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‘We still have a lot to learn.’ Oculus’ mobile chief explains the future of VR

Oculus is best known for the Rift, the VR headset it has been developing in-house for two years, but that’s not the company’s sole focus. Oculus is also pushing hard on mobile through its partnership with Samsung, which took the lion’s share of attention at Connect 2. Samsung announced a new, $99 version of Gear VR and Oculus boasted numerous new media partnerships alongside details of Oculus Arcade, a new game store.

It’s a lot of information to process. So we asked Oculus’ Head of Mobile, Max Cohen, to explain it to us – and detail how he sees mobile VR developing in the future.

Digital Trends: When you envision Mobile VR being used now and in the future, were do see people using it?

Max Cohen: I would say the primary use case is still going to be at your house. Even if you have a portable gaming device, for instance, you’re probably not using it in public areas all the time.

The great thing about mobile VR is it’s portable, so you can do things you can’t do with tethered VR. You could use it on a plane, for example, and suddenly you’re no longer in this cramped space. But in general, I think it’ll be something you use at home that also travels with you.

I have my Gear VR in my backpack all the time. So I take it to friend’s houses, I take it on vacations, but generally when I think about where I use it the most, it’s usually at home.

The current mobile VR experience is mostly film or 360 video, more so then games. What do you see the content mix being a year from now?

Honestly, I think it’s going to be a healthy mix of gaming and non-gaming content. The reason for that is, there are some people who really, really want to play VR games. We’re going to offer them some amazing ones where they can do that. They might not care so much about the movie-watching experience.

“I think we’re all finding our way in VR. It’s still pretty early.”

But another set of users really want that theater experience. Whether that’s watching Netflix, using Hulu, or Oculus video, or the 360 video landscape. I think there are people who will be very attracted to that. My wife does not play games, but she watches videos all the time off Facebook. So now, being able to take that experience to a new level in VR, that works for her.

Do you think gamers are more passionate about VR then other users?

I think it depends on who comprises your market. The Innovator’s Edition [of Gear VR] was designed for tech enthusiasts and developers, so that’s a gaming group. I think we’re going to have a group of dedicated gamers for awhile.

We don’t know what the split will be [between games and film]. But as long as it’s not 90/10 either way, then it’s important we support everything. So we do have things like Oculus video, and on the other hand, we’re working with top game developers.

This is not a pure gaming device, or pure media device. That doesn’t mean it can’t do either — it means because it can do both, we need to make sure customers can find what they want.

So is a 90/10 split something you’re particularly worried about, and want to avoid?

Not trying to avoid it, but if it was 90/10, then we’d have to make some decisions about the position of the product and the content that we highlight.

We talked about video and Netflix at this keynote. If it was going to be 95 percent games, our position would be different. If it was going to be about movies, we wouldn’t be worrying about Unity integration.

koo samsung gear vr

Oculus

I think we’re all finding our way in VR. It’s still pretty early. We still have a lot to learn about what people want to do.

Do you think that social experiences are more suited to mobile VR than to the Rift and headsets like it?

I think social applies to every headset. The reality is there are certain things that are more fun with friends, and certain things that aren’t.

When you’re doing Eve: Valkyrie, and you’re fighting against other ships on the Rift, that’s still a form of social. Even if they don’t have their avatar next to you, you’re still communicating. Then there’s the more casual social, where you want to be catching up with people. You might be doing something like playing chess or checkers, or just watching a movie.

There’s no reason why either would be tied to Rift, or mobile, more than the other.

Do you think there will be a division of casual and hardcore users between Gear VR and the Rift, because of the price difference?

“I don’t think there’s much crossover of people interested in Gear VR and people interested in Rift.”

If you’re a hardcore gamer, you should be buying the Rift. You probably have the minimum specifications, and the Rift makes more sense. If you’re more of a casual gamer it’s a pretty big barrier to go get that recommended machine. That will change: As the specs stay the same and technology gets better, laptops will be able to power Rift in the future.

But there is going to be a segmentation. I don’t think, if you sample the population of people interested in Gear VR and interested in Rift, that there’s much cross-over. So that’s one of the things, where we’ll see some deviation in content between Gear and Rift.

It seems Oculus is relying a lot on proprietary software, storefronts, and other in-house solutions, rather than already available services (like Google Play, for instance). Can you explain the reasoning?

It just comes down to providing a great experience. When you put the headset on, even before you launch any content, you’ll be in a place called Oculus Home. The reason for that is, when we add social features you’ll be able to see what friends are doing, and you can see your content. Having that be where you launch provides a really good VR experience we know runs at a good framerate, and is easy to access.

The reason we built the ecosystem that way, is that bad VR is incredibly bad. If it’s something where you’re dropping frames you’re not going to be comfortable. Horror content can be incredibly scary. Things can be pretty intense.

We have a curated store because we want people to know everything they try on GearVR is going to be a good experience. That does mean some things are going to be turned away, but we think the overall result will be customers feeling they got their money’s worth.

Do you think developers may try to circumvent your system?

I’m not too concerned about that kind of thing. We try to offer the best experience, and we think the approach we’re taking is the right way to do that. I can’t predict the future. But we’re offering developers is a great platform where they can use our services, monetize well, have access to being featured.

Max Cohen Head of Mobile at Oculus

Oculus

I’d say the right thing to do is make the value proposition clear to users and developers, and everything will work out okay — and I think we’re doing a good job of that right now.

I see a lot of contrast between Oculus’ approach and Steam’s heavily community-driven content. Does Oculus plan to add more community features?

Oculus Concepts is a way to bridge that. You’ll see a lot of content in there, and if the community likes it, then a Concept may be promoted to the store. That’s something we’ve talked about.

More importantly, Concepts will give developers feedback about what people like, and help them finish a game in a way that makes it a good fit for the store.

Our goal is not to get as many apps as possible on screen. It’s to make sure everything has value. You don’t want to be a good piece of content in a store that has a ton of stuff that’s not very good. You want to be able to be seen in a store that’s maybe a little less filled, but people are engaging.

You mentioned a “bar of quality” that you want content to reach. How is that decided, in terms of what makes it and what doesn’t?

Actually, I don’t really like the term “bar of quality.” Really it’s more of a process where we work with the developers early on. They send content to us and we give them feedback on a technical level. We also have Oculus employees that review the content. It’s a pretty collaborative process.

One downside to mobile VR is the limitations on hardware caused by using a smartphone. Are there upcoming smartphone features that you think will be great for mobile VR?

There’s a lot of stuff. We’re still going to run into issues of battery life and heat generation. Those are the basics. But if you want the perfect phone VR device you want things like stereo cameras, a more finely calibrated internal sensor.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that consumer VR will influence smartphone roadmaps in the future.”

The Gear VR hardware actually has a sensor that samples at ten times the rate the phone can manage. The Gear also has the touchpad, and other things. But if you could take away that sensor, the price could be dropped even more.

We have a number of things we can improve on the technology side, which is why this launch of consumer Gear VR is so important. I think if we prove the market, we can influence the roadmap of phones.

For example, it doesn’t make much sense to have a 4K screen when you’re working at this distance [where a phone is normally used], but with VR it makes a ton of sense. So if VR is something that’s actually compelling and drives people, 4K makes more sense.

I think we’re starting the conversation. In the end the market will speak, and I’m cautiously optimistic that with the advent of consumer VR coming out now, it will help influence smartphone roadmaps in the future.