You’d be hard pressed to miss the recent shock announcement that social networking giant Facebook splashed out $2bn on acquiring Oculus VR, the company that single-handedly transformed our dreams of virtual reality into a physical device currently being worked on by more than 75,000 developers worldwide.
This news came hot on the heels of Sony’s GDC revelation that it has been building a virtual reality headset for PlayStation 4, currently codenamed Project Morpheus, as well as persistent rumours that Microsoft has its own VR device on the way. The contrast couldn’t be more striking.
Two years ago, virtual reality was restricted to science fiction and snide Virtual Boy jokes. Today, we find ourselves in a world where VR is not only a reality, but is driving big firms to dedicate significant resources into making the concept into commercial products.
For Dave Ranyard, studio director at Project Morpheus developer SCE London, it’s indicative of “how seriously the world is taking virtual reality”. For Oculus VR co-founder and VP of product Nate Mitchell, it’s a validation of everything his team has spent the last two years working on.
“More developers and more companies investing in virtual reality means more resources put towards games,” he tells Develop. “It means a bigger audience that’s going to get into VR faster. We’ve always said that if we’re doing it right, it’s hard to imagine that other people won’t get into this space.
“Think back to before we started Oculus. If someone said that Sony would release a VR headset, I’d have said that’s insane. Now, people think that’s awesome. I think that’s because of all the work we’ve done, as well as the community at large.”
Ranyard, whose studio showed off the Morpheus ocean diving demo The Deep at GDC, adds: “There’s a crest of a wave here that we can ride. There’s a groundswell of excitement around VR, so we need to maintain that momentum and keep moving forward. There’s a real positive vibe around VR because it’s cool and exciting. When I was at school, the thought of doing this years later would have been my wildest dreams come true.”
“If Sony sells four million headsets and Oculus sells the same, that’s something a lot of companies will definitely want to work on.”
Nate Mitchell, Oculus VR
Virtual reality has been tried before, of course. The aforementioned Virtual Boy is just one example of how developers have tried to realise the vision of VR, but its failure is well documented. Why, then, are we finally able to achieve what experts have spent decades working towards?
“For VR, the stars have aligned,” says Ranyard. “The mobile market has made loads of improvements around screens, for example. Machines are now powerful enough to render frames quickly, we can achieve the framerates we need, reduce latency and do things in a way that means the brain can’t perceive that it’s being tricked. The time for virtual reality is now.”
Despite working for the pioneer of VR, Mitchell disagrees, pointing to the limited audience that currently exists for the technology: “If you’re Activision, EA or Ubisoft, now is not necessarily the time to bet on bringing something like Assassin’s Creed to virtual reality. Who are you going to sell to: 50,000 Oculus developers?
“But if Sony sells four million headsets and Oculus sells the same, that’s something a lot of companies will definitely want to work on.”
His comments echo those of Ubisoft, which stated in the wake of Morpheus’ unveiling that it would not dedicate development resources to virtual reality until there was a sizeable audience with headsets at home. As inspiring as the prototypes are, to the majority of the world they remain examples, not the finished product.
Oculus’ original Kickstarter appeal generated $2.4m and proved there is demand for virtual reality among consumers, but will that translate into an audience when the headset finally arrives on the market?
Ranyard is staunchly optimistic: “Providing we make the right experiences that appeal to the market, then yes, I think there will be supply and demand for VR. It’s a disruptive technology: throughout the history of media and entertainment, disruptive technologies have stopped and started, so who’s to say exactly how this will play out? But I’ve seen some incredible experiences in virtual reality, so I do believe that, done right, they can appeal to a large market.
“For me the question is not whether there’s an audience, but how long it will take to get to a place where we can cater to it.”
THE REVOLUTION STARTS HERE
One of the major factors that needs to be addressed, says Mitchell, is content. While plenty of demos have been showcased around the internet, few companies have pledged to make full games for virtual reality – understandable given that Oculus is currently only available to developers.
Regardless of how much money corporations spend on developing the tech of VR, they will also need to make the content if the concept is to prove commercially viable.
“At the moment, there’s literally nothing that works on Oculus except for our internal demos,” Mitchell explains. “That makes it really hard for you to get excited about spending $300 on a Rift. For virtual reality to be super successful, we really do need great content and great people on the platform.
“I think the indie community is doing an incredible job of innovating and making content that people want to play, and I think a lot of the innovation is going to come from them early on. Because, unlike bigger publishers, they’re excited about making Rift games that are innovative.”
With the capital of both PlayStation and Facebook behind VR, the more technical barriers between prototype and product will no doubt fall faster than previously expected.
“I would compare today’s Oculus with the first iPhone. Every new version of it will be more polished and mainstream.”
Tim Sweeney, Epic Games
Oculus has now released a second version of its software development kit, which shows remarkable improvements from the first in terms of visual clarity, positional tracking and other aspects that help create the sense of immersion developers and consumers alike crave from virtual reality.
Ever upfront about its aim to perfect the VR experience before release, Oculus says there’s still work to be done – but not as much as you might think.
“We’re actually very close to locking down a consumer spec right now,” Mitchell says. “This is the last development kit before the consumer product – although one of our goals is to have the consumer product double as a dev kit as well. So you can buy a Rift and play with it, or develop with it.
“We’re going to get a little feedback from the community on DK2, but it’ll have to be fast and furious at the beginning because then we’re going to lock down and probably head into launch. We’re close.”
But Mitchell stresses that the current version, and even the commercial release, are “just scratching the surface” of VR’s possibilities.
“It will get much better from here,” he says. “Oculus V1 will be the dawn of VR, but it will get so much better so quickly, just like it has over the last year and a half.”
Mitchell’s expectations lend credence to comments from Epic Games co-founder Tim Sweeney, who told Develop that virtual reality is approaching it’s ‘iPhone moment’.
“This is a trend that’s going to take over the world slowly,” he says. “I would compare today’s Oculus with the first iPhone. Every new version of it will be more polished and mainstream, helping it appeal to exponentially more people.
“You might look at it today and think it’s appealing to hardcore gamers, but that’s just the start of the revolution. In ten years, I think there will be VR hardware being worn by billions of people.”
[This feature was published in the April 2014 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]
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