Beat Games joined Oculus Studios this week and it got me thinking about what this could mean for the VR industry. The mighty makers of Beat Saber have been a beacon of light for so many indie developers within the community. One cannot help but see the cloud of uncertainty emerge around what this move could mean for the Platinum selling game and the virtual reality eco-system in general.
To be worried or not to be worried?
The fundamental factor behind this uncertainty is that Oculus is now owned by Facebook. They bought Oculus for around $2 billion on 25th March 2016. Facebook has received a lot of negative press coverage for their ways of working for some time now. Their tech giant dominance means that many VR apps are non-accessible unless you log in using a Facebook account or profile. There are subtle signs of Facebook methodology if you pay close attention. For example, when you attend any live events via Oculus Venues you will be presented with data gathering/marketing probing questions that are purposely designed in a fun format. The Oculus Quest Guardian scans your real world environment so you can create your safe playing boundary. It also remembers your boundary if you play in the same space. Even if you switch the headset off and on again a while later. Just how much is recorded, kept or even used elsewhere is not known. I can appreciate why there is a nervousness associated around the Facebook Oculus brand.
Change is coming.
John Carmack (Chief Technology Officer at Oculus) won Lifetime Achievement Award for VR from the VR Awards 2019 last month. He said he ‘really hasn’t been satisfied with the pace of progress we’ve been making’ with virtual reality during his acceptance speech. John is another voice of guidance within the industry and one of the key drivers who helped lift the Oculus start-up out of the starting position in the early days. The industry respects John and listen intently to his teachings. Two weeks after that speech he announced he was stepping back from being CTO of Oculus.
In August this year Nate Mitchell, the last remaining core founder of the Oculus start-up, left Oculus. The year before Brendan Iribe left. 2017 Palmer Luckey left. Jack McCauley left in 2015. The Facebook acquisition happened in 2014.
The History of the past
One way to consider the future is to review the past. I have attended historic press conferences via virtual reality but only remember a handful of bullet points worth noting. I wanted to know if Mark Zuckerberg had mentioned anything specifically on the theme of Oculus content eco-system and what it would be like for users using Oculus in the future. I researched the historic Oculus Connect (a conference for Virtual Reality Developers) and made some interesting discoveries. The most obvious is that Mark has never deviated from highlighting the importance of presence in virtual reality experiences and games. If you are new to VR, this means believing that you are in a different environment because of its believe-ability. You feel like you are really in this space/world/environment/scenery that you are seeing through your virtual reality headset. That is presence.
Another theme is the eco-system. Mark has spent time each year going into details of this vision. He believes that experiences should be people centred, the apps should not resemble icons on a smartphone and instead be an open space for people to explore, connect together, build/create and play games. I believe this is the purpose behind the OC6 announced Facebook Horizon. Horizon is a new social experience that is due next year. The quality of the ‘realism’ is questionable, however, a social experience is always welcomed. The avatars look similar to those from Facebook Spaces and that sadly closed down last month. ‘Facebook‘ Horizon made me raise an eyebrow but to be honest, on reflection, it makes perfect sense. Building Social technology platforms is Facebook’s bread and butter. It’s what they do and they do it well with reportedly 2.45 billion monthly active users. It has taken Facebook a long time to reach that number and I presume this is why the Oculus goal of ‘1 billion people in virtual reality’ has no delivery date. During OC5 Mark said that for success there is a ‘threshold of 10 million users on any given platform at the same time for the ecosystem to explode’. Interesting isn’t it. You would be forgiven for thinking that you would need the pull of a platinum selling VR title to create that level of users on your platform at the same time to meet that success threshold…
Aside from the most obvious Head Mounted Display (HMD) evolution from the Original DKI – DK2 -Rift – Go – Rift S – Quest headsets. There have been other improvements along the way. The Oculus Quest was their first standalone headset and recently saw the ability to link it to a PC for a wired VR experience. Meaning the Quest became a Rift. Which is totally awesome for Quest owners and users. Next we will have the hand tracking thanks to the Oculus Quest inside out trackers. The demo from OC6 showed the ability to move individual fingers and your real world hands are your controllers. Many have said that this hand tracking is quite basic in comparison to the Leap Motion AKA UltraLeap. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. I’m particularly interested in this side of the technology too because many elderly people who are living with dementia has quite restricted hand motion therefore struggle with a controller. So, I can see practical uses for this advancement as well as the better quality of presence.
Let’s not forget the promise that any tech improvements will be compatible across all new devices too eg Quest 2, 3, 4 etc. They really are fine tuning the machine. Most shockingly is the the next wave of input ‘where you can just think something to make it happen’. Now, this sounds pretty futuristic but CTRL-Labs (who have also been acquired by Facebook Oculus) have already developed the technology and the dev kits have been dispatched this year. This is exactly the sort of thing that quantifies as ‘shaping and improving the underlying platform’ (Mark, OC6).
What does it all mean?
Well it means that the open Metaverse that we all dream of is going to be like the walled Truman Show set. It will appear open but in actual fact it will be restricted within Facebook’s walled garden. Am I wrong? I hope so but earlier this year Virtual Desktop was prohibited from allowing Oculus streaming services through their app. Many devs were frustrated and vocal about the number of Oculus Quest applications being rejected. Thus bringing Side Quest to life for an alternative route for content. The success criteria for Quest content was extremely high and not clearly transparent at the time. New users were frustrated at the lack of content and some even returning their new headsets because of it. Thankfully the popularity and excitement during the launch months of Quest & Rift S was more positive than negative but it is still a reminder of when the doors were closed.
augmented & virtual reality will be the next computing platform
We won’t expect to see a new Oculus virtual reality headset anytime soon but perhaps we will see more unfolding in augmented reality hardware next. I found the image above with the future projections splashed out that struck me as completely undervalued and forgotten about. With Oculus Quests selling out almost as fast as they are being made then it is obvious that content is king. If you have that influx of users coming in then it makes perfect sense to open up a virtual landscape to host everybody for games, socialising, events, creating, learning and utilise the power of the people to help shape what that looks like. For the people, by the people. It’s very smart. Obviously they will have taken their learnings from Facebook Spaces and other apps such as the photo share to Facebook as demonstrated during OC3 in 2017 where Mark was an avatar and his wife Prescilla was at work in the real world and called him, he answered the video call whilst in VR, took a selfie and shared it on FB. Therefore demonstrating the seamless interactivity between the Zuckerberg infrastructure. Plus demonstrating the various levels that virtual reality was at 2 years ago.
Next year is all about churning out virtual reality content for the community. Monetisation is still an area that needs to evolve in the industry but that could be about to all change too… Whilst the VR devs & community are hard at work then maybe Facebook will focus on growing the augmented reality eco-system instead. They have already opened up Spark AR for content creation in August this year and my gut tells me 2020 will be more AR driven focus because the VR side knows the brief and just needs to deliver it.
If you want to learn more about how to build then check this out or join the Design, Develop and Deploy course by Unity and Oculus (thoroughly recommended!). Don’t want to be a VR dev? No problem, other areas to train in so that you don’t miss being at the front of the wave is: VR testing, graphics, modelling, optimisation, marketing are all skills that will be required going forward. The list is endless: educating, demo’ing and advocating are important skills too.