The very first thing I did in the Oculus Rift — the first thing most of us at The Verge, did, actually — was walk around a spaceship with a gamepad. It was a simpler time, when all most people expected out of VR was a cool way to play games. Now, more than two years after that first trip into virtual reality, Oculus has announced its final product... and we're back to where we started, with games. But that's a good thing.
During the very first wave of real Oculus hype in 2013, everyone had something they wanted to play (or were scared to play) on the Rift, whether it was an MMO or a horror game or a first-person shooter. Very few people had spent more than a few minutes in the headset, and we were still blissfully ignorant of problems like motion sickness or poor weight distribution. Soon enough, though, the doubts crept in. Valve started to hack in support for Team Fortress 2 and quickly realized that this raised all sorts of problems. First-person shooter characters move incredibly quickly. The heads-up display conventions we were used to looked strange in VR. Head tracking duplicated a kind of motion we were used to doing with mice or gamepads.
Making VR games turned out to raise all sorts of questions
Some of the most interesting and promising Rift projects came out of the period of experimentation that followed. A multiplayer space-fighting demo from EVE Online developer CCP, for example, would later become the much-anticipated game EVE Valkyrie. Other creations were focused less on play and more on the feeling of "presence" that VR could create. Disunion took a couple of minutes at most and involved no interactivity except head motion, but it turned out that this was all you needed to experience being executed by guillotine.
Oculus was always open about one thing: it didn't understand how people were going to control anything in virtual reality. Despite experiments with motion controllers like the Leap Motion and Razer Hydra, and the existence of quirky custom hardware like the Virtuix Omnidirectional treadmill, developers tended to focus on the traditional and widely available Xbox gamepad. "At the beginning, I think we’ll focus primarily on gamepads," Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey told us at the end of 2013. "We don’t want to say you’re going to need a $200, $300, $400 system in addition to your Oculus Rift."
Slowly, it started looking like you wouldn't need any system beyond the headset itself. In 2014, Oculus showed up at Sundance to demonstrate the potential of cinematic virtual reality. A combination of live-action video and 360-degree audio could create uncanny experiences, like a stunningly realistic recording of musician Patrick Watson. When Facebook bought Oculus later this year, the company said it would still focus on games, but the possibilities seemed much broader.
Soon, it seemed like you might not need a controller at all
Since Oculus discouraged all but the most determined from buying their own development kits, though, audiences primarily needed foolproof options that didn't take long to get through. As it turned out, advertising tie-ins filled this gap perfectly. Pacific Rim, Game of Thrones, and The Avengers were obvious choices, but even companies like Marriott and Mountain Dew produced their own VR experiences. VR felt closer than ever to the mainstream, but only in the form of short and comparatively passive experiences. Though a custom Oculus controller was rumored over and over, when the company introduced Crescent Bay in the fall of 2014, it gave users a wider range of motion but no controller at all. For the past year, most Oculus statements about input have been noncommittal and slightly frustrated.
When Oculus partnered with Samsung on the Gear VR mobile headset, it explored one possible solution: a trackpad paired with a simple point-and-click interface. The same strategy had been used in Google Cardboard, which was purposely designed to avoid making users do anything too complicated or time-consuming. Even some leaked Oculus images showed a "simple input device" that looked like a remote control. It was certainly possible to build a good point-and-click game, and several developers did, but the Gear VR didn't feel like a gaming-first platform. The Rift, meanwhile, was mostly used to show off Lost, Oculus' first VR movie. (A second is premiering in late July.)
From Xbox gamepad to... Xbox gamepad
But until the very end of today's pre-E3 press conference, it was almost as if none of the past year had happened. Oculus came out, brought out the Rift, and announced that it would be shipping with an Xbox gamepad. It showed off a survival horror game, an RPG, even the old standby EVE Valkyrie.
Everyone in VR has spent a long time exploring the range of experiences you can create in virtual reality, from puzzle games to journalism, with the assumption that they'll mostly be seen at public events, on bare-bones headsets, or in the homes of hardcore VR enthusiasts. After two development kits and several prototypes, though, Oculus seems to have reached a point where things aren't perfect, but good enough. At this point, it's time to turn the most solid of those ideas into things that can stand on their own, and that real people will want to experience for long enough to justify buying a whole new piece of technology. And that's going to set the stage for VR's next big ambitious leaps, like the motion controllers Palmer Luckey introduced at the last minute. (It's less clear how Oculus will deal with the range of custom peripherals that are already out there.)
It's taken a long time to get back to where the Rift began — as the best gaming display on the planet. If the wave of demos at next week's E3 hold up, though, it might finally be time to say that Oculus has pulled it off.