Extended interview: The Oculus Rift, in its creators' own words
After yesterday's Oculus Rift launch event, we were able to spend some time with some of the company's top executives, as they answered questions from us and other press members milling about. Read on, to hear the answers to many of your questions about the new Oculus Rift – straight from the people who made it.
Oculus' top execs discussed everything from the basic to the advanced, from right now to many years down the road, ranging from short quotes to detailed explanations. We spliced together the highlights of the chat to help you get a closer look at the company and its first consumer product.
Note that we're leading into each quote with a paraphrased (but accurate) version of the question or topic. Oculus' answers, of course, are verbatim.
Will streaming Xbox One games to the Oculus Rift (via Windows 10) require a gaming PC with the Rift's full recommended specs (including Nvidia GTX 970 GPU)?
Product VP Nate Mitchell: "For all the Oculus applications, we are targeting the [GTX] 970 as the recommended spec, so [streaming to a PC that doesn't meet those specs] may not work. For Windows 10 streaming, you're gonna want the recommended specs."
How will Rift owners set up the consumer version at home?
Mitchell: "... you put on the headset and the cable goes over the back of your head.
We wanted to make it incredibly simple, so you take the sensor out of the box, set it down, plug it into your PC and you're done."
How does the consumer Oculus Rift's weight compare to that of the Crescent Bay prototype?
Mitchell: "This is a durable consumer product, and you want it to be able to be knocked around a little bit to live on your desk for a long period of time. So it's a little heavier [than Crescent Bay]."
Will the Oculus Rift let you adjust the focus for your vision, like on the Gear VR?
Mitchell: "We decided not to do focus. [...] We decided to support as many glasses rims as we could. And so we've designed the facial interface to better suit more glasses frames. Mine are actually a little big, but the goal is that we can get more glasses in there.
The dial is actually for interaxial distance, so it moves the lenses to match the distance between your eyes, which you need regardless of whether you wear glasses, contacts or anything else. Because if [the interaxial distance] is really wonky and you have a really big head or a really small head, you won't get a fused image. And so the stereo will be pretty uncomfortable for you. It's the same experience you have in a movie theater, where you get a headache. So by being able to adjust that, you can get the absolute best visual clarity.
No focus adjustment, because glasses covers that.
The other thing with focus adjustment that's really challenging – and that we've seen with Gear VR – is that people tend to overcompensate or undercompensate. And so they generally don't hit the right note [in terms of focus] anyway. So the best experience is: have contacts, have glasses, whatever you want, put them in the Rift, and you're good to go.
I wear glasses everyday, so I wanted to be able to put on the headset and toss it on without having to wear my contacts. That was a big focus for us."
So there's more space for glasses in the consumer Rift vs. the Development Kit 2 (DK2)?
Mitchell: "Yes, exactly. Even compared to Crescent Bay. The ergonomics we've been working on for a really long time, trying to get it just right, as well as comfort and wearability is one of the key pillars."
Tell us about Oculus Home, the Oculus Rift's in-VR interface:
Mitchell: "It's about bringing all your Rift content and all your Oculus content together in one place, right? So we built Home from the beginning for VR, so when you put on the headset you never actually have to come out. [Another reporter asked earlier] 'why is there a battery [icon] in there, why is there a clock in there?' – it's because we never want you to have to take off the headset if you don't want to. So from Home we want you to be able to access games, want you to be able to play with your friends, all the stuff that you expect from any great consumer VR gear."
Will users be able to buy games from Oculus Home (inside the Rift)?
Mitchell: "Absolutely, you can do it all from VR. [...] I'm in VR, I see Palmer's playing a game, I can buy it, I can install it, and I can jump right into his game – all from VR, without taking off the headset. If we can nail that, then we'll build on it in the years to come.
[Oculus Home] is actually the same storefront and platform that we have already launched on Gear VR today. So while the UI and interface they experience is slightly different, the underlying platform, where developers are selling their games to users worldwide and making money today, that's all the same backend."
Does Oculus Home use a PIN code to authorize purchases (while wearing the headset), like with the Gear VR?
Mitchell: "Yes, exactly."
Will Oculus Touch (the company's pair of forward-thinking controllers) launch alongside the Rift?
Mitchell: "The Rift is going to launch in Q1 of 2016, Oculus Touch is going to launch in H1 of 2016, so we want to launch close to the Rift, but it's going to be after."
Where does the Xbox One gamepad fit in, with Oculus Touch's arrival?
Founder Palmer Luckey: "For some games, like Mario 64 style games, like Lucky's Tale style games, a gamepad is likely to always be the better option."
Is the Oculus Rift headset wired or wireless?
Luckey: "The headset is wired."
What are the different roles for the Oculus Rift and Gear VR?
CEO Brendan Iribe: "I can carry around the Gear VR, and I can go everywhere with it. That's pretty awesome. There's a lot of advantages to that. Then you have the Rift, where you actually believe you're there. The Gear is a great experience, but it's not the level of that full sense of presence yet. And so the PC gives you that much bigger, entirely enveloping experience ... but it's also tethered to your desk, and you're not usually gonna be moving that around."
What kinds of non-gaming experiences are coming to the Oculus Rift?
Iribe: "Here at E3, we're really focused on talking about gaming. We're also, as a company, very, very focused on the huge number of game developers that have come together, we started off the Kickstarter to revolutionize gaming. That's been our focus: we love games, we play games, we want to play games now in VR.
We talk about a lot of other non-gaming stuff, especially entertainment areas, we started Story Studio – in this rich immersive [experience, that's] almost like a game but a movie – like being inside a Pixar movie.
We're letting the ecosystem right now take care of all the non-gaming, and there's a huge amount of it out there, there's 700 different different pieces of content on Oculus Share [the web-based platform for downloading shared Oculus Rift development kit content]. A lot of that is non-gaming. So there's this exploding ecosystem of non-gaming, and we do everything we can to support that. But we're actually funding our own Oculus Studios mainly from a gaming and entertainment.
I think as the hardware matures, evolves and you get to later generations, then you may start to see this more social, more non-gaming, more expanding different areas. Right now most of the VR is focusing on gaming and entertainment."
How much potential is there for movement while wearing the Rift?
Iribe: "Constellation tracking [the Rift's method of tracking head movement] will allow for a bigger room area, so you will be able to move around. And we have a number of different things that we'll talk about as we move forward on this. And you should come to E3 to see the Oculus Touch experience.
It is 360 tracking, all off of a single camera, which is really unique. And that single camera, you just set right down – this doesn't require you to go up and mount things on your walls. You can if you want, and we've actually made that sensor so that you can unscrew it and it has a standard [...] screw hole that you can screw in if you want to mount it. And there will be people who mount sensors in different places."
Can Rift owners use multiple sensors?
Iribe: "We do support multiple sensors, there's something we didn't tell you [in the launch event]. You'll see it at E3, in the demo, you'll see multiple sensors if you want."
Why doesn't the Rift support direct (physical) Xbox One connection yet (rather than just streaming)?
Iribe: "We're really focused on the PC right now – and mobile. Windows PC and Android [Gear VR] on the mobile side. We'd love to do everything, but the more things you do, the more people you need on your team, and the more you're not focused on a single mission.
It's been hard to just do two products as a startup at once. Usually you do one product, you're lucky to get that one right, and then you move on and start expanding. We're, as a young company, trying to launch two consumer products at the same time. So adding a third or fourth one would be really challenging. So just from a resource constraint, we want to keep laser-focused right now on the Rift on the PC and Gear VR on Android."
What makes Oculus VR unique?
Iribe: "We're a team with a single mission: virtual reality. This isn't a side business, this isn't a side project or something that we do in addition to a lot of other things. This is our entire life. This is what we wake up every day and run to work to think about, and work on, this is how we live and breathe. It's just virtual reality. And usually those companies tend to develop some of the best experiences, some of the best products."
What are your hopes for the Oculus Rift?
Iribe: "We hope it gets as big as virtual reality. And we hope virtual reality gets as big as many people on the planet. Over time. This generation will take time to evolve – we want to be realistic about it – but we definitely see virtual reality as one of the simplest, most easy-to-use user experiences. If you've put on glasses before, you should be able to put on computer glasses in the future, and just be like 'oh, this is me, I know how to do this.' This isn't learning a new interface or a new controller. Ultimately this is just virtual vision."
What about "competition" from companies like Valve/HTC and Google?
Iribe: "Having multiple companies in VR is very good for the industry. It's very good for Oculus, trying to pioneer this industry. So we're very excited to see what everybody's doing. We consider them all pioneers: this isn't at a stage where somebody's gonna 'win' VR right in this first generation. It's gonna take many generations before you get some kind of scale like the mobile industry where you start to really be able to pick these winners. Right now we love to see everybody getting into it. More people investing in VR, the better for everybody."
How does the consumer Rift compare to the previous dev kits?
Iribe: "I'm really proud of the fit and finish and feel of [the consumer version]. For the first time, it feels like a consumer product. Our earlier dev kits, sometimes internally we'd kinda make jokes like 'well, it definitely looks like a dev kit!' And now for the first time, we have this product that really looks beautiful. It feels great, you put it on, it's lightweight and the balance is there. It's an awesome product that we're all proud of."
How much will it cost?
Iribe: "... an affordable price, that we're not yet ready to announce."
How will Oculus Touch will be sold?
Iribe: "It will be sold separately."
Tell us about Oculus Touch's present and future:
Iribe: "[The Oculus Touch showcased at the event] is the final design. And it has this incredible set of sensors inside [...] the vision for Oculus Touch, over the next set of generations, is to fully bring in your hand: when you really believe in 'finger presence,' in 'hand presence.' And the more it can look like your hand, or at least move exactly like your hand, the better. And this is that first step, and it will continue to evolve."
Why does Oculus VR believe in optical sensors for the Oculus Rift?
Iribe: "We're really big believers in optical tracking, in camera sensors. That is the bet that we're making. And that's the future of sensor tracking. If you look at things like the Kinect, or any of these different kinds of infrared structured light sensors, or any of the stereo camera sensors, they're all based on cameras. And cameras continue to get better."
If you want to see your full body in the game, if you want to see your fingers and your fingernails ... not this generation, but, eventually, if you want to see all of that, that's going to be done with camera sensors. That's not going to be done with any other kind of sensor. That's an optical sensor, and that's the investment we're making."
What is Oculus Research's role within the company?
Iribe: "They run as a largely autonomous group inside of Oculus. It's something that we haven't talked a lot about, but Oculus Research is its own team inside of Oculus that pretty much gets to pick and choose, and do whatever they want to make a big impact on our product. Some three, five, ten years out."
Is there a hidden camera on the Rift headset, like in leaked concept images?
Iribe: "We do not have a camera sensor on the front. [The leaks] were early concepts – actually really old concepts.
We need to get a little bit further before we start putting lots of cameras around. The more cameras you add, you also get choked on bandwidth, you start to run up the cost of your headset, and if it's not exactly clear what you do with that, then it potentially doesn't warrant all that additional hardware in the headset.
We have some big ideas for where it'll eventually go, and that'll be in the future. Today it's Oculus Rift."
Why isn't Oculus Touch bundled with the Rift?
Iribe: "If we bundled it in the Rift, at launch there would be very little content. But eventually, over the next year or two, as developers have time, they get those controllers and make great experiences ... that's gonna ramp up to a lot of content.
Right now we're really focused on getting Oculus Touch in the hands of developers."
How important are indie games (which Oculus is contributing US$10 million towards the development of) and what have you learned from mobile gaming?
Iribe: "Independent projects are some of the best. If you look at mobile, some of the biggest successes on mobile have actually been indies. It took a lot of other big games companies years to finally get to mobile, even when there was mass market.
The good part about VR is that pretty much every developer that has ever made a PC 3D game or console game wants to make a VR game. It's like they're leaving their PC or console game development company to go start a VR game or to go join a VR game company. So it is luckily the dream of almost every developer. You couldn't necessarily say the same thing about just mobile games.
So there's a lot of interest to go there, but there's no consumer market yet. It all kind of starts next year. For those developers to go get funding is really challenging, so we're out there trying to help kick some of these guys off. We're doing a lot of different VR Jams, we're funding full projects."
How do AAA titles and indies fit in the Oculus system?
Iribe: "We want to see the magic that you get on the console and PC by these great big companies, and by independents. We want to see all of that in VR.
What is the field of view of the consumer Rift?
"We're not announcing the exact spec here today, but it's very wide. It's no less than anything you've seen before."
The weight and ergonomics of the headset:
Iribe: "The biggest thing with the Rift is that we pulled all of the weight off of the end of the headset. So all the weight is pulled back. So when you pick it up, you'll feel like 'this is still a VR headset,' but as soon as you put it on, it kinda disappears. A lot like Crescent Bay.
I've never used a VR headset that was lighter than Crescent Bay, besides one that I made out of duct tape. It's a very, very lightweight headset, and that's our goal. And we pulled all that weight off the front.
The new strap design, being this kind of rigid body, allows us, for one thing, to put sensors in the back. So you only have one sensor out there and you get full 360 [degree tracking].
It also prevents it from pulling on your face. So if you're in the headset after some amount of time in one of the early Oculus dev kits, you take it off and you have this great 'Oculus face' [indicates skin indentations where the mask's edges were] and you have this kind of imprint. And it does, over time, having that strap pulled really hard on you, it does kind of fatigue you. And with the new strap system, you can tighten it, but you can get it to a point where it doesn't actually pull really tight on your face. It just locks in place, and it rests on your brow. And it really makes a big difference for long-term play.
Is there any built-in fix for lens fog in the consumer Rift?
Iribe: I haven't ever had Crescent Bay fog up on me – and I have had other VR headsets fog, so it's naturally less foggy."
Do you get motion sickness when using the Rift?
Iribe: "I have not. Not in Crescent Bay. I actually recently played Lucky's Tale for two and a half hours and didn't [feel] sick. Which was remarkable for me, I used to take minutes and I would be out. Maybe even seconds. And that game actually had some movement to it: you look down at this little fox running around, and the world moves a little bit. So go figure.
I felt really good that I was able to do that, and consumers are going to be able to enjoy that [without any nausea].
This first generation or two, there'll still be some challenges around disorientation of certain applications. But in the future, a few generations from now, I do believe that any kind of nausea or disorientation will only be a factor of the software itself, the application, the experience. Not the actual system.
We've had very few people have a problem even with Crescent Bay, and it continues to get better. So I think you'll see this first generation land in a really good place where people are comfortable, but it'll rapidly evolve to a point where we forget about this whole challenge that we've been in for the last few decades."
It must take discipline to not launch in the holiday 2015 slot
Iribe: "It does. There are shortcuts we could have taken to eventually get there, but we would have jeopardized the quality. We just wanted to get it right. It's only a few months, and you'll be very happy I think with the quality.
This is going to feel like the first really professional PC-based VR headset."
The solution to creating an install base for Oculus Touch when it's an optional accessory
Iribe: "Get them out to developers as quick as we can.
There needs to be killer content, and then more consumers will be there. But in this early generation, developers need years with an input device. They just do to make compelling content. They've had decades with gamepads, they've now had a few years with gamepads in VR, and they've started to make some really, really great experiences.
When we first launched [on] Kickstarter, within a few months we didn't have all this content. It took a few years to build up this content.
It's just going to take a while for developers to get their hands on these things, to learn how they work, to figure out how to make experiences with them that are really compelling. Those games will take 6 to 12 to 18 months, for the game developer to make a piece of content. And I think you'll see that when we launch the Rift [...] that within a short amount of time, there will be enough content that will bring Oculus Touch in.
But the gamepad is going to be one of the best controllers for a lot of content. And this is still early days, so I could be totally wrong. [...] But when you put on touch controllers and you see your hands, this really works well for first-person experiences where I want to see my hands. Where I need to see my hands. There are a lot of games where you don't want to see your hands, you want to move a little character around. [For] Lucky's Tale, the Xbox One is the best controller. It is the best controller for Chronos, and for a lot of what we showed here today. You're going to have a different set of input for other first-person experiences.
What are the Oculus Touch controllers like to use?
Iribe: "They're awesome. They're really, really magical. [...] They're as magical as the Rift is when you put it on and you don't expect it to be as good as it is, because you're just too skeptical about VR right until that moment when you slip in, and then everything changes. Oculus Touch is similar.
As soon as the controllers are in your hands, you look down and you're like 'wow, those are my hands.'
We'll continue to make them better. We like to set expectations, and this is just the beginning of hand presence.
What you want to do over time is see it perfectly. You want to get to a point where it's like 'that's my hand, that's my thumb. That's exactly me.' You want to look down and you want to be like 'okay, so those are really my real legs and my real feet.'
Maybe I'm dressed up differently, maybe I'm textured differently, but the more I can actually see myself, the stronger the sense of presence. The more I'm gonna believe I'm in that environment. Oculus Touch is kinda the first generation on this longer-term path to fully get your hands immersed. And we really believe in the power of finger presence as well.
The only way you're gonna get your full body in the experience is gonna be with optical sensor technology."
How does Oculus Touch detect gestures?
Iribe: "It has a gyro[scope] built-in, as well as the constellation tracking system. So that same external sensor is able to track that. We'll also be showing at E3 multiple sensors that you can use. So imagine you can put two sensors in front of you, you can track an even wider volume."
About how long will the generation cycle be for the Oculus Rift?
Iribe: "We're gonna move really quickly. That's one of the things that we've decided internally: this isn't going to be like console cycles, where they're five, six, seven years out. We're gonna iterate really quickly; we want to increase things – the whole experience – whether it's resolution, optics, tracking, everything is gonna get better very rapidly.
But it's gonna be incredible right now, today, with the Oculus Rift."
Check back for Gizmag's E3 coverage next week, where we'll get our first hands-on experience with the consumer-facing Oculus Rift.