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Sorry, but Oculus is far from doomed

by Brandon Russell | February 28, 2015February 28, 2015 7:30 am PDT

I’ve used Oculus. Twice.

The first time was in early 2014, right around the time Oculus was riding high on a wave of positive attention. The second was just a few months ago, when TechnoBuffalo was at CES in Vegas. Both times I came away impressed, nay, convinced, that Oculus is the future.

Neither experience was perfect, mind you—you’re still acutely aware of the obnoxious headset glued to your face—but one thing was overwhelmingly clear: Oculus isn’t doomed. Far from it. And there’s very little evidence that suggests otherwise.

There are many, many, many others who agree. It’s miles ahead of the “ghetto version invented by Google,” and better, still, than Samsung’s Gear VR, which Oculus helped build. All three technologies are playing the same sport, but Oculus is ultimately in a completely different league. And it’s singlehandedly changing the landscape of VR.

TechnoBuffalo posted an argument earlier this month predicting the demise of Oculus, even before a consumer version has been released. The gist was this: it’s ugly, bulky, big. You look funny. And that’s a valid point! In its current state, those are all very appropriate ways to describe Oculus’ unfinished design. Placing a large pair of goggles on your head while sitting in front of a TV isn’t exactly flattering. Start turning around in circles, waving your arms, and, yes, you start to look like a lunatic.

But that’s not the point. It’ll never, ever, ever, not in a million years, be the point of Oculus. It’s not a fashion statement, and it shouldn’t ever be looked at as such. For that matter, it’s not something you’d ever wear out in a public space; it’s completely different compared to something like, say, Google Glass. The two technologies aren’t even meant for the same audience, so it’s futile to mention the two in the same sentence.

And, anyway, who cares if you look a little foolish in the privacy of your own home? Sure, grandma might show some concern, but you don’t buy a VR headset based on how it looks—or how it makes you look. (Oculus’s most recent prototype, for what it’s worth, is the smallest, most compact version yet, and it could shrink even more when the consumer model hits; still, you’re going to look funny no matter what. And you know what? That’s fine.)

You buy something like Oculus because of what it does, what it enables, how it makes you feel.

“But it’s not just how utterly absurd you look when ‘rifting,’” the piece argued. “The device just isn’t transformational enough to replace how we currently navigate virtual worlds—primarily through game consoles and big-screen TVs.”

The technology is still rough around the edges, sure, but you need to experience what Crescent Bay can do firsthand to see just how transformational it can be. Oculus doesn’t exist to fix a problem, or replace how we navigate virtual worlds. It complements the process and makes these worlds more immediate and immersive. You’ll still use a controller, but now you’ll feel like you’re the actual character, not simply guiding one.

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Perhaps the most egregious and infuriating part of the argument comes when it claims Immersis, a $3,000 projector that turns your room into a screen, is going to somehow usher in the true future of VR. The dork-free kind, the post argues. “And as that happens, Oculus will fade into the background.” Sorry, but that’s a big fat negative.

Not only is Immersis unfathomably expensive, but you’d need two units to even create a 360-degree experience. And even then it’s not capable of matching what Oculus is capable of achieving. There’s no positional tracking (more on that in a second), and you don’t actually look around with your own eyes, but by manipulating the character onscreen with your controller. If you physically turn around in your chair while using Immersis, you’ll simply be staring at a projector, taking you right out of the experience. The two aren’t independent of each other. Instead, Immersis is simply beaming an image onto your wall. That’s it.

But that’s not the only problem with Immersis’ implementation. Your room needs to be dark, and you can’t really move around in the space you’re in, because there’s a good chance you’ll block the image being projected. There are far too many trade-offs, and it’s nowhere near the experience you get with Crescent Bay. (To be fair, I haven’t actually used Immersis, but based on the product video, these are the conclusions I’ve come to.) And, as a reminder, the thing is so ridiculously expensive, making it something only the top 1% can afford.

There are two major reasons that make Oculus’ newest prototype so promising: One) it features 360-degree positional tracking; and, two) it sports 3D audio technology, which helps further create the trick that you’ve suddenly escaped to a virtual space. These two improvements can’t be overstated enough; compared to the DK2 prototype Oculus put out in early 2014, the difference is night and day.

With 360 positional tracking, Oculus is capable of determining where the user is (with the help of some cameras) inside of a digital space. So if I’m walking through an old abandoned insane asylum (bad idea), Crescent Bay allows me to physically lean in toward objects, turn around, crouch, jump, do it all, just as one would if they were actually there.

You don’t get that with Cardboard or Gear VR. You can use both to look around, but you can’t lean into objects, and they’re not proportionate to what you’re doing in real life, which means you’re just passively viewing whatever content is being beamed to your eyeballs. There’s very little interaction. Plus, the much-improved refresh rate of the latest Oculus prototype is way ahead of anything coming out of Google or Samsung, as is the display technology being used—that dreaded screen door effect is nowhere to be found.

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The inclusion of 3D audio is another big addition for the evolution of Oculus. The video Todd filmed at CES illustrates this point perfectly.

These two additions ultimately combine to deliver the feeling of presence, which Oculus emphasized as one of the biggest breakthroughs for Crescent Bay when it was first introduced late last year. DK2 and earlier versions came close, and they were certainly immersive in a way that no other technology could touch. But the newest prototype manages to convince you that a virtual world exists around you. Your brain is tricked into believing. That for me is enough to be considered “transformational.”

We’ve been promised this day would come for awhile, that we’d be transported to fantasy worlds, immersed in a way only VR could provide. But nothing has achieved the quality seen from Oculus, especially compared to the company’s Crescent Bay prototype. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen thus far, which in and of itself is a win for technology. For everyone. And the pace at which Oculus has improved is impressive; the company isn’t only pushing its own VR fortunes forward, but helping to inspire the entire industry.

And it’s not just gaming where Oculus can make an impact. The company recently started a wing dedicated solely to making VR movies, while big Hollywood studios have also shown interest in how the technology can alter the moviegoing experience. We tested out an early example of this first-hand, but that was just a taste. As filmmakers start creating more content specifically for VR—not just enabling support—Oculus will be even better than it is right now.

The more markets it infiltrates, the larger its audience becomes, too. And that’s better for everyone! You don’t have to teach someone how to use Oculus, either, which is always a major hurdle when new technology is released. You simply strap it on a person’s head and the technology takes care of the rest. What I’ve experienced thus far has been quick, carefully curated demos. But it’s accessible enough for anyone to pick up. The small snippets were fun escapes, enough to convince me I wasn’t in Vegas, and even though the feeling of presence was fleeting, the experience was completely unparalleled.

That to me is the opposite of doomed. It’s the reason why we’re drawn to technology in the first place, and Oculus is leading the way.

There are definitely hurdles Oculus needs to overcome in order for it to be a runaway success. Right now it’s a solitary experience, something a single person can enjoy at any given moment. And that’s never going to change. Sure, you can easily share a unit between friends and family, but unless you equip yourself with multiple units, only one person can use it at a time. (Unless you get a kick out of watching people use Oculus, in which case a single headset is fun for the whole family.)

Oculus will also need to price the consumer version just right. People are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for consoles, tablets, wearables, phones and computers. But because VR is still such a nascent concept, the company can’t afford to scare people away with a premium price. Wow, this is cool, but the price… It’s unlikely a pair will fall into impulse buy territory, but it can’t be unreasonable.

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Oculus wunderkind Palmer Luckey has already intimated the final consumer version will retail between $200 and $400—let’s meet in the middle for argument’s sake. That’s definitely not cheap, but if the model that’s finally released to consumers is in tip-top shape, a $300 price tag will be hard to ignore.

And that brings me to ecosystem. It needs to be vast and varied, well beyond mere demonstrations. There are already a lot of games that support early versions of Oculus, but it needs to go even further. I suspect that’s why Oculus is starting its own VR movie studio. Samsung is making the right moves by supporting film tie-in “experiences,” and it also did something fun over the weekend during the NBA All-Star game.

We need much more of that. Oculus needs to build a single hub dedicated to content, and it has to be available at launch. There’s nothing worse than buying cool new technology and having nothing to use it with. The real unfortunate news is that it’s very likely Oculus won’t support today’s biggest consoles; Luckey has already explained that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are too limited. PC users rejoice.

We still don’t know when the consumer version of Oculus will launch, but the company has made very promising progress over the past few years, and there’s no reason at all to believe the company is doomed. It’s already impacting other industries, and Facebook has put too much money into the company for it to fail.

Even though it’s an early prototype, Crescent Bay is hugely impressive, and as Oculus continues to improve the technology, the experience will only get better. The company has already proved its technology isn’t destined to “fade into the background,” even with increasingly sharp competition. If that comes at a cost of looking a little goofy while wearing a VR headset, I’m perfectly OK with that.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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