Oculus Rift: ‘virtual reality is still niche – it’s hard to service millions’

Virtual reality is still a niche product, a senior executive at Oculus Rift has said, dismissing the potential of mass market success because the business and the technology is not ready to scale.

Oculus Rift is well resourced after being acquired by Facebook for $2bn earlier in 2014. Yet its recent partnership with Korean electronics firm Samsung to launch the Gear VR headset, which attaches the powerful Galaxy Note 4 to a headset to create a virtual reality device, will remain a niche product says Max Cohen, Oculus’s vice-president for mobile.

Cohen doesn’t want iPhone-style success yet because, he says, “it’s really hard to service millions of users at once”.

The announcement of the Gear VR in September caused some confusion in the industry, because Samsung had no experience in making VR devices yet would be releasing its product ahead of rival Sony, which has a wealth of gaming experience and the PlayStation 4 to piggyback on.

But why did Oculus chose to partner with Samsung, potentially creating another rival to its own VR device that had been two years in the making?

Cohen says the pairing all started because of a meeting about screens. “Samsung has the lead in OLED screens, which allow you to do low persistence [so that pixels turn off or on quickly, making images vanish and appear rapidly] and things like that, and they said ‘hey, what about mobile VR?’ And at the time, it seemed like a crazy idea, to actually get good VR running on mobile.”

The arrival of former Doom developer John Carmack – one of the most high-profile games programmers in the industry – in August 2013 saw a new concentration on mobile. “He basically did a lot of work with his team of engineers down in Dallas, and they proved out that this was a viable concept,” Cohen says.

By the time Cohen joined the company in February 2014, the month before Facebook announced its acquisition, “mobile was running on Galaxy S4, and it was clear that there was still a lot of work to do, but the potential was there. And so that’s when we all started working towards actually launching it on the Galaxy Note 4.”

In the Gear VR, the Galaxy Note 4 provides both the processing power to make the gaming-focused device work and the screen. The Gear VR hardware holds the phablet in place, and provides the motion-sensing technology needed to make virtual reality work – so that when the wearer moves their head, that is fed back instantly to alter the view they are shown by the screen.

If the feedback is too slow or is inaccurate, the lag and difference causes nausea and dizziness because the body’s balance system, mediated by the ear’s vestibular canals, disagrees with what the eyes are seeing.

But using a phone for VR inevitably brings compromise: what’s best for a phone screen may not be what’s best for a VR screen. Cohen agrees, saying “We have to keep going.”

He continues, “I’ve heard different numbers about what [the high quality screen] Retina needs, whether it’s good enough for a VR screen. The 1440p SuperAMOLED screen [on the Galaxy Note] is good for now, but it’s by no means enough for VR. We have to keep pushing technology further in the future. You can imagine 4K screens and beyond – but it’s going to take some time to get there.”

Currently, Cohen is resigned to the Gear VR being a niche product. “We’re not trying to sell millions of devices this year, that’s not something that either Samsung or Oculus is interested in. This is the Gear VR Innovator edition, designed for enthusiasts and developers.

“And the reason for that is, you just have to look at the news: when Apple did their keynote event [in September to launch the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus], the livestream was spilling all over the place, tons of people had problems with the store, trying to order their new iPhones. What that shows is that it’s really hard to service millions of users at once.”

But Samsung and Oculus have lofty goals for the Gear VR. The target audience for the device “is everyone”, Cohen says, with the addendum that that’s “as time approaches infinity.” But in the near term, the Gear VR “is absolutely a gaming platform and a media consumption platform.”

This seems to sit uncomfortably with the fact that Oculus is making its own gaming and media platform, also targeted at a potential audience of “everyone”. How does the company avoid competing against itself? “The Oculus is for a similar group of people,” Cohen concedes, “who want a higher-end experience, and also a more comfortable experience.”

He explains: “One thing we are very open about is that comfort is very important in VR. That’s why a lot of games are ones where you’re stable and not moving around or turning too much. The PC product is definitely more comfortable for more people.” The Gear VR will also be unusable for people who find a flickering screen – caused by the low (for VR) refresh rate of 60Hz – too irritating.

Another way to square the circle would be for Oculus to focus on becoming a platform for VR, monetising itself as an app store and hub for developers. Cohen hints that that might be an acceptable solution.

“We’re absolutely happy about them being part of the Oculus family in any way. That’s something that we’ve said many times: we’re making hardware because hardware’s important, and we want to make the best hardware, and we will continue to do that while we make the best hardware, but if you look five, ten years out, if the hardware has been commoditised, then Oculus still plans to provide a great VR experience via the platform.”

If the company does become a platform owner, the de-facto bosses of all VR, how widely will that platform spread? Would they even open up to owners of Sony’s Morpheus headset? “I think that’s a massively premature question,” Cohen says.

Whatever happens, Oculus can afford to keep its options open. The company has Facebook’s war chest to keep it afloat until it decides to settle on a business plan, and the full consumer versions of both the Rift and Gear VR – as well as the Morpheus VR – are still some way away.

In the meantime, Oculus can focus on solving some of the more pressing issues facing virtual reality, such as ghosting images, low-resolution screens – and the fact that it’s really very hard to put one on without looking very, very odd to onlookers.

Oculus Rift hands-on: why the latest version is a watershed moment in gaming