We are all waiting for the predictions of Mike Abrash to come true. The head of Facebook’s Reality Lab believes virtual reality has the same potential as the personal computer, and that it will become the most powerful creative and collaborative environment ever. As he does each year, he pointed to a bright future in a speech at Oculus Connect 6, Facebook’s annual VR conference in San Jose, California.
But we have to survive the good old days first.
“VR hasn’t changed the world yet, but it will,” Abrash said. “The interesting question is, ‘When?’ I have some good news and some bad news.”
Abrash admitted being a bit too optimistic, and that he doesn’t know when the full vision for VR will materialize. He still believes that it will happen, and that’s good thing. A lot of venture capital investors, software developers, and others have been burned on their investments, and they no longer believe. While those folks have given up, Abrash is still trying to invent the future.
The gap of disappointment
For consumer virtual reality to survive the gap of disappointment, everybody has to believe in it. Consumers. Game developers. Other app makers. Investors. And platform owners. OC6 gave us some clues on what Oculus believes about the future of consumer VR. To me, the moves I saw show just how many tradeoffs there are.
The small victories that help feed belief have come. Beat Saber has sold more than a million copies across all VR platforms. And I was delighted to hear at OC6 that the Johnson & Johnson Institute wants to scale virtual surgery training to all doctors around the world.
But after the hype went out of the VR bubble, the collapse was tough. Google retreated from the Daydream VR business. Apple still hasn’t launched its rumored augmented reality product. Magic Leap’s AR device feels like it’s a long way from a consumer reality. And so that leaves Facebook, Valve, and HTC to carry the torch. HTC continues to feed products into the high end in the hopes that enterprise VR will take off. Oculus is going after that market, too. I’m not sure what Valve is really doing.
The prettiest VR baby: The Quest
But consumers aren’t going to go for $800 devices, no matter how good they are. Oculus is putting its investment behind the Quest, a $400 wireless headset which is selling as fast as the company can make them, according to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. The company didn’t announce a new high-end Rift headset. Rather, it announced the Oculus Link, which uses a USB-C link to enable Rift titles to run on a Quest. Oculus also showed off hand-tracking technology so you can use your fingers in VR, without hand controllers. That is coming next year, only for the Quest.
Chief technology officer John Carmack sang the praises of the Quest in his keynote talk on Wednesday. He thinks 5G technology will help on the wireless front. And Zuckerberg said people are using the Quest repeatedly and the company is selling the Quest units as fast as it can make them.
In other words, the $400 Quest looks like the prettiest baby. The Oculus Go, at $200, appeared to have too few features to take off. And the wired Rift doesn’t have a real roadmap.
Of all of the major efforts that Facebook made — pouring as much as $500 million into game and app investments — a few of the biggest titles are coming home. What did Facebook get for that investment? Well, Zuckerberg proudly announced that the Oculus Store has generated $100 million in revenues. As you can guess, that math doesn’t add up. Luckily, Zuckerberg is still a believer, as his talk at OC6 suggested.
He was quite excited about hand-tracking, as it is an accessible way to interact in VR. It’s a sign that VR is making steady progress, as a platform that improves over time. It is slowly getting rid of the wires.
“The hardware is getting out of the way,” Zuckerberg said. “With each step, we are getting to a more immersive and natural experience.”
I tried it out, and it was a nice demo. But it had no haptic — the sensation of touch — feedback, and so my hand kept going through objects. I was trying to pick up a ball and my fingers went through it. I worry it will fragment the platform further. It is promising, but needs work.
What it takes to succeed
But as you can see from a picture of my hands, Oculus Connect 6 did not happen in a vacuum this week. Disney and Lucasfilm held an event in the Presidio in San Francisco where they showed off their retail merchandise for Triple Force Friday — October 4 — where the company will start selling its products related to the next film, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (December 20); the video game Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order (November 15), and Star Wars: The Mandalorian (November 12).
Disney showed off its new D-O droid, Lego toys, clothing, smartwatches, and mobile phone cases. But there were no augmented reality or virtual reality products, as there were in years past. ILMxLab showed off Episode 2 of Vader Immortal, a VR experience that tells a new story about Darth Vader. But this is a short episode, and it’s not necessarily going to move the needle on consumer VR. Nor does it suggest that Disney believes in VR.
Sony also had a big event this week with the revelation of the story, theme, trailer, and some gameplay for The Last of Us Part II, which is arriving on February 21. That reminded me that some of the biggest efforts underway in video games are still in traditional titles for consoles such as the Sony PlayStation 4. Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is not meant to compete with The Last of Us Part II. It just can’t.
Sony is going to keep on investing in games like this as it gears up to launch the PlayStation 5. With more than 100 million units sold, it can guarantee that it will invest in big titles for new products like its upcoming PlayStation 5. I have no disbelief about Sony’s platform.
The biggest games
Oculus showed off some outstanding games at OC6, including Insomniac’s Stormland (coming November 14), Sanzaru’s Asgard’s Wrath (October 10), and Respawn’s Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond (2020). These are real, meaty games that promise dozens of hours of gameplay. These titles have to knock it out of the park, but I’m not sure there is a lot more coming.
Consider how massive the Medal of Honor game is. Peter Hirschmann, director at Respawn, said in an interview that the game has been in the works for 2-and-half years, and it has 180 people working on it. If you’re making a game like Beat Saber, which has sold more than a million units, then you can afford to have a larger staff. (Beat Saber was made with just three people). Respawn’s effort is a huge expression of belief in VR. But it’s a one-of-a-kind title, and it’s not coming for a while.
But Hironao Kunimitsu, a VR believer and CEO of Japan’s Gumi, said in an interview at OC6 that it’s more realistic to make a game with about 30 people. That’s how many developers at Gumi affiliate Yomuneco are working on Swords of Gargantua, which Kunimitsu hopes will sell hundreds of thousands of copies … or even a million. He continues to invest in the game in the hopes of turning it into an ongoing massively multiplayer online role-playing game. But he was surprised to learn that Respawn is investing so much money into Medal of Honor.
There is a scary truth about what VR has to accomplish. When a new piece of hardware or a new game arrives, it doesn’t have to just capture the attention of VR aficionados, of which there are too few. It should dominate all of entertainment for the time that it comes out. That’s what The Last of Us Part II will do.
Is Facebook Horizon the next Minecraft?
Zuckerberg is hoping that the answer will be Facebook Horizon. There are hundreds of people working on this virtual world for VR. It’s a kind of PlayStation Home, or maybe the correct analogy is more like Second Life or Minecraft. Zuckerberg believes that making VR more social is the path to making it the next big computing platform.
I tried out Facebook Horizon. It’s easy for individual creators to build little worlds within Horizon. These user-generated places will enabe a lot more people to express themselves in VR. I played a cute game called Wing Strikers, which was a kind of Quidditch multiplayer game that you play in toy airplanes. If Facebook isn’t funding a ton of new hardcore VR games, perhaps it will create more believers and strike gold with Horizon.
Things that need to happen for consumer VR
Peter Moore, who spearheaded the launch of the Sega Dreamcast 20 years ago, once told me that they keep “moving the goal posts back” in terms of all of the things the platform had to do in order to be a success. That’s happening with VR, too. As much as it has achieved, it still has such a long way to go.
I think the next big steps are clear. Moore’s Law and other technologies have to advance, enabling engineers to accomplish feats like getting rid of the wire and the PC on the Rift. VR is still too solitary, so we should be able to stream the experience that we see inside the Quest to a TV, so spectators can see it. And the price of something like the Rift or the Quest has to come down to $200 or $300. And those games like Stormland, Asgard’s Wrath, and Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond have to make not just a nice revenue impact. They have to make a cultural impact on the world. Maybe that’s the job of Facebook Horizon.
And Facebook can’t just advance this all on its own. The consumers have to come along. They have to offer their feedback on what Facebook and Oculus are doing to help guide it to the next goal.
I am as anxious to see some of the cool things that Abrash is making in his lab come to the market. Like the full-body avatars that mimic your movements and facial expressions in real-time. Between now and then, there is so much engineering to do. There is so much belief that has to be created in consumers who find something magical about VR. Abrash said he doesn’t have any regrets about diving in early, either into PC games or VR. I don’t have any regrets about all the time I have put into VR, like playing Beat Saber or trying out Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond.
“VR technologies will need to be woven together into a complete, tightly integrated platform in order to make that quantum leap,” he said. “It’s the sum of those parts that will lead to that breakthrough experience, not technologies in isolation.”