Oculus VR is ‘gearing’ up for the imminent launch of the Samsung Gear VR, a mobile headset that uses its software and VR hardware expertise to give Galaxy Note 4 owners a taste of immersive virtual reality. We spoke with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, along with its head of mobile Max Cohen about how this launch fits into their overall vision of immersive computing in general, and about how their mobile market efforts might progress from these early first steps.
Platform Convergence Is A (Distant) Goal
At Oculus, the Gear VR that starts selling today is still very much a separate enterprise from the Oculus Rift that it’s building itself, but that doesn’t mean the projects are isolated entirely from one another. In fact, Oculus has always seemed a company intent on playing the long game, from its protracted concept to shipping consumer hardware development cycle to its work winning over dedicated advocates in the developer community. Gear VR, and how it informs and will eventually maybe even collide with Oculus Rift is just another example of that long-term thinking at work.
“There are two very different projects right now: There’s Gear VR which is about portability, and there’s the Rift which is about power and presence,” Cohen explained. “Both of these devices have pluses and negatives, and they really are separate lines. We don’t really have it broken down in the company as a mobile product and a PC company, we kind of work on both, and there are lessons being learned from mobile that go into PC and of course vice versa.”
“It’s not like we have a plan to eventually be making the same device, or to split off or anything else,” Luckey added. “It’s just that they’re such different experiences right now. Yes, the ultimate goal, in the long run, is that these will all be headsets that have hardware on them that’s doing all the processing, but it’s going to be a very long time before we get there.”
We’re not working on sunglasses right now. Max Cohen
Despite the amount of work that has to happen between now and a future where VR devices operate independently of computing accessories, with form factors that aren’t defined by what kind of hardware is powering them, Cohen plays coy about just how far out the Oculus lab is with regards to testing.
“Brendan [Iribe, Oculus VR CEO] talks a lot about kind of the sunglass VR, but we’re not working on sunglasses right now,” he said. “Or maybe we are!”
On Working With Samsung And Who’s Doing What
GearVR is the product of a partnership, and that means two companies working together in a relationship that’s cozier than a lot of the ones we see in the consumer electronics space, especially when it’s something that doesn’t fit into the traditional supplier/supplied or platform-maker/OEM relationship. I asked if either side was more influential in setting the pace of release, or the marketing messaging accompanying Gear VR’s launch, which is similar in tone to the push behind Oculus Rift Developer Kit sales.
“No partnership can work if one person is just dictating to the other,” Luckey said. “It’s definitely a partnership, because Samsung is new to this space, and [Oculus is] learning a lot about shipping mass quantities of hardware even now.”
“Both Oculus and Samsung are investing in this in the long run, which means we want to make sure we get this right,” Cohen adds, referring to the “Innovator Edition” moniker used to describe the Gear VR. “Could we tweak the marketing message and ship more units today? Sure. Could we throw some more advertising dollars at this and get this in the hands of more consumers? Sure. But that’s not what the goal of Gear VR is right now, and Samsung and Oculus are aligned in that we want to deliver a great experience for the right audience right now, as opposed to just an experience for a huge audience.”
Both Oculus and Samsung are investing in this in the long run Max Cohen
Between the announcement of the Oculus Mobile SDK and now, the company has already made some key strides in the core tech, including a fix that makes it possible to use the hardware for longer stretches at a time, which changes the kinds of content experiences that are suitable for the hardware. It’s a sign that even though Gear VR is still very much an experimental firs step, Oculus plans to iterate quickly and attend to the evolution of the mobile platform, even as it strives to ship a consumer version of its desktop Oculus Rift PC-based headset.
“We were having a lot of problems around thermal efficiency, so we were having to run the clock speeds pretty darn high to get games, especially unity games to run well, and we made a lot of strides in conjunction with Samsung, to improve that,” Cohen explained. “Basically, you can now go 45 minutes to an hour, even on the most demanding applications, without any problems at all.”
It’s also an example of how there isn’t a clear breakdown of responsibilities when it comes to this partnership – both companies are contributing to various elements, and Oculus is doing as much on the hardware side as it is with software.
“One of the thing that’s really been shared between them is the facial interface. DK2 is using the exact same facial interface and foam and contours as DK1, literally the exact same pieces,” Luckey noted. “But Crescent Bay was a new facial interface that we developed from the ground up, we did a lot of research on how people’s faces are shaped, and how we could make something that was really ergonomic on everyone and those lessons went directly into Gear VR. That’s also an example of how it isn’t just a software thing, where we’re provided software and they’re providing hardware; we’re also closely collaborating on the hardware.”
Fragmentation Is Anathema To Widespread Mobile VR
Mobile VR has a long way to go before it becomes something ready for everyday consumers, and Oculus is well aware that some of the problems that have created headaches for traditional app developers stand as even bigger barriers to immersive virtual reality experiences, especially when quality is the focus.
“In the case of asynchronous time warp, the reason it showed up on mobile first is because we’re only working with one set of hardware there, one CPU, one GPU, one phone,” Luckey noted, commenting on a specific technical improvement that came via mobile first. “And now we’re trying to accomplish the challenge of bringing that to all PCs, with all the different GPU manufacturers and all the different driver sets, and that’s challenging.”
Developing for mobile the way Oculus is going about it is kind of like developing for a console, in that it’s a set platform where you don’t have to account for any (or much) variance, and people can hammer at the same problem for years (or even over a decade) to get the most out of what it can offer, without having to worry about compatibility with new chipsets and drivers.
“The great thing about mobile is that we have a captive platform, we know the limits of it, and we know the benefits of it, and although we will be iterating pretty quickly with new hardware as it comes out, you’d be amazed,” Luckey explained. “People say ‘I can’t believe this is on a phone’ but that’s only possible because of the close collaboration between Oculus and Samsung. It wouldn’t be easy to get this level of VR on other phones.”
The goals of Oculus VR as a company when it comes to its mobile efforts help determine the path it takes relative to general availability, and platform choice. The partnership with Samsung, and why Samsung makes sense over other options plays into its aims with these early steps.
“Again it goes back to how many units do we want to sell,” Cohen adds. “Do we want to sell a billion units tomorrow? No. If we did, you would have a very different experience of [mobile] VR, one that Oculus wouldn’t believe is up to our level of quality. It is important that we expand deliberately, and we do it in a way that’s consistent with the comfortable experience of the Oculus is building itself.”
“The great thing about Samsung as a partner is that Samsung alone, even though they have some fragmentation, has a ton of units available across its product line,” Cohen continues. “By working closely with their team we can scale to some pretty good-sized markets, without having to try to work with the crazy amount of fragmentation that exists in the general phone market.”
Even so, fragmentation will remain an issue to watch in the evolution of VR as a mobile technology, and one that could make for incredibly unsatisfying experiences if not handled correctly, at least based on the experience Oculus has had with what qualifies as an enjoyable VR end-user engagement.
I don’t think VR is as tolerant of fragmentation as standard 2D interfaces Palmer Luckey
“If VR is going to be successful in the long run, we’re going to have to avoid the kind of fragmentation we’ve seen,” Luckey said. “I don’t think VR is as tolerant of fragmentation as standard 2D interfaces where you can handle lag, you can handle weird resolution scaling problems.”
Input Remains A Challenge On Both Mobile And Desktop
Another big question mark surrounding the future of VR, besides platform compatibility, is input. Gamepads and other traditional devices are ‘good enough’ in many instances, but far from ideal, and detrimental to the overall feeling of immersion VR strives for. Gear VR can either be controlled via user gaze, or with an optional Samsung gamepad, which Cohen recommends for optimal user experience. But in both the case of Gear VR, and Rift, the input question is far from answered.
“We’ve been doing a lot of research and development on input, and we know that you can do a lot better than a gamepad,” Luckey offered when asked about the progress at Oculus on developing a new control method for VR. “We want to have six degrees of input that allows you to interact with the virtual world as easily as you look around inside it, but that’s not something that’s going to happen in the very near future, and it’s not something that’s on Gear VR right now. Gear VR is going to follow in that same path of using a fairly traditional gamepad and not trying to solve every problem at once.”
There’s also an element of A/B testing going on between the Rift and the Gear VR: Each devices uses very different input methods, especially for the central hub of Oculus software that appears on Gear VR, and Oculus anticipates being able to draw conclusions about whether or not people prefer a touch-based interaction method mounted on the headset itself, external hardware controls or some other means of navigating menus, storefronts, and other pieces of VR software that aren’t necessarily in-game environments or media playback spaces.
Gear VR Is A Seedling
The Gear VR project is worth a lot of examination because it’s a fairly unique partnership in the broader consumer electronics market, but also because it will help shape the path of virtual reality in general. Based on my conversation with Luckey and Cohen, I get the sense that this first hardware is a seedling that will require a lot of tending from all involved to grow into something more substantial, but the motivation to tend that garden seems strong from all involved. Nor does any party seem to have set their sights on short-term gains, so hopefully Gear VR sales performance will remain independent from the larger mobile VR project.
Solving the fragmentation challenge seems like the biggest barrier standing in the way of growing consumer appeal, but Cohen and Luckey said they expect to see things like smartphones designed with VR in mind to help work around that problem, and they also noted that only a handful of manufacturers account for the vast majority of mobile device usage around the world, so while it’s still a massive challenge, allocating resources correctly will have an outsized impact.
Whatever the eventual outcome, today’s launch is proof that a lot of progress can be made in a short time when goals align between industry heavyweights. Here’s hoping those goals continue to align for some time to come.