Connecting with Oculus
At Oculus Connect 2 in LA, attention turns from refining VR technology to what developers are doing with it now that it’s almost ready to roll out
All the news, and games, from the Oculus Connect 2 conference
Were Confucius alive today and in the habit of writing proverbs about the videogame industry, he might well say, “Listen to John Carmack”. The man who programmed Doom and Quake, started his own aeronautics company as a hobby, and has been working on virtual reality at Oculus since 2013 usually has a pretty good idea where the technology and business of videogames are heading. A year ago, his keynote at the inaugural Oculus Connect in Los Angeles was focused on the difficult programming challenges required to make VR possible on smartphones with Oculus’s GearVR. This year, he wanted to talk about something different: Minecraft.ft.
Minecraft was likely the most important game announced for Rift (andd GearVR) at this year’s Oculus Connect 2 event. “I call this my grail,” Carmack saidaid during his keynote. “It’s been my quest foror the past year and a half.”
Mojang’s game itself didn’t dominate e Carmack’s keynote, but content, in general, did. Oculus’s chief technical officer took a telling break from programmer speak to talk about games.
“If you had a magic wand and could say, ‘I will create the perfect virtual reality headset that completely solves all the problems and is indistinguishable from reality,’ would that be a super-successful product with the content that exists at this instant? You would run out of things to do fairly quickly,” Carmack said. “On the other hand, if I had the magic wand and could say, ‘I want the perfect content for the hardware that exists today,’ that would be a phenomenal product. It would be incredible. You see flashes of brilliance, signs of the future in the things we have right now. But they’re isolated. It’s so sparse. You can see something and say, ‘That was really awesome. That was
the moment there. If we had so much more of that…’ Or, ‘I had a great experience there but now it’s done – what do I go on next?’ It’s been clear to me over the last year that content’s the thing that needs the most effort from us. And it wasn’t as clear a year ago.”
Carmack’s focus on games over hardware set a theme for Oculus Connect 2. For the first time in three years, Oculus didn’t have a brand-new headset or controller to show off at a major event, since the company is in the process of perfecting its Rift and Touch hardware and preparing for full-scale manufacturing. This is the end of the Oculus Rift as a promising accessory, and the beginning of VR as videogaming’s next big thing – or next big flop. The Oculus Touch games being demoed at this year’s conference made a strong argument for the former.
Oculus’s Touch controller is a perfect illustration of the credo ‘good design is invisible’. It’s hardware that feels so well crafted that its design seems obvious in hindsight. Of course this is the right way to incorporate motion control in virtual reality. Anyone could’ve thought of it. The reality, of course, involved many months of iteration. Oculus made hundreds of prototypes, according to founder Palmer Luckey, to arrive at the design for Touch, a small nub of a controller with two key triggers for the index and middle fingers. Pulling the index finger trigger feels similar to the trigger on a traditional game controller and serves as the ‘action’ button for most Touch games. But the middle finger trigger is where the magic happens: pressing it feels just like closing your hand into a fist, and it naturally serves as the ‘grab’ button for many Touch
games. It’s an instantly intuitive process. The top of the controller is home to a joystick and a pair of buttons, allowing the hardware to cover the same button inputs as most gamepads.
A ring encircling the device houses sensors that the Oculus base station can detect for 1:1 positioning, and the hardware’s motion sensing feels fast and precise. The controllers are wireless and extremely light, which helps to create a sensation of them disappearing once you have them in your hands and slip into VR. Touch’s one significant limitation, at least in comparison to SteamVR controllers, is range. The Oculus sensor has a relatively small radius compared to Valve’s room-spanning laser scan system, and although the finalised Touch unit will ship with a second sensor to complement the one that comes with the base Rift hardware, it most likely won’t be enough to match SteamVR’s tracking range.
Touch faces another roadblock: it won’t be in the box when Oculus ships in the first quarter of 2016. Quizzed about the decision to sell Touch separately, Oculus VP of product Nate Mitchell concedes that there are issues. “It’s a hard decision. There are a lot of tradeoffs,” he says. “Price will be the biggest barrier to entry. I think content will be number two. I think in the beginning of Touch you’re going to see mostly indie games from developers who can afford to take a risk, who believe, who want it out there.”
But Mitchell lists plenty of reasons why launching the Rift headset before the Touch component is ready is the right move. As he notes, an affordable price tag will be key to Oculus’s chances of success at launch. In addition, not many Touch-dedicated games exist right now, but there are many gamepad titles in development, and they will be available to ship before the Touch hardware is completely finalised. “Starting the ecosystem as soon as possible on the Rift side is really important,” Mitchell says.
There are already interesting, fun VR games coming to Rift that are playable with an Xbox One controller, which will be packed in the box, but it’s hard to overstate just how much more immersive VR is when your hands feel perfectly captured in the virtual world. In moments where we’ve felt true ‘presence’ — Oculus’s favoured word for your brain truly buying into your virtual surroundings — the usual instinct is to reach out and touch something. Normally, we can’t do that, but Touch changes the rules, and the difference is genuinely profound.
Oculus’s biggest in-house reveal at Connect was a sculpting application named Medium, which allows you to build and paint in VR using the Touch controllers. It’s a surprisingly fun, powerful toolset, even for someone without much artistic skill. The simplicity of the tools is inviting and allows for quick switching between creating or erasing mass, changing the size of your ‘brush’, smoothing out rough pieces, and painting onto the sculpting surface. More advanced tools let you sculpt along a mirrored surface to create symmetry. Another mirrors a pottery wheel, letting you add sculpture material as your creation spins through 360 degrees.
Sculpting in Medium makes you aware of the Touch sensor’s limitations. Instead of walking around an object, it’s easier to rotate it in space; walking is likely to move you out of the sensor’s field of view, and putting your back to the sensor breaks tracking with the Touch controllers.
Even so, Medium demonstrates a certain amount of VR’s potential outside of games. Oculus says that models will be exportable from the application, which may make it a practical prototyping tool for artists with real 3D modelling chops.
The best thing about the demo is sharing it with another human being: an Oculus engineer talks us through our art lesson, her translucent avatar head and hands floating in virtual space near ours. The social implications are clear, and it’s no coincidence that multi-user features show up more than a few times during Connect 2, particularly in apps such as Twitch and Netflix for GearVR, the $100 Samsung-made unit that will bring VR to Galaxy S6 and Note 5 phones.
As with Rift, the focus for GearVR at Oculus Connect 2 was mostly on content rather than the technology, showing video apps and vintage games playable in VR. Watching a Twitch stream and seeing and hearing the avatars of other people sitting in a virtual room with you proves surprisingly fun, but is it fun enough to see you strapping a smartphone to your head for extended periods of time?
That question has been applicable in a broad sense since VR reemerged in 2012. Is strapping on a headset to play games a truly massmarket prospect? Will the experience be worth it? The thousand developers who congregated at Oculus Connect 2 certainly think so, and the number of games they’re creating for the launch of Oculus Rift next year will at least give it a fighting chance.
It’ll be their job to convert the faithless when Rift is finally released. Then again, maybe they won’t have to work very hard. “I’ve never met a sceptic of VR who has tried it,” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney told tech website Re/Code during Connect. Strap enough Rifts onto enough heads, and consumer VR may be off and running.
“It’s a hard decision. There are a lot of trade-offs. Price will be the biggest barrier to entry”
The Touch controller is still being fine-tuned, but it is a powerful part of the overall Oculus Rift proposition
Henry is Oculus Story Studio’s second film. The division’s character lead, Bernhard Haux, previously held a similar role at Pixar
The VR-powered sculpting tool Medium in action (above). At Oculus Connect 2, John Carmack (right) put his focus on the games, not the hardware
Rift hardware still has no official price, although Oculus’s Palmer Luckey expects it to exceed $350
Epic’s Tim Sweeney believes that VR is an easy sell – once potential consumers get to actually try it