Oculus has a incredible product: a headset that can make you feel like you're in another world. With its upcoming motion controllers, Oculus Touch, you can even reach out and grab virtual objects. But a competing headset, the HTC Vive, will let you walk around in VR too — and it will ship this year, before Oculus can make its move.
I've tried both, and while Oculus Touch is pretty amazing — hell, even sitting down with an Oculus and a traditional Xbox One gamepad can be pretty fun — I really want to walk around. I very much doubt I'm going to have the cash for both headsets... so honestly I'm slightly leaning toward the Vive right now.
How is Oculus dealing with that? At E3 2015, I sat down with two of the company's founders to talk about the state of the Rift headset, and what kind of experience you should expect when it ships in the first quarter of next year. We talked about a variety of things, from the way the Rift will let you play Xbox One games to the Oculus Store experience. But perhaps the most interesting takeaway was that I probably shouldn't expect to walk around in VR very much, even if I buy a HTC Vive. At least not anytime soon.
Sour grapes? You decide. To me, they have got the ring of truth.
On Walking Around in Virtual Reality
For well over a year, Oculus has been taking flak from the VR community for saying the Oculus Rift was designed for "seated experiences," and the HTC Vive has put them on the defensive a tad. Here, you can see Oculus walking that rhetoric back a bit — trying to explain that the Oculus Rift can technically do more. But as you'll see, what it can technically do and where Oculus is focused are two different things.
Gizmodo: How far away are we from getting rid of the cord?
Palmer Luckey, Oculus founder: Far away.
How far away are we from letting me stand up and walk around a room?
Nate Mitchell, VP of Product: The Rift is designed for standing and seated experiences. The tracking system we've designed is specifically for that. You can stand up. Game developers are going to make some games that are standing, others are going to make some games that are seated, and you'll be able to play whatever experiences you want.
Palmer: In that Touch demo you saw, we had a second camera there. So our system is capable of working with multiple cameras, but for the most part we're focusing on people who just want to buy a system, get it out of the box, and have it work for seated and standing stuff.
Nate: That sensor right there, you unbox it, put it on your desk, plug it into your computer, plug the headset in, and you're basically done.
What comes with the final Oculus Rift: a headset, a camera, and an Xbox One gamepad.
What am I going to need to take my existing living room, which has furniture in it — coffee table, couch, some things I might walk into — and make it Rift ready?
Nate: A Rift-ready living room, in our opinion: just take a camera, put it on the table in front of you, sit down on your couch, and rock out.
What if I want to walk around?
Palmer: Well then, you'll need to move your furniture.
OK, I've moved the furniture. Is there any way I can set any boundaries, any way I can make sure I'm not walking into my walls?
Palmer: Defining boundaries for any given piece of software — that's a software thing, not necessarily hardware. If you can track something in a volume, you can define the boundaries of the space.
Is there any way us early adopters are going to be able to define the volume: to say my living room is X cubic feet, and "don't let me go further than this in the virtual world" so I don't smack into the walls?
Palmer: We're not talking about anything like that, but to be honest it's not our main focus. We don't want people think, "To use a Rift, I'm going to have to go home, clear out my living room, define the boundaries and all these things." There will be people who do that, and they're going to be able to do that with the Rift, but our primary focus isn't the people who know what they're doing — the ones who know that they're going to take crazy steps.
Nate: That's a significantly smaller group of people, especially from a game developer's perspective, right? If we were making a game and we want to sell it to a group of people, and we require a kind of room-scale, 15' x 15' space, we're selling to a group of people that's extremely small. And if we can't be successful, we're not going to be able to make games anymore.
We're trying to make a product that really delivers great true consumer VR to as many people as possible, and I think that's really important to kickstarting the VR ecosystem in general, not just for gaming.
Palmer: And we've been doing that with feedback from devs. One of the reasons that we're including the Xbox gamepad is because we want developers to know that every person who buys a Rift can play their game without buying extra things.
At the same time, we want devs to be able to make games that everyone can play, not just games that limited sets of people are able to play. Even if you are willing to clear out your living room, maybe you have a weird asymmetric living room. Maybe you have a smaller room than someone else. Devs will make games for that audience, probably especially ones that come over from HTC's hardware, but we're not encouraging developers to go that route.
On Reaching Out and Grabbing Things in Virtual Reality
Gizmodo: How do we know we're going to get great experiences for the Oculus Touch motion controllers?
Palmer: It's not an obvious given. How do we know we're going to see great content at launch? We very likely won't. It's taken years for people to figure out how to make good content with a gamepad, even though they have been using gamepads for decades to make traditional games. Using VR input to make games is something that's entirely new. Almost nobody has any experience with it. It's unlikely that people are going to figure it out in months, and it might even take longer than it took to figure how to make VR games for gamepads.
On the one hand, we're investing in content and we're going to make it happen. We're talking to a lot of developers who are really excited to work with VR input, but at the same time I wouldn't expect to see a lot of great content for Touch at launch, just because there's not much time for devs to figure out how to make great virtual reality input content.
A competing virtual reality controller technology: Valve's Lighthouse.
Here's a better question: To what degree can a developer build for Oculus Touch, and then also be building for all the other touch controllers that are going to compete with it? Any interoperability, any standards you're working on?
Palmer: Vive hasn't even announced what their consumer product is going to be. Neither has Morpheus. So we don't even know what their input is at this point. So far we're the only people who've announced what our final product's VR input is going to look like. So in terms of interoperability and features crossing over, it's really hard to say.
Is that a direction you want to go — do you want to go to interoperability so game developers can say "I want to support motion controls," rather than having to specifically support Oculus Touch or Valve's Lighthouse?
Nate: We don't want to go to a lowest common denominator.
Palmer: And that's what standards have to turn into. If we're trying to say "The top priority is supporting all people," that's a race to the bottom in terms of featureset.
Nate: What we want to deliver is the absolute best VR experiences, and that's not necessarily in line with interoperability.
Allegedly fake PS Move 2 renders, via Sonyrumors.net
Palmer: Just to give a concrete example, did you see the fake Sony PlayStation Move 2 renders, the ones Sony came out and said were fake? Those didn't have any analogue sticks. Let's just pretend that they decided "We're not going to have any analogue sticks, just a trigger and two buttons." If you were to make a standard that everyone could easily interoperate with, it would mean that all motion control games would be built around that set of interactions.
Nate: Which we don't think is the right set.
Palmer: We wouldn't have any finger tracking, you wouldn't have any kind of other analogue inputs — that's not going to be the best thing in the long run.
To be fair, is this what the final Oculus Touch looks like? You've said this is Oculus Touch, but you've also said it's just the Half Moon Prototype of Oculus Touch.
Palmer: When we showed Crystal Cove, that largely became DK2 with no major changes. Same with Crescent Bay. We've made industrial design changes and ergonomics changes, but functionally it's the same. It's using very similar displays, the same refresh rate, a lot of the same hardware, the same tracking system.
The Oculus Crescent Bay prototype, which largely became the headset that will ship to consumers.
You did go to two display panels from one display panel, but...
Palmer: The prototypes that we're showing are largely representative of what Touch is going to be. There aren't going to be any fundamental changes...
Nate: Well, there may be some good fundamental changes for the better. We have some more things planned for Touch, but...
Palmer: Everything you can see on Touch, you'll be able to do at least that.
On What You'll Be Able to Play in Virtual Reality
Gizmodo: Tell me about the difference between an Oculus game, and a virtual reality PC game that just happens to run on Oculus. You say it's an open platform, that you can run anything on it because it's just a display with controllers...
Palmer: Well, you just defined the difference.
'laughs' OK, maybe I have, but tell me about the Oculus part of it. What kind of stuff do you want to put in the Oculus Store, as opposed to...
Nate: I don't differentiate the same way at all, actually. I think that all the games that run on your Rift, you can consider to be Rift games — just like any game that runs on your iPhone is an iPhone game, or any games that run on your Android are Android games. It doesn't necessarily matter where you got them from.
Palmer: We don't say it's not an Oculus game...
Nate: ...because it's not in the store. That doesn't make sense.
Palmer: Developers can distribute however they want. Our goal isn't to pull people into our store, so much as it is to make sure devs have a place to get their games out. If they want to use our store, that's great.
Nate: And so that users know if they come and buy something from the Oculus Store, that they're going to have a great experience.
What kind of great experience does it need to be to get into the store?
Palmer: It's largely the same as [Oculus Share]. It needs to not be broken. It needs to work. Our goal isn't to make everything in the store make everyone feel comfortable, for example, but we do want to provide tools so people will know when an experience will be uncomfortable for them.
Nate: It needs to run, basically flawlessly, on the recommended system specification. That's really important.
Palmer: That's not really too crazy of a restriction considering our recommended spec is pretty high-end hardware.
Nate: If you go buy a recommended spec PC today or when the Rift ships in Q1 and you go to the Oculus Store, the goal is that everything is going to run great, 90 frames per second, no framerate hiccups or drops, on your machine no problem.
On Bringing Xbox, PC games, and Multimedia to the Headset
You can stream Xbox One games to an Oculus Rift, too — but only onto a virtual television.
You showed off Xbox games running in a 2D environment inside a 3D room. Is that exclusive to Xbox or can I do that with all my PC games?
Nate: It's exclusive to Xbox. For now.
Palmer: Just to be clear, that's not a licensing thing. "Can I play all my PC games?" You say it like that's a simple thing. "Just all my PC games?" It's a huge undertaking to make all PC games work well like that.
Nate: It was especially easy for us because Xbox, they'd already done a lot of the streaming technology to Windows, they already had a video stream hitting Windows 10, and they just hand us...
Palmer: It's VR Cinema, you just have to take a video stream and put it on a screen.
But the idea of putting a virtual 2D monitor inside of Oculus Rift: is that a technological hurdle you haven't yet solved?
Palmer: Doing it with low latency can be tricky on a per-game basis. There's just a lot of tricks to that. You can make any PC game work on Virtual Desktop, you've probably played games on Virtual Desktop, or maybe you haven't...
Palmer: The functionality is possible, but getting it working perfectly for everything is difficult.
Nate: That's definitely not going to be something we're shipping with.
Palmer: I should just mention, Virtual Desktop already exists... there's already software that does this, so us going out there and making this a core part of the functionality when there are games that have trouble with it — it's not a clear win for consumers.
What else is core functionality on day one? Xbox gamepad, Oculus Store, friends list, playing Oculus Store games...
Nate: That's all we're talking about for right now.
Oculus Cinema? Multimedia applications?
Nate: That's all we're talking about for right now, but we're going to be talking a lot more about that stuff over the next few months — especially at Oculus Connect 2.
At E3, it's all about games.