Oculus VR's Palmer Luckey And Nate Mitchell On Bringing Rift To Consumers
One of my goals during Gamescom 2013 was to get as much time wearing an Oculus Rift as possible. Thanks to Meteor Entertainment, Gaijin Entertainment, and CCP, I was prepped for my extended conversation with Oculus VR co-founder Palmer Luckey and vice president of product Nate Mitchell. What I wasn't prepared for was the hour of candor and enthusiasm that made my time with the duo one of the most fulfilling experiences of the entire week at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany.
I had previously seen Meteor Entertainment's Hawken and Gaijin Entertainment' War Thunder working on standard definition Oculus Rift developer kits. At E3, I got to experience the Unreal Engine 4 tech demo in HD. If I hadn't been sold before, CCP's EVE Valkyrie would have been the thing to do it.
Shortly before chatting with Luckey and Mitchell, I was in a three-on-three dogfight with an Oculus Rift HD set, Razer's new Kraken 7.1 headset for the heavy bass that all good starfighter simulations require, and an Xbox 360 controller. It's important to understand how much using head movement for camera tracking changes the way we understand games.The speed difference is as much an improvement as mouse-and-keyboard control is over gamepad in first-person shooters.
EVE Valkyrie will arrive in 2014, and my conversation with Luckey and Mitchell was focused firmly on the work left to bring the Oculus Rift to mass market and where the company is in that process. "We want to focus on making the final consumer hardware, making sure it's the very best hardware before and after it launch," Luckey tells Game Informer. "On the other side, we've been working with a lot of developers to give them any help they need to get their content ready for VR. If there's no content, we can make this beautiful, perfect hardware, and we won't have any games to play."
Part of fulfilling that vision and being ready for consumer access is the new Oculus Share platform . The new resource that Mitchell describes as a "frictionless developer platform" connects creators (and eventually users) to find new and exciting experiences. From the developer perspective, it replaces clunky torrent sharing of large bundles of experiments with no documentation or ways to contact those that made them.
"One of our visions has always been to become the premiere VR platform," Mitchell says. "It's primarily about games, but also about VR simulations like VR Cinema, a virtual movie theatre. Right now the focus is really developers. We need great software, we need great content. Otherwise, the Rift is not a compelling experience. We've seen that with EVE Valkyrie. There's no reason there can't be multiple EVE Valkyries. What they've done is something really special, but there's nothing to say there won't be others like it."
Putting all of the content in one place is crucial for developers to get feedback and springboard off of other ideas, some of which come in the form of downloadable examples of game mechanics applied to a virtual environment. "We built Share to be a tool for developers to build better games," Mitchell says.
Oculus Share is a vital part of the run-up to retail release, and while there is no specific time frame for rollout, Luckey has an idea of what the optimal conditions will be. "The hardware is the most critical," he says. "It's unlikely we're going to finish the hardware and say, 'we just don't have enough AAA developers, let's give it another year.'"
"The development spans manufacturing, packaging, industrial design, mechanical engineering, all this stuff we consider development," Mitchell says. "The other side is really games. We want people to have experiences on both ends of the spectrum in terms of intensity and to have a breadth of content."
the Oculus team is also concerned about accessibility, and making sure that there are experiences for all kinds of users. Mitchell offered a hypothetical juxtaposition, "If you played Call of Duty VR, it's going to be an intense experience," he says. "For some people, having their first experience being that, it's going to be too crazy. Some people are going to love that. On the flip side, people are developing virtual vacations for sitting on the beach, watching waves crash, and just being somewhere else. We want content across the spectrum, so that anyone who is interested in VR gaming can go out, get a Rift, and find an experience that is awesome and really special."
The biological reaction to VR is a big part of what Oculus is focused on. "We talk a lot about simulator sickness, which is sort of the inverse of motion sickness," Mitchell says. "It's the perception of motion when you're sitting your chair. It's one of our challenges, and we're working to educate developers on how to build great games that minimize it. It's getting much, much better."
Both Oculus representatives reinforced that their focus is on a seated experience. They are aware of other devices out there that encourage mobility (including omni-directional treadmills), but for a variety of reasons (safety included), it isn't something they are working on internally.
While Mitchell used Call of Duty as an example, the company is hopeful for more tailored and specific titles. "What we're seeing right now is a lot of ports, but what we want is a lot of made-for-VR content," Mitchell says. "It doesn't have to be AAA content, as long as its packaged in a way that the user experience is there, then we'll be ready. Plus, our platform. We need there to be a way to buy Oculus games, connect with their Oculus friends, and have a great out of the box experience. That's something that developers have been very flexible with us on because right now it's a development kit."
He used the example of Xbox Live's forward-facing service to explain what the company has planned for Oculus Share. They are working toward an easy to use platform for downloading experiences and connecting with friends, but there isn't anything to announce yet. They haven't ruled out partnership with established digital distribution platforms either.
As for being in the living room, Palmer tells us that the company would love to be on consoles, and Mitchell offered a number of ways that might happen. "It doesn't necessarily need to be an acquisition," he says. "It can be a partnership. It could really just be opening the HID device on the HDMI, and then we're on the platform as an accessory. There's no technical reason it can't happen, and we think it's an exciting space. But we're most excited for PC and mobile, which are the two most fast-moving hardware platforms."
Mobile might seem to be an odd fit. Hearing Luckey explain how he and id Software co-founder John Carmack, the company's new chief technology officer currently working on the mobile software development kit, envision the future in that space helps focus the idea, though.
"We don't mean the terrible mobile games that most people think of," Luckey says. "Mobile hardware is these teeny tiny, low power consumption computers. They are very cheap. When you compare the amount of power in a phone compared to a desktop, it's really amazing how tiny and cheap these things are. Imagine in the near future, it would be pretty cool if you could have a Rift and plug it into your mobile phone, have it on your pocket, and on a plane or train, you can have this big screen that's far better than holding your phone up. As mobile hardware gets better, it's eventually going to catch up with the graphical fidelity of desktops today. What happens when you have a chip that costs $20 or $30 and you can build that into the headset for a self-contained system, and you won't need any other pieces. There's so many cool things you can do with mobile hardware."
In order to get to that point, there is a lot of engineering work that needs to happen. Getting the Rift smaller is a key step in getting the device to market. "It's really about making it as comfortable as it can, really minimizing the impact of the weight and feels more like wearing glasses or ski goggles than the virtual reality headset of old," Mitchell says. "The other important thing is making it natural and intuitive and not scary. With the Rift, we want to achieve something that, while not necessarily being the sexiest thing in the world, they still say, 'I'd like to try that.' We want it to be simple, and that's something we take very seriously."
"The stuff in here doesn't have to weigh a ton," Palmer says. "It's harder to make really durable, thin, lightweight plastics, but it can be done if you look at mobile phones. They are very solid, but they are using tiny sheets of plastic. It just takes a lot of design work that we're doing. We're applying a lot of what people learned building mobile phones."
Getting the device smaller will help drive down production costs, especially once the engineering investment is recuperated. "Something like the Rift requires so much less material, because the screens are so much smaller," Palmer says. "Once you're able to handle those really high densities, you can make a lot more panels per sheet of glass or silicon. You can ship a lot more of them per container. All of that drives down the cost, which you then shift to the warranty."
In five years, he expects that a ski-goggle sized device using the HD prototype technology powering EVE Valkyrie will be significantly less expensive than the $300 price point for the developer kit and first retail units. "I really think that the price of the HD developer kit could be under $100 in five years, price at market," he says. But that doesn't mean the top of the line will be $100."