The next step for Oculus? Recruiting an army of 3D world builders

oculus gdc interview rift 2014
An attendee of this year's Game Developer's Conference takes the Oculus Rift for a spin.

Just days before Facebook rattled the gaming world by announcing it would acquire Oculus VR for $2 billion, we chatted with Aaron Davies, Oculus’ chief of developer relations and the man tasked with getting world-class game companies on board with virtual reality. Obviously none of our conversation was informed by the acquisition, but Davies spoke at length about developing during the early days of VR; what that looks like, how it needs to grow, and what Oculus VR is doing to throw fuel on the fire.

Though it’s strange to look back on that transcript now in light of what’s happened, the points Davies raised remain valid, with or without Facebook. Oculus will continue to develop its Rift headset for consumers out of its Irvine, Calif. headquarters, except now the team will be able to call on the resources and reach of Facebook. That may be a good thing or it may be a bad thing – and in truth, it’ll probably turn out to be a little of both in the long run – but for now, what we know of the acquisition amounts to a more extensive support system for Oculus to rely on as it stays the course.

With all of that in mind, here’s what Davies had to say on the bright future of virtual reality.

Evolving the VR experience

One of the questions that springs up when seasoned gamers sit down with a VR rig for the first time is: Where’s the meaty stuff? Virtual reality is technically in its infancy right now, even though the concept of VR has been floating around for more than 20 years. So we asked Davies about how Oculus will go about evolving experiences, in the present and over time, for consumers…

Aaron Davies, Oculus VR Director of Developer Relations
Aaron Davies, Oculus VR Director of Developer Relations

“People will adapt, right? People will get their VR legs and there will come a point where we don’t have ease them in so much. But I think that a lot of what’s going to shift is the quality of the experience on the hardware side, on the content side. It’s not necessarily that we’re going to move the bar and say, ‘OK, now we’re at level 1’ and five years down the road people are going to start at level 8. I think there will be a range of experiences that people will want, but I think there will be more complicated experiences or interactions [as time goes on].

“There’s always something magical about simplicity. The same thing applies to non-VR games if you think about it. All of the really, really good games are about core mechanics that are just really engaging, and really entertaining, and addictive. You can have a game that looks really beautiful, but it’s got crappy gameplay, and it’s gonna score [low] on Metacritic. “

Working with early VR developers

Oculus only signed a single publishing agreement, with CCP, prior to the Facebook acquisition, but the company has done (and presumably continues to do) lots of work with developers. That’s where Davies’ role as developer relations chief comes in. We asked him about the process of educating content creators on the unique demands of developing for virtual reality, and how that’s changed as the technology continues to make huge strides in short periods of time…

“Design for the platform, keep it simple, make it really fun.”

“It used to be a lot more reactive. There actually was a point in time where we felt like we knew what everybody was doing in VR. It rapidly just escaped from us. We’ve sold over 55,000 dev kits now. You’ll find out about stuff through Reddit or Twitter or whatever, that you just had no clue was even happening. So the process has changed from reactive, inbox filtering of inbound communications to being very much strategic about what the genre and demographic opportunities are that are still largely untapped.

“All of the expected genres and expected experiences are doing great on their own. We’re really digging into the green fields where RTSes and platformers and social experiences are. All these things that are non-obvious, that’s where we’re focused right now. We do have a strategic roadmap that covers everything, FPSes and racing and all that stuff, but that’s exactly the point. We have this categorical breakdown that we want to make sure that there is going to be content at the consumer launch.”

Broader applications for VR

Oculus has been clear almost from moment one that the company’s long-term goal is to push virtual reality as a technology platform, rather than simply framing it as the next great evolution in gaming. Davies spoke at length about the steps the company has taken to broaden its focus while being mindful of its relatively small size. The Facebook situation promises to change the landscape to some extent for Oculus, but exactly how remains to be seen. The acquisition announcement seems to make it clear that Facebook shares the same attitude as Oculus in pushing for a wide embrace of VR, but some of the actual processes are likely in flux now, following the deal…

“When we first started off, we were admittedly hyper game-focused. I think that that’s OK because game technology is the tip of the spear for [proving] this technology out to other industries. We’ve matured to the point now where, for example, we just hired a director of film and media who is focused on more consumptive film projects and 360 panorama. That covers music industry, film industry, simulations and training. So we’re starting to build out the team, both from a geographic representation standpoint and from a demographic, or industry, standpoint. That’s not to say we have someone yet whose sole job it is to focus on medical academia, but we’re all spending some part of our time, a significant part of our time, focusing on non-gaming stuff as well.

Virtual reality has applications in everything from gaming, to architecture and military training.

“It will be a huge opportunity and a huge disruptor for other industries. You think about what it means for virtual telepresence and video conferencing, you think about what it means for real estate and architecture and product design and military… so all of these spaces, we actually have active engagements on top of the very specific game focus that we have.

“We want to target every industry. The question is logistics and feasibility. It’s about a stack-ranked list up front of games, film and media, communications and social engagement… those are the top three that I would say, from a volume perspective, we’re focused on. And there are also some industries that need more help than others.

“A lot of what we end up doing is matchmaking, where someone will say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this grant from the government for X million dollars, I need somebody to help me create a virtual museum.’ Fantastic. A virtual museum is gonna be awesome. We are not going to do it, because we don’t have time … but I can point you to these guys, who have done X, Y, and Z. A lot of it is matchmaking. Where they really need some help we’re usually involved, and where they can figure it out on their own because they’ve done similar things before, it’s more fire-and-forget. You guys have the SDK, you have the documentation, you know what you’re doing.”

The second-generation Rift devkit

The big news for Oculus VR at GDC 2014 was the reveal of its second-generation Rift developer kit, based on the Crystal Cove prototype that debuted at CES 2014. The massive success of the first-gen devkit certainly helped convince the team that there was merit to releasing a second kit, but as Davies told us, the technology’s come so far in such a short period of time that a second-gen release was really a necessity…

“The dev kit is coming out because it represents a fundamentally different experience. If you rewind to GDC [2013], that was the first time we were showing the first devkit. Since then, we’ve shown the HD prototype, Crystal Cove, and now DK2. That’s in a year’s time. Which is crazy, right? Inherently, by the time we show something, we’ve got something newer at HQ. But we’re very open and transparent.

“We’re excited about DK2 because it provides for developers across many different industries. Fundamentally different input and output, and experience paradigms. The ability to … see a book on a table and actually lean in and read the text, where it might not be visible if you’re standing straight up in front of it. These are subtle things, but they really just fundamentally change what people can do in VR. Then there’s the quality side of it, with low persistence [which cuts down on motion blur] and HD panels.

“I feel like with the DK1, people were actively doing a little bit of role-playing almost. ‘I’m in VR, this is really cool and it looks like I’m really there, but oh, when I move my head like this, it doesn’t do anything. So I’m going to ignore that, or pretend that that’s OK.’ So now we’re getting to the point where people are going to be able to just totally ignore the platform and the capabilities of it, and just focus on what they can do in the experience.”

Working with CCP Games 

Oculus VR entered into a co-publishing deal with CCP Games earlier this year, affirming the Iceland-based studio’s upcoming EVE: Valkyrie as a Rift-exclusive (on PC only, following Sony’s Project Morpheus revelations). Here’s what Davies had to say about how that relationship came about, and why CCP makes an ideal partner in these early days of the technology’s development…

“People will get their VR legs and there will come a point where we don’t have ease them in so much.”

“They saw the vision. Hilmar [Veigar Pétursson] the CEO and [VP of business development] Thor Gunnarsson, they actually had experience in VR before, so they understood … that it was really gonna happen this time. So they dove in, they actually did a made-for-VR game. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey let’s take this game that we’ve already got and port it.’ They had this small team that did their Friday free time thing, they spun up the project. It was really, really good. There was obvious promise there.

“The fans were super-excited about it, it had great momentum, and CCP is a great bunch of guys. We like working with them, we’re friends. I think that Valkyrie, if I were to boil it down to one thing, it’s that it’s an aspirational experience. This shows other people how to do VR right. Design for the platform, keep it simple, make it really fun [while] leveraging what the platform does. They really just sort of leveraged the key strengths of the platform while making it simple. It’s just fun. It’s accessible. And that’s what VR needs to be.”

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