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The story behind Gear VR, and why Oculus wants to go mobile

The story behind Gear VR, and why Oculus wants to go mobile Exclusive

September 29, 2014 | By Christian Nutt




"Mobile VR is not a joke."

These are the words of 20-year VR veteran Jesse Schell after trying Samsung Gear VR, the headset the Korean electronics giant has created in partnership with Oculus VR. Before trying the Gear VR, his estimation, well... it was lower: "I suspect that for most people the novelty factor is going to wear off pretty quick."

It's true; hands-on with the Gear VR is a surprisingly compelling experience -- and much closer in capability to what you get when using a "real" Oculus headset than you might expect.

The Gear VR will launch later this year, in a so-called "Innovator Edition." What's that? Not a consumer product, says Oculus' vice president of mobile, Max Cohen. The Innovator Edition rests somewhere between a consumer product and a dev kit: It's meant to woo early adopters, but also gives you the tools you need to make Gear VR games.

"There'll still be a much higher percentage of non-developers who buy the Innovator Edition than DK2. It's not a development kit. It's also not a mass-market product," Cohen says.

It also requires an expensive (and capable) phone: the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. However, assuming you have that (specific) expensive smartphone already, it "makes it incredibly affordable" to try out VR, Cohen points out. As far as getting your hands on it, it should be easier than getting hold of an Oculus Rift DK2. When asked whether it will be distributed widely, Cohen simply answered: "Samsung will do what Samsung does."


The Samsung Gear VR

Why pursue mobile VR at all?

Sure, it works. But why even go there, with development on the Rift continuing apace? "I would say that if you look at market size, mobile is traditionally much bigger, and that's where all the growth is. If you look down the line, then, yeah, a mobile product is going to have a really large market," Cohen says, though he's quick to point out the project isn't required to generate revenue in the near-term.

In fact, Oculus went for the project not because of the size of the opportunity, but because of its early potential: "Even back on the [Samsung Galaxy] S4, it was rough around the edges and it crashed every 15 minutes, but you could absolutely see what was great about this product."

Cohen almost makes it sound like the Gear VR coming together was happenstance: "Our conversation with Samsung started because we knew they had fantastic OLED screens and we needed low persistence -- that's what kind of got it going. And they showed an early prototype they had put together, of mobile VR. We were impressed with it. We were skeptical at first, but [Oculus CTO] John [Carmack] spent some time with his team and they really made it incredibly compelling," Cohen says.

In fact, it seems that Carmack has been spending the bulk of his time for the last year working on mobile VR, including wrangling with Samsung to get what he wants. Even though there was "a lot of skepticism internally," Carmack's backing marks the Gear VR as a priority for Oculus -- despite an Android phone's disadvantages as a VR platform, and the fact that Samsung is the company that will be selling it.

The advantages of messing with mobile

Having a mobile outgrowth of the Oculus ecosystem will also be an advantage across the board, Cohen thinks. Oculus Rift games that originated on the PC, such as Dreadhalls and Darknet, are coming to Gear VR; but so, too, are mobile developers now getting into making VR games.

"They'd never done a PC game. And now that they've made a VR game, they're going to then go port it to PC. And so you have it coming from both directions, and I think it'll help make both of the ecosystems a little stronger," Cohen says.

It's also opened up Oculus to more possibilities. Addressing a potentially different audience has made the company aware of the value of things beyond games -- or even realtime graphics.

"You can only do so much with CG. You can't be front-row, 50-yard line at a football game with CG. I think John Carmack and I are big believers in panoramic photos and 360-degree video, and that it will be really compelling for people," says Cohen.

In fact, the Intro to VR app that will ship with the device (and which was on display at the Oculus Connect event last weekend) is incredibly striking in its ability to place you in the middle of a 3D video recording. So what if it's not interactive?

The company is also working on a "Zelda-style" game called VR Quest for the headset. It started out as a prototype proof-of-concept exploring whether or not a third-person game could work in VR. It does, which is why the game has graduated to production.

"People thought, when they were initially working on VR, that it would be all these first person shooters. Locomotion actually makes people uncomfortable, whether you have positional tracking or not. This is an example of something that doesn't make anyone sick, because you're not moving," Cohen says.


Developers demoing Gear VR at Oculus Connect

The limitations of mobile VR

In the end, what you can do with Gear VR is also limited by the technology itself: the CPU and GPU's thermal profile and, ultimately, the phone's battery life. In his conference keynote, Carmack joked that a "phone on fire" icon should pop up if the Gear VR is about to get overheated; whatever the developers end up doing, play is inevitably restricted by being a mobile platform.

Developers "can actually set the CPU and the GPU separately," Cohen notes -- something Carmack seemed particularly proud of getting Samsung to agree to. Mobile phones, to conserve power, generally tightly (and automatically) control these resources. However, warns Cohen, "if you set it too high, you're going to have a lot less time."

"Some people on internet comments have said, 'Why don't you put a fan on the back, and blow air?' It doesn't work that well on the casings on the back of the phone -- Samsung tried it. There are some other things we'd like to do to decrease the thermal profile in the future, but it's not gonna go away."

"Elite: Dangerous is an absolutely amazing game, but it's not something you can run on the Note," says Cohen. Even though this is a VR experience, people will still have "mobile" expectations, Cohen thinks: "What I would say is that I think it's going to be like mobile gaming in the sense that it's going to be five to 20 minute experiences," he says. "It will be the casual experiences, but you can have a hell of a lot better experience than you would on your Android or iPhone today because of the VR aspect of it."

Further considerations: Devs, selling games, and other platforms

"Our goal is to make the development process as easy as possible," Cohen says, and that's why the SDKs will be so accessible to anyone who buys the product -- as well as this being part of the company's general mantra.

"We understand that content is what's going to make or break the platform," Cohen said.

But one issue that's already cropped up is that when Gear VR launches, there won't be a functioning payment system in place for developers to earn money. Devs will be forced to launch games for free. One Gear VR developer told Gamasutra that the consensus is to go with "lite" versions of apps and hope to convert players to payers once it becomes possible -- or hold off on posting apps at all until Oculus sorts out its payment system.

One thing Cohen came short of saying was that there won't be an iOS version of Oculus' mobile VR, but it was easy to infer from what he did say. Without naming names, he quipped: "You need OLED screens, low persistence, things like that, to make VR run well." The iPhone 6 has an LED-based screen.


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