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Interview with Oculus' Jason Rubin - Part 2: Challenges of Untethered VR

I sat down with Jason Rubin, VP of Content at Oculus, on the Sunday before GDC 2017 to chat about the challenges the company faces in bringing virtual reality to the mainstream. In the first part of my talk with Rubin, he talked about how the company views its relationships with third-party developers. Today's second part focuses on the challenges Oculus faces in building a viable standalone untethered VR HMD.

There are really two kinds of VR content emerging. Games that are more focused on presence and immersion and experiences that are more passive and story-driven. How does Oculus balance its strategy in pushing both of these types of content forward? Are you saying that both types of content are important to driving your platform forward and that you will look at both of them equally or are you operating as a games company first?

We are absolutely not a games company first. We recently shipped a lot of units of Gear VR for the holiday. Samsung did really well getting those into the market and part of the push was to give people who got Gear VR a choice when they bought it. Do you want the entertainment bundle, which had a free movie and some experiential content, or the other option which was a gaming package? The split between those two customer choices was almost even. So our market has a very diverse set of desires on Gear VR and therefore our content team is supporting both on Gear VR equally. We really look at them as equal partners.

On Rift, it’s a little bit different. Not that it will end up being different on PC or high-end VR, but right now you have to have a pretty beefy graphics card and processor. You need a pretty strong computer to run VR and the people who have those computers, generally speaking, are gamers. Not because that’s all they care about, but because that is what requires that hardware and there’s never been a Henry, Asteroids from Baobab, Dear Angelica or any of these things in the past to drive them to want to look at linear content with beefy graphics cards. Anything that could have been done with the beefiest graphics card would be rendered overnight by Pixar or whatever and they would put it on a screen.

We now have a reason for interactive realtime storytelling. There reason is your head’s in there, you’re in there, it’s present. Right? It’s a new world. In the long run, we believe, a lot more than games will come about. But right now the focus on PC is to serve market that has the hardware to purchase this which for the most part right now is gamers. 

You mentioned that Dead and Buried was a first-party Oculus title. Are you working on more first party content at the same time as you are enabling third party development? 

Our strategy at Oculus has been to mostly help third parties. Oculus doesn’t have a strong desire to build big development teams internally. That’s just not the business that we want to get into. As I said, in the long run if the market takes off we don’t need to fund games. The Dead and Buried team, Andrew and Ryan are the two leads on that, they call themselves the Oculus Studios strike team. That team created Hero Bound as a demo of what could be done on Gear VR and it was so good that we decided to finish it. Then they created Dead and Buried as a demo for what Touch units could do and it was so good that we decided to finish it. It’s five people inside Oculus and a significant amount of help from Gunfire Games, creator of Chronos and other titles.

It’s not an internal developer so much as it is an R&D team that keeps getting it so right that we end up having to finish it. Finishing it is a pain in the neck, right? The R&D is easy and they’re shy now about doing more R&D because they know it’s going to turn into another title. Shipping is the hard part. Getting it bug-free, making sure the user interface works and everything is very different than making a prototype of something cool.

Building off of your comments on research and development, the company announced at Oculus Connect 3 that untethered PC fidelity VR is a goal. How far along is Oculus in developing this? We asked Nate Mitchell at E3 2016. This is clearly not an iPhone-like life cycle to the VR HMD. Hardware refreshes will most likely occur every 2-3 years. How far away would you say we are (without any kind of timeline commitment) from untethered VR HMDs shipping?

We showed inside-out tracking at OC3, with our Santa Cruz prototype, so it’s possible to do it. The other question is how you get really high-end graphic fidelity to the headset. So it’s not just the position, but it’s also how do we get PC quality graphics into the headset. And that’s a much bigger challenge. There are technologies that will stream that wirelessly, but we believe that the two things that are needed for VR to move forward into a broader audience are significant amounts of good software, which is why we’re here today and why we spend so much on that, and better pricing. Overall. Not only better pricing when it comes to our headset, but also lower priced PCs that will drive it. As we add technologies like wireless, it adds hundreds of dollars to cost of the headset. It’s neat tech. It’s cool, but is it worth increasing the price of the headsets we have now when one of our challenges in going more mass market is bringing the entry price of these headsets down?

Additionally, people talk about screen door effect. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, screens are going to get better over time. If we can barely stream wirelessly at this resolution, you are making a decision whether wireless is more important than higher resolution screens. Because as soon as you add higher resolution screens, if you’re barely getting this bandwidth to stream, you need some new technology or you’re going back to tethered. So, there’s an interplay here between a lot of things. Price being one of the primary ones, but also what is the future need of this hardware. Is it higher resolutions screens? Is it wireless display technology? So all of those things are being discussed.

It’s a good time for us to have those discussions. Different hardware manufacturers make different decisions about what they think is important. That’s a healthy part of the business. We believed on-ear headphones were a vital part of high-end VR, so you weren’t constantly dealing with the extra headphones, cords dangling down and everything else. We were proven right. There are other things that we will decide are important that we’ll be proven wrong. Right now, we don’t believe that the most important thing to drive VR forward is a wireless headset.

But you are working on it.

Everybody is working on all of those technologies. Mark Zuckerberg has said that the end result should look like the glasses you’re wearing on your face. Not with a wire coming out of them. So we’re all worried about and interested in how do we get there. The question is now the right time to cut the cord, increase the screen resolution, drop the price? What is the most important thing to get more consumers into VR and to get more developers into VR? And I am not sure wireless is the right one.

It’s funny that you say that because at the same time one of the most successful HMDs on the market is Gear VR and it is untethered, self-contained VR. The screen resolution may not be the same as the Rift or any of the other tethered HMDS, but it has shown to be a very immersive and successful experience. You see what NextVR is doing with broadcasting live events to it. 

We love Gear VR. We also point out that Gear VR is the least expensive entry point (give or take the competitors in that same space) and that is a big part of it too.

I think that is what is interesting about your comments. It feels like there is a place for Oculus to have multiple lines of the same vision. Where here’s Gear VR, your Honda Accord of VR. At the same time here’s untethered Rift, which may cost you $1000, but it is outstanding. It seems like this is a delicate balance for Oculus.

Possibly. It’s much easier to go untethered on mobile because the processors are already built to not overheat, for low battery usage, and all of these purposes already. Trying to strap a 970 or 1060 graphics card to the side of somebody’s head and make an untethered PC quality experience is far away right now with fans, the heat, and the power consumption issues that exist.

I have always said that I don’t want to strap a lithium ion battery to the back of my head.

No, that’s right. So again, I don’t know that on the high end, when you want the highest quality fidelity that moving towards cordless is going to be better than moving towards higher resolution screens. One may preclude you from doing the other in the future. 


Be sure to check out Part 1 of our interview with Jason Rubin and come back tomorrow for Part 3 where we discuss how Oculus views augmented reality.

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