Casual VR: inside Oculus and Samsung's mobile virtual world

A Galaxy Note headset is letting Oculus step outside the 'VR lair'


Oculus will not tell me when the long-awaited consumer version of its Rift headset, beloved by PC gamers and dedicated virtual reality enthusiasts, might be released.

“I know it’s coming,” says company CEO and co-founder Brendan Iribe when I finally ask the question. “No comment. We’re really excited about Gear VR right now.” He’s talking about Oculus’ new attempt to attract casual virtual reality users that the Rift might put off: a partnership with Samsung that turns a Galaxy Note 4 into the screen for a headset fitted with a trackpad, a few volume buttons, and the first-generation Rift’s tracking sensor.

The Gear VR was made possible in no small part by legendary game developer John Carmack, who left his company id last year to work on the project. The Rift had been shown off to great success at CES 2013, and by the time Carmack visited the Oculus offices to start talking about his move, Samsung had already reached out and delivered a crude prototype. “Some people inside the company had successfully ported the original Oculus SDK to it, and there were a few things running at that point, but running very very badly,” he says. He took on a daunting task: turning an experience usually powered by high-end computers into something that could be handled by a standard smartphone.

Carmack solved the problem by bypassing the phone’s normal operating system to deliver ultra-fast images in high resolutions, greatly increasing performance and reducing the motion blur that plagued the original Rift. And Oculus is trying to set expectations about the limits that still exist. "We already fight the battle of people looking at the latest console or PC game and envisioning playing that in VR. But you can’t even do that on the PC," says Carmack. On mobile, the issue is magnified, especially because of the Note 4’s power-intensive Quad HD display. He estimates that mobile VR can render things more on the level of an original Xbox or GameCube game. "You have to calibrate the expectations for what’s going to be reasonable. But some people might forget that lots of good games were made ten years ago," he says. "We still see the most excitement from people on simple experiences that play to the strengths of virtual reality. Nobody’s gonna care that you’re getting secondary shape specular lobes in your reflections on VR. That’s not the point."

"There were a few things running at that point, but running very very badly."

The Gear VR can offer benefits for people who want to use it just like a Rift: by eliminating restrictive wires, it lets them turn their virtual bodies without periodically untangling themselves or making dizzying shifts with a mouse or controller. Iribe expects the catalog of games to overlap — some high-profile studios have touted Gear VR exclusives, but developers have also announced ports of promising Rift games like Darknet. But he and Carmack think that they’ll be used in very different ways. Rift games require extra hardware and can immerse you for long periods of time (or at least until motion sickness sets in), while the Gear VR requires less setup and has a finite amount of battery power for play sessions. Perhaps more importantly, it could make virtual reality a slightly more social experience. "It’s great to be able to carry the device with you and drop it on someone’s head and say ‘Check this out,’ rather than having to invite them into your VR lair," Carmack says. Smartphones could communicate with each other for local multiplayer experiences, and Carmack’s description of weekly meetings in his Dallas office is like something out of Johnny Mnemonic: "You’ll look across the table and see there’s six people in the room, and half of them have VR headsets on, looking around in the virtual world."

Even so, there’s a reason Oculus convinced Samsung to label the Gear VR an unfinished "Innovator Edition." Iribe tends to be unflaggingly positive about the headset’s capabilities, but Carmack sets a much higher bar for success. The Gear VR, for example, uses the company’s first attempt at a real VR-based user interface — on the Rift, you have to download and launch games from the desktop. Carmack says the new design is "just scratching the surface" of VR software. "It’s been such a mad dash to make things function that I don’t think anybody would say that we’re making them function anywhere near the best they can be." "I would disagree with that," says Iribe. "Once you put on the headset, you’re in an Oculus experience, and you stay there."

The Oculus Rift prototype at CES 2013

The most glaring gap is positional tracking, in which a Kinect-like camera captures your motion and lets your avatar lean and duck. Carmack calls it the "core magic" of the Rift DK2, and it’s one of the best ways to reduce motion sickness. Including an external tracking camera would be expensive and defeat the whole purpose of mobile VR, so the current idea is to get the phone camera to track the physical world and respond with in-game motion. "Some of the people who have been working hard on position tracking for years at Oculus are skeptical that we will be able to make that work well enough," says Carmack. "They’ve been working on those long enough to know that while it’s easy to put together a demo that looks nice on YouTube, solving all the nitty-gritty problems is really, really hard." Iribe follows up with a more positive take: positional tracking is "definitely a top research area, and it’s something that it won’t take too many versions to get to."

"It’s great to be able to drop it on someone’s head and say ‘Check this out,’ rather than having to invite them into your VR lair."

So how many beta versions of the Gear VR will there be, and when will we see a finished product? Iribe won’t even confirm that a commercial version is definitely coming: "That’s really up to Samsung," he says quickly. Samsung is also setting the price, and the Oculus team is mostly keeping quiet about it, but they point out one fact: all the expensive parts are in the Note, not the headset. "One would hope that the price point of Gear VR is going to be significantly lower than what it’s going to cost on the Rift side," says Iribe. "It should be this more accessible, lower price point, casual VR that a lot of people can jump into … and a certain number of them will want to graduate up and be attracted to the bigger, more expensive experience on the PC side."

To Oculus, success depends on everybody getting a "taste of VR" — no matter how cheap or limited. Carmack dismisses other mobile headsets as "exactly what we’re doing with the Gear VR, just done to a much, much lower standard," but he has high praise for the crudest of them all: Google Cardboard, which is just a foldable sheet of cardboard with a pair of lenses. "They intentionally made that so obviously not a high-quality high-performance experience that I think it’s really valuable for us. Google sort of broke the ice," he says. "I think that it will be the gateway drug for this, where people will fold up a Google Cardboard and put their phone in and think ‘Wow, this is kind of neat. I can see what this is supposed to be doing, even if it’s not doing it in front of me on this device.’"

Could low-quality headsets actually just turn people off virtual reality, though? Carmack admits that a bad but heavily marketed device could hurt public perception, but he sees this as an unlikely prospect. And while the current plan is to only sell online, he hopes the Gear VR will soon end up in stores alongside other mobile accessories — shoppers won’t buy a Note just for the headset, but the headset is a nice perk for the Note. "People put [the Rift] on and they take it off and are like ‘Oh my god, that’s incredible,’" he says. "Imagine when you can go to any phone store and get that experience."

"We can imagine what it’s going to become, but we’re still pretty far from where that will be."

No matter how impressed people might be after a few minutes in a headset, they’re soon going to start feeling its limits. The 100-degree field of view still blacks out a little of your peripheral vision, and it doesn’t sound like Oculus will be improving it on any device in the near future. You can only do so much with the Gear VR’s trackpad or the included Samsung gamepad. You can’t physically walk around in a virtual space, and you really shouldn’t even get out of your chair. "Every time I say something positive about standing up, Brendan’s like ‘No!’ says Carmack. (He is interrupted mid-sentence by Brendan Iribe yelling "No!") The Gear VR, like the Rift, is just a start.

"John often says [VR is] about five years to maturity, and I’m definitely more in the ten to fifteen year range," says Iribe. "There’s so many different things that you’d like in there, so you can have full face-to-face communications and avatars. We can imagine what it’s going to become, but when you imagine it and you stack it all up, we’re still pretty far from where that will be."

Even so, he doesn’t see those years as an interminable wait. "It’s going to be a fun decade," he says. "That’s for sure."