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John Carmack's pursuit of the 'holy grail' of VR content

John Carmack's pursuit of the 'holy grail' of VR content

September 24, 2015 | By Kris Graft

Oculus CTO and video game programming legend John Carmack said at Oculus Connect in Hollywood today that for the last year, his focus has been doing the best with what he’s got, hardware-wise.

One underlying message at his sprawling Oculus Connect keynote was that content rules. Even though the mantra “content is king” is repeated ad nauseum, the concept can be easily lost for a company focused on VR hardware advancements like Oculus Rift.

Even though VR hardware isn't perfect, and has many problems left to be solved, “Lots of people are having a great time with the existing content and existing hardware,” Carmack said.

Carmack said that if he had to choose between a magic wand today that could make perfect hardware that solved all the existing VR hardware problems, and another magic wand that would make perfect content for the existing hardware, he’d choose the latter.

The biggest focus for Carmack over the last year was content-focused: He pursued Minecraft, pushing for a deal to get the hugely popular game on Oculus’ VR hardware. “It was my holy grail,” he said.

He and the Oculus team were successful in getting Minecraft a commercial VR release, as was revealed this morning at Connect, but the deal was difficult to make happen, namely due to Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft developer Mojang in the middle of Carmack's VR experimentation with the game.

Those bumps in the road didn’t faze Carmack (too much), and he kept pushing for Minecraft—so much so that his co-workers pointed out that he’s “basically working for Microsoft” when he spends time working on Minecraft in VR.

“I definitely played more hours of Minecraft VR than all other Gear VR games combined,” he said.

The deal went right down to the wire—Carmack didn’t get confirmation that the Minecraft announcement for this week’s Oculus was a go until around 12:30 a.m. the day of the announcement. Before that, he said, “I told them if this doesn’t happen, I’m gonna cry!”

So why is Minecraft so important to Oculus and Carmack? He said the game has first-person interface, a world with presence (“I have memories of being in that game,” he said), limitless potential for creation of new content, and last but not least, an army of passionate players who want to make that content.

“I think it’s the single most important application for VR…This was a huge, huge win for me,” Carmack said.

Carmack also gave some quick pieces of advice to game developers working in VR. “Lean harder on the audio,” he said. The final, commercial Oculus Rift will have integrated headphones, but Carmack said that was a point of contention at one time among the Oculus team, which was eventually convinced that audio is an integral part of VR immersion.

"Animation is highly underutilized in game development for VR. Animation is where I want to see more in-your-face sorts of things," he added. "That’s something we have great potential to do in virtual reality.”

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