"The Rift is an open platform," said Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, one month ago. "We don't control what software can run on it, and that's a big deal." A day later, dozens of headlines proudly proclaimed that Oculus wouldn't block virtual reality porn. Sadly, it's not true. Not the porn part... and maybe not the open part, either.
TechCrunch is reporting that — despite all the reports that the Oculus Rift would be a completely open platform — it will actually have an app store much like the ones on your smartphone right now. As in, Oculus (and owner Facebook) will have to pre-approve each and every app that appears on the store. Like Apple (or more recently, Google), it will play gatekeeper, and it will take a cut of the revenue.
Here's the quote: "We are going to monitor the content and make sure that it fits the policy we put up which is this safe and clean environment that everyone can know, and love, and trust just like other popular app stores...You're going to need to be approved first," said Brendan Iribe, Oculus CEO.
How the heck does "we don't control what software can run on it" jive with "we are going to monitor the content?" I asked Oculus that very question. A spokesperson told me that Palmer was merely talking about the Oculus Rift developer kit, and that developers could develop whatever they want. But where will developers sell what they have built?
Technically, there's something to Oculus's statement. In some sense, the Oculus Rift is just a fancy display hooked up to a Windows PC. You can run whatever you want. But depending on how integral Oculus's own interface is to the actual experience, the official Oculus Store might have a chilling effect on non-approved content.
Let's take a look at Android. I can sideload whatever apps I want onto my Android phone, just by going into the settings page and flipping a couple switches. But who does that? If I'm a developer, I want to build content people will pay for, and they will pay through Oculus. (Unless Oculus makes it really, really easy to access other app stores (like Steam) in virtual reality, which is what I'm secretly hoping will happen.)
Still, Oculus does have a pretty good reason for wanting to shield customers from things, and I'm not just talking about surprise buttsex. Virtual reality software can legitimately make you sick if it doesn't take your comfort into account, and Oculus will be giving each VR experience a comfort rating as part of the approval process. So you'll know if you're liable to get nauseous from a VR rollercoaster before you ride.
Why can't Oculus just trust developers to ensure comfort? Well... it already tried. At every developer talk I've attended, Oculus has made it crystal-clear that virtual reality experiences needed to run at 60 frames per second, minimum, at all times, to keep people from getting sick. And yet, when Oculus offered $US1 million in prizes for submissions for its Mobile VR Jam, plenty didn't listen:
My head hurts from evaluating VR Jam entries that aren't even close to 60 fps.
— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) May 21, 2015
So let's consider an example. Oculus tells us that the terms of service for the Oculus Store explicitly forbid pornographic content. So much for that. But any VR porn developer is free to make VR content that can run on the Rift as long as you buy it from their shady VR porn website. You've got to trust them with your credit card info, and that the resulting VR porn won't make you sick by, say, abruptly jerking your virtual head. Maybe, if you have a bad experience, you decide not to do it again.
Technically, the Rift is an open platform. But is it really? And could Oculus afford to make it completely open, even if it wanted to?