Oculus's Nate Mitchell on Valve vs. Rift, Touch controller vs. Xbox gamepad, and more

oculus rift consumer june 11 2015
Hayden Dingman

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The Oculus Rift is real. It has a (semi-firm) release window. It’s a product.

What a relief. That means, for the first time in two years, I can talk with Oculus VP of Product Nate Mitchell and discuss specifics. I sat down with Mitchell a few weeks ago and chatted with him about the company’s upcoming consumer-ready Rift—everything from the prevalence of third-person demos to hardware specs to the problem with input methods.

Here's the full transcript.

PCWORLD: What kind of rig are you running demos on (at E3)?

Nate Mitchell (NM): That’s got a [Nvidia GeForce GTX] 980 in there. The recommended specs is a 970. We went with a 980 for the show to give ourselves a little extra overhead, especially for our devs. All of this stuff will work perfectly on the 970.

Why do you think there’s a push for third-person view? I played Edge of Nowhere and Kronos and both of those are third-person. One has a static camera and one has a tracking camera, but I’m surprised because 98 percent of the demos on Oculus Share are first-person.

NM: I think what we’ve found is…even if you go back to Lucky’s Tale is that third-person works very well in VR. When we started this initially people thought it was all about first-person games. You show people Lucky’s Tale and people are like “Platformers in third-person work well too.” And some of these developers, like Insomniac, third-person’s their M.O. Once you know it works, it’s like “We want to make a third-person game. Why not make it in VR?”

We’ve got third-person games. We’ve got first-person games. Oculus Touch allows for a whole different set of first-person games because now you can reach out and see your hands. VR is definitely not restricted to any one type.

What is the range on the camera sensor now?

NM: Range is sort of a weird term. In terms of the optimal distance, it’s 1-3 meters. Basically we’ve designed it ideally to work on your desk. You grab the sensor, you put it next to your monitor, you take a scoot back so you can lean forward, and you’re good to go. If you want to stand up, you can stand up, no problem. That sensor has a tilt so you can tilt it to be higher or lower. So it’s not like sit back twenty feet from your desk.

And it’s not like Valve where you’re expecting people to walk around?

NM: No. The Rift is designed to support a standing experience, so…

That’s a change from when you started. When you started we’d ask about that and you’d always say “Sit down because it’s a liability issue.”

NM: Sitting is still, we think, the most common thing. My personal opinion: Most people are going to want to play VR games for long periods of time, and they’re going to want to chill out and sit down. There are going to be a set of awesome standing experiences that’ll be fun. People are going to want to play those too I’m sure. But in terms of the number of people who will play your game and enjoy it, it’s far reduced when you move to something like “Okay, I want to track this whole room and have a standing experience that requires a 12 by 12 space.”

Oculus Rift

The latest iteration of the Rift’s position-tracking sensor.

What we’re trying to do right now is make developers successful. If developers aren’t successful it means less games which means VR doesn’t go anywhere. So we want a consistent spec, an Xbox controller in the box, you can target seated or standing. Driving towards a consistent set of standards for VR at least in the case of the Rift.

But when you talk standards, the other problem is right off the bat you’ve divided your user base by saying everyone has an Xbox One controller but some people might have this cool Touch controller. If I’m a developer, why am I going to limit myself to people who have a Touch controller?

NM: I’d say we haven’t split it because everyone has an Xbox controller. There’s zero input fragmentation there. That’s why we bundled the Xbox controller because we wanted, if you and I make a game and we target a gamepad but there’s no gamepad in the box then we have serious input fragmentation because everyone’s buying an accessory to play our game.

But on the other hand, if I’m a developer who thinks Touch looks cool why would I want to develop for it if I know only 1/5 of the Rift population has one, for instance? It’s like a Kinect game…

NM: You’re 100 percent right. That’s one of the reasons we’re selling it as an add-on instead of putting it in the box—it is new, it is more expensive, and developers haven’t started building content on it really. Some of the experiences we have here have been in development for two or three years, and developers are just getting their hands on motion controls. Very few developers have their hands on the Touch to date.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Touch may make you look goofy, but the hardware is mesmerizing...as long as developers build experiences for it.

Given all that, we want Touch to be this awesome add-on you can buy and it unlocks all these new experiences, but it’s not necessarily required. You don’t have to target Touch to make a great VR game.

Are you at all worried people will buy Touch and nobody will develop for it?

NM: I think the other thing when you get compared to Kinect and the Wii Fit board or these things—“Do I really want to game with this thing?”

You talk to most gamers out there, you ask “Do you love gaming with Kinect?” Most gamers are probably going to say…no. Take what you will from that. I think a lot of accessories have followed that trajectory.

I think what’s different about Touch, and you’ll have to tell me, is that when you play with Touch—most people are coming out of the Touch demo saying “I want that right now. It’s awesome. The experiences it enables are so cool I want to play more games like that.” I think what you’re going to see is developers opting into Touch because they can do brand new stuff, gamers opting into Touch because they want that experience. If both those things go really well—plus we’re investing ourselves in the ecosystem—we should be able to get to a really good spot. And then for Gen 2 or Gen 3 of VR we can see what’s working and what’s not.

oculus  rift oculus touch june 11 2015 Hayden Dingman

Ultimately we see different vectors for input. If you want a third-person gaming experience, the Xbox controller right now is better than Touch. It’s more ergonomic, it’s more comfortable, it sits in your lap. And you just know it. It’s an extension of you.

On the other hand, you can’t reach out and use a lightsaber or use the Force with a gamepad. You need Touch. This is why we see these different vectors for input and why we have different devices for different experiences. I think we’ll see in Generation 2 where this all lands, both with us and with everyone else doing development.

It’s not a perfect recipe, by the way. Your question still stands. “Okay, but are Touch developers going to be able to make awesome amounts of money when it launches?” Probably not. It’s going to be a slower road. But I think we’ll see adoption much faster because of all those different pieces I just outlined.

VR is very hard to explain and sell to people who haven’t tried it. What are you doing to combat that? And do you worry that because the Xbox is your default control scheme, that that alienates people who aren’t hardcore gaming fans? Whereas Touch might be more intuitive?

NM: Yes. I think Touch is a step in the right direction, definitely. We don’t want the gamepad to alienate folks. And we’re looking at other ways to help with that.

To your first question: It’s really about getting people to experience the device. We don’t do much marketing in a traditional sense, but we do a lot of events and shows to get as many people through the demo as possible—have them see VR, have them experience it. Then it’s word of mouth. “You’ve got to go try that weird VR thing.”

You could imagine us also doing a trial at retail like we’ve done with GearVR, especially because VR is expensive—particularly for non-gamers who don’t have a gaming PC. They need to be able to try that experience if they’re going to make that purchase.

Real release date? Real price?

[Mitchell shakes his head twice.]

I assume we’ll hear more at Connect?

NM: Yeah, you can imagine sometime between now and [the Oculus Connect conference in September].

At this point our interview broke off so I could go test out Oculus's new Touch controller for myself. You can find my impressions here.

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