Oculus announced a surprising amount of VR news at last week’s Connect conference. Its research division teased a new all-in-one headset, parent company Facebook demonstrated some new social features, and most pertinently for many VR enthusiasts, Oculus cut the minimum requirements for its Rift headset, reducing the cost of entry by hundreds of dollars. (Even if it's still quite an investment.) Then, Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash came out and gave an extremely detailed talk about what features VR headsets will include by 2021.
But this still left us with a lot of questions about Oculus’ vision. How does the Rift’s two-camera motion tracking setup compare to its ultimate "room-scale" experience? If you could get a standalone headset with no wires, why would you want a Rift at all? And what’s going on with "augmented virtual reality," one of Abrash’s most novel predictions? So we asked Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe about all this, and more. Here’s what he told us.
Most Rift (and general VR) experiences won’t be room-scale
The default Oculus Touch package includes one tracking camera, for a total two-camera Rift setup that can track 360 degrees of motion. But to get "room-scale VR" — what the HTC Vive touts — you’ll have to add a third camera that’s sold separately. Here’s Iribe on what the difference is:
When we think of room-scale, we really want to make sure it tracks a pretty large area, and to do that well we do need three sensors. The 360 that we talked about is for a smaller space where you're not walking all around your room, you're just standing on one place kind of moving around, taking small steps, but you can do that with two sensors.
Iribe describes the third camera as something for "enthusiasts," or the relatively small group of people who are dedicating an entire room to VR.
I think most people will design for front-facing and 360, because that's where there will be most of the hardware, especially with Sony now in the game. [...] At the end of the day, developers want to get to as many people as possible. So we do expect there'll be a lot of people in VR on things like PlayStation VR [...] and while it's not at the quality level of Rift and other PC VR, [like] Vive and other platforms, it is good enough, I think, for a lot of people to jump into VR.
And I think a lot of developers are going to want to target all of these different VR devices. They're going to need to target all of these to stay in business while this is an early market.
To put it more bluntly, that third camera lets Oculus say that the Rift can do anything the Vive can, while betting that most people don’t actually care.
All-in-one headsets won’t replace PC or mobile VR
If self-contained headsets are so great, though, why bother with the more expensive Rift? Basically, computing power. With more of it, you can make everything look better; have it run faster and smoother; and make bigger, more complex virtual worlds. As we’ve said previously, the current standalone prototype is on a similar level to the Gear VR.
I think there's always going to be a very big PC VR market that's going to get as close to the Holodeck as you can get. Every generation it moves forward, because there's no substituting or competing against a powered plugged-in GPU and CPU. [...] On the mobile side, with Gear VR, you have a price point where you're down in this hundred-dollar range, or it was free with your preorder or your purchase of your phone. That also is really hard to compete against.
On the other hand, a standalone Oculus headset would cost somewhere between the Rift and Gear VR’s price, and Iribe promises it’ll be incredibly easy to use — "you don't dock a phone in, you don't plug it into a computer, you just put it on your head and it literally just turns on, as long as you've kept it charged up."
The Rift is still best with high-end PCs
The Rift now works with cheaper computers and more laptops because of a feature called asynchronous spacewarp, which (broadly speaking) lets computers render 45 frames a second but displays twice that rate in the headset. But ideally, Oculus still wants you on a really nice PC.
I think there's some confusion about that. We didn't change our recommended spec. [...] You can tell the difference. If I gave you a recommended spec machine and a min-spec machine and you tried the experience, you'd be able to tell the difference. The recommended spec experience would be better. But instead of not running on a lower-end machine, or instead of running on a lower-end machine at really low resolution, we now have this experience where it looks good. [It] doesn't look as good — almost, but not as good — but it still looks great. And opens it up to more hardware."
Even so, Iribe says that in the coming years, he wants the Rift to work with "almost all new laptops and desktops made, if they have a modern GPU in them."
A new Rift probably isn’t coming for "a few years"
We’re used to new smartphones with small feature tweaks coming out every year. But Iribe promises the Oculus Rift isn’t going to run on this cycle. This isn’t a surprise, but it’s worth repeating, for anyone who’s worried that their newly purchased headset will be obsolete as soon as it arrives.
What we probably won't do is incremental, small updates to Rift. What we'll look to do is make the next major leap. We want to bring a whole new feature set to Rift in the future. [...] I think the majority of the [VR headset] market wants to now go out and get a lot of great content, and get a lot of great experiences. And then look at, a few years from now, taking a leap to the next generation of VR. And that's what we're really looking at.
Mac users probably won’t want a Rift
But what about one of the most popular laptops: Apple’s MacBook line? Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey once said the company was waiting for Apple to "ever release a good computer." But Iribe thinks that all-in-one headsets will leapfrog the problem.
When you think about laptop owners, especially MacBook owners, I do think that class of customer is probably going to be better served by the standalone category. Just the nature of Apple users, they have these single products that they use. I think that they're less likely to be tethering their VR headset to their laptop, and they're more likely to just have this all-in-one headset you put on and it just works.
All-in-one headsets will make backpack PCs passé
Several companies are making self-contained, wearable computers for walking around without cables in VR. But notably, these only work with the HTC Vive or custom tracking systems, since the Rift’s external cameras have to be directly plugged into the PC. It turns out that Oculus isn’t too worried about this.
Our vision for backpack-scale is an all-in-one headset where you don't need a backpack. I don't want to wear a backpack when I'm in VR, I just want to put on a headset. When you look at some of these companies that are doing warehouse-scale [VR], actually the tracking precision that they get is not that great, usually, in that big of an environment.
Inside-out tracking is going to get much better resolution and tracking quality than any of those warehouse-scale systems, and those warehouse-scale systems can get really expensive and require lots of different equipment. And inside-out just is a headset and some kind of input device and that's it, and it will magically all work. And it will be very affordable.
Augmented and virtual reality won’t merge (for now)
For years, people (including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) have been predicting a wave of glasses that can switch between rendering a full virtual world and projecting images over the real one. Iribe doesn’t seem so sure. "VR and AR are going to stay two fairly distinct categories," he says. As Abrash detailed in his talk, he says we’re more likely to have "augmented virtual reality" — which totally re-creates the real world in VR, then adds to or changes parts of it — than super-realistic holograms.
It might be augmented virtual reality, where you put on this Rift, this pair of VR goggles, and you can actually see the real world just the way it is here, but it's all rendered in 3D. We definitely don’t look the way we do right now in real life; we'll look like 3D characters, or we'll look like some kind of depth map of dots. We'll look good, but not at this resolution.
The big issue, for Iribe, is that it’s tougher to create single objects that fit perfectly in the real world — like the augmented reality company Magic Leap promises — than to create a whole environment that you control.
You can very quickly tell if something's real or not in AR. I think it'll look good; I think whether it's HoloLens or somebody else, I think they can make an object look good. But you'll be able to tell it's not real.