One-on-one interview: Oculus VR's Head of Mobile on the new $99 Samsung Gear VR
If you aren't a developer and you go to a developer's conference, you might not find a lot to get excited about. But when the subject is virtual reality and the company is Oculus, well, we get a bit like kids in a candy store. After Oculus VR and Samsung announced the new US$99 Gear VR headset today, we caught up with Oculus' Head of Mobile Max Cohen.
We spent some time playing upcoming Oculus Rift and Gear VR games today, and we'll run our impressions before long. But for now, we'll let someone who knows much more than we do about virtual reality do the talking.
Gizmag: How does the new consumer Gear VR compare to the Innovator Editions?
Max Cohen (Head of Mobile, Oculus VR): Once you're in VR, it's going to be a pretty similar experience.
Feeling the weight difference in the Innovator Edition, that's the biggest thing. When you hold it in your hand, especially when you hold them both in, [the new consumer version] is a very clear improvement.
Gizmag: There's no strap on the top of the new version?
Cohen: There is – it's optional, but there is going to be a top strap on it.
The touchpad's been improved, so it's just hard, when you're "blind," to be able to know where the control is on here. [On the consumer version] it's a little bit better, with some ridges here [indicates the touchpad on the headset's right side]. So it's easier to use for games.
The main thing is the fact that this mechanism [indicates where the phone slides in] has been changed, so you can slide this back for the Note 5 and S6 edge+, or if it's slid forward you can fit the S6 or S6 edge. So it's closer to a universal headset.
And that's essentially what we talked about at Oculus, even a year ago when people asked why are we just doing this on the Note 4 at Samsung? One, we needed their technology, you need the Super AMOLED screen, you need to be able to go low persistence, you needed the 1,440p screens that they offered. There were a number of reasons to work with them.
Then on the software side as well, there were a number of optimizations done to Android that we kinda worked together on. And what we said is that Samsung is the biggest and the best Android manufacturer, and that's only sure to increase in time. And I think what you're seeing is the realization of that now.
So before it was just the Note 4, then there was a separate headset for the S6. It's still something where you have to wonder "if I change my phone, do I have to get a new headset every time?" I can't speak to what will happen in the future, but here's a pretty good example of a consumer priced headset, $99, that works for a huge number of phones now, when you include the four models.
The reason we worked with Samsung was because the Note 4 was kind of the minimum bar that Oculus was comfortable with in terms of VR. We want to be very high quality, very smooth, low latency experience. With low persistence. And as time goes on, that [can] expand to a lot more models in Samsung's lineup, but still you need Samsung's screens for this, you need the OLEDs, you need the power of the chipsets that are in there, and it actually is a really good match for what we want to do at Oculus, and the hardware that Samsung can provide.
Gizmag: Do you have any plans to eventually expand into broader Android, rather than just working with Samsung?
Cohen: We are very happy with our relationship [with Samsung].
Gizmag: Tell us about Oculus Arcade, the new Gear VR app that lets you play classic arcade titles in a virtual arcade.
Cohen: We just love that idea of the classic games. It was something that Michael Abrash, when he tried it out, he had read Ready Player One, and he thought the idea of playing these video arcade games in VR really didn't make much sense. When we were down in Irvine, I had him try it because he didn't know what it was, and [afterwards] he was like "that was actually really fun."
... and I thought that it was kinda neat because the way we feel at Oculus is there's not going to be one application that everyone wants, although Netflix is pretty close to it. But you need a wide variety, because some people are going to want to play classic games. Some people are going to want Eve Gunjack and with the high-end graphics. Others want the relaxing puzzle experience of Land's End. There's going to be this variety that's going to continue ...
When we were in the Innovator Edition mode, you could get to the end of the store. You basically could get to the point where you've gone through everything, and it was still enjoyable and people would sideload movies into Oculus Cinema, and the usage stats were actually incredibly good for what's essentially a developer edition. But what we wanted to do with the consumer edition was we want to have bottomless content where you can't get to the end of it.
So [now we have] things like Vimeo, where there's access to thousands of films, and you can go into Oculus Video, watching Twitch live-streams, having the Netflix catalog, Hulu ... Tivo will be bringing content as well.
All these partners on the video side, and on the gaming side it's really just about getting more games and getting deeper games. So a lot of the games that are coming out now, like Anshar Wars 2, Esper 2, they've been in development for a year, and that's what it takes to make a good game. So we kinda started [with these upcoming titles] as people got excited with the Innovator Edition. But you're gonna start to see the fruits of that labor over the next few months.
Gizmag: Now that we're seeing the library grow, with deeper games, will the games now start getting more console-like?
Cohen: It's gonna be more like a portable console than a full console thing.
Gizmag: The Oculus Rift is still the console.
Cohen: The Rift is much closer to the console, in terms of the power it gives you, but the portability is kind of the big winner [with the Gear VR]. I carry this headset around in my backpack all the time. John [Carmack] wasn't kidding about going to the executive summit and taking it out of his backpack. We've got the phone in our pocket and the headset with us and you're good to go.
And so that's something where there's no question that the Rift quality of VR is in a whole other level. It's best in class, 90 Hz, you can move around, [the Oculus] Touch controllers are amazing, a lot of fun.
[The Gear VR is] not gonna be there tomorrow because [the 2015 Galaxy flagships] can't handle that, but in a couple years, though, it can. And so we look at it as we have [Oculus Research] led by Michael Abrash where we're really pushing the bleeding edge of VR: a lot of that filters in first into Rift. And then the Rift technology is gonna filter into portable in Gear VR.
So kinda having these three, it gives us the advantage: our company is fully dedicated to VR. That's the only thing we do. And it allows us the flexibility to think a little bit longer-term, and make sure we're not going for quick wins but instead doing it right. And I think that the last year Gear VR kinda shows that.
We could have pushed harder all year, we could have gone out and paid for content. We could have done a bunch of stuff. But what we really needed was to get hardware in people's hands that could start developing. And it happened. And I'm really happy with where we are today, leading into November and the future.
John [Carmack] mentioned that he thinks games will be slightly less than 50 percent [of total VR content, eventually]. If you look at the stats right now, the movie watching, whether it's Milk VR or 360 videos or just even Oculus Cinema type of stuff. That is far greater than 50 percent right now of time spent.
I think it'll change a little bit based on some of the games that are coming out and the high quality of them, but those are things that we needed [the Innovator Editions] out [in the hands of people] to learn. Would we have gone and wanted to work with Netflix on Day One? Maybe. But a year ago, I mean it wouldn't have been necessarily the best fit for the Innovator Edition. But it's more consumer-oriented now, and what we've learned from people actually using the headset, it's helped us point our efforts in certain directions.
Gizmag: So the new $99 Gear VR is full-on consumer now – there are no asterisks, no strings attached?
Cohen: This is consumer Gear VR.
Gizmag: I assume we'll see the marketing start to match that a little more?
Cohen: That's a Samsung question, but I think what you'll find is that whereas Gear VR has been for tech enthusiasts, early adopters and developers, I think that it will still appeal most to that crowd – but the crowd will widen and the content will widen to match that.
Gizmag: The content is ready for everybody else.
Cohen: Yes, exactly.
John [Carmack] also said that one of the best things to do with Gear VR is to show your friends. And there's nothing wrong with that, that's what I do all the time. But we want to make sure that people who buy it don't feel like they just have a neat thing.
Gizmag: It's not just a show-off device, it's something you want to use every day.
And for a lot of people and a lot of our customers, that's the case right now. But we just want to make sure that works for everyone. And I think the price point going from $199 to $99 is also going to help a lot.
Gizmag: What about the social elements we heard about in today's keynote, and how that relates to video content?
Cohen: You'll be able to buy X-Men for instance and you'll be able to invite friends over to your virtual living room effectively, and they'll be able to watch it with you.
Gizmag: It's surprising – sitting in a virtual living room watching something doesn't sound very interesting, but you really feel like you're there, so it becomes this social space.
Cohen: [The mobile team, which is usually in Dallas, and I] were watching a short movie, and I was in the front row, and I heard a joke and I turned around and laughed and they all just burst out laughing because they felt like I was turning around looking at them. And I was actually a devil avatar.
Michael [Abrash] and John [Carmack] both talked about how important audio is for presence. And although you're not gonna get true presence on Gear VR often – you can in some very specific circumstances, but because of the lack of positional tracking it's not gonna happen that often – that audio and knowing that there's thought behind this head and that it's not a computer generated image, it's really a pretty powerful feeling.
Gizmag: This social element that's starting to creep in a bit helps to explain Facebook. When the sale first happened, a lot of people were like "why Facebook?" But some of the social stuff, this kinda ties it all together.
Cohen: When Facebook first approached us, the idea that we wanted is to be in that Metaverse, to be with all of our friends. And I am on Whatsapp, Messenger and Hangouts concurrently, anytime I walk anywhere, with friends that are scattered all over the world. And that works, but there's something beyond just seeing a quick profile picture of them as they talk and being able to feel like you're with them.
Another thing we talk about is getting to the point where you can have true telepresence, where my grandmother is 94 years old in Baltimore and I have a two year-old here. And so when he has his birthday party, could my grandmother put on a headset and feel like she's here and maybe out of a phone or speaker or something like that we can actually engage with her, even if we're not in VR. You need some advances in 360 consumer grade cameras and things like that [before that can happen].
But she's never gonna make it out to California and [letting her visit via VR] is something that's an incredibly powerful concept. And while it might not be right to productionize that technology today, that's one of the reasons we're here, it's one of the reasons we're passionate about VR.
Gizmag: Tell us about some of the new content announced today for Gear VR.
Cohen: Minecraft will be on both Rift and Gear VR. We had Land's End, by ustwo (makers of Monument Valley) [...] things like Hitman Go by Square Enix, we've got Esper 2, Anshar Wars 2 [....] also all the Facebook 360 videos are coming into Gear VR. There's the Lebron James Experience, an 8 to 10 minute long form piece, which is gonna be really cool [....] There's also a piece by the Clinton Global Initiative about climate change in Africa, and you can experience that.
There's a little bit of everything, we're firing on all cylinders right now with the various areas of content that are coming out.
Gizmag: I noticed there was a big improvement in lens fog from the Note 4 version of the Gear VR Innovator Edition to the S6 version. Is there another improvement on the consumer version, or is it about the same?
Cohen: Yeah, ideally. [...] The hardware is done by Samsung, so they've changed the material on here [indicates foam padding on mask of previous Innovator Edition], so it actually is more comfortable in terms of the air flow with venting and all that.
And that's basically what it is, if there's a temperature differential between the phone and the glass, that's what you get the condensation from and that's just chemistry. So you basically need to ameliorate it through trying to vent it as quickly as possible, so it's not noticeable, and they've made a lot of improvements, and they're still tweaking hardware. But that's something that we talk about every day, because obviously we want it to be a good experience.
Big thanks to Max and Oculus for taking the time to chat with us. Stay tuned for much more from Gizmag on the Oculus Rift and new Gear VR.