Three months ago, the Oculus Rift was the pet project of a virtual reality enthusiast, literally held together with duct tape and hot glue. Yet as of today, it's raised over $1.6 million on Kickstarter due to thousands of similar virtual reality enthusiasts who want one too. Next year, though, you may not have to be a hobbyist or fund a grassroots project to experience what gaming luminaries like John Carmack are calling "the best VR demo probably the world has ever seen." That's because founder Palmer Luckey just handed over the reins to executives which plan to turn Oculus into a real, profitable company that sells VR headsets commercially.
We caught up with Oculus' newly-minted CEO Brendan Iribe today, to ask him why and how he plans to turn a Kickstarter project into a thriving company.
In 2004, Brendan Iribe and Michael Antonov co-founded Scaleform, a company that developed a wildly popular middleware for building scalable video game user interfaces. After selling that company to Autodesk, they both joined cloud gaming company Gaikai for a brief stint, before it too was purchased by Sony for a cool $380 million. They'd stuck together this far, and according to Iribe, the former Scaleform employees were welcome to come along for the Sony ride too... only he'd already convinced them to invest in an affordable virtual reality headset. Iribe recalls the moment he knew that Oculus was worth an investment: "When I looked through the lenses... it was an incredible experience. It was what you dream of virtual reality to be," he says.
Originally, Palmer Luckey wanted to launch the Oculus Rift on Kickstarter as a DIY project for hackers like himself that you'd piece together part by part, but the former Scaleform team convinced him to turn it into a full development kit with pre-built hardware to address a larger market. "We said, why don't we give you some money to make this a little more professional?"
"Our plan was only to be board members and investors," Iribe tells us, but after seeing all the feedback from gaming industry luminaries like John Carmack, Gabe Newell, Cliff Bleszinski and Michael Abrash, "it was hard not to want to be more involved." Rather than become part of Gaikai's "next chapter" with Sony and become part of a big firm, the former Scaleform execs decided to leap back into the startup world once more. Iribe wouldn't or couldn't tell us whether Gaikai would continue to pursue the same plans with them gone, but says that "it made sense for everybody that we'd move on to the Oculus world."
"We have to go out there and engage with display companies to build something that doesn't exist yet."
The Oculus world isn't just about virtual reality dev kits, though. The company wants to sell as many units as it can, and Iribe tells us that to do so, it's headed to the consumer market. "The bigger plan is to have consumer VR headsets shipping at some point in the near future," he said. "The more content compatible with that developer kit, the more successful and wider adoption we'll see with the consumer version." Right now, the company's still targeting a $300 price point, but that could go up or down.
In our hands-on with John Carmack's early prototype, our biggest concern was that the picture was a little fuzzy due to the low resolution of the screens, and sure enough, Iribe says one of the biggest challenges going to retail is to improve that image quality. "We really need a very high quality screen. We need a higher quality, higher resolution, faster refreshing screen than anything that's ever been made before at the size we need," the CEO said. "We have to go out there and engage with display companies to build something that doesn't exist yet." Iribe just returned from a trip to China to negotiate with a video game peripheral manufacturer and meet with display and sensor companies.
Oculus plans to ship 10,000 dev kits this year, and hopes to sell hundreds of thousands if not millions once it becomes a consumer product. As with every peripheral, though, software support is key. "Oculus is actually more of a software company than it is a hardware company," says Iribe. Thankfully, that's where the Scaleform team's prior expertise can help: the company brokered deals with many major game developers to use the Scaleform SDK, and Michael Antonov is chief software architect in charge of the Oculus SDK right now. Iribe says Oculus has already had success in convincing developers to support the hardware, above and beyond Doom 4. You can expect another announcement in the next few days from a game company pledging to support Oculus, and more in the coming months.