It may be the last big surprise in a year that's been rather full of them; Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, only months after safely shepherding the company's long-anticipated, greatly hyped VR headset to launch, stepping down from his role to focus all of his energies on the company's PC endeavours. The change comes as part of a broader restructuring of Oculus which will see former head of software Jon Thomason heading up a mobile VR group alongside Iribe's PC VR group, with both men reporting to an as-yet undecided new boss who'll be charged with overseeing both business units.
It's unusual, to say the least, for the CEO of a company - Iribe has been in that role since Oculus VR was founded in the wake of its successful Kickstarter campaign four years ago - to demote himself to heading up a single business unit. As such, the move has raised some eyebrows; but the focus, I think, should be on what this restructuring tells us about Oculus' plans for the future. Iribe, with his background in development, is obviously best-suited to leading the company's efforts with PC VR. The real news here is that Oculus, and presumably those in charge at Facebook, see mobile VR as an equally important focus and want it to have a leadership structure of its own.
"It's like VR has been in unfulfilled hype mode for so long that nobody knows how to turn it off"
Oculus does already have a toe in the water of mobile VR; it worked on the Gear VR headsets for Samsung. However, the gap between the technology of the Rift headset and of mobile VR offerings from Samsung and Google is enormous, to the extent that they are for all intents and purposes separate product categories. "Wired" VR, such as Rift, HTC's Vive and Sony's PSVR, may make use of some mobile components (the whole VR revolution of the past few years was enabled largely by high pixel density screens and sensitive accelerometers developed for smartphones) but by offloading processing to a powerful PC or console, they permit immersive, highly interactive and believable VR experiences. Mobile VR, meanwhile, occasionally produces moments of wonder but is for the most part a toy, or a gadget; you might glance around a 360 degree image or video and enjoy it, but you're unlikely to want to spend very much time in any of the worlds or experiences offered by mobile VR right now.
Oculus, however, knows where the wind is blowing. Mobile technology is advancing at an extraordinary pace, and the theoretical benefits it offers to VR experiences are undeniable. By cutting the cord - rendering the entire VR experience inside the headset, whether that's by slotting in a smartphone device or by building a smartphone-class SoC into the headset itself - VR becomes portable, flexible, and the doors to AR and mixed reality are flung open. Guessing on timescales is a little tricky, but at the pace of progress being made by mobile SoC builders - led by Apple, which admittedly has showed no real interest in VR thus far, but with other vendors not too far behind - it's probably fair to expect pretty solid mobile VR experiences within a few years.
"The problem with Oculus' reorganisation is a microcosm of a broader problem that's becoming apparent across all of the VR space"
Of course, mobile VR will never actually catch up to desktop VR - it's simply physically impossible to get the same performance out of a mobile chipset, limited in its power consumption, heat generation and physical size, that you can get out of a desktop-grade chip built with the same level of technology. However, "good enough" mobile VR isn't very many years away, and the advantages it offers over desktop VR, once that milestone is reached, will likely overpower any performance benefits offered by the desktop, at least as far as mass-market applications are concerned.
Regardless of what the broader shape of the mobile market looks like in a few years time - whether it's primarily a gaming market or has shifted largely towards enterprise, education and marketing applications; whether it's taken off as a home device or become largely focused on out-of-home experiences - that's one fixed aspect that's simply guaranteed by what we know about technological progress. Processing power will migrate into the headset, in one form or another, and chunky cables leading to powerful boxes will disappear from most mainstream, popular devices. Oculus knows this, too, and its decision to ramp up mobile operations as an equally important part of its business to the PC hardware division is reflective of that. It can't hurt that Facebook has painful experience in this regard; failing to grasp the full importance of smartphones early on left the social network playing catch-up, and forced it to spend billions acquiring companies like Instagram that had moved faster and more decisively in mobile.
It makes sense for Oculus/Facebook, then, to make sure they're out in front when VR technology reaches the threshold at which it crosses over to being a mobile tech. On the other hand, though, it's hard not to wonder if it might not have been better to do this in a more low-key way. The problem with Oculus' reorganisation is a microcosm of a broader problem that's becoming apparent across all of the VR space; neophilia. With the long-awaited headsets on the market, attention has turned all too rapidly to the next big thing, rather than lingering on the hardware we've got and the possibilities it presents. It's like VR has been in unfulfilled hype mode for so long that nobody knows how to turn it off.
This risks turning VR into a technology that's always "going to be great next year". With this year's hardware in consumers' hands (at least a few consumers; the overall installed base, across all wired headsets, probably isn't far north of 1.5 million), and capable of delivering genuinely good experiences, the focus on software and on exploiting the potential of that hardware to its very limits should be relentless.
The message to consumers should be that VR is mature and ready for people to jump in and play - or work, or learn, or do whatever it is that turns out to be the killer app for VR. That's a message that can't be sent through marketing or PR - it has to be done through product, through software, through convincing consumers by walking the walk, not talking the talk. Instead, it's hard to escape the sense that the VR market is already spending far too much time looking towards the Next Big Thing, forgetting that the hardware on the market today was meant to be the next big thing.
"VR needs to grow up and remember that the wild old days of big promises and wide-eyed future visions are behind it"
The thing with this field of technology is that there will always be a next big thing. It's not just mobile VR and untethered headsets; it's Hololens, and Magic Leap, and eye tracking, and force feedback, and god knows I'm sure some genius out there is figuring out how to measure the eye's focal length dynamically and adjust the focus of the image being displayed right as I type this, and in five years' time that'll be the next big thing too. The pace of technology is relentless, and slowing it down or halting it is neither possible nor desirable. That doesn't mean, though, that the industry has to spend its whole life in hype mode - always sowing, never reaping. On the contrary, VR needs to grow up and remember that the wild old days of big promises and wide-eyed future visions are behind it. It's now an industry with products to sell and consumers to convince - not of a dream, but of a reality. If VR platform holders and VR developers alike are to make any money from this new field in 2017, they'd better start working on shifting their own focus - stop talking about, or making clear overtures towards, the future of VR, and start selling its present.