After spending a few days with Oculus VR at its second developers' conference, we have a few thoughts on the company, its products and the virtual reality landscape that we're all about to dive into, whether we know it or not.
Social VR is like hanging out in person
When we think of VR, we think of games and solo experiences that make you feel like you're somewhere else. But this week we got a taste of what social VR is like. And guess what? It's a lot like socializing in real life.
Online social media has a very Internet-centric twinge to it. It's easier to hide behind something: whether that's anonymity or a social media image you've carefully crafted for yourself. If there's a discrepancy between who you really are and that person you're trying to showcase, you can play that off easier on the Internet than you can in person, where people pick up on mannerisms and other non-verbal (often subconscious) things you communicate about yourself.
But when I strapped on a Gear VR and sat in a virtual living room, watching a Twitch stream with two other reporters, I felt like I was really sitting in a room with them. They were only represented by masks, but I heard everything they said and when they looked at me, it felt exactly like someone sitting in a chair next to me was doing the same thing. It's a more intimate, human interaction.
In this case, my fellow VR-ians were only a couple cubicles away from me in the same demo room, wearing Gear VRs of their own, but they could have just as easily been in Europe or Australia. VR is going to let people on opposite sides of the planet have near-real-life social experiences. Real social experiences – not just idealized self images interacting with one another.
The first version of the Netflix app doesn't have social built in, but Oculus tells us that social video will be on its way soon. You'll be able to invite friends over to your virtual crib to watch a movie, and no matter what part of the world they live in it will feel like you're all in the same room.
... and if it feels this lifelike just using cartoon face avatars that follow your head movement, wait until we get camera-based projections that look like ourselves (years down the road, that is). Suddenly Facebook sounds like the perfect company to have bought Oculus.
Gear VR: The price is right
Both of the Gear VR Innovator Editions (pre-consumer products designed for developers and tech enthusiasts) cost US$199, so we would have guessed the consumer edition would cost the same. But Samsung and Oculus surprised us with a $99 price tag on the upcoming Gear VR.
This is exactly the move the headset needs to creep closer to the mainstream. It's compatible with all of Samsung's 2015 flagships, four popular phones in total, so it's going to be less limited in that respect.
The $99 price point is still more expensive than most Google Cardboard headsets, which work with many more phones, but right now the Gear VR provides a better experience with no fragmentation and a much better content library. When you add this more accessible price tag to a growing content library, this will be the best way for many people to first jump into VR.
... suddenly your iPhone vs. Galaxy dilemma has a new element to consider. Given the choice, we wouldn't have to think a second before choosing badass VR capabilities over the new iPhones' pressure sensitive displays.
Oculus-ready PCs: Turning the Rift into a console
PC gaming has always had a raw power advantage over consoles, but the tradeoff is that the PC side is often far from a simple, universal, plug-and-play experience.
You first need to buy or build a compatible configuration that works for high-end games, make sure you have the right cooling, possibly mess with overclocking (which then requires even more cooling), and finally tweak countless advanced settings for each game to find the right balance of graphics and performance.
Many PC gamers thrive on all this tinkering, but if Oculus wants the Rift to move past a hardcore PC gamer audience, it's going to need to give newcomers a smoother and easier setup.
The first step was Oculus announcing recommended specs for Rift-compatible PCs – a crystal-clear way to delineate whether a PC will be the right fit for the upcoming headset. But the new Oculus-ready program is the ideal next step: buy a PC with this endorsement on it, and your Rift should work perfectly with it right out of the box.
Individual games may still require some settings tweaks, but we'll likely see so many PCs launch with Oculus' exact recommended spec that we wouldn't be surprised to see many (if not most) Rift developers have their games set by default optimized for the recommended spec. Boot it up and it's perfectly-tailored for those PCs.
At least in theory, Oculus-ready PCs will make Rift gaming a lot more like Xbox One or PS4 gaming. You know exactly what you're getting, no advanced know-how required.
The fact that Oculus said some of these PCs will retail for under $1,000, at various price points, is another encouraging sign. All of them will likely cost much more than a console, but we've yet to experience anything on Project Morpheus (erm, PlayStation VR) that soars to the heights of Oculus' best demos.
Oculus Medium looks like the future of 3D design
Oculus Medium is the company's new content creation app: it lets you sculpt anything you can imagine inside virtual reality.
After our Medium demo, we're convinced this is where 3D design is going – whether for games, animation or creating digital blueprints for physical creations. Using the Oculus Touch controllers, you use various tools to mold material, resize it, stretch it, smooth it out, color it ... and probably many other tools we didn't have time for in our demo.
I'm not a sculptor or a 3D designer, but after folks who are get their hands on Medium, they may have a hard time going back to designing on 2D screens. VR lets you walk around all sides of your creation, bend down or step on your tippy-toes to look at it from different angles. You're designing a 3D object; it's only appropriate that you should create it in a 3D space. It's as if you were magically conjuring it in your own studio, combining the best of digital design and old-fashioned clay sculpting.
This is just the beginning
As a new medium, virtual reality is exploding with innovation. Oculus execs like to dismiss notions of early competition in this space, instead insisting that everyone involved right now is a pioneer. And while it is fun to see which companies appear to have the best products at any given point in time (right now we think that's clearly Oculus), this isn't a race that's going to be decided anytime soon.
The Steam VR-powered HTC Vive has the advantage of letting you walk around a larger space, and that does provide a slightly greater sense of being somewhere else compared to our first-person Oculus Touch demos. But we don't think that reflects some technological breakthrough or product superiority on HTC's and Valve's side.
Spend a few days around Oculus employees, and you realize nobody else is as invested in VR – not just financially, but on a thought level. Not only did Oculus kickstart this whole thing, but it's now an entire company (well, technically a subdivision of Facebook) that lives and breathes this stuff. It has the visionaries that started this whole craze, as well as some of the best minds in gaming (including legends John Carmack, below, and Michael Abrash).
If Oculus isn't yet doing large-space, free-moving VR, it isn't because it's behind or inferior to Valve and HTC, Sony or anyone else. It just means Oculus thinks it's too soon for that. Start with gaming and smaller-space movement, then get to the full-room stuff (and beyond) when the timing is right.
That isn't to say HTC and Valve are wrong for jumping straight into that. A variety of options benefits customers. But if VR is to go mainstream, it does seem like a stretch to expect anyone other than hardcore enthusiasts to devote entire rooms in their house to it right out of the gate. That's our best guess for why Oculus isn't going that route just yet (and it's worth noting that we could walk around a little bit, perhaps in a 5 x 5 ft. area, in our Oculus Touch demos).
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