In announcing its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus back in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that he felt virtual reality was computing's "platform of tomorrow," which would soon supplant the handheld mobile devices dominating the tech space today. In a recent interview with Ars, though, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe suggested that Zuckerberg might not have gone far enough, saying that virtual reality "actually may be the final compute platform."
The journey that has taken computing from mainframes to PCs to laptops to mobile phones could have a few more intermediary steps in the future, such as smartwatches, Iribe allowed. But, he said, "once you replace vision with a very comfortable virtual vision that you can look around in—that you get the sense of presence, you believe is real and is comfortable—if you can have this collaborative social experience where my brain truly believes we're in a virtual place together and that you're right here in front of me even if you're not, this is the ultimate platform and this is what we've been imagining for so many years. The Holy Grail."
It's the kind of grandiose vision that watchers have come to expect from Oculus, whose ambitions have certainly grown since asking for just $250,000 through Kickstarter about two years ago. It also highlights the company's expansion from its initial focus on gaming to its thoughts on virtual reality's other applications, from virtual tourism to social networking. That expansion has been worrisome to some gamers, who feel like Oculus' lack of focus will lead to a watered down vision for VR gaming.
Iribe was quick to stress that Oculus will still be "almost completely focused on gaming in the beginning" and that 85 to 90 percent of its new hires since the Facebook acquisition have been game developers. Oculus also recently announced a commitment to first-party game development through newly hired studio head Mark Rubin, previously of Uncharted developer Naughty Dog.
That said, Iribe believes that focusing on gaming exclusively in the long term would be myopic. "Virtual reality is just going to span beyond gaming," he said. "If you look at the PC as a platform and look at mobile as a platform, they're incredible platforms for gaming, but they also span beyond gaming. It's going to be this incredible, awesome platform for a ton of people."
That wider computing platform was key to Facebook's interest in Oculus, which Iribe says is crucial to helping "get to scale and get to, over the next decade, a billion people in VR. I think a lot of people don't think about it, but a hardware platform startup is a very big challenge. It's one thing to be a software startup, it's another thing to be a hardware startup—especially a hardware platform startup where you're trying to build this entire ecosystem and you're trying to build a full platform." Iribe hassaid in the past that having a company with the size of Facebook behind Oculus will allow the company's products to get to market faster and cheaper.
Still, many people are skeptical of Facebook's involvement with Oculus, worrying that the social network's penchant for user tracking, control, and monetization will force its way into the Oculus Rift experience. Iribe strongly denied that this would be the case, saying that Facebook is content to leave Oculus to its own devices, providing support only where needed. "The agreement with [Zuckerberg] was 'Use what services you want from Facebook. We're just here to help. If you don't want to use any, you don't have to, but there probably are some services that we provide, like payment services and all kinds of things that they have a really good platform for that we don't,'" Iribe said.
The agreement with [Zuckerberg] was "use what services you want from Facebook. We're just here to help."
Facebook's management of privacy and security for over a billion users will probably also be of interest for Oculus, Iribe said. "We're building this VR platform. We're not security experts and privacy experts, and they are to a large degree. I think people will actually find that we're going to be able to deliver a better experience, a better total platform, and a more secure platform and private platform because they're able to help us on the back end."
For all the functional innovations that Oculus has put toward the display, the company has so far been willing to let other hardware makers be the ones to experiment with virtual reality controls (or, more often, just letting software developers simply default to using an awkward Xbox 360 pad to navigate the VR space). Iribe said that Oculus is putting some R&D effort into more natural control schemes to solve the "dude, where are my hands?" problem users invariably have the first time they put on the headset. But Iribe said that something like VR hand-tracking "is not going to happen right off the bat. It's a really, really super hard problem to solve."
"You're also really sensitive when you see your hands or an input device," he continued. "If they're wrong, you know it right away and it breaks the experience and the sense of presence. It's got to be almost perfect. It really has to be super low-latency. You have to move around; you have to be able to see it. You expect things to work, so they've got to. So it's going to take a while for that to just work. I think some of the early versions you see are neat, but they're a little more conceptual. They give you the idea of it, but they break the sense of presence."
Sony has tried to solve this virtual presence problem with the PlayStation Move, which uses a camera to track glowing handheld controllers through the air, but Iribe said he doesn't think this kind of input is a workable solution for long-term gameplay. "I think a wand that you have to hold and you have to grip is going to be difficult because you can only grip for so long before you want to put this thing down. And if you can't see what you're doing and you're kind of blind, you just end up dropping it. You're like, 'I need to give it a break.' We want something that you can open your hands and... just be able to not get fatigued."
Aside from controls, Iribe said that Oculus developers and R&D are quickly learning that bringing even first-person games to a virtual reality headset is not a simple process. "We stood up at Steam Dev Days, and Valve asked us to give a talk called 'Porting Games to VR.' When we gave the talk, we stood up, we put up 'Porting into VR...' and then [the next slide was] '...does not work.'"
"It's something that we just found out after iterating," he continued. "Valve started by porting Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life, and it turns out that those experiences, as made for a PC to the monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, do not port over well to VR for a broad audience. They're just really challenging from a disorientation standpoint. You need to make it for VR from the beginning."
Aside from the perspective, there are many actions players take in games that just don't translate well to VR. "Now we are starting to have a hunch: if it doesn't work in real life, in VR it's probably going to be a challenge," Iribe said. "You don't want to rocket jump or ride a roller coaster in VR when you're sitting in your chair. It's just not comfortable for everybody. What we found is that you're really, really sensitive with the headset, which is why we've been focusing so much on getting the consumer one just right."
The Oculus VR experience is also currently limited by being tethered to a desktop computer via a cable, meaning that users can't walk around or even turn completely without getting tangled up. Other headset makers are trying to get around this by using an existing mobile phone as display, processor, and head-tracker or by designing a completely self-contained, wireless VR headset. But Iribe says he thinks the technology for untethered VR just isn't there yet.
"The challenge with wireless is that there's this computing power issue. If you want to be wireless, then where is the compute coming from? And if it's coming from your pocket and a cell phone, you need a cable to it. And if it's not a cable down to your cell phone then it's a cable to what device? If it's not a cable, it's wireless, and now you have a bandwidth issue because you're trying to push a huge number of frames."
"There's also a safety challenge," he continued. "We've really pushed hard that VR is sitting down only in the beginning. Because you're putting on a VR headset, you're getting a new version of the world, a virtual world, that does not include the near-field objects in your real world. So if you're standing up and walking around, you have some challenges ahead of you."
Iribe acknowledged that these kinds of problems will eventually be solved and that "computers jumping up and being a pair of sunglasses will happen, and having the whole computer baked into the glasses will definitely happen in VR." That said, "It's not today, it's not short term," he said.
"It will eventually one day get to the point where you can deliver a photo-real world on a pair of sunglasses without the PC, but... that's pretty far away."