With the Oculus Rift headset due to launch early in 2016 after what feels like an eternity of build up, consumer level virtual reality is about to transition into an actual reality. It’s potentially a turning point for the games industry, and has huge implications for fields as disparate as engineering, medicine, and communications. But there are challenges too — the technology could prove alienating to all but hardcore enthusiasts, and there’s still little in the way of confirmed software.
Wired.co.uk speaks with Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe on building the VR market, partnering with Facebook, how often Oculus Rift will improve upon the consumer hardware, and where the future for VR lies.
WIRED.co.uk: VR feels as though it’s been on the cusp of “happening” for years. Do you think Oculus announced too early, that the buzz could be over before anything’s launched?
Brendan Iribe: Actually, I think the momentum continues to build. The excitement in the community and industry is getting more mature. There are more and more companies turning up and getting involved with development, so now the ecosystem is producing real experiences. It’s all being targeted at the launch.
In a typical hardware cycle leading up to a launch you need to have development kits with the developers for quite a while, and that’s what’s happening now. We’ve got 180,000 developer kits out there in the world. I don’t think there’s ever been a hardware project where that many developer kits have been given out before launch. The momentum builds as more and more companies are getting involved and everyone has their eyes set on 2016.
How has the Facebook acquisition changed things internally at Oculus? Has it affected what you want to see Oculus become?
Facebook really supercharged not just Oculus around recruiting and development but the VR industry. There was VR before Oculus, [but it] was the same for decades, incrementally trying to iterate old designs without tracking and small fields of view. Then there was Oculus kicking off and people getting really excited and showing similar designs with cell-phone screens and wider fields of views. When Facebook acquired Oculus, the game changed immediately. You saw big companies jumping in. You saw people like Google getting fully committed and then Microsoft came along with HoloLens — there was a lot of stuff that people were doing before but now the space really ignited. There’s rumours about what Apple was doing when that happened.
Overall it’s only continued; Facebook getting involved helped us grow our team by several hundred percent. We leveraged their platform infrastructure and relationships with server manufacturers. So we were able to step up our game from a startup to a worldwide leading company.
How long do you think it’ll take to transfer from an enthusiast’s product to something your grandma would be comfortable using?
That’s a really good question. In the early days of a new industry it’s almost always enthusiasts — whether it was the first set of cars, telephones or personal computers — and this is the beginning of real consumer VR. So it’ll be dominated by early consumers, enthusiasts and gamers who are really passionate about it, but then it’ll expand very quickly because with the internet the world is a very small place. When Mark [Zuckerberg] shares something, it gets tens of millions of views within minutes — that’s unprecedented. I think you’ll see it take off very quickly but it will start more around enthusiasts. There are millions of sci-fi enthusiasts in the world, not just gamers. It’s going to be easy enough with a decent PC that you can plug it in and get good experiences with Rift.
The dream was never [original headset, Dev Kit 1] or DK 2. They were examples and hints of the future, glimmers of hope. But [consumer] Rift V1 really delivers what I imagine to be that dream and when people take it off we keep hearing “this is it! This is what we’ve been wanting!” That’s what’s going to happen in Q1 2016. Millions of people are going to get it and then show to millions of other people. It’s the sort of thing you call up your friends and get them to come over to see.
There have been at least four publicly known versions of Oculus since the Kickstarter. How often do you think the hardware will actually iterate post-release?
The product cycle for the Oculus Rift will be between the rapid six-month cycle of cell-phones and the slower seven-year cycle of consoles. It’s rare to see a phone not coming out every year. I think you can imagine every few years being the usual cadence. We will have prototypes in-between so we’ll have a new demo or prototype or dev kit to show every year. That’s not the same as saying we’ll have a customer product to show every year but we’ll have new tech to show.
There’s decades of innovations ahead. We’re at the very beginning, where it’s just at the stage where we can bring in consumers [but] there’s so much further to go from there.
What do you think is the next step for Oculus?
The big step is to get consumers in. Whatever comes next in the future, whatever great innovations we unlock, if we don’t establish a great consumer market and userbase around Rift then we’re not going to have a runway to use in future. We really need to get a good consumer market going on Rift, which is what we’re focused on. We have an exciting research group working on some magical things that are really easy to get caught up talking and dreaming about — like when [the hardware] is going to be sunglasses-sized or true 3D capture, or teleporting with your friends and talking face-to-face, crossing the uncanny valley – that’s going to take a long time to happen. Over the next few years those thresholds and breakthroughs will happen until we reach the point where VR is as ubiquitous as smartphones.
Where do you see the market for VR being, outside of gaming?
Communications is going to be one of the big ones. It’s hard to say — in a decade or two, we’ll look back on our predictions and see how more than half of them didn’t pan out. You just don’t know. It’s hard to say right now at the very beginning. I remember hearing a Steve Jobs interview in 1983 around the Mac and the future of computing. He said one day it would be in the palm of your hand. He knew it would happen one day but not that it would take twenty five years — he was working on it every couple of years but the hardware wasn’t ready. We’re going to have this incredible experience but to get to smartglasses with great 3D capture, we don’t know how long that’ll take. Probably not as long as it took for PCs to go mobile.
This is the moment we’ve been waiting for so long: consumer VR that delivers quality experience, and each version is going to create a stronger presence. The important thing is hands, being able to look and see your own hands looking natural is something we’ve really focussed on. We’ve waited to reveal it and we wanted other people to reveal their own stuff first, so no-one was adopting our stuff and doing their own ways first. We went with a lot of ways but our Touch device is the path for the future. I think you’re going to see a lot of developers changing path to go our way, because holding a stick in your hand isn’t going to work in the world. You really want to see your hands. The Rift brings a visual presence, Touch brings hand presence and that amplifies the entire experience to just reach out and pick things up.
A common suggestion is that VR could be used to train surgeons. Is it actually advanced or detailed enough for that yet?
I think it’s very close. You’ll start to see some early development around that as resolution goes up, as tracking gets even more precise with fine-grain tools. Instead of touch controls you might want a specialized tool — in the medical market, they can afford to get a third party scalpel tool that tracks and doesn’t have a real blade but feels like a real one. I think that’ll happen in the next five years and you’ll start to see it in medicine, architecture, all kinds of industries adopting VR.
Even if you’re building a car, when you get to smartglasses you can say to engineers, designers and executives “just toss on your smartglasses and see the new model we’ve made”. You could put them on and instantly feel like you’re sitting in the car. It’s a very social experience, which is something we’ve learned alongside how important seeing your hands is. Seeing other people is incredibly engaging and that’s one of the drivers that made us partner with Facebook — social communication. Not social newsfeeds but actual face-to-face seeing multiple avatars in a play experience, that’s going to be a very big part of the future in VR.
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