Keanu Reeves went virtual in Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix. Even further back, films like Tron or Lawnmower Man promised us virtual worlds. But for years, the promise of Hollywood paled in comparison to the reality of virtual reality. What we got instead of some alternate dimension were five-minute games at malls or amusement parks at 10 bucks a pop. Now Virtual Reality may finally be getting real. The Oculus Rift headset is betting on becoming the VR device for the masses.
"You have to have it very affordable and that's a key part of our strategy. We want to keep it in the same $300 range as the developer kit," says Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR. "We would like the consumer kit to be just as affordable and even more affordable over time." With costs low enough that the company is selling developer kits to game companies, it appears the futuristic tech is finally ready for the living room. As cell phones have grown more powerful, so has the power of smaller components. It was in this happy confluence that an engineer named Palmer Luckey saw an opportunity.
"The fact that Palmer set out to do this, right at a time where full-screen smartphones became so popular, was that right-place-at-the-right-time moment," Iribe says. Perhaps it was just a matter of time until someone took the same handheld screen, same tiny processor, same accelerometer tech, and put them together to create the inexpensive VR that every geek has been waiting for.
In the past, virtual reality headsets were primarily the domain of military simulations. "The military wasn't demanding the VR companies to make their headsets for hundreds of dollars. If someone showed up with a new VR headset that was 5% or 10% better and it cost an extra $10,000, that was okay," notes Iribe. "There wasn't much of an incentive for those companies, which were living on those VR military contracts, to go out and make a product that was 100 times less expensive." Luckey pounced on making an affordable VR for the everyday gamer.
"Palmer, living in his garage and trying to make a VR gaming device, didn't have access to the expensive components. So he started taking apart cell phones," says Iribe. For two years he tinkered. He began showing off his prototypes in a forum for VR enthusiasts. In early 2012, Luckey found himself talking with John Carmack, the programmer behind Doom, the PC shooter game that launched the era of players exploring 3-D worlds on PCs and TVs.
Palmer sent Carmack his latest prototype. And then in June, the dominoes fell. "Palmer didn't realize that John Carmack was going to take that headset and a Doom 3 demo to the E3 convention and show it to the top 30 journalists at the show," says Iribe. "That kind of turned his world upside down." The news exploded.
A mutual friend introduced Iribe to Luckey, who was then looking for startup assistance. Iribe and his business partner Michael Antonov soon met with Luckey. "Palmer shows up with a bucket of wires and circuit boards," Iribe remembers. "At one point Michael picks up the headset, with all the circuitry dangling from it, and says, 'Well, it's certainly a startup.' It very much was this crazy looking thing at the time." In August, they launched their company Oculus VR and started a Kickstarter project, offering $300 developer kits.
Testimonials from respected PC game makers like Carmack and Valve's Managing Director Gabe Newell boosted the project's profile. They raised $2.4 million, while taking over 7,000 pre-orders of the dev kit. Since then, with additional pre-orders on the website, they have sold about 11,000 dev kits. Iribe expects that developer base to grow to between 20,000 and 30,000. "This is really just the beginning of VR working for the first time well enough for developers. Developers will make really cool experiences, but they are still just developer prototypes," he says.
The initial run of kits ships next month. In this preliminary phase, game makers will get comfortable with the hardware, learn the software, and create games for the Rift headset. "Those developers are looking for feedback, to try to perfect the experience, get it consumer ready," Iribe says.
He remains worried about early adopters impatient for the VR tech at home. "I wouldn't set my expectation that this is going to replace my console or I'm going to buy one of these instead of a next-gen console, when it's only a developer kit," he says. But fans will benefit from the dev kit program. Beyond creating actual content to play, the dev kits will help create the consumer version of the Rift.
After they have collected that feedback and tweaked the consumer version, Oculus faces a bigger challenge: getting the public to want the Rift. The idea of VR has been around for decades and the public may have some pre-conceived notions from film and television of what VR is. These notions have been tarnished by decades of waiting for home VR that is both effective and affordable. Iribe realizes that, "A lot of that VR baggage is from the '80s and '90s. Hardware wasn't ready 20, 30 years ago. You were just having Sega Genesis; Doom was barely running in a very low resolution. You just didn't have the computer power to run this very incredible VR experience. People's imaginations were just far ahead of actual technology."
Oculus Rift, then, has to appeal to the young consumers with little or no preconception about what "Virtual Reality" is. "What's the closest thing to the size and shape of this, that needs to go around your eyes?" Iribe asks, before answering his own question. "Ski goggles. Most of the gaming population could probably throw on a pair of ski goggles and not be too intimidated."
The consumer friendliness of the Oculus Rift may be the thing the turns it from a $300 gimmick to a viable part of PC gaming. Iribe is uncertain when the consumer version will become a reality. "We are confident we are going to get through them all and we will have a consumer version soon. But we just don't know what soon is--12 months? 24 months?" he says.
But as he said before, that is just the start. "Resolution will go way up, comfort will improve, latency will go down, the overall experience will improve," says Iribe. "And it will continue to get more compatible with existing hardware, and we certainly hope it would be compatible with game consoles," he says.
By then the company may move beyond the headset. "Internally, we are really R&Ding a lot. Ultimately, when you can put on a headset and you look down and see a virtual body, you can see your limbs and you can move your hands and fingers, when that is brought into the virtual experience and you become the actual character of the game, that's going to be a huge fundamental shift," he says.
Iribe knows the impact more immersive game would have. "For the first time, you won't see the screen anymore. Something switches in your brain and anywhere you look, 360 degrees around you, you are in the game universe or even the architectural universe that you created. You are inside of it."
[Images Courtesy of Oculus]