Re­al­ity check: VR chief ’s vi­sion is a bil­lion users tele­ported by technology

Irish Independent - Business Week - - TECHNOLOGY -

Is vir­tual re­al­ity still the next big thing? Adrian Weck­ler caught up with Nate Mitchell, the co-founder of one of the world’s big­gest vir­tual re­al­ity com­pa­nies, Face­book-owned Ocu­lus VR. He re­veals the ma­jor hur­dles in the fight to be the next ma­jor plat­form and bring ‘mixed’ re­al­ity to the masses

MARK Zucker­berg has been em­phatic about it. Vir­tual re­al­ity, he has in­sisted for the last three years, is the next big com­put­ing plat­form. The Face­book founder is so con­vinced that he bought what was the big­gest vir­tual re­al­ity hard­ware firm, Ocu­lus VR, in 2014 for al­most €2bn.

But since then, the hype around vir­tual re­al­ity has ebbed as adop­tion into main­stream life has proved slower than many pun­dits pre­dicted.

That hasn’t dimmed the en­thu­si­asm of some of the in­dus­try’s fore­most VR en­trepreneurs. One of them is Nate Mitchell. To­gether with Palmer Luckey, Bren­dan Iribe and oth­ers, Mitchell was the founder of Ocu­lus VR in 2012. As such, he shared in the spoils when the com­pany was bought by Zucker­berg in 2014 and he now sits as vice pres­i­dent for prod­uct in the Face­book-owned Ocu­lus.

As the com­pany an­nounces a raft of price cuts to ex­ist­ing prod­ucts and plans for a new un­teth­ered VR head­set that aims to over­come cur­rent lim­i­ta­tions, Mitchell ex­plained its pro­gess to technology edi­tor Adrian Weck­ler.

Adrian Weck­ler [AW]: Are you happy with sales of Ocu­lus vir­tual re­al­ity hard­ware to date?

Nate Mitchell [NM]: We’re try­ing to get, as Mark [Zucker­berg] said, a bil­lion peo­ple into VR. We’re try­ing to do that as fast as we can. But we’re sat­is­fied and happy with where sales are to­day. Ob­vi­ously, a big part of what we’re do­ing is to try to in­crease sales by re­duc­ing price, mak­ing VR more ac­ces­si­ble and more af­ford­able to more peo­ple. We’ve just an­nounced we’re bring­ing the price of the Rift down to $399 [€449 in Ire­land].

We’re an­nounced Ocu­lus Go, a $199 stand­alone de­vice, for some­one who doesn’t have the right phone or PC. We think this is a sweet spot for get­ting more peo­ple in.

AW: How much of a sub­sidy do those price cuts rep­re­sent? It’s hard to see a profit at those pric­ing lev­els.

NM: Our goal hasn’t ever been to make money on the hard­ware. Our goal is re­ally to build this plat­form, this ecosys­tem where de­vel­op­ers can be su­per-suc­cess­ful. If our de­vel­op­ers are suc­cess­ful, they’re go­ing to build more ex­pe­ri­ences that are go­ing to draw more peo­ple in. Those peo­ple are go­ing to spend more money that’s go­ing to fund more

de­vel­op­ment. And that’s the vir­tu­ous cy­cle of any com­put­ing plat­form that you want to start. So we do go very low on the profit of the hard­ware to ba­si­cally fo­cus on de­liv­er­ing all that value to users at the low­est pos­si­ble price.

AW: But it’s one thing to go low on the prof­its, it’s an­other thing to ef­fec­tively sub­sidise the prod­ucts to tens, maybe hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. I’m just won­der­ing is that a strate­gic de­ci­sion that has been taken in terms of push­ing the wider ecosys­tem?

NM: We don’t break out fi­nan­cials for the prod­ucts, we don’t re­ally talk about sub­si­dies, but what I can say is we are fo­cused on not mak­ing money on the hard­ware, re­ally de­liv­er­ing the most af­ford­able prod­ucts that we can to con­sumers.

AW: When you were start­ing out with Ocu­lus, which ar­eas did you think would be adopted quick­est and how have they ac­tu­ally fared?

NM: From my per­spec­tive I thought gam­ing would be the pri­mary driver for adop­tion. I think we’ve seen that to be some­what true. The other ac­tiv­ity has re­ally been video and more pas­sive ex­pe­ri­ences. I didn’t ex­pect as much video. When we started, we wanted to go out and de­liver the holodeck. The prom­ise of the holodeck isn’t just about games, it’s about this lim­it­less po­ten­tial with VR as a com­put­ing plat­form.

One ex­cit­ing thing right now is the num­ber of en­ter­prise com­pa­nies ex­per­i­ment­ing with VR ei­ther for training, col­lab­o­ra­tion or for prod­ucts in re­tail. Audi is a good ex­am­ple, with the technology de­ployed at deal­er­ships, us­ing it as a tool to ac­tu­ally sell Audi cars.

AW: Mark Zucker­berg is still de­fend­ing VR, call­ing out those who say it is “iso­lat­ing and anti-so­cial”.

But isn’t one of its big­gest chal­lenges the idea of cut­ting your­self off from the per­son sit­ting be­side you with a big head­set?

NM: We don’t see it first as cut­ting off the out­side world. We see it re­ally as re­plac­ing or im­mers­ing you in this other vir­tual world. So you can think of them as par­al­lel paths. What we’re try­ing to do is take your per­cep­tual sys­tem and re­ally tele­port you some­where else.

That is a very pow­er­ful tool for cer­tain use cases. In terms of how peo­ple will use that and how that will in­ter­sect with ev­ery­day life, I think peo­ple will be­come more ac­cus­tomed to it over time. It’s a con­cept of ba­si­cally im­mers­ing your­self in some­thing and go­ing fully in.

AW: But you can’t wear it out­side the house.

NM: Well, you can wear Ocu­lus Go. I do think it’s go­ing to be a lit­tle bit of time be­fore we see Ocu­lus Go on buses but I also thought it would be longer be­fore we saw Gear VR on air­planes but if you fly reg­u­larly, you see peo­ple us­ing VR.

AW: Yes, but you’ve no choice. On a plane, you’re not wait­ing for your stop or won­der­ing if some­one’s go­ing to sit down be­side you. It’s a dif­fer­ent use case.

NM: It is. But I don’t use my lap­top sit­ting at the bus stop or sit­ting on a bus. There are dif­fer­ent de­vices for dif­fer­ent use cases, dif­fer­ent in­stances and dif­fer­ent jobs. VR isn’t nec­es­sar­ily just bet­ter at ev­ery­thing that you can do in real life.

AW: But to get a bil­lion peo­ple us­ing it, to make it the next ma­jor plat­form, doesn’t it have to be used more?

NM: I don’t per­son­ally see it as re­plac­ing tra­di­tional com­put­ing plat­forms. I see it liv­ing along­side them as a com­ple­ment. Just like mo­bile phones have not re­placed lap­top com­put­ers. Tablets ex­ist.

Th­ese are new prod­uct cat­e­gories, dif­fer­ent de­vices for dif­fer­ent use cases. That’s the way VR and AR [aug­mented re­al­ity] are go­ing to evolve in that they will sit along­side as com­ple­men­tary com­put­ing plat­forms that peo­ple will use ev­ery day along­side some of th­ese tra­di­tional plat­forms. In some cases they may ac­tu­ally re­place them.

We may get per­fect VR and AR de­vices that do away with tra­di­tional lap­tops or tele­vi­sions. But I think we’re ac­tu­ally pretty far away from that.

But don’t get too fo­cused on what the de­vice does only to­day. You talked about cut­ting off your sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence in the real world, but one of the things we are ex­cited about is the technology that’s as­so­ci­ated with this con­cept of true mixed re­al­ity. This is where you take the real world and you bring it into the vir­tual world. There’s lots of dif­fer­ent depth

sys­tems to­day that can map a space. The point I’m try­ing to make is that in fu­ture, VR sys­tem won’t only just tele­port you some­place else, you might have a switch that brings the whole real world into your view.

But I take your point. There are so­cial hur­dles to over­come. But it’s some­what sim­i­lar to just sit­ting glued to your lap­top or your phone. If you’re do­ing that, you’re also send­ing dif­fer­ent sig­nals to the per­son be­side you.

AW: Do you see any fu­sion be­tween vir­tual re­al­ity and aug­mented re­al­ity?

NM: My take on that is that there are no great AR de­vices out yet for con­sumers. There are some peo­ple do­ing some in­cred­i­ble work across the in­dus­try, try­ing to en­able AR. There’s some re­ally ex­cit­ing stuff hap­pen­ing on mo­bile de­vices to­day with ARKit and ARCore.

When we think about tra­di­tional AR we have this con­cept of sun­glasses that I put on and get all this in­for­ma­tion avail­able.

But no one has cracked the code on that in a con­sumer de­vice yet. I do think when that is fully avail­able, it will be re­ally ex­cit­ing and that there are use cases in terms of in­for­ma­tion that we to­day rely on our phones for.

The chal­lenge it has is that AR has to be great to ac­tu­ally de­liver on that prom­ise and there are no great AR de­vices to­day and we’re still prob­a­bly a ways off from them.

AW: Mark Zucker­berg says that VR kit isn’t al­ways go­ing to be this big and clunky on your head. What do you think?

NM: I de­scribe them as be­ing like ski gog­gles.

AW: So will they be more like sun­glasses in a few years’ time?

NM: I’m not go­ing to put the stake in the ground on what they might look like in a cou­ple of years’ time.

But I think there are three main things or hur­dles that need to be over­come to take VR to this bil­lion-user place. We have price. There’s the con­tent use cases, which goes to what I am go­ing to be do­ing with this de­vice ev­ery day, such that I need one. That’s an­other big hur­dle here. And the third one is that form fac­tor. Form fac­tor has to im­prove from where it is to­day to be a bil­lion-user de­vice. Rift, Ocu­lus Go, Gear VR, th­ese alone are not go­ing to get us to a bil­lion users.

We need to make it as fric­tion­less as pos­si­ble, as af­ford­able and as ac­ces­si­ble as pos­si­ble to re­ally get more peo­ple in. When will we get to sun­glasses? I don’t know and I don’t think we’re ready to say. But we do think there are big im­prove­ments to be made in the er­gonomics.

What­ever about cam­eras and other fea­tures, ul­ti­mately just the er­gonomics of hav­ing less weight out in front of your face would make it a more com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence and you could use it for longer pe­ri­ods of time.

This stuff is go­ing to hap­pen but we’re not there yet.

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