Get Luckey: Oculus Rift and the unexplored territory of VR
Palmer Luckey's team are building a brave new world - but it's up to you to fill it
You don't usually find a queue at GDC Europe unless it's for the buffet, but Oculus VR's Rift headset had developers and executives queuing alongside its booth just to strap it on. Tucked away in a small office just metres away were Palmer Luckey, the intimidatingly young founder of the company, Nate Mitchell, the VP of product who was previously senior product developer at Gaikai, and COO Laird Malamed, an industry veteran with Activision, Sony, LucasFilm and a professorship on his CV.
The trio were at GDCE to talk to developers, share their latest HD headset prototype and launch a new sharing platform but ended up talking to GamesIndustry International about their new work colleagues, why they'd welcome competition (or a phone call) from Sony or Microsoft and jetlag.
Q: What's the latest update on the company?
Nate Mitchell: A lot of good things going on. We're working on the Oculus Rift, the consumer version. Other than that things are going really well, we continue to update the SDK, we've shipped over 20,000 development kits so far, 7,500 were ordered during Kickstarter, everything else was post. And those are shipped, not just ordered. We have over 25,000 people signed up for the developer centre, downloading, using the SDK which is super exciting. Integrations with Unreal Engine 4 now, Unreal Engine 3, Unity 3, Unity 4, all out of the box, so a lot of exciting stuff happening. Someone tried to count the number of Oculus Rift demos that were out there and there were like over 200 different demos that you could download and play.
"I would say that all the coolest demos we've seen in VR have been from indie developers, not established ones"
And we're in the midst of a VR jam. We have over 300 teams signed up and we estimate it's between 900 and a thousand people participating, which is pretty awesome. We had milestone two on Friday where they had to submit gameplay videos, and we knew there was a question of 'so a thousand people signed up, how many people will actually finish?' and for milestone two we had 250 teams complete milestone two with video.
Palmer Luckey: So hopefully we can make it to 200 final...
Nate Mitchell: And that would be incredible. So we're funding that, putting out some decent prize money which is a lot of fun. People are doing some really neat stuff, there's a public speaking simulator and stuff like that.
Palmer Luckey: Wheelchair racing. A rooftop wheelchair racing simulator.
Nate Mitchell: Anyway, there should be a lot of neat stuff that comes out at the end of next week when they're supposed to submit their demos for the actual judging.
Q: Tell us about the demo store you're putting in place, because that's recent addition that you've announced this week.
Palmer Luckey: So it's like a store, except you can't buy anything because we don't have a payment processor worked out yet.
Nate Mitchell: So it's like a store, except we're really focused right now on developers being able to share their experiences. Right now one the biggest problems is if you were to say 'I want to get an Oculus Rift dev kit because I want to try to develop something, where do I start? What are some of the cool things that people have already built? What can I see?' If you want to do that you have to go creeping through forums and blog posts and all this weird stuff, there's no place where you can go to see all of the content aggregated and rated by the community so we decided to build it.
It's going to be completely free to developers, they can upload their content, people can review it, give feedback to developers, so it gives them a way to beta test and alpha test what's working in VR and share between people. And developers can tip each other if they're interested, like do a little PayPal, send them $5, like 'hey I really liked this idea that you did with user interface, that was really neat, I'm going to use that in my game, here's a $5 tip.' So we're really excited about that.
Q: The learning process will be so much quicker for new developers then...
"The language of VR game development is still so undefined. It's this unexplored territory and there's no rules or guide books"
Nate Mitchell: One of the main messages we have is that the language of VR game development is still so undefined. It's this unexplored territory and there's no rules or guide books. So to be able to help developers bring all that knowledge together and share it more efficiently we really do believe that that will help accelerate the quality of virtual reality in general and push the medium forward where we know what's fun, what works, all that stuff.
Q: So developers are teaching you stuff?
Nate Mitchell: 100 per cent. We don't have all the answers, we don't pretend to. There's too many problems to solve all by ourselves so it's incredible to be collaborating with other teams around the world. From guys out of their garage all the way up to people like Valve but it's flat, everyone's equal. It's just a bunch of game developers and programmers trying to figure out what VR is all about.
Q: It feels as if everyone has the same chance of discovering something...
Palmer Luckey: With first person shooters and stuff it's a genre that's been around for so long that people have kind of discovered most of the innovative things you can do. There's some room for innovation, but it's harder for some guy in his garage to discover some truly innovative way to make a first person shooter whereas virtual reality is so new, there's so many things that's haven't been discovered with it that it's totally plausible that... well not even plausible, we're seeing it already. Some of the coolest things we're seeing, I would say that all the coolest demos we've seen in VR have been from indie developers, not established ones.
They can take crazy risks and see if things work.
Nate Mitchell: They are really able to take a lot more risks and iterate a lot more quickly, and there's no rules right? They can build some tiny little thing and say 'here's something I'm experimenting with, just a tech demo using head tracking to accomplish this thing,' and they can just share it with the community. If you're at a bigger company it's harder to do that.
So even though there are developers at these big companies doing the exact same research, they're not sometimes sharing it as much.
Palmer Luckey: Or things like EVE-VR, CCP are a big developer but a few people built a mini-game type thing, it's a space combat game where you can use your head tracking to lock onto people and then fire missiles at them. You're flying a spaceship but you fire missiles by looking at them with your head. And that's something that's pretty innovative and we haven't seen with any of the big players. They are a big player, but within them it's a small group and they haven't even publicly released it, they've just shown off this fun little game.
Q: So recently you got some funding, we heard you were aiming for $5 million and got $16 million?
Palmer Luckey: That's basically speculation.
Nate Mitchell: That's all speculation.
Palmer Luckey: It's going to let us do everything that we need to do quicker and it's going to let us hire a lot of people that are going to be important for us.
Q: You've hired a few big names already. John Carmack has been involved from the beginning, does this just make his involvement official?
Nate Mitchell: It's more impactful than official because instead of being sort of like Valve where it's this great partnership between two companies…
Palmer Luckey: He's actually coming to work with us full time and spending all of his time working on VR.
Nate Mitchell: That's a big change. But in terms of the funding - and Laird can probably speak really well to this too - one of the main things is to be able to go out and hire these absolutely best people. And it's something we were doing beforehand but it's always more challenging when you're like 'can you come and work for us for very little money?'
"With extra funding we can really get the best people. It's something we were doing beforehand but it's always more challenging when you're like 'can you come and work for us for very little money?"
Palmer Luckey: 'Also we might run out of money in two months…'
Nate Mitchell: So with extra funding we can really get the best people, make it work, and inevitably also accelerate not necessarily our original timelines, but our ability to do more things to a higher quality.
Palmer Luckey: And a company is more willing to want to work with us if they can see this is actually a well-funded company that's going to be around for a long time. Rather than 'hey guys, let's spit up a game development effort on something that might not exist in a year.'
Q: It all seems to be going very, but what keeps you up at night?
Palmer Luckey: Jetlag
Laird Malamed: I didn't realise we were working on that problem?
Nate Mitchell: One of the things that keeps me up at night is making sure that we're building the best possible development platform that's going to bring a lot of content. It's a virtual reality headset but without content it's nothing.
User interface is something that developers are grappling with, I have gotten multiple phone calls from friends in the industry saying 'OK, we're working on the user interface, where do we start for VR?' It's just so different so it's a whole different problem set to tackle. Simulator sickness is another one, making sure people are building experiences that are comfortable for a lot of people, and that's another one where developers can do some stuff. We're seeing this broad range where some people are building Call Of Duty-esque experiences where you're racing through streets, getting shot at. Other people are building vacation simulators where you're sitting on the beach with a Corona and you're just relaxing. And some people want that, some people want the other and we're educating developers on how they can make very comfortable experiences, if they want to.
Latency, making sure developers optimise their engines for VR. So I've just stolen the talking points from my [GDC Europe] talk, but those are the things that I think are four of the most critical points to really making the Rift a big success.
Q: And most of that is developer education…
Palmer Luckey: Some of that stuff only we can fix. Like improving the hardware, improving our tracking technology. But no matter how good we make the hardware, if we make perfectly simulated reality, developers are still going to have to come up with things to put on there.
"We're going to try and keep the price as low as possible, that's another thing I want to try to get to zero"
Q: What about other hardware, like controllers, are you working with other people on those? I've seen the hydra mentioned, and a treadmill cage type contraption?
Palmer Luckey: So we're not working in any kind of official capacity with either of them. We are experimenting with lots of cool things and locomotion and input to see what works best in VR but right now we're mainly focusing on gamepads and keyboards just because everyone has them and they're reliable and people know how to work them. In the future… obviously a game pad is not the ultimate virtual reality input device so I think there's going to be cool stuff in the future that gives you other abilities.
Laird Malamed: We're currently running a VR Jam with Indiecade and one of the requirements we actually had is that the control scheme be something that the vast majority of people have because of that install base. And also from a safety point of view, you can't see the world around you. You asked what keeps us up at night? One of the things that keeps me up at night in a broad sense is that it's fun from the moment you put it on, you pull it out of the box, that it takes very few minutes to install, that when you put it on you're comfortable, you can see properly, that it very quickly knows what your eye distance is, because that's very important, and doing that seated is enough of a challenge. I call it zero minutes to fun. It doesn't take you a week to enjoy it because it's a very expensive investment. And we're going to try and keep the price as low as possible, that's another thing I want to try to get to zero so from that point of view we're experimenting with a lot of things.
Q: When you launch will you have to have a big presence at shows and retail to actually show people it off to the consumer?
Laird Malamed: One of the reasons I decided to join the company having worked in the industry a long time - I was at Activision Blizzard for about 17 years - is it's a very easy idea to say to somebody, to a wide range of audiences of ages and experiences. They don't have to be hardcore gamers, they don't even have to be technology enthusiasts, you can explain very quickly that you put this on and you're in a different place, and people have an imagination about it, or they have a touch point from TV shows or movies or from gaming. But from there to acquisition, trial seems to be the number one moment and so we've been privileged to have the Grandma video on YouTube. I'm glad that we didn't do it, but I wish I had been smart enough to think 'we should put a Grandma in this' and in fact I just had my mom who is younger than that woman in there, she was just at the office a few weeks ago, and she had never seen it and she was doing the same thing and she hadn't even seen the grandma video. So trials are really important.
But yeah, trial is going to be really important. We haven't decided how we'll come to market, there are lots of opportunities, we're a disruptive technology, we don't want to be sort of stuck on a back shelf with only four units per store so we have to think about that. At the same time we have to be smart about how many we build for the get go.
It's an investment for people at the price point, and so one of the big frustrations is if you've saved your money and worked that extra job or kept something for a rainy day and then you can't go find it? That would really be us not being an open partner with customers and our VR fans. We're really kind of just part of that community, we just happen to be the ones, thanks to Palmer, making it. We're kind of them.
Q: You do all seem to be genuine enthusiasts that just want to share VR…
Laird Malamed: We have people ranging from working at their first company to people who have spent a long time in the industry. So that idealism is something that we all share. Virtual reality, the idea of it, is a relatively old idea in the technology space. We're more about reaching it than we are about defining it. So it's sort of been defined for us and it's just our goal, and then everybody who is building content, is to push us forward and I call that crowd lifting. The crowd is lifting us towards this goal that's up there in the air. If we don't achieve it, if we come sort of short of it, then we've failed. So that's our mission.
Q: Is the old perception of VR a problem? People have memories of the last time around when it wasn't very good…
"No matter how hard people tried to make VR work ten or 20 years ago, it was just not going to impress the average consumer"
Palmer Luckey: That's because it was overhyped, it wasn't as possible to deliver an experience that was as good as what they promised and I think we're getting… we're not going to deliver a Matrix quality experience but I do think we're getting to the point where we can deliver an experience that people are at least happy with. Like they try and they're like 'oh this is good' as opposed to before you tried it and it was definitely bad, bad and not good.
Laird Malamed: Wider field of view is a key piece, that's something that today's screens and the optical development can get us.
Palmer Luckey: And games look good, you can make good looking games that are running at a high frame rate and not these vector graphics that are running really laggy and at a low frame rate. No matter how hard people tried to make VR work ten or 20 years ago, it was just not going to impress the average consumer.
Laird Malamed: And Palmer should know because he has the world's largest collection of VR…
Palmer Luckey: 56 unique units now.
Q: Games are obviously exciting but are people approaching you about more real world uses? Have you got any big ideas in mind?
Palmer Luckey: It's not just in our heads, people are actually doing it, there's a lot of people in the medical and in the military and emergency response spaces that are doing things with VR. People doing architectural pre-visualisation so that they can see spaces before they actually put them together in real life, education, CAD design so they can see 3D models, there's a lot of people outside of the gaming industry that are working with the Rift and building cool virtual reality applications.
Laird Malamed: We like to define ourselves as a platform which is a bit of a step onto the gangplank. The hard job is to make sure that the software is easy to integrate not just for game makers but for everybody. One of the things about supporting Unity is Unity and Unreal have both become ubiquitous in these gaming and non-gaming applications because they are fairly easy to bring up and display images and play audio.
Nate Mitchell: One of the demos we're going to show is a virtual cinema, where you're sitting in this movie theatre and watching a 3D movie. I'm not sure what movie we're going to be showing but it's one of those experiences where you try it and you sort of geek out, like wow, this is actually pretty cool. And it's not necessarily like it's revolutionising movie going or anything like that, but just sort of that everyday use instead of watching a movie on my phone on the plane I could plug the Rift into my mobile and actually watch in this iMax theatre inside the Rift.
Laird Malamed: People want active and more passive experiences because we have different rhythms to our day and different places where those fall in, so supporting both is key.
Q: It doesn't seem like anyone could catch you up at this point, but are you concerned about competition in the VR space? Perhaps even from a Sony or a Microsoft?
Laird Malamed: It is possible. Obviously I would hope that if they wanted to pursue this they'd call us, we'd be happy to work with them. But the other side of it too is that our CEO found a good article and one of the key things it said was 'embrace competition' and so that actually has become our mantra on this. Competition isn't bad.
Palmer Luckey: Especially in a space like VR, where it's so unproven. If someone like Sony and Microsoft decided to get into the game, one, we don't think they're going to be able to catch up to the stuff that we're working on internally because we're working on really advancing this, and even if they were able to be at the same level companies like Sony and Microsoft getting involved really legitimises the whole thing and means that there's going to be a huge push behind making virtual reality games and experiences and consumers accepting.
Laird Malamed: And I would make developers more encouraged to make content...
Nate Mitchell: That's the biggest thing. There's so much more content available because there's multiple platforms.
Laird Malamed: There really is room for competition. Now that being said, do I also stay up at night thinking how are we going to stay a viable company that we all want to work for? Of course, and the only way we can do that is by continuing to iterate, hire the best people, put the best product out on the market. And we're super happy to compete on quality.
"If someone like Sony and Microsoft decided to get into the game we don't think they're going to be able to catch up to the stuff that we're working on internally"
Q: Finally, what would be your dream game for the Rift?
Palmer Luckey: It's hard to say what the ultimate thing would be but I think it would be some kind of massively multiplayer online game that allowed people to interact with each other online, the same way that they interact in real life.
Because we do so much interaction online through things like Facebook or Twitter, and those are really kind of broken shadows of real life interaction. There's a reason we use those mediums to organise real life meetups. But what if you could have all of the flexibility, and the ability to lie about who you really are that you get with online communications, and combine that with the subtlety and nuance that you get from real life interaction? That would be really powerful, to see how that plays out. But we're a way from that, but even if we could just nail that one part, that'd be a huge step forward.
Nate Mitchell: I'm excited to see all the experiences that come out of VR Jam, because like we keep saying, so much of virtual reality is unexplored territory. Some of the stuff I'm not even sure what it is that I want to see yet, some of the genres. There was a game recently called The Trial of the Rift Drifter. It's a stationary game and you're on trial with these alien life forms, it's supposed to be taken from a Twilight Zone episode. You're supposed to be on trial and you respond to it by shaking your head or nodding your head. There are things happening on the periphery but if you look away the judges will yell at you. Those storytelling and narrative experiences in VR I think are super fascinating.
Laird Malamed: My mom's a historian and I love history, so the ability to not just go and see history - it doesn't even have to be super realistic because I worry a little bit about the uncanny valley - but actual being an agent in history and reliving or changing or seeing what happens if you were a key person in a key battle. I think that experience of place and timeshifting is something the Rift can do really well.
We want to be teleported. And maybe that's teleported to our best friend who lives 5000 miles away and sometimes that's teleported to a place that doesn't exist. And sometimes that's teleported to our yesterday for some reason, just to try it differently.