At E3 recently, I had a chance to catch up with Brendan Iribe, the CEO of virtual reality pioneers Oculus VR, whose Oculus Rift headset and Touch VR controllers are due next year. I used the opportunity to gauge where Iribe sees VR today, and where he expects it to go in the future. Here are some quick takeaways about VR, mostly gathered from our chat:
It doesn’t come as a surprise, but it bears repeating: games are still the primary focus for Oculus. This is a company built by and made up of game developers, from top to bottom. Games drive the tech and design of both game and non-game applications. Oculus realizes that before it can really get non-game applications firing on all cylinders, it’s best to continue to perfect game-focused practices.
Iribe was particularly proud of the architecture and engineering of the commercial headset, which makes sense, as VR’s mainstream practicality in terms of comfort (both form factor-wise and sickness-wise) is still under scrutiny. I used the commercial version of the headest, and it was quite comfortable – a far cry from the duct taped prototype I used years ago.
First-person and holodeck VR experiences are the most talked about, and arguably the most exciting, but they are not the end-all be-all VR format, Iribe points out. For example, I played Insomniac’s third-person gamepad-based action adventure game Edge of Nowhere (funded by Oculus as an exclusive) and it was quite engrossing and playable. Developers are finding ways to develop VR games for gamepad that feel like they’re made for VR. From a commercial standpoint, this acceptance of good gamepad use for VR is important, bridging sit-down couch experiences on regular TVs that we’re comfortable with, and full-on holodeck experiences.
The company is bundling Xbox controllers with the Rift, so Oculus realizes gamepads are important for the early adopter market. And who knows, maybe controller-based VR will end up being more than just a stop-gap leading up to more immersive full-body VR experiences.
Games might come first, but Oculus is looking into other VR entertainment applications that could have more mainstream appeal. For instance, Oculus owns Oculus Story Studio, which is creating real-time rendered cinematic experiences that you can “be in.” But unlike games, users would have limited interaction. Iribe described this as “a completely CG-rendered environment where you feel like you’re in the movie. It's running at 90 frames per second, and you’re in it. It’s not interactive, but more of a cinematic experience.”
Beyond entertainment, Iribe says Oculus has gotten a lot of interest from architecture-related companies. Being able to show clients a VR render of a new home or construction or remodeling -- all of which are fully re-configurable and viewable in VR -- is a potential market. Car companies are also showing interest in VR, as they can use VR for demoing cars, and showing different car configurations to customers, potentially via showroom VR setups.
Basically, there seems to be VR interest from companies that sell large things like homes and cars. Putting people “there” without actually taking them there, and the ability to reconfigure options in real-time, is something these companies haven’t had before on this level.
Medical applications are also building momentum: training for students and doctors on new procedures and equipment are obvious applications.
360-degree VR video isn’t just a wraparound of images facilitated by 2D cameras that project 2D images in a sphere, but full-on reconstruction of environments. Says Iribe: “What we’d like to get to eventually is to get to a true 3D construction capture technology that allows you to capture moments – room, spaces, interactions, live action – and let it be in true 3D, and be able to lean around and see things behind objects in-scene. And we’re working on that stuff too [with the acquisition of Surreal Vision], which is a longer-term vision.
“We’re not there today. It’s going to take a while, but that’s a big part of the vision of where we want to get to and what is needed to have a bit more non-gaming casual capture-the-moment experiences.”
While Iribe made an argument for gamepad-based games, Oculus is also launching its Touch controllers commercially in the first half of next year. I used the controllers and they were comfortable enough and ergonomically interesting, but the one demo I played did not have the wow-factor of the SteamVR/Vive demo from GDC this year. But that’s more of a content issue than a hardware issue, as far as I could tell (also, I didn’t have time to play all the demos they brought to E3—I heard good things about other demos that I didn’t try).
Oculus is getting the Touch out to devs right about now. People following VR place a lot of focus on screen resolution and visual fidelity, which is super important when screens are an inch from your face, but input is crucial to the success of VR, and the Touch obviously plays an important role as that is concerned.
Oculus keeps some developers closer than others. The company has an Oculus Studios business, which fully funds Oculus-exclusive games like Insomniac’s Edge of Nowhere. Iribe says Oculus has about two dozen games it is fully funding via Oculus Studios. Sometimes studios approach Oculus about funding a game fully, and sometimes Oculus brings ideas to developers that they want to take part in its Oculus Studios program.
Oculus also has a publishing business that makes smaller investments into VR games that are non-exclusive to the Rift, and recently announced a $10 million indie game developer fund.
Of course at E3, Oculus wasn’t the only one talking about VR. At a Ubisoft press meeting, the company put its VR guy, David Votypka of Red Storm Entertainment, front and center. He stressed how it is crucial to make VR social. Votypka talked about how developers need to find ways to convey emotional states in a natural way in connected VR worlds. Subtle facial expressions that are projected onto avatars is one way to do this. Ubisoft was being coy about its VR future, but it sounds like it has some surprises up its sleeve for this fall.
Lastly, while there is a lot of talk around the highest-end hardware like the Rift and the Vive, it’s the mobile-based experiences that seem to have the best near-term chance of (somewhat) breaking into the mainstream. These relatively cheap, accessible experiences may not excite us as much as virtual robot repair in the Portal universe, but they are certainly more practical, “good-enough” experiences for most people.