Nate Mitchell has been at Oculus VR from its humble beginnings as a virtual reality goggles startup to its $2 billion acquisition by Facebook last year.
A year ago, he came to the 2014 International CES with Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey to show the Crystal Cove demo with the development kit 2 (DK2) in a tiny room. This year, Mitchell and company returned with a giant booth where the public could view the latest Crescent Bay demo in huge numbers.
We caught up with Mitchell at the 2015 International CES, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas last week after viewing the Crescent Bay demo, which transported me to another world and let me turn around in 360 degrees to view it. Mitchell spelled out the details of Crescent Bay and said there’s a team of 250 engineers working on a consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset and a full system for using it in games and other apps. Mitchell said there is a chance that the consumer version will ship in 2015, but he made no promises.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation, which was jointly conducted with writer Chris Morris.
GamesBeat: What’s new at the show for Oculus?
Nate Mitchell: We’ve taken an early build of the Oculus audio software development kit (SDK) and gone back to all of the Oculus Connect demos and added spatial 3D audio. You’re going to be able to — hopefully, though this is still early — pinpoint sounds above, below, and out in front of you in full 3D. That’s pretty awesome. Audio is this major amplifier for VR presence. That’s what we’re chasing on the PC side, presence and comfort. It makes a big difference.
We’re pushing through the Crescent Bay demo set here. We’ll walk you through the same demos we showed at Oculus Connect, give or take. We’ve revamped and polished a few things, added a few things. It’s technically not the same, but relatively speaking, it’s the same. The first set of demos was developed in-house by one of our studios in Seattle. We went back and enhanced it, revamped it, added spatialized audio, improved presence. You’re seeing a director’s cut or something like that. There are a couple of new experiences in there too. If you saw it at Oculus Connect, you’d see some new stuff. That’s what we were going for.
The other big thing we’re talking about is Samsung Gear VR. Gear VR Innovator Edition launched in December. We’re excited to get that out to developers and enthusiasts. We don’t have any major announcements about Gear VR other than we’re working on commerce and internationalization for early this year. The plan is to roll out Gear VR in additional countries soon, and then follow that up with commerce in the U.S., followed by commerce rollout to additional countries as they come online. That’s the big push right now internally. We have a lot of developers holding content back waiting for commerce to come online, because they don’t want to give away their games, movies, and experiences for free. That’s a big undertaking for us. It’s something we haven’t done before. We’re close. We’re getting very close.
GamesBeat: I saw a couple of new games coming out, like Temple Run. Some of them are still going forward.
Mitchell: There’s a mix. Some people just want to be there early. Some games would be free otherwise, and they’ll add in-app purchases later. Some games are releasing demos. And then some people are saying, “No, we’ll just wait. Tell us when commerce is ready and we’ll put it out there.”
It’s one reason we call it Innovator Edition. We don’t have that story yet. The software experience is still coming together in terms of UI and UX for moving between content and discovering new content. It’s getting a lot better. We’re continuing to iterate pretty rapidly.
GamesBeat: Do you have a timetable for that?
Mitchell: We haven’t announced anything. It’s early this year. It’s not December.
GamesBeat: What about whatever comes after Crescent Bay?
Mitchell: We haven’t announced anything yet. What comes after Crescent Bay is most likely going to be the consumer Rift. We are really all hands-on with that, working on shipping as soon as we can.
We get a lot of questions. Is Crescent Bay going to be a dev kit? Why can’t we buy one? We don’t want to derail the team and go down a path where we’re trying to productize Crescent Bay, because that takes us away from shipping the consumer version. We want to get the consumer version out as soon as we can. We’re working on it.
GamesBeat: What have you been doing as far as acquisitions and other parts of the system?
Mitchell: We just acquired Nimble VR and 13th Lab. They are two computer vision companies doing unique work. I can’t go into too much about what they’re working on. One of the things we’ve been transparent about is that it’s pretty likely that their technology won’t make it in for consumer version 1 (CV1). It could never be used even for CV2 or CV3. But we have brought them on to do some stuff, both in Oculus research and in product engineering. Hopefully we’ll see some fruits of their labors in the coming months and years.
GamesBeat: You’re still not showing any input systems, though.
Mitchell: That’s one of the big missing pieces, yeah. One of the things we talked about at Oculus Connect is that input needs to be there for great consumer VR. It’s still the big missing component, the elephant in the room. We want to deliver great input solutions for CV1. We think that’s important, especially for it to be a real consumer device. We haven’t made any announcements quite yet, but it’s something we’re working on.
GamesBeat: That Unreal 4 Showdown demo in Crescent Bay looked good, even if it wasn’t interactive.
Mitchell: In our defense, it’s the tiniest bit interactive. The aliens will track you, for example. They respond to your head position. That’s pretty neat. The T-Rex looks at you and moves a little bit. But you’re right.
GamesBeat: Tell us where things stand for you these days. It’s been a while since we last caught up with the company. Where are you in the production cycle? Are you getting close to a point where you can talk about a consumer date?
Mitchell: We’re always getting closer. [Laughs] One thing we talked about at Oculus Connect is that we’re aligning on the consumer specifications. What you see with Crescent Bay is that we’re getting–There’s a number of components to Crescent Bay that we’re happy with, that we think can go in the consumer version. Yesterday someone asked if we think the resolution and screen technology in Crescent Bay is good enough for the consumer Rift. I do think it is. Crescent Bay as a holistic system crosses that threshold where you’re delivering comfort and presence that is that magical, holy grail of VR. It is going to get better.
One of the things we’ve said — it’s always as good as what you see. It’s not better. But now that you have 360-degree tracking, a wide tracking volume, integrated audio, substantially better ergonomics, we’re getting close. The ergonomics are much, much better than version two. Like any feature prototype, part of it is experimentation, production experimentation. Do we like the strap system? How well does that hold up? Putting thousands of people through it at a show is a good way to test our assumptions. We’re always testing internally. It’s good to run it through its paces.