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Q&A: What's next for the Gear VR headset?

Q&A: What's next for the Gear VR headset?

December 8, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

Today's the big day for mobile VR game developers: Samsung has begun selling its Gear VR Innovator Edition headsets for $200 ($250 if you want one bundled with a controller), and that means we're about to see an uptick in demand for virtual reality apps and games.

But developers aren't likely to see an influx of cash, as Oculus Home -- the mobile VR app storefront that Oculus is rolling out today with the launch of Gear VR, and the only place you can distribute games made with the Oculus mobile SDK -- currently does not allow creators to charge for their apps.

That functionality is expected to come later, alongside a host of other improvements that Oculus is hoping to make based on feedback from folks who purchase the first edition of Samsung's headset.

It's not exactly a developer kit, nor is it quite a mass-market product yet; both Oculus and Samsung have taken great pains to paint the Innovator Edition as a product geared towards early adopters, one they hope will drum up broader interest in mobile VR experiences. But what if the product's lack of polish does more harm than good to the public's perception of VR? And what does the debut of the first mobile VR storefront mean for game developers?

Gamasutra recently spoke with Max Cohen, Oculus' vice president of mobile development, in an attempt to better understand the company's goals for Oculus Home, the Oculus mobile SDK and the field of mobile VR game development. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

What changes for Oculus now that Gear VR is on the market, and how does it impact game developers?

Cohen: What I'm most looking forward to is getting feedback from people outside of friends, family and our core set of developers. We've had anywhere between fifty and the low hundreds of people using the full [Gear VR] system, but now we're going to start getting valuable input from lots more people.

One thing I've heard that really surprised me, for instance, is that the headset is uncomfortable with glasses. That's so surprising because it's actually designed to be worn without glasses; you're meant to adjust the focus by just twisting the focus knob. But for whatever reason that wasn't clear to people, so there's clearly a lot of things that we haven't thought of internally here.

We're going to start getting feedback from a number of channels, and hopefully we can make the product better. The Gear VR Innovator Edition is designed for developers, tech enthusiasts and early adopters; we have a long way to go before VR is something I could give to my grandmother. But we want to get there, and this is the first big milestone on that journey.

How do you see this hitting the market? Do you expect people to approach it as a developer kit, or the first real consumer VR experience?

On a scale from dev kit to mass market, it's much closer to the dev kit side. There will be some people who don't write a lot of code who can use this thing just fine, but it's really designed to energize the developer community.

We're not judging success on units sold, we're not doing a big batch of TV ads or anything, because it's still too early. There's things like positional tracking, higher refresh rates and other features that we'd like to add before you could truly call this a consumer mass-market device. We're not there yet, but we're somewhere where we think it's pretty darn fun and it's time to make it more widely available so people can get their hands on it.

Are you concerned about the potential for people to develop negative opinions of VR experiences after buying something closer to a dev kit than a mass-market device?

I can tell you that we wouldn't be putting this product out on the market if we weren't proud of it. That's the start and stop of it: We think this version of portable VR is really good.

That said, there will be some people who notice some flicker. There will be some people who aren't comfortable using it. But we're doing everything we can to make sure the VR game experiences are well-labeled and designed to be as comfortable as possible. We would not be putting this out if we thought it was going to poison the VR market. But we are also acknowledging that it's still very early days, and that's why we're acknowledging it's the Innovator Edition and not the consumer edition.

It will be interesting to discuss this again in a month or two.

At launch, your mobile VR app storefront won't support payments -- everything will be free. Why didn't you wait until you had a payment system in place before launching it?

Making sure developers monetize well is absolutely our biggest priority, because we aren't idiots -- without a healthy ecosystem nobody will want to develop for it, and if nobody develops for it there won't be any users.

It kinda came down to the fact that the commerce platform just wasn't ready in time, and we could either delay the product entirely until it was or we could start letting some people experience it. We spoke to our developers, and a lot of them wanted to get something out the door so they could get feedback and make the paid versions even better.

So you'll see some demo or "lite" experiences to start, and hopefully that will allow mobile VR developers to figure out what works well so they can tweak their full version to make it something users really like. We're trying to build something that will be as positive an experience for developers as possible.

I can tell you there are some developers who have decided to hold their content until our commerce system is ready, and that's fine. If you want to make a demo or "lite" version, you're more than welcome to; If you want to hold it until the commerce system launches, you can do that too. It's your personal choice.

Going forward, what's Oculus' role in supporting mobile VR game development? Do you expect to pursue significant mobile VR game development or publishing?

We have done both of those. We have done some publishing deals -- small deals, right when we were first getting started. We're also releasing a game called Herobound; we're going to build it into a much bigger game, but it's about three hours' worth of content right now. It was done as a prototype so we could learn what you need to do for good Unity development on Gear VR, and everyone that tried it said the tech demo was awesome so we had a team turn it into a fuller-featured game.

In the long run, I'd love not to have to be a first-party studio. Mobile VR development is a new category that's being participated in by some other companies and that's a good thing, as long as they're putting out great products.

I don't see us competing with the other mobile VR products out there, because no one is trying to sell a specific number of units. Everyone is trying to get people interested in what mobile VR can be, and Oculus is just one part of that.

I think we have some advantages -- we have John Carmack -- but I just want to see people getting educated and figuring out the best way to do things like VR UI. We have ideas, but someone might have better ideas. I hope we can make this a frictionless developer platform so people can just try things out, monetize well, and in a few years we'll look back at this and say 'Wow, what a great experience.' We're not going to get there on day one.

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