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.