ton of VR momentum in the industry but the problem is it’s hard to get sign-off from executives because it’s impossible to get the Return on Investment right now. Who are you going to sell to: 50,000 Oculus developers?

So with Sony getting into the mix, it really does mean that there’s going to be a bigger audience, there’s going to be more people who can buy VR games. Sony, I’m sure – I hope – is going to start funding content, and hopefully some of that will come to the PC side. And at the end of the day, even if they focus on PlayStation and we’re on PC, there’s no doubt that we’ll have more people using VR than ever before in the history of virtual reality, so we’re pretty excited about the whole plan.

Rumours persist that Microsoft is also working on a virtual reality headset. What do you think is encouraging more companies to invest in this technology?

We’ve always said that if we’re doing it right, it’s hard to imagine that other people won’t get into this space. I think we’ve proved so far that there’s a ton of excitement and momentum, and that the possibilities really are infinite. We’ve convinced a lot of people that this is true – they’re sitting there thinking ‘maybe we should be working on this too’. It’s cool if that’s true, but it’s really cool to have Sony in the mix because it really does validate the space.

Think back to two years ago, before we started Oculus. If someone had said to me that Sony was going to release a VR headset, I’d have said that’s insane. Now, people think that’s awesome. I think that’s because of all the work we’ve done, as well as the community at large – there’s so many developers getting involved. We’ve sold 60,000 DK1s so it’s really the momentum in the industry.

Publishers don’t seem to share this excitement. In fact Ubisoft said it won’t be investing in virtual reality games until there’s an audience of 1m. How will this affect the rise of VR?

If you’re a major publisher, you have to be super careful with your dollars. The games industry is always being shaken up: you’ve got free-to-play, mobile, triple-A studios collapsing or selling – it’s a tough time in the industry. Not a bad time, just an interesting time, and no one’s really sure what exactly is next. If triple-A budgets continue to rise as they have been, we’re in really big trouble.

If someone had said to me that Sony was going to release a VR headset, I’d have said that’s insane. Now, people think that’s awesome. I think that’s because of all the work we’ve done, as well as the community at large.

So, I think when you’re a big publisher like Ubisoft, EA or Activision, you’re in a really tough spot. Ubisoft has actually been one of the most innovative companies out there; they’ve done a lot of really neat stuff on new hardware platforms like the Wii. But if you’re one of those guys, now is not necessarily the time to bet on bringing something like an Assassin’s Creed to 50,000 people. But if Sony sells four million VR headsets and Oculus sells another four million, and there’s eight million people you can sell to – all of whom are incredibly enthusiastic about VR – that’s something a lot of companies will definitely want to work on.

And I think actually Ubisoft will be one of the first groups to work on it, based on their track record. They really did a lot on Wii that was pretty awesome. It’s to their credit, and I hope they’ve got the return that they want because generally a lot of their games become some of the most popular games on whatever format they’re on, particularly Wii. I hope Ubisoft comes over and builds something for the Rift – that would be amazing.

What’s standing between where VR is now, and having that 8m-plus audience?

There’s a lot of things that need to happen, but let’s focus on two primary ones.

Firstly, the whole platform needs to get better. We at Oculus, for example, need to improve our tracking, our ergonomics, and the whole experience overall: the software side, the user experience. When you plug into your computer, are you switching monitors, are you rotating things around, or does it just work? If you bought one of these kits, what happens next? Where do you find content? What do you do? All of those things need to be addressed.

So the virtual reality experience on the whole isn’t quite there, the user experience of jumping into VR isn’t quite there, and finally there’s content. Content is this major piece that needs to be solved. If you took one of these dev kits home, there’s literally nothing that works on it except for our internal demos. So that makes it really hard for you to get excited about spending $300 on a Rift. For virtual reality to be super successful and to get a lot more people in there, we really do need great content and great people on the platform.

I think the indie community is doing an incredible job of innovating and making content that people want to play, and I think a lot of the innovation is going to come from them early on. Because, unlike Ubisoft, they’re excited about making Rift games that are innovative, that everyone will think is cool. If you think about it in terms of getting your games in front of people, if 50,000 people are playing everything on the Rift because they’re so hungry for VR games, that’s an incredible attach rate. Most content in our ecosystem has an incredibly high attach rate. If you speak to anyone with an SDK1 and ask if they’ve played Titans of Space, they’re like ‘oh yeah, I love that game’. That’s really neat.

Out of the VR demos you’ve seen so far, what’s your favourite?

Eve Valkyrie. I think that’s definitely the best – that’s why we decided to do the co-publishing deal. After EVE Valkyrie, there’s a lot of good stuff. I am a little partial to Couch Knights because I worked with the Epic guys on that a bit, and we really enjoyed exploring stuff that hadn’t been done before.

I think all the social experiences are some of the most fun. Even some of the really crazy stuff: there is a group of people who gets together every week and watches movies in a virtual shared movie theatre in VR. That’s pretty cool. I think a lot of the social experiences are the most fun today, because they give you a taste of the magic of VR.

But we do still have a ways to go. SDK1 was great, SKD2 is better, but the commercial release needs to be even better than that. One of the biggest reasons that this isn’t a consumer product is because we don’t think it’s good enough yet.

For virtual reality to be super successful and to get a lot more people in there, we really do need great content and great people on the platform. 

Will it ever be perfect enough for release?

Yes. And we’re actually very close to locking down a consumer spec right now. This is the last development kit before the consumer product – although one of our goals is to have the consumer product double as a development kit as well. So you can buy a Rift and play with it, or develop with it. We are getting close and we’re pretty deep into that process. We’re going to get a little feedback from the community on DK2, but it’ll have to be fast and furious at the beginning because then we’re going to lock down and probably head into launch. We’re close.

However, we are just scratching the surface. It will get much better from here. V1 will be like the dawn of V1, and it will get so much better so quickly, just like it has over the last year and a half. I think that’s what’s super exciting.

How are you getting more developers involved?

A lot of developers thought Rift was cool to build games for, but it’s not quite ready. With DK2, all the fundamental building blocks are there. In terms of the feature set for the consumer version, the core critical features – positional tracking, low persistence, great 360-degree head tracking – are all there. And while the software can improve now that DK2 is out and we’re ramping up to the consumer version, we have more neat things planned and a few new features to reveal. They’re not going to fundamentally change the experiences you have. Without positional tracking, you couldn’t design certain games – if it doesn’t work, people don’t feel so good.

Our big focuses with DK2 were presence and comfort, and I think the key to getting people involved is to nail those two things. You need a system that delivers presence, because without that there’s some novelty to playing VR, but it doesn’t deliver the magic that makes you feel like you’re in, say, Skyrim. Feeling like you’re really there, that’s the magic. And then comfort so that people can actually play.

Some developers tried it last year, people from triple-A studios who thought it was a nice idea. But those people have heard about DK2 and are very impressed, they can see that we’re getting there – and that’s cool because this isn’t even the final version. It’s not perfect – we’re pretty up front about that, and we want developers to know – but we’re getting closer. We’re taking major steps forward.

Want to get involved in our VR special all this week? Have something to say about virtual reality and what it means for developers? EmailJames.Batchelor@intentmedia.co.uk to find out how you can take part.