2015 is the year of virtual reality. That’s been the consistent messaging coming out of Oculus VR’s executive leadership since early this year. And with this week’s announcement of a $99 GearVR headset, a mobile VR solution co-produced with Samsung, and the promise of a retail Rift headset coming in early 2016, Oculus finally appears ready to make good on that promise. But although all the pieces of the VR puzzle seem to be coming together — and the recent press has been (mostly) glowing — there are still a lot of unknowns. Namely, will the average consumer, once properly introduced, buy into VR? I sat down with Nate Mitchell, Oculus VR’s VP of Product, at the company’s Connect 2 developer conference in Los Angeles to find out more about GearVR’s potential as a gateway to the Rift, what consumers can expect to come bundled with that first retail headset, and whether we’ll get to use it with Sony’s PlayStation 4.
Is GearVR really the gateway to VR and the Rift?
Yes. I think Brendan mentioned this morning that we see GearVR, or Oculus Mobile on the whole, as this initiative to … [put] VR in the hands of people everywhere, and bringing VR to millions — potentially hundreds of millions of people. … In a lot of ways, consumer GearVR probably is going to be more impactful because if it reaches a wider audience, it’s more than likely that most people, the first time they try VR, it’s going to be on a GearVR. Just because there’ll be more [units] out there and Samsung is doing an incredible job marketing their phones. And $99 is just the most affordable way to get into VR if they’re interested. …I think anyone who gets fired up about Gear VR — like really fired up. Like, “Oh my god, this is a new medium and I want more of this.” They can always step up into the space of true presence that the Rift delivers.
So then how is Oculus going to introduce the public, and not people like me or early adopters, to the Rift? Are you going to do public events or make in-store kiosks and demos available?
We are thinking about that. We don’t have all of our plan figured out yet. I think one of the key ways is through experiential marketing… giving people the chance to try it. One of the other things we’ve found though is people don’t understand what VR is, in general. Then you get them to try. Then they come out and they’re like, “Oh my god. That’s amazing.” So then the next question is: “What would I do with that in my life everyday?” And bringing a lot of content to the platform that people do get excited about. … Having more pieces of content that resonate with people… when they see themselves drawn to [that content] where they’re like, “You know, I do want [Oculus Touch’s art application] Medium in my life. So I am gonna go get the Rift.” That’s gonna be the other key part of it.
So it’s one part experiential, one part content and then the other part is probably price. That’s sort of the unfortunate reality… that there is going to be this barrier to entry around Rift where the price is just substantial. And we’re doing everything we can to make it as affordable as possible, including the Oculus-Ready PC program that we announced today. But that’s gonna be, I think, one of the gating factors, especially in this first generation of VR.
Are you guys being more practical about the fact that the very first retail Rift won’t necessarily be for mass consumption..? That it might hit when the second generation Rift arrives and the hardware is cheaper to produce?
That’s a complex question to answer. What I’d say is, the first Rift will be ready for mass consumption. But I’m not… we’re not expecting to sell 100 million units or anything like that.
Do you have a target in mind?
We do, but we don’t talk about it. Our number one goal is to make developers successful. So we can’t sell 10,000 units, because if it’s 10,000 units then developers can’t make any money. Right? There’s no ecosystem for them to reinvest into. We’d love to sell 100 million units. I’d be more than happy to sell 100 million units — we probably can’t manufacture that many. The reality is that this is gonna get cheaper and cheaper over time, more affordable. With GearVR, we have a pretty affordable device today, assuming you have a Samsung Galaxy phone. On the Rift side, if you have the PC, it’s not super affordable, but it is what it is.
What will the Rift’s pack-in be as far as content goes? How many titles will be available?
So… I don’t know how much I can comment on that. What I can say is this: Up on stage today, we talked about a lot of new experiences that are coming to the platform. Some are gonna be available at launch, some are gonna come shortly afterward.
We have a lot of applications we develop internally. You can already see a lot of those on GearVR today. Max [Cohen] talked about Oculus Video today. We’re going to bring a version of that over. We have an application Oculus 360 Photos — we’ll have a version of that that comes over. So we have a set of core experiences that are just on the device.
Then we have our studios titles. And for us, we don’t have a lot of large first-party teams. So what we’ve done is we’ve reached out to external teams and funded game development all the way from conception through final. And so we’re using them as our first-party studios. So we are gonna have a set of experiences that are there. Some will be there Day One. But of course, we want not just a launch lineup, we want a pipeline of content. … We’re not just giving you 10 great games Day One. We’re giving you … one or two every month that you’re really fired up about. I don’t think we’re quite there in terms of our studio schedule. But when you mix in the ecosystem and the publishing team, and everything that we’re doing for independent developers, we definitely hope that there’s tons of great content that there for you Day One.
I know Touch is coming Q2, so Rift will be out beforehand and comes with the Xbox One controller in the box. But, having come out of the Touch demos — and I’ve experienced a lot of VR — I thought, “Okay this works, immediately.” I hate shooters, but I love [Epic Games’] Bullet Train. For Medium … I’m not an artist, but I was manipulating those art tools and using it in a way where I got it; I understood it. I didn’t really need the live guide, although it was helpful. I would’ve explored on my own. To me, Medium is Oculus’ Wii Sports. I don’t know if you guys see it that way.
I haven’t seen it that way, but I really like that concept!
It makes sense to me coming out of that to say, “We’ll maybe delay the Rift until it can come with the Touch pack-in.” Would you ever consider that given how impactful and intuitive Medium is? And then would you ever bundle the Touch?
So yes, we would consider it. We’ve actually really carefully considered it and decided that this was the way to go. A couple of the reasons for that: One is timeline. The Rift is gonna be ready first and so there’s this thing of like… Let’s pretend for a moment it’s worst case scenarios. Rift is ready January 1st, Touch is ready June 30th (let’s just pretend). That’s a long time to be holding Rift — that’s six months. All the developers [over] the past three years — let’s say two and a half years — have been developing for traditional inputs for a gamepad. So all those developers are like, “We’re ready to go. We’re ready to ship. Ship this thing!” So to hold the platform and the ecosystem for another six months to wait for something that there isn’t gonna be much content for it at the beginning; that’s gonna have its own price tag associated with it. It’s just… it’s hard for me to push for that. I think the setup that we have right now is perfect because Touch can come whenever. It can come early; it can come late. It’s not the end of the world because developers are just getting their hands on it and just starting to develop for it. It’s not good to consumers unless there’s content.
“We don’t have any plans to hard bundle [Touch] for generation one.”
Nate Mitchell, Oculus VR
I also think that… again we go back to this: Making developers successful year one or generation one, is one of our biggest focuses. So getting the Rift out there and letting those developers who’ve been waiting for so long to ship their games, start to ship, start to get feedback from the community, start to make money and reinvest. It just means that even if you wait and you’re like: “I’m just gonna wait for a Touch Rift bundle. I’m gonna buy it with the PC bundle and it’s gonna be awesome. ” It’s okay. It means that there’ll be more content, developers and other users there when you come.
And absolutely, we’d consider bundling it as a cool addition in the future. We don’t have any plans to hard bundle it for generation one, which would be like it’s in the box and you have to have it. For us, it’s gonna be this add-on. But it’s an add-on that we think will have good adoption, especially when most people come out and they’re like: “I feel like Rift is incomplete without Touch.” And we’re like, “Okay, well, you’ll be able to buy Touch.” Which is different than some hardware peripherals in the past.
So I’m quite prone to VR sickness — I actually wrote about it recently. I find it irritating that there’s a lot of information about proper ways to construct VR experiences and then some developers ignore that. And then people like me, who are enthusiastic about VR, don’t want to go into these experiences. I have apprehension. So would you ever consider doing a “Seal of Quality”? Kind of like Nintendo did back in the day where you’re specifically curating and saying that these are Oculus-approved experiences and you can find these in our store?
Yes. But, I’m not one hundred percent the right person to ask this question to. Yes, we’ve talked about it. Yes, we’ve considered it. I don’t think it’s something that we’re gonna pursue for the first-generation of Rift or GearVR.
We haven’t seen much of an issue for that, to date, on GearVR. And then probably GearVR is a better example than Rift because GearVR has users out there. We have a store, people are buying things; they’re paying money; giving their credit card saying, “I want this. I’ll pay you for this.” And they’re not saying, “Oh my god. Give me a refund for that.”
So we do curate our store experience. So we are testing things. We are making sure they work to our specifications and all that stuff. But the Nintendo “Quality Seal of Approval” kind of gave a different level of that. And that’s just not a stage we’re at quite yet. But it’s something maybe we would do in the future. Definitely won’t rule it out. But we do have a team at Oculus — the publishing team — who’s really focused on developers. And if we wanna bring something to the store, we would go talk to the publishing team. …They’re the ones that ultimately would decide something like that.
Now I wanna ask you about Facebook because obviously there’s going to be some sort of integration with the Rift at launch. I know that there’s Facebook 360 video and that’s going to make its way to Rift and GearVR. But what sort of social Facebook experiences can we look forward to when the Rift launches? I mean that has to be happening.
So today, the only thing I’ve got for you are two things. One is, Facebook just announced 360 video News Feed. That’s very cool. 360 video is something that people are consuming a lot of on GearVR, which is really, really neat. I think we’re going to see a lot of that on the Rift. Number two, we just brought Facebook Video into VR, so those same 360 videos that you see in News Feed are going to be part of Oculus Video.
I know a lot about what Facebook is doing. It’s a better question for them. Cuz just like we wouldn’t make announcements for our partners, we wouldn’t wanna make announcements for Facebook working on various things. But, for the most part, we’re looking at the best ways to come together and Facebook Video inside of Oculus Video is the perfect example of “Hey, that makes total sense.” We’re gonna see more of those over time, but it’s not something we’re rushing toward either. Cuz no one’s quite nailed social in VR.
So at launch?
I’ve spoken a lot with Sony about Morpheus and a lot of the conversation has been about the shared knowledge between Oculus’ and Sony’s engineering teams and how there’s no “rivalry,” but a shared push to make VR happen. Given that community aspect — that you guys are publicly coming at this as “We want to promote VR as a platform and make it a real thing” — and Sony’s 20 million-plus worldwide install base: When do I get to plug the Rift into the PS4?
Probably not too soon. Anything’s possible. But we’re really, really focused on GearVR and Rift. And we… we dropped support temporarily for Mac OS and Linux. … We have our hands full. But we’re really committed to making sure that Rift is a great experience on the Oculus-Ready PCs and GearVR is the best possible experience it can be on the Galaxy phones. We wanna nail that first and foremost; build two products that work incredibly well, and then you’ll see us move to other platforms.
This interview has been condensed and edited.