When Oculus VR announced it was being acquired by Facebook for $2 billion, the response was...well, "contentious" would be an understatement. Some very vocal VR fans were not happy to see the scrappy start-up gobbled up by the social media giant. But let's be honest: The acquisition has a ton of upside potential, too.
At E3, I had a chance to sit and chat with Oculus VR for the first time since that fateful day. What's it like, talking to a post-Facebook Oculus? To be honest, almost exactly the same as before—except you can tell that Oculus has a lot more money to throw around nowadays.
A real virtual reality experience needs real virtual reality games
Virtual reality is coming, barring catastrophe. I'd almost swear on it. If I had any doubts about VR's widespread appeal in the past, they were eliminated after trying out the second version of the Oculus Rift developer kit, affectionately termed DK2. With lower latency and position tracking, DK2 is the definitive virtual reality experience at the moment and eliminates many of the problems faced by the earlier model.
But VR is starting from scratch when it comes to content. Games designed for static cameras don't translate to virtual reality without significant rejiggering. So far, the community has been responsible for most Rift content, and while the existing demos are certainly interesting they're not exactly full games per se. (Though a small handful of full games already includes Rift support, to be sure.)
Enter Facebook, with monocle and bag of money. "With Facebook we've been able to invest in more content. Even though the deal hasn't closed, we've been able to toss more of our remaining bank account towards publishing," says Oculus VP of product Nate Mitchell.
"We've hired, like, forty people since the Facebook acquisition, so the company is growing really, really fast. Some of the best people in the industry," Mitchell continues. Some of the best people indeed, like Doom co-creator and gaming industry legend John Carmack, who is now Oculus' chief technology officer. This very week, Oculus announced it had hired Naughty Dog co-founder and former THQ president Jason Rubin.
"With Rubin coming onboard we're focusing on our first-party content initiative, so really focusing on bringing more great content to the platform, which is key. Without that, we're just a heavy pair of ski goggles," says Mitchell. "You can imagine that some of the first experiences you try when you get a Rift will be from us.
"Think of it like a ski slope. When you get to a ski slope it's all highly-rated experiences. You have your green bunny slopes, your blue squares for intermediate, black diamond and double-black diamond, and that's about how experienced a skier or snowboarder you are. We are trying to invest more heavily in the green and blue experiences that everyone can enjoy, rather than the double-black diamonds like Team Fortress 2."
Hiring PC gaming's best and brightest
And then there's Jason Holtman, formerly the head of Steam over at Valve. Holtman comes to Oculus after a very brief stint at Microsoft. "He had a big hand in Steamworks and a lot of the stuff they put in place to have an awesome developer ecosystem. We're doing a lot of that same stuff at Oculus," says Mitchell.
"He's looking at when you buy a Rift and take it home, how are you getting to your content? How are you signing in? How are we doing cloud saves?" Mitchell continues. "There's really interesting stuff like, we would love to know your IPD—your interpupillary distance—because it changes how we do our rendering. That's stuff we're going to toss up to the cloud, so you measure it once, [then] log in from any computer and snake it back down."
Holtman's not the only ex-Valve employee at Oculus nowadays—a situation that's becoming even more notable month to month. Michael Abrash, a VR guru and former Carmack cohort at id, is another recent key Valve-to-Oculus defection, along with Aaron Nicholls, former Valve VR lead Atman Binstock, and others.
Prior to the Facebook deal, Valve and Oculus were basically working in tandem, sharing research. That deal is (surprisingly) still in effect, but Mitchell says it's becoming less important these days.
"A lot of the people on the Valve VR team have come over to Oculus. There's still a really talented group of people at Valve working on VR, but a lot of the people we were working most closely with are at Oculus now. A lot of those guys are heading up R&D for us, which is similar to what they were doing at Valve—looking five to ten years off."
Allaying Facebook fears
And what does five to ten years mean in the post-Facebook era? That's everyone's greatest fear—that Facebook takes the Rift and turns it into an ad-ridden piece of social networking garbage. It's still a valid fear, and one we won't really have an answer to for years, potentially.
But for Oculus's part, they still consider the Rift a games headset first and foremost.
"If you look at our team, it's 90 percent industry veterans," says Mitchell. "We set out originally to transform gaming. We want this to be the best platform for VR games. I think longer-term we're all excited about the potential of everything you can do with VR, whether it's education or film or training or even communication. Over time I think you'll see more about that, but for now it's about games."
Games like Alien: Isolation, Lucky Tales, and Superhot, all of which I got to demo at E3.
Playful's Lucky's Tale is a true built-for-VR experience, but not like you'd expect. It's actually a third-person platformer, of all things—it looks a lot like a modern, VR version of Crash Bandicoot, actually, which is funny considering the recent Rubin hire. (Naughty Dog made Crash Bandicoot on Rubin's watch.)
Lucky's Tale is interesting primarily because a third-person perspective is such a weird experience to build around in VR—so far, most experiences have been about immersive first-person content, and for good reason. Lucky's Tale works surprisingly well as a platformer, although it did little in the demo to show off the advantages of VR.
Superhot is a bit of a port, though fleshed out for VR. If you didn't get a chance to play the Unity demo of Superhot, check it out—the game's a blast. It's basically a puzzle-shooter, where time only moves when you move. Bullets come toward you but stop when you stop moving, allowing you to plan routes around them. With the Oculus version, the twist is you can lean side-to-side without moving time forward, allowing you to pull off some amazing, Matrix-style bullet-time movements and duck out of the way of your enemy's shots.
Finally, there's Alien: Isolation, which is a full-blown game from Sega arriving this fall. Isolation is really a horror game where you play a weak human hiding and fleeing from a large, terrifying Alien from the namesake series of movies. It's a perfect fit for the Oculus in that capacity—the enclosed feel of the Rift is a natural match for horror. I only got to play for a few minutes, but it already made Isolation feel like a more interesting and intimidating game than it did when I played on a normal monitor.
A strong foundation
All in all, Oculus put on a strong showing at E3. Despite everyone's fears over the Facebook deal, so far all it has done is enable Oculus to make the Rift a more viable platform. If a Facebook buy-out is what we needed to ensure that virtual reality arrives alive and intact, that's something I'm willing to live with, despite my continued fears over Facebook, privacy, ads, and the rest.
And before you ask, no, we still don't know when the consumer version is coming, though we did hear this from Mitchell: "We don't have any intention of doing a DK3, but we do want the Oculus to always double as a development kit." Other than that it was the same old "No comment" we've been hearing for over a year now.