For a company that was recently bought up by the behemoth that is Facebook, Oculus' guys at the top are surprisingly chatty.
It's not uncommon to receive reams of marketing spiel from top executives at expensive game companies, but when I sat down with Nate Mitchell and Palmer Luckey at Oculus during Gamescom last week, it quickly began apparent that the Facebook buyout hasn't stopped these guys from speaking their minds, and letting the passion they have for VR spill all over the place.
Whether it's discussing the issues with bad VR implementation, their focus on video games as the Rift's core ideal, or what competition like Sony has cooking up, Mitchell and Luckey never show signs of dodging around a question or presenting me with stock PR-prepped statements.
As you might expect, it's really rather refreshing, and does much to quell any minor worries I might have following the Facebook acquisition -- as do the Superhot
and Lucky's Tale
demos, the latter of which left me speechless (a rarity, as those who know me will attest.) Here, you'll find my conversation with the pair.
So I was trying Morpheus last month...
: Morpheus? What's that? [laughs] I actually haven't tried it yet.
Well, I was playing a demo where I was in a cage underwater and being attacked by a shark. Looking around felt great and there was a gorgeous sense of actually being there, but when the shark began to attack me, that really destroyed the immersion for me, because I couldn't feel the shark battering the cage. My brain had been tricked, and then when the shark started attacking and I couldn't feel it, my brain remembered that I wasn't actually there. Is that going to be an immersion issue for VR as a whole? Will we need haptics going on as well for the full experience?
: Yes. VR is a lot more than just vision - it's all the different components working together. That's one of the reasons we do so much R&D around it. Game developers have to make content that doesn't break presence - it doesn't break that feeling of being in a virtual place.
"When VR content is poorly designed, it's very easy to break the illusion and the spell. You pull one card out, and the whole thing collapses."
: I think that's what I really want to emphasize - I haven't tried the demo you're talking about, but it's very hard to create presence, and it's very easy to break the illusion, right? It's like this house of cards where, when everything is perfectly in its place, the illusion is totally there. A big part of it is our hardware, a big part is our software, and a massive part of it is the content. The content needs to be carefully designed for VR to really create presence. It's not something where it's like, it has to be hyper realistic. It just has to be designed with all this stuff in mind.
So when content is poorly designed, it's very easy to break the illusion and the spell. You pull one card out, and the whole thing collapses. And you think, this doesn't feel that cool anymore. So it sounds like, with that demo, it's largely due to bad design, and I bet if we sat down and brainstormed it for a while, we could come up with ways to make it way more excited.
I guess a larger issue resulting from this is that it's very detrimental for you guys if lots of bad demos come out, right? Because people won't say "this game sucks," they'll say "Oculus sucks."
: It's two things there. Honestly, it's also the hardware side. Part of that house of cards is the hardware that's enabling the experience. So it's not only the games and content that's coming out - it's also the hardware devices that are coming out too.
We really can't control the hardware devices, which is one of the things that we're most worried about. If people ask us, 'What do you think of Morpheus?,' on the one hand it's amazing to see Sony come into the market, because it means more funding for developers...
: If they actually invest in it, of course.
: Yeah, Morpheus isn't a product. That's true, and it's an important point - they haven't even said they are going to invest yet.
: It's not like they've said, "Yes, there will be more VR content that we're publishing."
: But yeah, we're excited about that. But if the hardware isn't good enough, and it gives a bad experience and can't deliver presence - and actually one of the limited factors for them may end up being the PS4, for example - that's a major problem. That's kinda beyond our control, and that's really frustrating.
On the content side, there's a lot of things you can do - there was someone asking earlier whether we're going to have a "Nintendo approved" style, like an "Oculus approved" seal for games. We're not at that stage yet. We don't know what we're going to do. We're still just trying to get the hardware out there, and let developers achieve presence before we worry about enforcing them to have it.
"If [Morpheus] isn't good enough, and it gives a bad experience and can't deliver presence, that's a major problem. That's kinda beyond our control, and that's really frustrating."
There's a lot of different ways you can drive a high quality bar, and we really do want there to be lots of high-quality experiences on the platform, and not just have this sea of bad experiences. We really can't control the whole ecosystem and VR industry, and that is what it is. We just hope that everyone who gets into it is serious about really delivering a super high quality bar. And if everyone does that, it really should help the entire industry. Any time they ship something bad, it hurts the whole industry.
When you picture the full consumer release and you forecast the sorts of people who are going to buy a Rift, what sort of audience do you think you're going to have?
: If you only ship Call of Duty
VR, then it's only going to be mainstream gamers. But if you have something like Minecraft
VR, then there's this other, younger audience that's there. My dad is most excited for the utility stuff like Oculus cinema, or being able to walk around virtual tourism. So different things for different people. I think for us, it's really about creating an awesome platform and an awesome device that developers can build anything they want on. Obviously our focus is games...
How important is the other stuff besides games? You guys say you have this big focus on games, but it seems like Oculus has much bigger potential, and it seems like putting your biggest focus on games doesn't seem like the best idea? That seems weird coming from me, I know!
: I think the difference is that gaming is one of the most demanding applications that there could possibly be. It'd be like if you said, there's all these different types of TV - if you can make a TV work well for sports, which are running at a high frame rate, high contrast, all these things - certainly people are going to watch soap operas on it too.
That's kinda where we are at VR - if we can make this thing work for hardcore gamers, running the most technically demanding applications, for things like architecture or video playback, it's going to be totally fine.
Everyone keeps saying "What if it's just a fad?" and it seems to me that the way to make sure it's not a fad is to make sure the applications are widespread. So in a weird sense, I really like reading about the non-game stuff for it.
: I think it's twofold. What Palmer says is accurate - we're trying to do the hardest possible thing, and if we can nail that, everything else just works. And with games, because for real-time 3D graphics most of the expertise is in the games industry right now - those are the people who are going to really push the medium forward.
We are gamers, so we're passionate about gaming, so we want to revolutionize gaming, which is part of the reason we are starting with games. Gamers also have disposable income, and are willing to strap a crazy device to their heads.
It's kinda like we're at the beginning of computers. Let's go past the mainframe computers to personal computers - if you think of the DK2 as one of the first personal computers, there's tons of people everywhere who are like, "Pfft, no-one's ever going to ever want that." But there's geeks out there who were like, "this is going to change the world" and look where we are right now.
"If we can make the consumer version of the Rift as successful as the Apple 2, or something like that, it'll be a massive success. But you've got to start small and grow from there."
So when you're building something, especially something as game-changing as virtual reality, you don't want to try to boil the ocean right at the beginning, and just go for everything that actually eliminates focus and sort of spreads you too thin.
It's still early days. If we can make the V1 consumer version of the Rift as successful as the Apple II, or something like that, it'll be a massive success. But you've got to start small and grow from there. If we really nail it, everything else will fall out of it. We'd rather pour all our passion into games and knock that out of the park. I think everything else will fall behind it.
You were talking about getting games being an information factor for the platform. How cagey do you have to be now when you talk to developers? At this moment in time you're building the Oculus, and you also want to get loads of developers onboard - but of course, the problem is that you're still building it, and there's always going to be certain things you can't tell everybody, and then when you can tell them, it's going to have implications for what they're doing. How do you find that balance between saying, "Hey, everybody get onboard!" and then adding, "Oh, but this is happening now, and this is happening later"?
: It's a major challenge. It's something that everyone who is developing a product that other people are building other products on top of deals with. You just strike the best balance you can. You can't give out all the details, all the time, but we also trust our developers with a huge amount of information.
: We lean towards being open, and one of the reasons that we don't say things - it's not because we wanna keep it secret, it's because we don't wanna say something that we're not sure about.
The only thing worse than not giving developers guidance on a certain date or feature is telling them that it will be something, and then changing it later. It's not that we're trying to keep secrets a lot of the time, it's just we don't want to tell people things that are not for certain.