An Au­di­ence With...

Ja­son Ru­bin, head of game de­vel­op­ment at Ocu­lus, on what 2017 holds for vir­tual re­al­ity

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Be­tween Ocu­lus Rift’s as­ton­ish­ing Kick­starter suc­cess in 2012 and its of­fi­cial launch last March, the VR con­ver­sa­tion was al­most en­tirely tech­ni­cal – one of screen res­o­lu­tions, fram­er­ates and la­tency; of op­ti­mal con­trol sys­tems; of the de­sign and man­u­fac­tur­ing of head­sets, and of the pro­cess­ing power re­quired to run them. Yet with the first year of con­sumer VR com­ing to a close, those prob­lems have been solved, and the ques­tion now is how this re­mark­able tech­nol­ogy can best be har­nessed by games. En­ter Ja­son Ru­bin, Naughty Dog co-founder, for­mer THQ pres­i­dent and, to­day, head of con­tent at Ocu­lus, where he is charged with defin­ing the soft­ware strat­egy for the com­pany that brought VR back from the grave – and for the VR in­dus­try in gen­eral. Here, Ru­bin re­flects on the first year of VR, looks ahead to its sec­ond, and at­tempts to chart a course to VR’s holodeck endgame.

The first year of con­sumer VR is be­hind us now – how do you think it’s been, both for Ocu­lus and the VR sec­tor in gen­eral?

I think it’s go­ing very well. We’ve been very clear since the be­gin­ning that we be­lieved it was go­ing to take a bit of time for VR to be­come mass­mar­ket, but in the last 12 months we’ve made huge strides where it comes to aware­ness and to demo­ing soft­ware in­side ma­jor re­tail­ers all over the world, and have launched some unique and in­ter­est­ing soft­ware that didn’t ex­ist a year ago. If you look at the in­ten­tion met­rics for pur­chase, when price point and con­tent get to a cer­tain level, they’re ex­tremely high for VR. We’ve es­tab­lished a very good beach­head in the first year of con­sumer VR. That was an an­swer to your ques­tion for the in­dus­try, not Ocu­lus in gen­eral. But I think Ocu­lus has driven a lot of that.

That’s in part due to the fact you were first out of the gate – but Touch wasn’t. As the head of Ocu­lus’s soft­ware di­vi­sion, how frus­trat­ing was it not hav­ing the op­ti­mal con­trol method avail­able to you when Rift launched?

I don’t think it was a neg­a­tive at all. The de­vk­its that we had for Rift were sent out less than two years ago, and the av­er­age large con­sole or PC ti­tle takes longer than that to make. So from the stand­point of de­vel­op­ers, even though there’s been eight months be­tween th­ese two launches, there still hasn’t been enough time, re­ally [for it to mat­ter]. In the eight-month win­dow that we’re look­ing at right now, it looks like a launch that didn’t hap­pen si­mul­ta­ne­ously. But as we look back in time, even a few years from now, this was the year VR launched, and from de­vel­op­ers’ per­spec­tive it all hap­pened ba­si­cally at the same time.

I think the most im­por­tant thing for us was not get­ting Touch out day and date, it was get­ting it right. It took a lit­tle ex­tra time to get the con­trollers to a point where we felt they were ready for the con­sumer, and for the soft­ware to get to the point where we have, now, over 50 ti­tles avail­able at launch. So the con­sumer gets not only re­ally fan­tas­tic, best-in-the-business ex­pe­ri­ences with the hand con­trollers, but also a sig­nif­i­cant amount of the high­est-qual­ity soft­ware to back that up. I think we rolled it out in the right way, and I feel that even more now that I’ve seen the launch lineup and know what’s com­ing to the store.

When we vis­ited Ocu­lus for E292’ s cover story, you told us Ocu­lus Stu­dios hadn’t had much in­put into the de­sign of the Rift hard­ware. Were things dif­fer­ent in the mak­ing of Touch?

Gen­er­ally speak­ing the com­pany was much less soft­ware fo­cused when the Rift was in de­vel­op­ment. We now have a larger, more ro­bust soft­ware de­vel­op­ment group, and we all speak to each other in­ter­nally, so I’d like to be­lieve that we had an im­pact! Cer­tainly our soft­ware engi­neers were giv­ing feed­back from the de­vel­op­ers di­rectly to the hard­ware team, and there were changes made. We cer­tainly didn’t drive the de­sign, but I would like to be­lieve that we did have some in­put. I think the con­troller spec that we were first handed was so good that there wasn’t that much to add. Re­ally it was just fig­ur­ing out how to use it that has been our big­ger fo­cus.

Touch isn’t the only VR mo­tion con­troller on the mar­ket – in fact, Rift is the last of the big three VR play­ers to sup­port mo­tion con­trol. What do you think sets it apart from its com­peti­tors?

Touch is very dif­fer­ent than any­thing else that’s out there. Er­gonom­i­cally, it feels bet­ter, it’s lighter – all of the things you’d want as a con­sumer. But ad­di­tion­ally it de­liv­ers hand pres­ence: the abil­ity to point a fin­ger at some­thing, the abil­ity to do a thumbs-up. The abil­ity to make a fist, and do so nat­u­rally in a way that, in a few min­utes, you’re very used to us­ing it, to mak­ing shapes

and ges­tures with your hands that would be ar­bi­trary on any other sys­tem… You could cer­tainly adopt the but­tons on an­other con­troller to make a fist; you could do it with a gamepad, but it wouldn’t feel like you were cre­at­ing a fist. It’d feel like you were hit­ting a but­ton that gen­er­ates a fist from your char­ac­ter. There’s a hand pres­ence that is only avail­able through Touch that is in­cred­i­bly com­pelling to the user, and that de­vel­op­ers have started to use to do nat­u­ral mo­tions within games.

For ex­am­ple, in Wil­son’s Heart, you turn on the lights by point­ing a fin­ger and hit­ting a switch. It doesn’t sound like ge­nius, be­cause you do it in ev­ery­day life, but it’s some­thing you’ve never been able to do in a game so nat­u­rally be­fore. To map a but­ton to cre­ate a pointy fin­ger and then hit a switch will al­ways feel like a dis­jointed, kind of hacked-to­gether ver­sion of re­al­ity. Touch pro­vides the real re­al­ity of just point­ing your fin­ger and click­ing the switch. From that flows im­prove­ment to ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion that we do with Touch over other hand con­trollers that are out there.

So is it an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of the Rift ex­pe­ri­ence or sim­ply an ex­ten­sion of it?

It’s ac­tu­ally both! But I think the vast ma­jor­ity of Rift users will ac­quire Touch go­ing for­ward. It will be a key part of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Touch comes with a sec­ond sen­sor, mean­ing it also en­ables you to of­fer room-scale VR. Do you think that’s the ul­ti­mate goal of VR, or just one path?

It’s one pos­si­ble path. We also sup­port a three-cam­era setup, which is an even big­ger space. There’s also a four-cam­era setup that de­vel­op­ers have ac­cess to which makes the space even larger. But there’s a log­i­cal limit to how large a space a hu­man be­ing can do­nate to VR in their day-to-day lives. I’ve been very suc­cess­ful in life and am lucky to have quite a large home, but I don’t have a VR room – and I’m in the business. I think the num­ber of peo­ple that will have a large room to ded­i­cate to VR, at least in the fore­see­able fu­ture, is rel­a­tively small. So I be­lieve a two-me­tre-by-two-me­tre or three-me­tre-by-three-me­tre space – maybe clear a cof­fee ta­ble or push back from your desk – is prob­a­bly the most likely play space for VR in the near fu­ture.

We show­cased in­side-out track­ing tech­nol­ogy at Ocu­lus Con­nect 3. That, the­o­ret­i­cally, will al­low you to have an arena-sized VR ex­pe­ri­ence. Clearly the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple can­not af­ford to have an arena-sized VR ex­pe­ri­ence! And there are chal­lenges with cof­fee ta­bles, and I have dogs that run in front of me when I’m play­ing VR; I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daugh­ter. It is pos­si­ble for VR to be­come world- scale. I think in the long run that’s not the likely out­come be­cause there’s a lot of us on the planet, we live in cities and pay ex­pen­sive rent and don’t have a lot of room to ded­i­cate to VR, but VR does need a lit­tle free­dom to move around, and we pro­vide that free­dom now with our var­i­ous set­ups.

From tech­ni­cal con­cerns of la­tency and sick­ness, to lo­gis­ti­cal is­sues with man­u­fac­tur­ing and ship­ping, to ques­tions of in­put prior to Touch’s be­lated re­lease, it feels like there’s al­ways been some kind of hur­dle in Ocu­lus’s way. Are those days over now?

I di­vide the an­swer to that into two halves. The first half is things that are not di­rectly re­lated to VR, like ship­ping. Ocu­lus is a four-year-old com­pany that started as a startup funded through Kick­starter. The fact that a few years later we put thou­sands of units of never-be­for­e­seen tech­nol­ogy into peo­ple’s hands and had a month­long de­lay on ship­ping, I think, is un­der­stand­able. And those are chal­lenges that are faced by al­most ev­ery com­pany. I think the vast ma­jor­ity of those prob­lems are be­hind us. Not only have we be­come more rig­or­ous as a com­pany, but we have Face­book’s back­ing now, and Face­book is a very rig­or­ous com­pany. Those is­sues are not part of our fu­ture.

With re­gards to the chal­lenges of VR, the rea­son I’m in this business is the joy of over­com­ing th­ese chal­lenges. We’ve all en­vi­sioned the holodeck, OK? We all imag­ine be­ing able to step out into a vir­tual world, com­pletely unen­cum­bered, and be­ing able to walk for miles and in­ter­act with ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ated be­ings. We have hand track­ing to­day, but we don’t know where your waist is, we don’t know where your legs are. We can’t trick your in­ner ear yet. We don’t have smell, we don’t have taste, we don’t have hap­tic feed­back in your hand. If you get punched by a vir­tual alien, you don’t feel it in your face.

You could call those chal­lenges, and make them a neg­a­tive. I look at them as an op­por­tu­nity. I think the whole com­pany’s ex­cited that we’re slowly sur­mount­ing th­ese things. Who, a few years ago, would have thought that we could put some­thing on your head and make you be­lieve that you’re at the edge of a build­ing and you can’t step off it? Who would have thought we could trick your eyes? Any­one who says, you know, “There’s a screen-door ef­fect – I can tell that it’s a screen” – it’s as if th­ese peo­ple have not watched the last cou­ple of decades of tech­nol­ogy. Th­ese things will be over­come. We will achieve bet­ter and bet­ter vis­ual fi­delity, bet­ter and bet­ter in­put fi­delity. That is the joy of be­ing on this jour­ney. If you look at what’s hap­pened over just the past few years, I think we’ve been cut­ting away at those chal­lenges pretty darn quickly.

But it’s on you, as head of Ocu­lus Stu­dios, to map out the or­der in which th­ese things are tack­led. If we say the endgame is step­ping out onto a holodeck and get­ting tan­gi­bly punched in the face by an alien, how

do you chart that course? How do you break this in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­ity space down into a se­ries of strate­gi­cally man­age­able steps?

One step at a time! I started de­vel­op­ing videogames in 1985. We didn’t have the colour yel­low on the Ap­ple II, which I started work­ing on. So we had to fake yel­low by do­ing a line of red and a line of green – don’t ask me why this works, but red-green-red-green makes a re­ally ugly yel­low – and that’s what our deserts were drawn with. How are you go­ing to make the game you want to make? I don’t know, but I’m go­ing to take a step for­ward. Then we kept step­ping for­ward, and even­tu­ally there was 3D. They said, “You can’t make a char­ac­ter ac­tion game in 3D! It’s not real 3D, it’s a 3D poly­gon on a 2D screen – peo­ple won’t be able to judge how far they’re jump­ing”. Well, guess what, we made Crash Bandi­coot, and Miyamoto made Mario 64, and some­body else solved some other prob­lem, and some­body else solved some other prob­lem.

De­vel­op­ers just do. Ev­ery time a de­vel­oper solves a prob­lem, ev­ery other de­vel­oper says, “Good on you – I’m gonna steal that from you and put it in my next game”. It’s not just games – this is tech­nol­ogy in gen­eral: we keep tak­ing steps for­ward. Some­body cre­ates some­thing, and some­body else takes a step on top of that per­son’s shoul­ders, and one step at a time, things keep get­ting bet­ter. With­out the cell­phone, we wouldn’t have the screens for the Rift. With­out the cell­phone, we wouldn’t have the chips that do ro­ta­tional track­ing. With­out 3D print­ing, we wouldn’t have been able to do the de­sign of the Rift so quickly. With­out the in­dus­trial pro­cesses that peo­ple have cre­ated, we wouldn’t have been able to make the head­set as we did. By step­ping on very small steps of slowly im­prov­ing tech­nol­ogy, sud­denly the Rift ex­ists. Step­ping on lit­tle bits of tech­no­log­i­cal in­ven­tion from de­vel­op­ers, the soft­ware just keeps get­ting bet­ter. I don’t have to worry about how we solve the holodeck. I just have to worry about how we’re go­ing to put the next bunch of games out, and then once they’re out, I’ll look at ev­ery­thing that’s been done by all th­ese bril­liant de­vel­op­ers and we’ll say, “Great, let’s com­bine that and take an­other step”. We’ll get there.

Sony has per­suaded larger pub­lish­ers to at least dip a toe in VR. In do­ing so it has big names on board –

Star Wars, Bat­man, Tomb Raider and so on. Ocu­lus, how­ever, has been more re­liant on in­die de­vel­op­ers. Do you want, or need, the sup­port of big stu­dios?

Brands have a huge role in con­sumer com­merce and mak­ing peo­ple happy. One of the most suc­cess­ful pro­jects that my team fi­nanced for the Gear VR is Juras­sic World, which uses ILM’s in­cred­i­ble di­nosaurs. We have Ubisoft sup­port­ing Rift, and we have a bunch of other big pub­lish­ers do­ing so. I would love to have, as a per­sonal favourite, a Star Wars game on Rift, or a Bat­man game, or an Avengers game, or a Bond game. There are peo­ple who aren’t in­ter­ested in games who would still want to see brands on the plat­form.

But it’s still early go­ing, and I think indies are good, be­cause there’s a lot of them – and re­mem­ber, the more steps that are be­ing taken at the same time, the faster we get to places. Plus, they tend not to have in­grained the­o­ries and be­liefs built up over the years. They tend to be a lit­tle more ex­per­i­men­tal, and they tend to reach in ran­dom di­rec­tions. It’s hard to strap brands to some of that ex­trap­o­la­tion, be­cause you never know which one’s go­ing to be good, and many more fail than suc­ceed. But I think indies are a vi­tal part of our fu­ture, and brands are a vi­tal part of our fu­ture, and I’m ab­so­lutely con­vinced over time that the two will both show up in Ocu­lus. Big pub­lish­ers, small pub­lish­ers, brands, non-brands – it’ll all just work it­self out.

I do fear, as a fun­der of con­tent, that when you strap a beloved brand to a prod­uct, some­times it falls short of ex­pec­ta­tions be­cause there’s such a pent-up love of, and ex­pec­ta­tion of, the brand. If you put an in­die ti­tle out there with­out a brand on it and peo­ple fall in love with it, you could take the ex­act same ti­tle and throw a brand on it and it wouldn’t meet peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions. There’s a care­ful bal­ance that we have to con­sider as we talk

“IF YOU LOOK AT JUST THE PAST FEW YEARS, WE’VE BEEN CUT­TING AWAY AT THOSE CHAL­LENGES PRETTY DARN QUICKLY”

“I THINK THAT MO­MENT COMES FOR VR SOME TIME IN 2017 OR 2018. THAT’S THE MO­MENT AT WHICH THINGS CLICK”

about brands, but they will ab­so­lutely be a big part of VR, as will indies, in the long run. I sure hope indies will be there for the long run be­cause they’re very cre­ative.

Does the knowl­edge that play­ers are be­com­ing more ac­cus­tomed to VR – gain­ing their ‘VR legs’, as some peo­ple put it – mean that you can change the kind of games you make?

First of all, there’s a de­bate about whether ‘VR legs’ even ex­ists. I think it does and it doesn’t. I think there are peo­ple who can train them­selves to feel bet­ter over time, in the same way you could go out on fish­ing boats ev­ery day and prob­a­bly get used to the mo­tion. There are other peo­ple, I be­lieve, who for what­ever rea­son are not go­ing to change the way they feel. The most im­por­tant thing from Ocu­lus’s per­spec­tive is that we’ve cre­ated a bunch of ti­tles on Rift in which 99.9 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are com­pletely and ut­terly com­fort­able. There’s a huge range of things we can do. It’s not a re­stric­tive sub­set: we can cre­ate a mas­sive amount of con­tent, both in­ter­ac­tive and non-in­ter­ac­tive, that takes ad­van­tage of that.

When it comes to the ti­tles that do have the po­ten­tial to make peo­ple feel un­com­fort­able, from Ocu­lus’s stand­point that’s a sub­set of the to­tal mar­ket. We tend to fo­cus on com­fort, but we have also be­come very aware that there are peo­ple that ac­tively seek out the more ag­gres­sive ex­pe­ri­ences. Our met­rics tell us that ‘roller­coaster’ is one of the most searched-for terms when it comes to VR sim­u­la­tions. Peo­ple are pretty aware that roller­coast­ers, on av­er­age, are go­ing to be the wrong thing to do if you have dis­com­fort. But they do like ex­per­i­ment­ing. They like play­ing with it. We’re open to a wide range of con­tent, but Ocu­lus it­self is fo­cused on the broad­est pos­si­ble mar­ket­place, so we tend to fo­cus our ef­forts on the more com­fort­able end of the spec­trum.

We’ve re­flected on the year just gone, and we’ve done some holodeck-style fu­ture gaz­ing, but what are your im­me­di­ate hopes for 2017, the sec­ond year of con­sumer VR?

There are a few de­vel­op­ers that are now re­leas­ing their sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of ti­tles. And those tend to be some of the best ti­tles, be­cause they’ve al­ready learned not only what to do, but what not to do. They’re start­ing to get the feel­ing of what works in VR, and they will con­tinue, as they go for­ward, to get a bet­ter and bet­ter feel­ing of that. It takes a while with a new de­vel­oper who’s never worked in VR, ei­ther for them to bum­ble through mak­ing that dis­cov­ery, or for us to sit down with them and have long con­ver­sa­tions about what we know. We don’t know enough to re­ally give them a clear guide; we kind of talk around what we’ve found works and doesn’t work. But the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion de­vel­op­ers are now be­com­ing third-gen de­vel­op­ers. Those are the de­vel­op­ers that are re­ally push­ing the lim­its, say­ing, “Half­way through the first ti­tle I did, I re­alised that I was miss­ing some­thing. I couldn’t change the game de­sign half­way through, but now that I’m done, I’m go­ing to do what I should have done in the first place”. As we move for­ward, I think those de­vel­op­ers are go­ing to start teach­ing us, re­ally, where the pos­si­bil­i­ties lie in VR. That sec­ond-gen soft­ware is re­ally go­ing to be what sets the tone for what you’ll see in the fu­ture.

His­tor­i­cally, this has prece­dent. PlayS­ta­tion, N64 and Saturn were the first sys­tems that al­lowed you to do 3D at scale, ex­cept for a few ar­cade games that had come be­fore. The first gen­er­a­tion of games that came out for launch? They were great games, and I spent a lot of time on them. But they weren’t as pol­ished and as nu­anced as the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, which came a year af­ter the launch of PlayS­ta­tion. If you ask some­one who had a PlayS­ta­tion what games they played, they’ll re­mem­ber Crash

Bandi­coot, which I worked on. They’ll re­mem­ber Tomb Raider, which I worked on. They’ll re­mem­ber Gran

Turismo. Th­ese are the games that de­fined 3D gam­ing, and they were all sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion ti­tles.

So I think that mo­ment comes for VR some time in 2017 or 2018. That’s the mo­ment at which things click. That’s not to say we don’t have an amaz­ing launch lineup, that peo­ple won’t have an in­cred­i­ble time. I was a day-one PlayS­ta­tion owner and played the hell out of it be­fore any of those games came out. But that mo­ment when those games came out, that was when ev­ery­thing clicked. 3D gam­ing just ran. I think we’re go­ing to have a sim­i­lar mo­ment [with VR] in the near fu­ture.

Wil­son’s Heart, a Rift ex­clu­sive from Twisted Pixel, is an ex­em­plar of what Touch’s hand pres­ence can of­fer

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