Emerging on the scene out of nowhere exactly one month ago on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, virtual reality headset Oculus Rift has taken the industry by storm.
Promising to be the next step in gaming and offering a fully immersive experience at an affordable price, the tech has garnered more then $2.4million in pledges from over 9,000 backers at the time of writing, smashing its $250,000 goal.
With well over 6,000 developer kits sold through the headset's crowdfunding initiative, Develop spoke to the company’s new CEO, former Gaikai CPO and Scaleform founder Brendan Iribe, about his plans for Oculus and why it took to Kickstarter, given it has a number of high profile supporters and reasonably wealthy founders and investors.
A game changer
When speaking to Iribe, it was easy to see why he’d left Gaikai, which was recently acquired by Sony for $380million. His infectious enthusiasm for the tech ensured that he truly believes the virtual reality headset will be a game changer in the industry.
“It’s one of those rare moments when you experience something that you know is going to change the world in a big way, and certainly change the gaming industry,” says Iribe.
“I’ve been a fan of the potential of virtual reality and being able to jump in the Holodeck, put on a headset and be in the virtual world, and its never come true. Every headset that has come out, every VR has been pretty disappointing.
“For the for the first time, you’ve got this headset the Oculus Rift and you’re suddenly in the game, you’re looking around, it’s tracking perfectly to your head, so your eyes are the camera. You can look and move around in the game very seamlessly.
“You can still use the gamepad or some other peripheral so it feels very familiar and natural to you, but at the same time you’re looking in this virtual world, and the real world you’re use to looking at is gone, and you don’t see that anymore.”
Aside from his obvious passion for the device, when asked precisely why the technology could change the industry, he explains that it had already received support from a number of industry luminaries such as Michael Abrash, John Carmack, Gabe Newell and Cliff Bleszinksi, proving that there was a market for virtual reality.
“I think when you see these key gaming industry evangelists saying the same thing, that this is that kind of seminal point of that change of going from the 2D world on a screen into a true stereo 3D virtual reality augmented reality world, and this is the beginning, that’s where the change happens,” he states.
“You see consoles coming, just like computers, continuing to get faster, with better graphics, physics and AI, but at the end of the day it’s still the same experience. It just looks better and plays a little bit better.
“When you have something like Oculus Rift and virtual reality that you can put on your head and suddenly transform into the game, it really is very revolutionary, it’s something very new.
“Carmack has equated it – I don’t want to put words in his mouth – to that next step. The first step was from 2D to 3D, and the next step is from 3D to virtual reality.”
Competing in a packed market
But whilst many developers have expressed their enthusiasm and intention to support the device, with Doom 3 and Hawken set to be released on the tech, will consumers take to virtual reality and leave behind their consoles, mobiles and tablets?
Despite its undoubted potential to provide an immersive experience, it will be sometime before the headset gains its own exclusive content.
And on top of that it will have to be bought on top of buying a PC or a console, meaning consumers could be turned off by the extra outlay of money, and it will be a tough sell particularly once the initial fanfare fades away.
Iribe says that the Oculus Rift will initially be available on PC, which he calls the Holy Grail for VR.
He adds that he and the other founders understand that there will be a relatively small audience at first compared to its rivals, but states the sale of dev kits through Kickstarter at least has already surpassed expectation.
“We’re not expecting games companies to come out and make virtual reality-only games and not support anything else right now, when we’re still in the development kit land,” admits Iribe.
“But we are expecting there to be games designed specifically for virtual reality starting to be announced to ship in line with the consumer version.
"Whether that’s PC only, mobiles or consoles, that’s really up to the developers, partners and the manufacturing content partners going forward, but I definitely see it on the PC.
“That’s where the Holy Grail is. When you have games that really are designed for virtual reality, just like when you have games specifically designed for any platform whether it’s Wii, iPhone, or iPad, that’s where you get some of the very best and most compelling experiences.
"On virtual reality it is even more crucial because of the new immersion level, you can do some amazing stuff with this.”
Despite ambitions to bring it to console, given the traditional closed nature of these manufacturers, making this a reality could be a lot tougher than simply asking console developers to make their titles also VR compatible.
Iribe remains confident however, and whilst he recognises the need to form relationships with the big manufacturers such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, he believes there is a big future for the device on next-gen consoles.
“PCs and next-gen consoles are now getting to the performance capabilities where they can run 60FPS stereo 3D games that look photorealistic,” he says.
“There’s content that could be in virtual reality today on existing consoles, but it’s going to be on a lower realism level compared to what you are going to see coming out in the very near future on modern PCs and next-gen consoles.”
Given the enormous ambitions of its creators and investors, the impressive array of A-list developers supporting the tech and the fact Oculus has already gone through an initial round of funding, with Iribe himself, Michael Antonov and other investors on board, why does Oculus need to be taken to a crowdfunding website such as Kickstarter?
Iribe says the site is a great way of not having to meet with a number of venture capitalists and beg for money, and would potentially also help avoid the tough and “labour intensive” early days he experienced at Scaleform.
He adds that the company now has enough money to operate well, and has a fully committed team behind it.
When asked whether Kickstarter was being used as a promotional tool, Iribe admitted it was an excellent platform to get the virtual reality headset into the public eye and into the hands of developers early on.
“Yes. I mean, I think it’s a great vehicle to use for marketing a product,” he says.
“We’re not marketing a consumer product right now, we’re marketing a developer product. Game developers and software developers are all very hip to the internet and hip to Kickstarter, it is the world that they live in.
“So launching a developer kit on Kickstarter and marketing it that way has proved to be very successful and a great avenue for us instead of doing it all ourselves.”
He added that Kickstarter was crucial for Oculus in the sense that it was key to see the amount of support the headset could obtain and what its market potential was.
“It’s critical to see that support and the number of developers out there wanting to get involved is super important,” he explains.
“It proves to us that there is an incredible market opportunity, there’s a lot of demand. We’re now going to be able to get developer kits into the hands of everyone who pledges first. I think it makes it very much a community effort.
"This initiative needs to be very much a community effort, we need developer support, there’s a lot of work developers need to do, there’s a lot of work we need to do on the software side to enable everybody to be able to do this and so getting it out there on Kickstarter really allowed us to launch successfully.
“As far as the actual dollar that we raise from Kickstarter, it is certainly important. We’re a small start-up company. That allows us to go out and fund that first set of developer kits without having to run to the institutional big VCs and beg them for money.”
He added that Kickstarter had saved Oculus from having to ask from several million dollars from those very VCs, although this does not seem to fit with the low $250,000 target it asked contributors for on its Kickstarter campaign, suggesting it was a more promotional exercise than Iribe lets on.
This raises questions over whether Oculus truly needed to be taken to Kickstarter, somewhat akin to those levelled at hackable console Ouya.
But despite perhaps not needing to take to crowdfunding in a fundraising sense, the virtual reality headset has certainly caught the imagination of consumers and developers, and could really end up being the next step inimmersive gaming.
But it has plenty of hurdles to cross before it gets there.
Click here to visit the official Oculus website.