It may sound preposterous, but Oculus Rift has quite a bit in common with Nintendo’s Wii.
The high-tech wizardry of VR may seem worlds apart from the more rudimentary implementation of motion control. Yet like the Wii, the Oculus Rift promises to seriously disrupt the video games market.
And like the Wii, you really can’t comprehend VR without trying it.
That’s perhaps why there are so many skeptics over what Oculus (and indeed Sony) are trying to achieve. And it’s why both businesses really have to get their machines into the hands of as many people as they can. Because not only is VR something that works, it has all the hallmarks of the next big thing. The next Wii.
“The TV ad for Rift is going to be very tricky,” says Nate Mitchell, VP of Product at Oculus. “We want to have some sort of retail presence so people can experience and understand it. My hope is that, like the Wii, once you break a certain threshold it becomes a situation where people go to each other’s houses and they’re like ‘Oh my God, you have a Rift? Can I try it?’ And they realise they have to have one right now and rush home to buy one.
“But to get there, we need to have some form of physical presence. I’d be skeptical buying a product like Oculus Rift without trying it before. It is an experience that’s impossible to explain. Everyone is definitely skeptical – I was before I tried the first prototype.”
During our interview, Mitchell is candid about Rift. Not just with his fervent belief that VR is going to be massive, but also in the challenges it faces getting off the ground.
"We’ve always said we want Rift to be around the
$300 to $400 price point, and we have stuck to
that because we really want it to be affordable,
so that any person interested in VR can go out
and buy. That’s still expensive but it’s important
we aimed for that because we didn’t want to build
something that is $1,000, $2,000 or $10,000 as
you’d never see mainstream adoption. You’d never
see a big publisher make a game for a platform
that costs $10,000, because it’d only have 20 users."
Nate Mitchell, VP of Product at Oculus
Our first question was whether the price point for the Rift was going to be one that people could afford?
“Yes and no,” he says honestly. “It’s tricky because we’ve always said we want Rift to be around the $300 to $400 price point, and we have stuck to that because we really want it to be affordable, so that any person interested in VR can go out and buy. That’s still expensive but it’s important we aimed for that because we didn’t want to build something that is $1,000, $2,000 or $10,000 as you’d never see mainstream adoption. You’d never see a big publisher make a game for a platform that costs $10,000, because it’d only have 20 users.
“But the one challenge we do have with the consumer version of the Rift is that you are going to need a beefier machine. If you have an amazing gaming rig, you’re going to be fine. But for casual games who want to get into VR, they are going to need to purchase a high-end gaming PC, and that’s a major hurdle right now.”
So how can Oculus leap that hurdle? We suggested to Mitchell that game streaming might offer a solution, or maybe Oculus could build a cut-price PC, or team up with one of the Steam Machines?
“There are a lot of potential solutions,” he said, intimating that many of these ideas had been discussed at Oculus’ HQ. “But there’s definitely no silver bullet. We are trying to be upfront with where we are right now, because we want to drive this thing at 90 frames per second and we never want to drop a frame, so you will need high-end hardware. VR is so new, and we are still getting to grips with it. We really are going to consume GPU and CPU endlessly for the foreseeable future.”
Of course Oculus isn’t just a high-end gaming device. It works on mobile devices, for instance. And although the idea of playing Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed in VR may seem exciting to core gamers, there’s plenty it can do for the non-gaming enthusiast.
“You can have it on a Macbook Air or mobile device, a lower-end experience. Take the virtual movie theatre Oculus Cinema. I showed it to my Dad and he was like: ‘Does that mean I can have an IMAX theatre in my house?’ You can have experiences like that on a lower-end machine.”
Mitchell was equally honest about Oculus’ difficulties in winning over the super publishers. Indie developers and niche studios are the ones that have made the leap onto VR. Yet the likes of EA, Activision and Ubisoft have been more cautious.
We recounted to Mitchell a recent interview we had with Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick. When we brought up VR, Zelnick talked enthusiastically about the possibilities, yet when asked if he was bringing anything to these platforms he replied: “Oculus hasn’t launched commercially, neither has Morpheus. It is too early to support them commercially.”
Even Sega, who at E3 showed an incredible Oculus Rift demo of Alien Isolation has since announced that it was just a prototype.
“It is a challenge, because there is an inherent risk you’re taking with Oculus because there are no units out there,” acknowledges Mitchell. “You are monetising against a question mark. Indies can take the risk with VR, because their budgets are smaller. But creating a big budget made-for-VR title is a big risk.
“We are trying to encourage people in a lot of different ways. There is huge excitement around VR from design and engineering. But that only goes so far when you’re talking to a CEO of a big corporation if the numbers don’t make sense.
“What we are doing to mitigate risk is show up with publishing dollars and help take the burden off the developer or publisher. If you want to invest heavily in a great VR game, we are willing to show up and invest, too.
“We know it is hard. We are in the trenches with the developers trying to mitigate a lot of that risk. I think in the long-term, when we ship the first consumer version, it will become economically viable very quickly. But until then, when there are no units in the field outside of the development kits, it is hard.”
Mitchell adds that each publishing deal it is signing is looking different. Some just want added marketing support; others are looking for more significant investment.
But perhaps the biggest element that will help convince developers to jump on-board was a certain $2bn acquisition from Facebook.
There was a week in March that will go down as a pivotal seven days in the history of VR. First, Sony unveiled that it was also getting in to the space with Project Morpheus. And although it is a rival to Oculus, it’s one the team welcomed with open arms.
“Morpheus really validated us, even though Facebook then bought us and we ended up validating Sony,” says Mitchell. “But with Sony being in, it will hopefully be putting money behind publishing more games and it gives developers more platforms. I just want to see amazing VR games being made. So if you’re Take-Two, instead of just having a million people on Oculus there is also another million on Morpheus. Everybody wins.”
“What we are doing to mitigate risk is show up with
publishing dollars and help take the burden off the
developer or publisher. If you want to invest heavily
in a great VR game, we are willing to show up and
invest, too. We know it is hard. We are in the trenches
with the developers trying to mitigate a lot of that risk.
I think in the long-term, when we ship the first
consumer version, it will become economically viable
very quickly. But until then, when there are no units
in the field outside of the development kits, it is hard.”
Nate Mitchell, VP of Product at Oculus
The next moment was when Facebook announced its intention to acquire Oculus. The initial reaction from some corners of the media, and certain Facebook-hating developers, was negative. They didn’t like the idea that this promising new start-up was now part of the social network giant. Yet Facebook’s move has brought confidence to VR.
“There were a number of people who reached out to us on the day the deal happened saying: ‘Congratulations, it is incredible to finally have a new platform.’ And this was from high level executives from across the industry,” recalls Mitchell.
“Because you know with Facebook that this thing is going to happen. It’s not this hardware start-up that’s making this new VR platform. We have the backing to do everything we said we were going to do. Even though I think we would have delivered without Facebook, it would have just been a riskier road. So it adds a lot of confidence. People now feel that VR is coming in a big way.”
Another similarity between Oculus and Wii is in the legal challenges. Nintendo has been fighting off lawsuits from companies who all insist they came up with the idea of motion controlling games first.
And now Oculus is facing litigation of its own from Bethesda owner Zenimax, which claims it had helped the firm and deserves a slice of that Facebook money.
“Personally, I thought when we announced the Facebook deal it would inevitably wake-up a couple of people who wanted a piece of the pie,” admits Mitchell. “That’s just what happens. As soon as there is money in the air, the sharks come out. Is it something we were prepared for? Mentally I was sort of preparing myself. It is what it is.”
In many ways the lawsuit is just another form of validation. No-one is asking if VR is going to come out anymore, but when?
“Our vision of what the consumer version of the Rift needed to be has changed,” says Mitchell, responding to our question about a launch date. “When people see it they will understand why it took so long and why it was so important to get it right. But at the end of the day, VR is not this thing that can just be ‘good enough’. There is no good enough with VR. If you are dropping frames, you have super-high latency and you have a bad refresh rate, then it is not a good experience and it is not virtual reality.
"To get to that spot where we put it on and we’re like ‘We did it, the holodeck is here’, that really does take a level of perfection. "
Oculus and Morpheus have their challenges – particularly around price and publisher support. But if you are one of the lucky ones that have put on the headset and entered the world of Alien or Eve or Elite, you’ll likely already believe that VR is about to change everything. It is the future.
Of course, when you make a statement like that, the question that follows is always: So what’s being left in the past? Does VR pose another threat to consoles?
“We don’t see them as competition,” insists Mitchell. “We’d love to work with them. “People won’t be choosing PlayStation or Xbox over a Rift or vice versa. It is a completely different experience. It’s an addition. It is an entirely new medium and unlike anything you have seen before. And that’s what’s so exciting about it.”
So just like Nintendo Wii then.