Virtual reality developers aren’t making as much money as they expected. Just ask Vander Caballero, founder of Minority Media, creator of the VR game Time Machine VR.
Montreal-based Minority Media, which also created the groundbreaking PSN title Papo Y Yo in 2012, created the dinosaur undersea adventure game that launched on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets in May 2017. The game had high-quality art and design. But in a talk at Spain’s Gamelab event last week, Caballero acknowledged that it has been very difficult to make enough money in VR.
I talked with Caballero about his fascination with VR and augmented reality technologies, as well as the reality of trying to make money in what he calls the current “VR desert,” where consumers haven’t yet been buying the VR platforms or games in adequate numbers to support much of an industry. In the long run, he still believes in VR. But in the meantime, he has advice about how to survive the lack of sales and funding.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: You’ve launched your initial games in virtual reality, like Time Machine VR. Did it make money?
Vander Caballero: It did, but not enough. It’s like comics in the 1950s. Comics were for adolescents and that was all you could do. Now we all go out and watch the Avengers. Maybe in another year. Maybe another generation. Maybe my game was about four years early.
GamesBeat: We had our conference in May, and a lot of it was about science fiction, tech, games, and the inspiration that happens between them. We had some more futurist talks that took place. Tim Sweeney, from Epic, was talking about how he thinks that the technology to build the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash will be ready in three years or so. The headsets and the technology for continuous virtual worlds and the blockchain for ecommerce, all the pieces are here. Would you agree with that?
Caballero: I think it’ll start in three years, but it might take another seven to catch up. The tech might be there, but it’s a matter of people getting used to it. My background is in industrial design, so what I learned in school is how you introduce new technology or new objects into people’s homes. It’s not easy to change behavior and expectations. It takes years. We’re getting better and faster at doing that, but the change VR represents is huge.
To make a comparison, I just moved back home. We bought a house, finally. I’d been living in an apartment with my family. I was there, planning out our living room, and it took a huge amount of planning to make that happen. I know all these things, but it was still hard to plan out how to properly set up a living space. Imagine that for someone who doesn’t know about it.
GamesBeat: Jesse Schell, on the other hand, said that he thinks there are still big barriers to overcome on the social side. He said there’s no headset available now that anybody would want to wear.
Caballero: For AR or MR?
GamesBeat: He was saying that VR will happen sooner, but AR may not happen until 2025, because it’ll take that long to make the glasses small enough. With HoloLens, you can’t see people’s eyes. It’s a barrier to communication.
Caballero: I’ve played with it. The improvements in your life are so important. I think if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be for workplaces. I have my CTO working on it. He was in there working on his computer, and at the same time he was updating the firmware and thinking, “What, am I using my other computer while I’m using the HoloLens?” It’s amazing. I think the adoption will happen through workspaces, but it’ll slowly start expanding elsewhere.
GamesBeat: I think he was pointing out that the technology isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s the social awkwardness of having it on your head. And the other part was surveillance. He felt that people aren’t going to get used to — at least with AR, you could be filming people around you all the time. How do we solve those two problems?
Caballero: Compared to VR, it’s kind of like — this is your life, then you add VR, and you think about how much that improves your life. Sure, that’s good, you get another experience here and there. You add AR, though, and does it improve your life? It does, in a big way. But then you see Facebook and Google and all the platforms right now — they’re all working an AR platform. Facebook’s conference talked about walking along and putting this piece of art on the wall. Sure, very pretty, but the same basic idea could put an Ikea logo on your home. Anyway, the infrastructure is starting to happen.
GamesBeat: The initial steps they’re taking are with AR on the phone, but do you think the phone eventually goes away?
Caballero: Yeah, totally. When you have the glasses, you don’t need anything else. It’s natural. One thing that happens — think about your phone. You had to put it in your pocket, then pull it out and open up an application. You could have those applications running right here. There’s lots of wasted space we don’t use in our view. Here, here, here. It’s a lot of real estate to take advantage of once you have that flexibility. If you start opening windows, you just put one there and there and there. It feels so natural. With the phone there’s so little real estate on your screen. With AR it’s going to all be there and feel very natural.
GamesBeat: That sounds a lot like, say, the Minority Report experience.
Caballero: I tried the old LG glasses. They have a really nice interface. You have a little thing here that you hold in your hand and you just swipe it around.
GamesBeat: That was another question I had. How do you think you would control something like this?
Caballero: Voice I think will be a big part of it. Voice is becoming very powerful. Maybe the Apple Watch will be good for something. [laughs] You’ll have some sort of device, something you hold in your hand that feels natural.
GamesBeat: What about some of the other kinds of sensors, like motion detection or motion controls, or eye detection?
Caballero: Each of these things is going to add a layer of interaction that will make the experience better. The more technology you have to add control, the better it is. Something like touch feedback — the feeling of hitting something, whether it’s hot or it’s cold — that can make a huge change in the perception of materials. A lot of things are going to change.
GamesBeat: It seems like we’re in a state where people are making no money while everyone experiments. How do companies survive?
Caballero: For the moment we’re getting some government grants, and we’re matching them up with some financing from Google and from Oculus, the platform companies. Now we’re moving into the arcade space. It’s very interesting in China. There’s a lot of potential to take spaces in the city and revitalize them, like cinemas. Cinemas barely break even. They make their money on popcorn. You can go in and revitalize that kind of business.
I don’t know how this is going to happen, but if you think about — take our game Time Machine. It’s a really powerful experience. That experience is equal to a ride you could find at someplace like Universal Studios. You could open up a shop on the corner and have these devices available. You get the Universal Studios experience just down the road. Once these experiences become really high quality, why do you have to travel for something that’s just as good? It’s going to be a big change to entertainment structures in cities that’s going to be very beneficial.
GamesBeat: Do you think the notion of blockchain commerce is going to be important as well, enabling payments within virtual worlds?
Caballero: Sure, that’s easy. It won’t be a problem.
GamesBeat: And how soon does the standalone experience in VR become good enough?
Caballero: We just ordered our wireless Vive. I’ll be trying it next week. People say it’s pretty good. There will be more standalone devices coming from Google and others. At the end of the year, having a cable attached to your VR is going to be a thing of the past.
GamesBeat: Do you think that’s still powered by the PC, or is it actually standalone?
Caballero: The standalone from Google will have processing on board. We’ll have options to choose.
GamesBeat: It sounds close.
Caballero: It’s pretty close. It’s just a question of how we survive the desert. What makes me so passionate about VR is that in terms of experience — I was saying about our next game, “You’re not going to want to die, because it’s boring to die.” That’s why you’re afraid to get hurt. [laughs] The part that becomes really interesting, we have all this media in cinema and TV that’s based on projection. Everything is about style. We want to become rich, or imagine becoming this or that.
But all this projection and imagination — in VR I can tell you, you’re going to be rich and you’ll think, “I don’t care. I’m here and now. What can I do now?” That here and now changes the experiences that people will enjoy, that they’ll want out of an experience. That’s going to be really interesting, the doors it will open to other types of content. I like it because I think it’s going to be more inclusive than gaming tech.
GamesBeat: You mentioned at the Montreal event that it would be harder to do horror or shooting games inside VR. It would be too emotional. Do you still think so?
Caballero: Have you seen videos of people running in VR? VR failures? [Gestures: They take off and run into walls]. People play these scary games and they just start instinctively running away? Boom, they run right into a wall, just like that. Some people will still like that, but I think there’s a layer of distance that you need from Freddy coming to kill you. I hope there are other ways to engage people than that kind of experience.
GamesBeat: Do you have suggestions for students about how to get started in VR?
Caballero: When you’re just coming out of school, you want to invent the world. You’re fresh. You’re going to have a better chance to innovate than a guy who’s been making games for 10 years. That guy’s going to try to do the same thing he’s always done in VR. The student is going to build a game no one has before, because he’s a clean slate.