We quiz the virtual reality hardware firm about capturing developer's imaginations

GDC 13: How Oculus is making the virtual real

As Develop’s first official engagement of GDC 13, our meeting with Oculus to see its Rift virtual headset could not have been more appropriate.

In an era of significant transition, Oculus’ story ticks all the zeitgeist boxes. 

It grabbed headlines and a vat of cash through Kickstarter; its technology is high-end, but hand-designed and brought to market by a small team; it’s all about the PC and that platform’s resurgent games audience.

In less than a year after coming out of stealth mode, the business founded by Palmer Luckey – a young engineer fascinated with head-mounted displays – is finishing dev kits and now has a big showing at GDC, hoping to impress developers and sign them up as partners.

Oculus’ founders have been hard at work on outreach in the run up to GDC.

The Kickstarter went live on August 1st, and hit its funding target of $250,000 within four hours. It netted just shy of $2.5m total after its 30-day campaign. 

After then, the team – just five or so at the time – spent time traveling the world, but sleeping in hostels to save money, so they could show the prototypes to developers at the likes of Gamescom. It’s since been finding manufacturers in China and working towards the first wave of releases, official development units which are now starting to roll out.

But somehow, Oculus has gone a little further – it has big-name endorsements from the likes of Gabe Newell, Cliff Bleszinski, John Carmack and others. Developers were some of the biggest funders of the crowdfunding campaign.

All this for ‘virtual reality’? That ’90s concept of wearing goggles to play games in 3D instead of the easier watching on a TV?

Luckey reckons that developers have actually been hankering after an innovation in visual immersion for some time.

After a demonstration of the device at GDC today, he told Develop: "They all want virtual reality – that’s been the goal of games for so long. When John Carmack first made Quake it was an effort to make a virtual reality experience on screen, and make it feel like you were inside it. So this has tapped into something the developers have always wanted to do.

"But until now the technology has never been ready."

Develop went hands on with the Oculus Rift at GDC today

Despite Rift’s impressive tech, which yes seems convincing and comfortable, Oculus leaders are quick to point out how they have seized on a set of market trends to deliver this first step into making virtual reality something that isn’t a gimmick or worse, mocked.

Explains VP of product Nate Mitchell: "The Rift delivers in many ways – maybe not on the VR dream entirely, but it’s the first step in the right direction."

Luckey adds: "Developers see it as a good tool for making virtual reality. It’s not the best solution yet, and not the be-all and end all of where we want to be. Problems like low latency, precision head tracking and wide field of view have been fixed, naturally over time we’re getting higher res small screens."

Mitchell continues: "Hardware on the GPU side has got good enough. Our sensor technology and display technology is finally good enough. Palmer came up with an idea that put all of that together. And since then we have been putting together a good SDK to use it all. There were attempts at VR in the past – but the developers are now finally thinking ‘OK, this might actually work this time’. We’re not showing a half-baked system.

"This isn’t about some big innovation happening, it’s a mix of things coming together at the right time. The stars have aligned."

In fact the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In a protracted void of details or dates for next-gen consoles, developers and consumers have been having to get their cutting-edge kicks from other devices like tablets and PCs. The Rift tapped into that.

Luckey says it wasn’t on purpose.

"I think the important factor for me is that PC gaming is seeing a renaissance – and there are even some great PC exclusives. That, and there is a lot of excitement about free-to-play and growth in that area and a lot of that is on PC. There is just a lot going on on PC – that’s why we are attracting interest, not because of a lack of information elsewhere."

But Luckey is aware of the added pressure devices like Oculus and other market trends put on those established platforms.

"People are seeing a lot of innovations out there now so it asks interesting questions about consoles. Elsewhere we have touchscreen games, there’s games available through a social network, there’s online-only, and now VR. Consumers have a lot of choice."

Technically, the device can work on console if the format-holders eventually want in on the Oculus bandwagon too – but it’s up to the them to grant a licence. Current games machines may have struggled with stereoscopic rendering at 60fps on some titles – but the next-gen consoles would be wise to at least keep an eye on this latest fad on PC.

"If the console manufacturers want to work with the Rift there’s no reason they can’t," he says. But he doesn’t seem fussed if they are interested either way.

"Right now we are focused on PC."

Focusing on PC us a sound strategy. PC gamers have proven themselves happier to shell out on accessories and gear and upgrades, of which the Oculus will soon be one.

As have games developers themselves, crucially. Hence why that Kickstarter, which hinged on rewards for developers backing the device early, did so well so quick.

In fact much of the Oculus model has come from going against that entrenched silo of console development and hugely managed R&D investment by platform-holders.

Like many independent firms at GDC and in the industry in general, Oculus is working to tighten costs, with no luxury publisher budget to cushion its fall. 

"We’ve been able to move faster, quicker, with a lower budget," says Mitchell.

"Kickstarter allowed us to do a lot with very little, helping the firm go from idea to manufacturing."

He adds: "You can have fun when your budget goes up, but constraints have helped us innovate – that’s where the birth of the product came from."

Likewise, Oculus execs hope that it’s independent firms like them driving the content out.

Luckey says: "We think we’re going to see a lot of innovation amongst indies – maybe even with games only for VR – that you just won’t see from a big console developer."

Mitchell goes so far to say that the killer app for virtual reality is more likely to come from an indie at the moment.

So what’s next on the roadmap to Oculus’ full commercial release?

"We are working really hard on the commercial version – there are people in the office working hard on that while we are here talking to developers," says Mitchell.

"But the big focus is on these development kits and getting feedback. We want to get feedback on what features are important – that has to be prioritised before we start looking at the commercial plan."

And it needs more development partners, he adds: "It’s all about software – otherwise we’re just selling really heavy ski goggles. We’re pitching this as an open platform and that’s helping towards that."

Recent deals that saw Unity and Unreal tailored for the device can’t hurt either. And industry interest is high for this one. GDC has always been packed with off-beat, fringe tech and up-start firms that don’t usually gain traction. Why is it different for Oculus?

Says Luckey: "Well developers see a lot of things that companies are trying to convince them is cool and worth looking at – it’s been the other way around for us. People have come to us and asked for more. Like I say, we’ve tapped into what a lot of developers wanted to see games do in the first place."

Oculus is now at 25 people, and growing, although specifically hiring for people that know VR/AR developers and human interface.

"We’re a firm believer that the next generation of input devices will focus around VR," says Mitchell.

"You play a game in VR and look down, you want to see your hands and your fingers – you don’t want to be having to press X as an abstraction of your hands. You want to have Batman’s hands – not holding a controller controlling Batman. That’s the next step so we are hiring people in those fields."

So, even without Rift on the market yet, is the next step interface hardware? The team are coy on the specifics when asked.

Mitchell says: "We’re interested in building a platform for VR – the first is the first step in that process. We will see where it goes after that."

But one major question hangs over the Oculus Rift. As impressive and trendy as it may be, the big successes that offered a new take on established principles – things like the Wii or the iPad – are those with mainstream appeal. 

Is there a mass market opportunity for virtual reality?

"Absolutely but it totally depends on the content," says Mitchell.

"If it transpires the only games you can play on the Rift are Hawken and Team Fortress 2 [two games already confirmed as being tailored for Rift] then it will be niche. 

"But if Minecraft or something with that scale adds support for VR that’s a different marketplace. Consumers only come if the content is there – but I think it will come to Rift, and again, I think indie developers will do something innovative with VR. Experiences like Flow and Flower already show that there’s a youthful, indie audience exploring ideas about immersion."

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