They grow up so fast. Last Friday I sat down with Oculus Rift wunderkind Palmer Luckey to discuss the future of VR. He spoke candidly about why he doesn't feel threatened by Sony's Morpheus and, most tellingly, Oculus' responsibility to help make great VR games. The full thing is over at RPS.
In light of the fact that Oculus had apparently already hashed out the Facebook deal by this point, Luckey actually said some pretty illuminating stuff under the guise of continued independence. He did it with a believable sincerity too, his eyes constantly lighting up and darting about like fireflies.
But let's break down what exactly happened that day with the recent Facebook announcement in mind. First, there's the biggest concern that's cropped up since: is Oculus secretly looking to get out of the game development space in a hurry? Well, despite Facebook's stated goal of plugging our eye sockets into the "most social platform ever," statements made more recently and in this interview certainly don't seem to suggest it.
During our conversation, Luckey was adamant that Oculus has a responsibility to aid in the creation of novel and interesting virtual reality game experiences, and it's staffing up to make sure it does the job right.
You're obviously hiring quite a few people right now. How much is that about providing support to other game developers and creators? Is aiding in game development one of your central priorities?
Yeah, we very much are, that's why we have such a strong developer outreach team, and developer support team, because we want to help every developer as much as we can if they want to make a VR experience. That's what we've been doing this whole past year with things like our game jam, and with our sharing website, and with our developer forum, and with all of that staff we're hiring around developer relations.
Meanwhile, you've also been pretty adamant that you view Oculus Rift and the very concept of VR itself as a platform, while companies like Sony are more keen to make it about extending the capabilities of preexisting platforms.
We're focusing explicitly on VR. That's the only thing we care about, is the best VR experience. We're not making compromises to work with existing hardware, or making compromises to try and cut costs so that we can use existing accessories, we're trying to build something from the ground up that is the best VR experience in the world.
Facebook hasn't exactly been subtle about its intentions to expand VR into mobile territory, a fact that's sent more than a few former Oculus diehards to their local pitchfork and torch emporium. But when I spoke with him, Luckey outlined why mobile VR has always been Oculus' endgoal. And while I personally identify as a PC gamer, his reasoning does make sense: why be tethered to a giant calculator when you could be roaming VR's vistas without restraint?
You're very PC-focused at the moment, but what happens next? Do you think you'll expand to other areas, especially given that you now have competition encroaching on things like console and mobile?
Maybe. I mean, we're not ruling anything out, but right now we're focused on PC and mobile.
How do you plan to expand into mobile? What's happening there?
That is the long term end-game for the mobile hardware. We'll get as powerful as top of the line PCs today, and you'll be able to build it into the VR headset for next to nothing. That means you can do a lot of different things without being tethered to an expensive box, it can all be in the headset itself, and it'll take years to get there. It'll take years to get to an experience that is as good as the PC one today, but it is- that is the eventual endgame.
What do you think, when all of that technology consolidates and streamlines, when you have that form factor, of just all of that power in such a small thing – what do you think happens to the openness and hackability of PCs?
I don't know. I have no idea. I know that VR has a lot of demands that are not necessarily suited to PC. Like, you want to have everything as responsive as possible, preferably you'd have a real time operating system, but it's gonna be a while until we get there. I don't know what it means for everyone, though.
That goal, of course, puts even more distance between Oculus Rift and Sony's rather similar (at least, for the moment) Project Morpheus. The newly announced headset has a PlayStation-4-shaped ball-and-chain around its ankle, making it more peripheral than platform. Or at least, that's how Luckey saw it. The long and short of it? He wasn't particularly impressed.
There's obviously a number of various VR options here [at GDC]. Have you tried out any of the others that are at the show?
I won't say, but there's nothing that's even close to what we're doing, in my opinion.
Not even Morpheus, Sony's uncrowned (and unopposed) king of console VR?
Are you worried about exclusives in the future? Obviously you have EVE Valkyrie locked down on PC, but Sony snagged it on consoles. What about further down the line, though? Seeing as Oculus is the only thing that even remotely counts as a competitor, what happens if Sony starts trying to pick up exclusives on all platforms, PC or not?
Who cares? People have always done this. Every platform has always had exclusives. There's gonna be a lot of people who would rather work on PC, where there's going to be a lot more power to work with, than a console that's going to remain stuck for the better part of a decade.
You also have a big advantage on the experimental front. Oculus is a fairly open platform. People can't, for instance, workshop a crazy idea and have it up and running on PS4 in, like, a day.
That's why there's hundred of experiences that have already been made for our platform that are things that could never be done on a traditional gaming platform, and we learned so much from being open, and getting that kit out to people, not just working with a few golden developers behind closed doors.
Finally, I closed out by asking Luckey about his vision of VR's future. We now, of course, know that the answer is, er, Facebook. But with Facebook not yet in the picture (or at least, unable to be discussed), where exactly did he see his head-mounted baby heading? Easy: onto your hands first, and then eventually into your brain.
So that's your optimal form factor for VR, but what about optimal input? I mean, keyboard-and-mouse is barely doable, and controllers work a little better, but they're hardly perfect.
Gamepads are an acceptable input, not an optimal input. Keyboard-and-mouse is terrible. For VR. I love it for everything else.
So we're doing a lot of R&D around input. I think the key thing is that input is a misnomer. It's not about input, it's about input AND output. And VR is all about that. Our headset is not just a display device. It's a device that measures what you're doing in the real world, feeds that into the game, then feeds you back the appropriate signal.
I think that VR input devices need to do the same. They need to be able to reach out into the world, input data into it in a natural way, and then also receive haptic feedback out that matches what you should be feeling, as closely as possible. And that's not light shaking or buzzing, which is all that we have right now. Getting shot, your hands are shaking. Running, your hands are shaking. Earthquake, your hands are shaking. Not enough gas in your car, your hands are shaking. That's not nearly good enough.
Do you think we need more varied haptic feedback, then? Like, material that can both rumble and change consistency/texture?
You want something as close as possible. I mean, actual force feedback is tough, but skin sheer and texture simulation are feasible in the near future.
I also think locomotion devices are interesting, and I think that they're going to improve rapidly, but I don't think any of them solved locomotion today, because on a fundamental level, they are not able to solve the biggest problem, which is dealing with your balance system, all the way from your brain to your feet, when you're accelerating and when you're decelerating.
So I probably won't be playing my dream Oculus Rift ice-skating game any time soon?
Luckey: Not anytime soon, no.
And I also think that the best way to do this… the real dream is to tap into the brain, or to tap into the nervous system, and simulate these things. As long as we're limited to basically strapping things onto the very ends of our senses, you know, oh, strap something in front of my eye, or the end of my hand, over my ear… as long as you're doing that, you're going to be limited in what you can do with it.
Thank you for your time. Be safe, and don't fall in a hole or get bought by Facebook or anything like that!
OK, maybe I didn't actually say that last part.