VR will be bigger than smartphones - Sweeney

Epic Games CEO sees huge potential in new tech, worries Microsoft's pursuit of closed platforms could alienate developers

The $2 billion Facebook acquisition of Oculus may sound expensive, but it will give the social network a foothold in a field some people think has enormous potential. As for how enormous, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told Polygon the "next big thing" could be even bigger than the last big thing.

"It's technology that I think will completely change the world," Sweeney said. "I think it's going to be a bigger phenomenon than smartphones. You have to put it in perspective and realize we're in maybe the [first-generation] iPhone stage right now where you have this really cool device, but it has some real flaws that prevent it from being a pervasive device for everyone. There might be an audience for 10 million users of the current tech, but as it improves with each generation, the audience is going to keep growing until eventually you're going to reach a critical point where you can put on one of these devices and have an experience that is effectively indistinguishable from reality."

Epic is doing plenty of research into VR and has already confirmed support for the Oculus Rift will be added to Unreal Engine 4, but there are some hindrances. For example, some experiences are better suited to VR than others.

"Running at 30 miles per hour in an Unreal Tournament level," Sweeney said, "makes you barf."

The Rift isn't the only new platform Unreal Engine 4 will support. Epic is also adding support for HTML5, SteamOS, and Linux as part of a general shift away from closed platforms. Sweeney was particularly excited about Valve's Steambox plans, saying the platform is shaping up to be "the most open high-end gaming platform ever created." At the same time, Sweeney was concerned about Microsoft's attempts to make the PC platform more closed.

"I genuinely worry about the future of Microsoft," Sweeney said. "They've locked down Windows 8. They say future app developers should focus there, but you can only ship that with Microsoft's permission and Microsoft's approval through Microsoft's store. And that sucks compared to the open nature of the PC platform before... Steam has been a great democratizing factor on PC and if Microsoft forecloses on PC then all developers will shift to other alternatives, like Steambox and Android."

Despite the concerns, Sweeney has seen signs of Microsoft reversing course on those plans.

"I sense kind of a renaissance at MS in the last six months," Sweeney said. "Talking to the DirectX team for example, they're making some brilliant decisions on DirectX 12 to make it more efficient and more open than ever before. You just generally sense a momentum to be more open with the community and more broad with their Windows strategy. I'm hoping that takes root."

For more from Sweeney, including discussion of the new Unreal Engine 4 business model and what lessons were pulled from similar moves by other companies, read GamesIndustry International's own interview with the Epic co-founder.

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Latest comments (16)

Shane Sweeney Academic 5 years ago
I'd say first generation brick mobile...
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
Cel-phones are an utility, take away all the games, applications and gimmicks, you still need it. Its how people communicate over long distances. And for that feature alone it will sell. Its something you need in daily life much like electrical and water services in your house. I dont understand why they are being compared.

The product hasnt even be tested with the general public. I got friends who start throwing up the minute they play a FPS. Im assuming plenty more people will get sick, Im also imagining people who have just one eye will find zero use for VR.

If VR is to become mainstream, I find use for it AR applications on wearable hardware, like google glass. If anything check out the Anime called "Accel World". It depicts perfectly how AR technology can be used throughout daily life.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 2nd April 2014 3:30pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Guh-whaaat? Hmmm. How many people who CAN and will use VR as opposed to how many have/use cellphones is going to be hard to beat, especially with users vomiting all over fellow commuters if they decide to try out a FPS in transit, heh.

Anyway, I think that headline is a bit... ambitious.
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Show all comments (16)
Tim Ogul Illustrator 5 years ago
Yeah, that's a pretty nonsense statement. I'm fairly bullish about VR in the short term, I think if they can make an attractive model with solid games and a reasonable price then they will sell more than Kinect 1.0s, for example, but smartphones are all over mostly because they are phones, they are used to communicate, not to play games. The game thing is just a happy side effect. Maybe in twenty years (or less) most households will own at least one VR unit, but I it'll probably be a while before they match smartphones.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios5 years ago
How are you going to solve the barfing issue, considering the staggering size of the shooter market.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 5 years ago
I generally agree with the sentiment that VR, in its current definition, can't become as big as smartphones. It only comes there if you include AR, in which case I would agree with Mr. Sweeney. I think that the majority of people would prefer an AR solution to a smartphone if it was comfortable to use. That's the main current problem, having to put something over your eyes to view VR or AR.
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Casual isnt making enough money, smartphones and mobiles aint makin enough, so lets jump on the new far bandwagon...VR (sell the hardware at a premium, add in new premium for brainer right? license to print money)
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
This is the next 3D. The bubble will burst.
Yes it is cool to use, but only fanatics want to spend a protracted time with their head inside a plastic box, with no reference to the outside world.

Its real, long term use lies outside gaming. Architectural walk throughs and other simulations.

And comparison with smartphones is facile. These are heading for ubiquity. 7 billion in use. No other device will come remotely near.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bruce Everiss on 2nd April 2014 3:16pm

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Depends how fast smartphones can kill folks to sustain gaming :)
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
You don't *need* a cellphone.
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This is the next 3D. The bubble will burst.
Yes it is cool to use, but only fanatics want to spend a protracted time with their head inside a plastic box, with no reference to the outside world.
as the world gets crazier the more people will be looking for an escape. Just as TV provided 60 years ago.

To compare VR to 3-d TV is nonsense, 3d barely improves the experience, while VR gives the human mind an entirely new and exciting experience.

Will VR be as big as the cellphone? well who knows, more than likely the two will merge at some point. What Im pretty sure of is when VR hits it stride it will find its way into every facet of our lives.
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Spencer Franklin Concept Artist 5 years ago
"This is the next 3D. The bubble will burst.
Yes it is cool to use, but only fanatics want to spend a protracted time with their head inside a plastic box, with no reference to the outside world. Its real, long term use lies outside gaming. Architectural walk throughs and other simulations.
And comparison with smartphones is facile. These are heading for ubiquity. 7 billion in use. No other device will come remotely near."

Are you kidding me? The possibilities that VR contains dwarfs the cellphone...if anything , VR will absorb/merge with cellphones in some way extending it's current uses. Comparing VR to 3d is very faulty. As someone has said, 3d doesn't change the experience very much, but VR can completely change that experience. I go from passive watching to being the center of interaction with VR. We're talking a change in perception that will likely take some time for our minds to get used to (motion sickness and other things people currently have experience using VR). And the applications for these things beyond games is amazing. I get excited just thinking of all the future possibilities. and that 2Billion FB put behind the idea speaks volumes about their excitement for it also. I think you are looking at the very short term picture... I fully believe VR will make the cellphone look like small interim technology in the history books.
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour Interactive5 years ago
The problem with this comparison is that mobile can be used literally anywhere, while VR can mostly only be used in the living room or some other "secure" or closed area. You can't just wear such a thing on your head in the real world at any given time. In this case I agree with Eyal Teler above, AR has a lot more potential to surpass mobile as we know it than VR does.

@Rick, I find the comment regarding the guy with the one eye completely irrelevant. There are people with various levels of hearing loss and we still have surround sound in all kinds of living room entertainment, right? They're not designing this for the minority of people who can't enjoy the product. Same thing with the motion sickness, it affects a low percentage of players but we're still making games for everyone else.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 5 years ago
VR will be bigger than smartphones - Sweeney
Counterpoint: No, not even close. Right now VR is still fighting for A) it's relevance and B) not becoming another fad(although VR itself has been a fad several times over the last 20 years or so). Theres definitely potential for VR to grow into something monumental but more than smart phones? Not during our life time, if ever.
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Sasha Yelesin Student 5 years ago
As a gaming commodity, VR is limited. If it's extra physically uncomfortable (nausea, headaches, etc.) for some people, then the audience is already cut down a percentage. And parents aren't going to give their kid VR so they can call them for pickup from football practice. But VR could be used for so much more than gaming. Training pilots to fly, police how to handle volatile situations in real time in the actual place, or what if you're Indiana Jones? Endless possibilities with the right mind's behind the device. VR might not be as easy to carry around in your pocket yet, but neither were cell phones when they came out. VR's gonna be huge, but in a whole different way than cellphones.
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Karna V Krishnan Producer, Reliance Games5 years ago
Quite a few interesting points of view here. Quick question @Bruce and the nay-sayers, - How many of you have tried out the Oculus Rift and experienced perceptive presence?

For the ones who see the limitless potential in VR, Sébastien Kuntz has written a very interesting article on creating VR games, a lot of which can also be applied in other industries. Do take a look at
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