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Since its announcement last year, Oculus Quest has been touted as the next evolution of VR — a completely standalone, tetherless device with the ability to play nearly PC-caliber VR games and “experiences.” Now that it has an official release date (May 21) and pricing for both 64GB ($399) and 128GB ($499) models, we wanted to talk with Oculus about where Quest stands in the VR marketplace and whether its initial lineup of software will be enough to hook a critical mass of early adopters.
With today’s official announcement only hours away, we spoke with Oculus’ director of content ecosystem, Chris Pruett, who leads Quest’s third-party development initiatives. Pruett provided a clear picture of what potential Quest customers should expect in terms of power, positioning, and software value for the dollar.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
VentureBeat: Tell us a little about your responsibilities at Oculus.
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Chris Pruett: I work on third-party content. My group is in charge of supporting our developers across all of our devices to build an ecosystem that can produce great content for our users, and sustainable business revenue for that. So I have business groups, engineering groups, folks that are working on everything from documentation all the way down to engineers that are sitting with our top developers hacking on their code to make sure that what they’ve got is really good. My job is to make sure that the content that ships on our platform is as high-quality as possible.
VentureBeat: For Quest, that could be an especially challenging process because you’re trying to take PC games and bring them down to a mobile chipset, which sets some interesting expectations for consumers while challenging developers trying to port stuff down, right?
Pruett: Yeah, if you look at our launch lineup, you’ll see that there’s a bunch of stuff that we’ve brought over from Rift … The challenges I think you’re alluding to with performance and content have turned out to be — for some applications — not really the biggest challenge. Most of the work that my engineering team is doing is to help educate developers who are primarily used to PC development platforms as to what Quest looks like.
We made a lot of modifications to the Quest hardware itself. In particular, we’re running this [Snapdragon 835] chipset at a much higher clock rate for much longer sustained periods than you will probably see in any other devices with the same chipset. So we’re able to actually get quite a bit of performance out of this hardware, and most of the work is not actually code optimization — it’s art asset formatting, to make sure that the stuff we’re showing on the device is built with that GPU in mind.
In a lot of cases, we’re using the exact same assets that you see on Rift, but they’ve been formatted differently in order to make sure that they’re fast on this hardware … When we get down to a standalone form factor, we need to make sure that the assets that you’re actually pushing through the graphics pipe are exactly in the format they need to be in, exactly the assets you need to draw that frame; we need to get real crisp on what we’re giving to the GPU. But we don’t actually need to reduce the complexity of the assets in many circumstances.
VentureBeat: Does Quest support foveated rendering, the center-of-frame detail optimizing feature found in Oculus Go?
Pruett: Yes, we have the same technology on Quest. The execution of it is extremely similar; it is a particular optimization that helps us for applications that are fill-bound, where their slowest part of the rendering pipeline is actually filling in the pixels … so yes, it is essentially the same technology as we use in Go.
VentureBeat: It looks like Quest is being positioned almost exclusively as a VR gaming platform, as distinguished from competing all-in-one VR headsets that are either for more passive activities like VR video viewing (Oculus Go), or enterprise applications (Vive Focus).
Pruett: Yeah, I think that’s about right. I will [add a] caveat and say we have a lot of stuff — and we have announced some of it already — that isn’t games, but is coming to this platform: Tilt Brush, National Geographic, and VR Chat. There continues to be an important segment of things that are really high-quality, non-game applications, and we’re absolutely interested in those for Quest. But if you look at the market, we are absolutely focused on games as the primary use case. And the reasoning for that is pretty straightforward. Our goal with Quest is to drive VR adoption; we would like to put as many of these out in the world as we possibly can. And when we look at the things that our customers respond to most strongly, and we ask them what it is that they want to do in VR, video games are the top of the pile.
VentureBeat: So things such as social VR, watching videos, and other experiences, such as Vader Immortal and National Geographic Explore, that aren’t quite games but aren’t movies or books, either — how much of a focus has that been for Facebook?
Pruett: Social is not an orthogonal track to games. I think it is a feature that crosses both games and non-game things. So for example, we are looking at a lot of games that include multiplayer, like Dead & Buried 2, which is a version of social. There’s also all kinds of other social stuff in the works that may or may not land in a “gaming” package. But the idea that you want to do something with other people is an extremely strong core undercurrent of all of our theories about VR. You can see it even in the way we’re announcing beta support for Casting, which is the ability to take what you’re seeing in a headset and push it off to another surface, like your TV or your phone.
The main use case for that is a social experience where people are in the same room as you — you have one person in the headset and other people outside the headset who would like to see what the person in the headset is seeing. We found it’s an extremely common use case. And it’s not a common way we talk about social, but it’s a type of social interaction that happens in VR that we want to support.
We remain pretty committed to the types of experiences and applications that have done well for us in the past. So you mentioned video; video does extremely well for us on Oculus Go. We understand people like to consume video, so that’s not something that we want to shut down with Quest. So you will see a lot of video offerings on Quest. But we think that the reason that you want to go out and buy this device is that it is a fantastic room-scale 6DoF-tracked game device with hands. So the focus of our positioning of this in the market is really going to focus in on that gaming use case.
VentureBeat: Have you actively sought out “experience” developers or were they existing Rift partners who saw Quest as having greater potential? [Are you] hunting out developers for apps like that? Or is it just developers who are coming to you and saying, “Listen, we’ve got a National Geographic idea that we’d like to put on here”?
Pruett: Yeah, we absolutely do. We have a whole team here of folks that are working on our content catalog, and a number of them roll up into my group as third-party content, and we’re looking for all kinds of stuff. That includes talking to a lot of game companies but also includes talking to folks like National Geographic and a whole collection of things that we’re calling “experiences.” Vader Immortal is an experience and, you know, National Geographic and VR Chat are not games. We don’t have great words for these things yet, because a lot of them are sort of a new format of entertainment that doesn’t have an analog to an existing format outside of VR. But we see them as super interesting and actually quite critical to success of our platform.
I would say the theme of our Quest content strategy is depth of content. I joined Oculus almost five years ago, and there have been periods in our history where an interesting five-minute experience was worth putting out there in front of folks and checking out because it was new and fresh and interesting. With Quest, we’re looking for more than that, we’re looking for things that actually have depth and longevity and some subtlety to them. But there’s a sort of overall quality of content, whether we’re talking about a game or an experience that we’re going to require for Quest titles.
VentureBeat: From what I’ve heard about National Geographic Explorer, it’s around 30 minutes of experience between two environments. If that’s correct, that doesn’t seem like a lot to be getting from a 2019 game-slash-entertainment download. Is that time estimate wrong, or is 30 minutes the minimally acceptable threshold for publishing at this point?
Pruett: What we’re looking for is something that is interesting to the customers at the price point that it’s at. The point that I wanted to make is that these aren’t tech demos, even if they are relatively short-form. I’m not speaking directly to National Geographic, because I actually don’t know the total length of National Geographic, and I expect that the experiences that they’ve shown are just some of what they have in store. But the way that we think about this is not in terms of just length. As an extreme, I can imagine a 100-hour RPG game that has extremely simple graphics and almost no real depth, other than a very large world. That also is maybe not what you’re looking for. So it’s not like we say “Well, it must be two hours or more.” It really depends on what the thing is.
VentureBeat: When a developer partners with Oculus to bring a game to Quest, what are the up front and per unit financial incentives, given that it’s a brand new platform?
Pruett: We don’t, as a matter of policy, discuss the specific deals that we do with developers. But I will tell you that if you come and work on Quest and you become a managed developer — you are in our developer program, you’re developing for Quest — what you get access to is basically this team of super pros to support your development. We have engineering teams who will literally get on a plane and go to a developer’s office and sit with them and hack on their code if that’s what it takes to get their software up to performance or get it across the line for shipping. We have business folks who will sit and work on your marketing assets with you. They will help you figure out what the best time for your release is, so you can maximize the impact of your launch.
These aren’t new; we have been offering these services to our managed developers for years, but coming to work with us — we’re dramatically invested in the success of the developers that we work with, and we have quite a lot of resources that we put behind them.
VentureBeat: Historically, the $399 price point has been challenging for any game console — mass-market sales tend to start at $299 or $199. Is the goal to make Quest as mainstream for VR as Nintendo’s Switch is for portables, or are you chasing a smaller niche?
Pruett: I remember when the PlayStation 3 launched at $599 …
VentureBeat: Well, yeah, it was a huge flop at that price …
Pruett: Well, but over its history it did very well. I don’t think most consoles launch at $299, although I get your point about it being a very sweet price point for inflection. I think that we are talking to gamers who understand the value that they expect for their money. So what we’re offering to them is a standalone, extremely high-quality, 6DoF hand-tracked VR device they can use in the home without a PC, without requiring any of the dependencies. When they put that thing on, the content they see needs to meet their expectations, in terms of value that includes both length and price, and all of those variables. And I think that what we’re going to offer them is going to meet all those expectations.
National Geographic is not a game. And it’s like I said, it is an experience that doesn’t have strong analog to other entertainment devices. So “How long should that be and what exactly should that cost?” is a super interesting question, and I think developers are still in the process of exploring it.
But when it comes to games, there’s a massive amount of precedent. We understand what Superhot costs. We understand what Beat Saber costs. The value proposition for game content, in particular, is quite clear. So I think that you should expect that same proposition to hold on Oculus Quest, except that we can do it in a better form factor than you’ve had before. We can do it in a way that opens you up to tetherless, room-scale tracking, and we’ve got all these other things that can dramatically inflect the actual quality experience. I would expect our consumers to show up with expectations set on other platforms and be very satisfied.
VentureBeat: Are you going to price software like a port of a year-old title on PC or console, like day one console pricing, or the price that it’s at right now on another platform? Nintendo’s philosophy with the Switch has generally been to take an old game from another platform, then price it at the same price as it originally came out at. It’s one thing if you’re Nintendo, but for everyone else, it might not be so easy.
Pruett: I don’t think that we have discussed price points of any of the things that we are developing ourselves. But I will say that I’m quite confident that those who buy this platform understand what content is worth and what the average value of stuff is and will be happy with what we have to offer.
Part of our goal is to grow VR adoption, which means finding folks who’ve never purchased a VR headset before. And in particular for those people — like to you and me, Superhot might be a two-year old game — but to someone who has never played before, it’s one of the best things you can do in VR.