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Oculus VR CEO: 'We're Not Far Away' From Consumer Model

by Mike Futter on Mar 19, 2014 at 05:00 AM

Following our demo with Oculus' second development kit (read our impressions), we sat down with CEO Brendon Iribe and Rift inventor Palmer Luckey to talk about the road to a consumer model. We found out that you might not need to wait much longer for virtual reality in your living room.

The new software developer kit is a step beyond the Crystal Cove demo we saw at CES, which introduced six-direction head tracking. At CES, Oculus wasn't completely sure that the infrared LED and camera combination was the way the company would go, but that part of the puzzle has now clicked into place. "This is going to be the tracking system that we use for the consumer experience," Iribe confirms.

What he wasn't yet comfortable sharing was the time table for putting an Oculus kit into consumer hands. "What we care about most is getting the experience right," Iribe says. "We want people to be really comfortable inside. We want 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour to go by and you take it off and say 'I feel great. This is awesome. I want to go do more.'"

Despite his hesitance to discuss a specific time frame, Iribe touts the improvements in the new developer kit. Now that motion tracking is locked in, and the new kit offers lower persistence (which helps eliminate blurring when looking around) and higher resolution, the pieces are in place to start finalizing consumer model specifications.

"When you bring those three together (six-direction motion tracking, low persistence, high resolution), you start to get very close to what we see as day one great virtual reality," Iribe explains. "The second developer kit is a huge leap toward that. It's not all the way there. It's not what we believe is good enough for mass market consumers."

Despite that, Oculus is starting to put together early prototypes of the first consumer unit, which the company has nicknamed VR V1. "Internally, we are starting to have internal prototypes of what it's going to be," Iribe tells us. "There are prototypes where I tell people, 'Put this crazy thing on, and look through the lenses. This is really close to what you're going to get in V1.' To be there now means we're not far away. We couldn't say that a year ago."

The road to this point has been paved with iteration, partially driven by a mission to deliver the virtual reality experience that launches a new medium. Iribe says he's the most sensitive user in the company, and was unable to use the original kit for more than a few minutes. He tells us that he has noticed a marked increase in the amount of time he's able to be inside the headset. "When we ship it, I want to be able to use it for an hour or two a day, every day with no discomfort," he says. "That's what we have to ship."

In order to get to that point, Oculus still has challenges to surmount. "Your brain wants it to be photo real," Iribe says. "It wants it to work like this. We're completely taking over your vision, your brain would like it work the same is it does [normally]."

Virtual reality requires a more exacting delivery of visual images, Iribe tells us. Our brains won't let the technology get away with some of the problems that exist in a 2D environment. "When you're taking over a tiny little field of view on a 2D screen, your brain can say, 'It's okay. It has all these problems, but I'm totally okay with it, because the rest of the world works.'" Iribe tells us that stuttering, frame drops, digital distortion, and other problems that crop up on 2D screens are much more severe when they occur in virtual reality.

In order to tackle these challenges, Oculus is using its more than $90 million of venture capital to build its brain trust. Iribe spent a decade working as a software programmer. Vice president of product Nate Mitchell also spent time in that segment of the industry. Oculus also wooed Id software co-founder John Carmack, Scaleform co-founder Michael Antanov, and former Valve VR specialist Atman Binstock, all of whom bring experience and expertise to bear.

The bankroll has also been used to build relationships with companies like CCP for EVE Valkyrie (also announced for Sony's Project Morpheus) and a couple of unannounced partners. Oculus is cultivating relationships that will yield "made for VR" content.

"Making content for the 2D monitor would be like making Call of Duty for the game console and then porting to the iPhone or the iPad," Iribe explains. "That doesn't give you Clash of Clans. You have dominant mobile games that are 100 percent fundamentally different than the dominant console games, which are typically pretty different than the dominant PC games. Dota and League of Legends and World of Warcraft, if you look at the top 10, only a couple of them hop over to consoles in a pretty different way. All the rules about [user interface] and [user experience] get thrown out. You need 'made for VR' content. We're out there funding 'made for VR' content."

Oculus is also pushing something it calls "Level 0" content. These aren't games that are faster paced and might cause motion sickness. "It may just be musical experiences," Iribe says. "It might be a virtual cinema experience. Some of the best stuff we've seen has just been visualization. You might take a virtual trip to the beach."

Iribe and founder Palmer Luckey know that they need to actively cultivate a breadth of material that supports the hardware. "We wake up every day and think, 'How can we build the best virtual reality product that we can? How do we build the best platform?'" Luckey says.

Oculus has considered simply partnering with others to build its software ecosystem, but chose to grow the community itself. "We want to work with them, but they don't wake up every day thinking, 'How can we make this the best VR experience in the world?'" Luckey says. "We really do need to build as many pieces, any thing that's required for a good VR experience, we want to be working on it ourselves. If we don't, we don't know if it's going to be that great."

"Our company depends on it," Iribe added.

One challenge that Oculus will be tackling further down the road is the issue of control mechanisms. Luckey tells us that the problem with gamepads and motion control devices is that they are strictly unidirectional.

"You don't want just an input device," he says. "Something like a Kinect or a mouse, they are very much input devices. You are making something happen in the virtual world, but nothing is coming back out. What you really want is something like the headset that allows you to manipulate the virtual world and feel sensations from and have good haptic sensations from the world."

Today's announcement of the second Oculus development kit is a major step for the company, while more work goes on behind the scenes in preparation for the first consumer version. Iribe cautions that end users should wait for the company to finish its work.

"[DK 2] is the biggest step and the best virtual reality the world has ever seen, but it's not quite there yet, and it's not something consumers should buy yet," Iribe says. "We'll be very vocal and loud when we have something for consumers."