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John Carmack says VR devs are "coasting on novelty"

CTO asks Oculus Connect audience to raise its game and shift focus to mobile

John Carmack has impressed the need for developers to push beyond the "novelty" factor that continues to dominate the software content on VR platforms.

Speaking at the close of Oculus Connect last week, the company's CTO told the crowd that, as a community, VR developers, "need to be harder on ourselves." In particular, he implied that a lot of VR software doesn't offer the same value to consumer as a non-VR experience.

"We are coasting on novelty, and the initial wonder of being something people have never seen before," he continued. "But we need to start judging ourselves. Not on a curve, but in an absolute sense. Can you do something in VR that has the same value, or more value, than what these other [non-VR] things have done?"

"We need to start judging ourselves. Not on a curve, but in an absolute sense"

Carmack discussed "objective measurements of quality." He mentioned the need to improve UI design, and questioned the absence of voice control in VR apps, but he picked out loading times as a point of focus. Elsewhere in the industry, he said, development teams are "fighting and struggling" to reduce load times to 29 seconds or less, but that standard is simply too much for VR.

"That's acceptable if you're going to sit down and play for an hour....but [in VR] initial startup time really is poisonous. An analogy I like to say is, imagine if your phone took 30 seconds to unlock every time you wanted to use it. You'd use it a lot less."

Carmack continued: "There are apps that I wanted to play, that I thought looked great, that I stopped playing because they had too long of a load time. I would say 20 seconds should be an absolute limit on load times, and even then I'm pushing people to get it much, much lower."

As a parting shot, though, Carmack returned to avoiding the allure of novelty as, "the biggest thing I want to impress on people." Almost every developer makes that mistake to some extent, he said.

"This is misguided. It's not just that it hurts your performance, or the visual quality isn't as good; it's actually the wrong thing to do."

"It's not going to be a higher and higher bar for performance; it's going to be a lower and lower bar for adoption"

Elsewhere in his closing keynote, Carmack also played booster for mobile VR, which he described as "the future" of the medium, reminding the audience that, "it's still not easy to make a Gear VR app."

"There might be a hundred million PCs that can do this, but I believe in the mission that Facebook had when it bought into Oculus, of having a billion people in VR," he said. "So it's not going to be a higher and higher bar for performance; it's going to be a lower and lower bar for adoption."

Carmack predicted that VR on PC would become "the creative class" and a "laboratory," where ideas are formed that can be, "[pushed] out to the lower-end systems." Fundamentally, he appeared to be addressing a tendency among developers to be drawn to the bleeding-edge, even when that technology has a more limited reach.

"Find old-timers, anybody that worked on an Xbox or an original Gamecube or something like that, and tell them your minimum clock speed is 800 megahertz or something. They'll say, 'Megahertz?!'

"It's absolutely possible to still do great things with that."

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Latest comments (7)

Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing A year ago
He's definitely right, if VR does take off it'll be 8-10:1 people docking their phones in or higher. You just don't need a "real" headset for chatting, looking at videos, or aunt Claire's vacation photos, and most common game experiences just need that kind of power.

I urge people to make those mobile stuff so you can afford to experiment with the hardcore ;)
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist A year ago
This seems rather contradictory to me. Sure, VR needs to move past technical novelty, and develop more meaningful content... but suggesting that concentrating efforts on mobile is the path to that seems bizarre.
Yes, mobile will inevitably be the more ostensibly "popular" platform for VR, but mobile is also the platform that will crush all that is good about VR beneath a mountain of "monetization" and 1-note gimmickery, pandering to and exploiting the mass market. If efforts are focused exclusively there, it will lead inevitably to that future that most VR enthusiasts fear - being seen as just another pointless 3DTV gimmick designed purely to sell hardware and accessories.

Mobile VR will require no encouragement, if there's money to be made, devs will swarm over it regardless.
What does need encouragement is the PC platform - the place where the real innovation and quality will come from, if hopes that VR can become a true platform/medium in its own right are to ever come to pass.

It's worrying when the originators of modern VR themselves already seem so hurried to reduce it all down to whatever humdrum mediocrity will make the most short-term financial return. They're going to kill it before it ever gets started.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Wood on 11th October 2016 1:57pm

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@ Dan
Mobile VR is not a humdrum mediocrity, unless VR in general is. It's a neutral platform like any other and it has the numbers to be a going concern already. Carmack's point was expressly directed at arguments like you raised. It's not either / or, he's asking for a balance. Developers are jumping on the most expensive elite VR hardware and may be forgetting to pay attention to where the VR consumers are actually heading. Remember mobile hardware is getting more beastly by the year.
And I certainly take your point about monetisation but King are not trying to take over VR right now. If you remember when mobile launched, console devs like me snootily ignored the platform for years, clearing the decks for Facebook gaming companies - and their free-to-play monetisation - to take over. Now, free casual games account for 85% of all mobile revenue, and 95% of all mobile gaming revenue. Do you want to avoid that situation with VR? Then reckon with the platform instead of ignoring it.
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Show all comments (7)
Nick Parker Consultant A year ago
As always, the name of the game is the games - a few great game experiences will define the performance of each headset.
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to me mobile VR makes little sense because first and foremost, VR requires a safe environment to play in. That means your home basically and if your home you might as well use the higher end tech. FYI, PSVR has sold more headsets in one day then Occulus and Vive have since their release. Sony has done VR right, its amazing what they have pulled off on a console.

As far as coasting, Devs have to walk before they can run. They have to see what works and sells and what doesnt. VR and Sony have just changed gaming forever, it will just take awhile for people to get that.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 14th October 2016 8:15pm

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, AzoomeeA year ago
I have another view.

I think Mobile VR makes sense because of the incredibly low barrier to entry, untethered nature and great app ecosystems.

If you already have a high end smartphone, the experiences possible are really impressive. It cost me next to nothing, in context to get a GearVR at my leisure. When I did, the Galaxy S7 was more powerful than I ever imagined at offering VR at QHD resolution and great frame-rates.

Sure, it may not be as powerful as some solutions but accessibility is another factor.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 14th October 2016 8:37pm

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@todd Do you have figures for actual sold units of PSVR, if so a link would be v useful please :) I have read 2m "shipped" and not much else that's useful. I'd be very surprised if it outsold Vive & Rift together, it seemed a quiet launch to me.
FYI Untethered VR is far better than tethered, even in the home. Adam made some solid points. For the money, Mobile VR is far better value than ppl think.
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