LOS ANGELES — Virtual reality gaming startup Oculus VR returned to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game trade show this week in Los Angeles as a real, competitive platform in the emerging VR game business.
It’s been just two years from the first public showing of the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, and now Facebook is in the process of buying the Irvine, Calif.-based company for $2 billion. And at E3 this week, Oculus showed off some new demos.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey learned the ins and outs of virtual reality at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Southern California. He became obsessed with creating a head-mounted display that could immerse people in a virtual world, and his work caught the attention of gaming guru John Carmack, the id software cofounder who also led development on Doom and Quake. Carmack asked for a prototype and showed it to the press at the E3 show in June 2012.
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That drew the eye of Brendan Iribe and Nate Mitchell, who joined Luckey and convinced him to turn a humble do-it-yourself project into a Kickstarter-funded developer platform that could eventually be mass-produced as consumer virtual reality goggles.
They raised $2.4 million from more than 9,500 backers on Kickstarter. Then they raised $16 million in venture funding. Carmack came on full-time as chief technology officer. Then Marc Andreessen, the Netscape founder and cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz, joined in a $75 million funding round.
Now Oculus, with its own booth and meeting rooms at E3 2014, showed some cool-looking demos of games such as Alien: Isolation and Playful’s Lucky’s Tale. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: This looks like your first exclusive content.
Brendan Iribe: It is. It’s created a huge buzz at the show, Lucky’s Tale. We’ve been working with Paul Bettner and the Playful team since the beginning of Oculus. Paul was one of, I think, seven $5,000 Kickstarter backers. His first visit at the office, he came with his whole team. I didn’t even know that he was coming for his Kickstarter visit. I was there spending all this time with him and we had a lot of fun talking about VR, where it was all going. At the end I was like, “Hey, I have to get back to work. Hope you had a good time.” And he says, “This was totally worth that $5,000.” And I’m like, “That’s why you’re here?” He says, “Yeah! You spent all that time with us and you didn’t even know you had to?”
They hung with us the whole way through prototyping. We gave them early duct tape prototypes they started working with. In the beginning they worked up something like 30 different experiences to figure out what was working in VR and what wasn’t.
GamesBeat: When Paul Bettner started the company, did he start it to do this?
Iribe: It was originally named Verse. He founded the studio around VR. That was the goal. When he found out that we were still pretty far out from the consumer market at that time – that was two years ago – he focused on making a few Ouya or mobile experiences. Part of the team worked on existing platforms and then part of the team continued to R&D on VR. Now it feels like more of their team is focusing on VR. But you’d have to ask him.
Certainly the reception for Lucky’s Tale has inspired him to be pretty focused and excited about where this is all going to go, and where Lucky’s Tale as an exclusive for Oculus is going to go. The reception has been awesome.
GamesBeat: Is Jason Rubin’s job to stir up more of this or to work internally?
Iribe: We actually hired two Jasons. Jason Holtman right here recently joined to run platform. He’s going to be largely leading the overall platform strategy around building out the ecosystem and the developer relations with Aaron and publishing with DeMartini. It’s official. We’re building a platform. There’s a lot of engineering around that, with Marshall. Jason’s background comes from Valve, running Steam and evangelizing Steam to third-party developers over eight years or so. It’s great to get the person who built Steam to help build our platform.
Jason Rubin we announced this week as the head of worldwide studios. He’s going to lead our first-party content development. We’re going to make a few games and spin up a few studios of top talent — engineering, game design, artists – to put together made-for-VR content and experiences.
GamesBeat: You need that because you have this very large competitor in Sony, right?
Iribe: We don’t look at them as a competitor. We look at Sony as someone who’s jumping into the space to help evangelize and build out VR. They’re very centered around a console experience. They’re putting Morpheus out as an accessory to their console platform right now. We’re squarely focused on VR. We don’t have to make 2D games or experiences anywhere. We have 140, 150 people totally focused on VR now. Many of the best developers in the world are all joining with a single mission – building the best VR platform and product and experiences.
GamesBeat: What made you want to come over to Oculus?
Jason Holtman: I put a headset on. It’s pretty much that easy. I’d known these guys for a while, worked with the same developers and publishers. It’s all about content and entertainment. The moment you put one of these headsets on, it’s apparent what’s fun and it’s apparent what the challenges will be like. It’s apparent what developers and publishers will want to do. It sounds a little cliché, but putting the headset on, that’s how you understand what someone would want to do with this, either a customer or someone in the industry.
Iribe: That’s been the recruiting method. Put this on. Take it off. Do you want to be a part of building the future now? Both developers out in the ecosystem and people in the community are getting behind this. Internally we’re able to ramp up this top talent team.
Whether it’s developers or industry veterans on the business side, top talent likes to work together. Once you start forming this group of super talented people, it’s awesome to work together. We’re able to make so much progress so fast. Everyone’s brilliant. There’s a lot of respect amongst the team. It’s a lot of fun.