Oculus, the startup company behind the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, has just hired Dillon Seo to open an Oculus Korea office, which will work with South Korean game developers to integrate the Oculus Rift into South Korean games.
Oculus has been going from high to higher lately: First it became the futuristic tech project of choice for high-profile code monkey John Carmack and indie darling Markus “Notch” Persson. Then it won the Game Critics Award for Best of E3 2012. Now its Kickstarter campaign raised a million dollars over its stated goal. Throw in public displays of affection by gaming superstars like Gabe Newell and Cliff Bleszinski, and you have a company whose futuristic product is starting to look less like a fantasy and more like an inevitability.
Suddenly swimming in a lot more cash than it had planned for, it was natural for Oculus to open some new offices. But making South Korea its first target is a surprise, and it implies some interesting directions for the Rift hardware.
The Rift promises to be the first great virtual reality headset. It’s basically a set of giant goggles that not only display a huge field of vision in stereoscopic 3-D, but also track the player’s head movements and translate them into in-game look commands. It’s basically “mouselook” translated into real motion, coupled with one of the most immersive displays imaginable. That makes it a perfect fit for first-person shooters, which explains the support of developers like Carmack and Newell, who’ve focused on the FPS genre for their entire careers.
But while the FPS is a popular genre in South Korea, running and gunning isn’t the distinguishing characteristic of the country’s game industry. South Korea has been called “the Mecca of e-sports,” because its games are defined by their focus on multi-player connectivity. Every major game in South Korea, whether it’s a shooter, a kart racer, a 2D side-scroller, or even a music game, is first and foremost an MMO, where players complete or collaborate with each other online. Starcraft tournaments are prime-time television events, four million people are playing online games at any given moment, and taking a date to a PC cafe for some death-match is as normal as sharing a milkshake at the sock hop.
So Oculus beginning collaboration with South Korean developers before it even has a product for sale suggests a few things about the company’s goal for the hardware. On a technical level, it means Oculus is confident that it can make the Rift display refresh quickly enough to meet the demands of competitive online play. One of the first development hurdles the Rift had to overcome was the lag between head movement and display refresh; a delay of even a few milliseconds in a VR display can cause serious nausea, which has crushed many previous company’s hopes for face-mounted technology.
And from a marketing perspective, it suggests that Oculus wants to make the Rift part of a social gaming experiences. There’s undeniably something creepy about watching a person strap blinders over their face and interact with a world where he (and it’s usually a he) is the sole inhabitant. If the Rift catches on, it could inspire a whole new wave of moral panic over video games and the isolation they engender. But if the Rift is part of a connected social-gaming ecosystem, it becomes a way of plugging in rather than dropping out.