Oculus Rift launched in March 2016. Depending on who you ask, it’s “already” been five years or it’s “only” been five years since we shipped that first consumer VR headset.
Either way, two things seem more certain now (especially with Quest 2’s success) than they did then: VR is here to stay, and we have a long way to go. In the words of Facebook Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash, “VR is something we haven’t seen in a very long time, which is a technology that is at the very beginning of what’s going to be a 50-year arc.” And where are we in that arc? Again, Abrash: “Quest 2 is great. It’s like the Apple II.”
But a lot has happened in the last five years. Below you’ll find the story of Oculus as told by some of those who lived it. It’s the story of how a simple fabric covering almost broke Rift, of how Beat Saber saved Quest, of using the DK1 box as a suitcase, of Lone Echo’s start on an Xbox controller and Asgard’s Wrath’s humble beginnings as a tower defense game. And it’s a story of technical breakthroughs — from the work that went into making the Touch controllers feel like your hands all the way through to the work that made it possible for you to use your real hands to control Quest.
Inside-out tracking, Oculus Start and Launch Pad, the list of milestones goes on. Some of the people we interviewed for this piece have been around since the Rift developer kit days, others joined in the last year or two during the development of Quest 2, and still others work for VR developers across the industry. With their help, we’ve attempted to tell a cohesive — though by no means comprehensive — story of Oculus and VR to-date, and the efforts of thousands of brilliant people who took us from the DK1 through to the first Rift launch, and then Go, Rift S, Quest, and Quest 2.
We hope you’ll enjoy it.
THE DEV KIT DAYS
Oculus’s story doesn’t start in 2016 when Rift (also known as CV1) launched. First there was a start-up, a Kickstarter campaign, two developer kits (DK1 and DK2), a collaboration with Valve, and a whole lot of hype.
Lyle Bainbridge - Sensors and Systems Architect: There had been VR devices before, but suddenly technology was catching up. All of a sudden, all these phone technologies — primarily displays and low-power electronics — made it possible to build a reasonably good VR headset. That’s what Palmer [Luckey] identified. He was building that in his garage and then he met Brendan [Iribe] and they said, “Yeah, let’s do this thing.” And then, Oculus was formed and the Kickstarter initiated. That was DK1.
Nicole Brendis - Product Marketing: The journey of VR didn’t start at Quest 1. It started at DK1.
Tom Kaczmarczyk - Co-founder, SUPERHOT Team: I still remember wandering around that villa in Tuscany! I probably remember those vistas of fake Italian seaside better than some of my actual vacations.
We found ourselves prototyping early head-tracking VR demos of SUPERHOT even before we got access to any head-tracking DK2 hardware. We had to duct tape a 6DOF Razer Hydra controller to an Oculus DK1 instead.
Ryan Brown - Engineer, DK2 / Rift / Quest: Palmer [Luckey] was a console and PC modder. Many of the first people he hired — Chris Dycus, Nirav Patel, Julian Hammerstein, Brant Lewis — knew each other through the hacking community. They were all cobbling stuff together just like Palmer did. That was sort of the culture, and having broad maker capability was really important at that time. 3D printers were going constantly. The toaster oven reflow system was a pretty standard maker approach, and it worked great for the scale of boards that we needed to use until we got big enough to pay professionals.
"There had been VR devices before, but suddenly technology was catching up."
Lyle Bainbridge - Sensors and Systems Architect
DK2 also had this spider of flex circuits to connect all the tracking LEDs, and that’s not... I guess if you look at DSLRs or other systems with a bunch of buttons and sensors, they kind of have something similar, but it wasn’t an easy thing to fabricate cheaply. We found this vendor in Costa Mesa, it was basically three people in a warehouse with a few machines, and they were comfortable doing these odd flex circuit shapes and hand populating them with very little volume. We would drive over and pick them up, or sometimes one of them would ride over on a motorcycle and bring us the boards.
Lyle Bainbridge: Headset prototypes were named after beaches in California — Crescent Bay and Crystal Cove, and so on. All the early Oculus employees have a nice collection of t-shirts because that was the thing you did for every new project. Everything had a t-shirt.
We were just moving quickly. Like, when we wanted to build a device with IPD adjustment, we took two early DK2 boards, flipped them sideways, attached Note 3 panels, only displayed video on the top half of the panel, and then put them side-by-side. All our prototypes were hacky. We were just trying to get stuff done.
Ryan Brown: The displays were a big challenge. First, understanding what mattered for VR in terms of low persistence and pixel structures and optics, and then getting access to the displays we thought worked best. And then it was taking these cell phone parts and making them work as prototypes.
Atman Binstock: I was at Valve early on, working on perceptual research, early prototyping, and then building the system which became known as “The Valve Room.” It was sort-of a competing vision of the future, at the time. When we first started working together, the Oculus team was a startup team. They were much more like, “What can we do? How can we ship quick? How can we iterate?”
We were collaborating with Oculus, trying to convince them that they should build a higher-end system to deliver strong presence — and that it could be done without making people sick.
Jason Rubin - VP, Play: My first Oculus demo, Brendan [Iribe] invited me down to Irvine to take a look at what they were working on. I went into what they called “The Room,” which was a VR demo from Valve, and that thing was amazing. I really believed I was there. I loved every single demo and I did it twice.
They had what looked like QR codes taped to the walls and the headset figured out where you were by reading the QR codes. It was a pretty heavy headset, nothing like Quest 2 today, but it was magic.
Ryan Brown: One of my earliest memories is Alien: Isolation. I think it was a DK2, somebody hacked this VR mode together. They would put people in the office in this experience and not tell them what it was, and then you’ve got this alien stalking you.
I miss the game jams that Nate [Mitchell] used to do. The very first one, there was a game called Dumpy: Going Elephants. That was my favorite. It was great, having a stage for those oddball, game jam-type games.
"When we took EVE: Valkyrie to E3 in 2013 and were winning best of show at the same time as two new consoles were being released, that felt monumental."
Hilmar V. Pétursson - CEO, CCP Games
Ruth Bram - Executive Producer, Oculus Studios: In 2014, we didn’t know our audience yet. Our goals were simple but difficult — discover what felt "right" in VR, find the fun, and make sure the experience was as comfortable as it could be.
Most of the developers we partnered with were small to mid-sized indies. It was a profound experience getting to explore VR with them because they had been waiting for an opportunity like this, to be able to make games on a new platform for an entirely new type of player. This doesn’t happen every day. Those early developers pioneered what VR content became — and many of the developers we worked with in the early days are still making VR content today.
Shaun McCabe - Head of Technology, Insomniac Games: We had a lot of people for whom VR was a life-long dream. There was a groundswell of enthusiasm from the team, people coming to us and saying, “We really want to do this.” And I felt it too. When we started what became Edge of Nowhere, I’d been making games for 15 years. Others at Insomniac, like Brian Allgeier and Chad Dezern, had been at it even longer. And while I love making AAA console games, the chance to not only tell new stories but help define a new medium — it was once-in-a-lifetime for me. It was among the most exciting times in my career.
Yelena Rachitsky - Executive Producer, Media Studios: Oculus was very much the Wild West in those days. It was before there was any official store, and there was so much experimental stuff. Anyone that was developing for VR at the time was just truly passionate.
Nic Vasconcellos - Chief Button Polisher, Turbo Button: Before starting Turbo Button, my co-founder Holden and I created a head-bobbing rhythm game called A Night at the Roculus. We were on a tight schedule, and that meant a lot of intense testing in a short amount of time. I don’t think either of us could move our necks for like a week after that.
Vicki Dobbs Beck - Executive in Charge, ILMxLAB: Back in 2014, one of the engineers in Lucasfilm’s Advanced Development Group leveraged media produced for a different purpose and created a speeder bike ride through an outpost on Tatooine. It was extremely fun, but those early headsets were limited to 60 frames per second and that made some people get motion sickness. We therefore kept a bottle of Dramamine in the demo room – just in case. Needless to say, the technology has come a long way since those early days.
Grace Morales Lingad - Creative Director, Sanzaru: I don’t remember what year it was exactly. Maybe 2013. I was working on a mobile game and a buddy of mine, Bob Archibald, he was really fascinated by VR and had donated to the Kickstarter campaign. He got his DK1 and he brought it to the studio just for everyone to try out. We’re all trying it on, and I just remember walking around the Tuscany scene, just looking around, and being like, “Whoa.”
Ian Fitz - Creator, Sealost Interactive LLC: Before The Thrill of the Fight, I actually wasn’t involved in the game industry at all. I was extremely excited about VR due to my DK1 experience while waiting for the release of consumer headsets, and when I realized just how excited I was for any and every kind of VR experience, I decided it was a good time to try to develop a game.
Hilmar V. Pétursson - CEO, CCP Games: We backed the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus as a studio. Then, a small team of employees put together a prototype called EVE VR using their own kits and CCP-supplied kits, and in 2013, we released a trailer at our EVE Fanfest player convention in Reykjavík. That prototype later became our Oculus Rift launch title, EVE: Valkyrie.
When we took EVE: Valkyrie to E3 in 2013 and were winning best of show at the same time as two new consoles were being released, that felt monumental.
Peter Bristol - Head of Industrial Design for FRL: VR had this inevitable feel to it. Brendan [Iribe] and Palmer [Luckey] demoed VR for the folks at Carbon, and it felt like it was going to be as big as the internet. Mind was blown, like, this was as important a technology as you could possibly work on.
Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 with a vision of VR as the next computing platform. For some, it was the push the company needed to get Rift out the door. For others, it was a reason to join Oculus in the first place.
Jason Rubin: The end of 2013, Brendan [Iribe] called and asked me to join Oculus and I said, “You know, I don’t think you have enough money to launch the hardware. I think you’re making magic down there, but I’ve worked at Sony and I know what quality hardware costs to make and I know how difficult it is to launch... and I just don’t think you have the money.”
Then the Facebook acquisition happened. I got another call from Brendan, and I was like, “You can now launch hardware.” A lot of people don’t realize how important Facebook was in that transition — having a company that’s thinking about the future 10 or 20 years out, not one that’s looking at the bottom line a year out. I joined the company a few months later.
"When we came up to onboard at Facebook, I remember Chris Dycus had his clothes, his toothbrush, everything in a DK1 case. Everybody loved that DK1 case."
Ryan Brown - Engineer, DK2 / Rift / Quest
Atman Binstock: In hindsight, there’s no way we could have done Rift and Touch as-is without Facebook. The acceleration that happened, particularly during the summer post-acquisition, pre-onboarding—we hired a bunch of people because we had the story and the dollars to go hire the Dream Team. A huge number of key players came on over that summer, including Carbon Design, which we’d been working with already on Rift and Touch.
Ryan Brown: It’s hard to go back and know. Without Facebook, we would have been on a different road. CV1 would’ve been a different level of product. I do remember Brendan going on a hiring spree after the acquisition was announced because a lot of very talented people now saw the potential to have a major impact on VR with Facebook’s backing.
Caitlin Kalinowski - Head of VR Hardware: I think I was the first consumer electronics hire at Facebook — or at least, the only one that was hired back then and is still here. And I got to see the acquisition from the Facebook side, which is unusual I think. I also inherited a team that was being acquired while Oculus was being acquired by Facebook. It was like a double acquisition, which was kind of cool.
Oculus was a very different company at the time. I remember I gave a tour of our facilities to some of the people who came over with the acquisition. I think about 100 people came up for that tour, and I think that was basically the entire company.
Ryan Brown: When we came up to onboard at Facebook, it was the first time the entire company was in one place. We all stayed at the same hotel, and it was a fun time. I remember Chris Dycus had his clothes, his toothbrush, everything in a DK1 case. Everybody loved that DK1 case. It was a difficult decision to ship DK2 in a cardboard box!
One of the trickiest engineering challenges is likely one you’ve never thought about: The fabric shroud that encased Oculus Rift. While the Crescent Bay prototype wore its exposed IR LEDs with pride, Oculus wanted a more “finished” look for the Rift proper — which meant finding a fabric that didn’t interfere with position tracking.
Caitlin Kalinowski: When the Oculus acquisition happened, they had the Crescent Bay prototype. Crescent Bay had all the infrared LEDs visible. That was the best way to track a headset at the time — visible IR LEDs with nothing covering them. There was a real discussion about whether we should just mass-produce Crescent Bay. But one of the craziest ideas we had actually got shipped, which was that we’d find a fabric that could go over all of these infrared LEDs.
Peter Bristol: We wanted to make Rift more wearable, more like clothing. There was the classic balancing act, where we were trying to create an elegant product but also a robust product.
Atman Binstock: Brendan [Iribe] wanted a premium product. He wanted something that people would really believe, “This thing’s not a toy. It’s not an appliance. VR is a wearable.” We were asking people to put this big chunk of plastic on their face and block out the world. People need to feel good about it. When you reach out and grab it, it has to have good positive feedback. The fabric was there to give you that sensation.
Ryan Brown: The reality of CV1 was it needed to be a real consumer product. We couldn’t use this “Dev Kit” excuse.
Caitlin Kalinowski: Finding the right fabric was actually really hard and we weren’t really sure we’d be able to do it. There wasn’t much science around IR transmissivity at the time. The team had to figure out a fabric that IR LEDs could go through. And it was harder than that even, because with most fabrics you could see the LED straight out at 90-degrees, but the field of view of the IR LED was really important too.
Ryan Brown: Anything that affected tracking was hard. We couldn’t just go to a vendor and say, “Hey! Will this fabric or this plastic be perfectly transparent to IR and not affect my blobs?” We had to develop new measurement tools and experiment with it.
Caitlin Kalinowski: I remember that being one of the biggest challenges we had at the time, but it also ended up making Rift look and feel really premium. I give credit to Peter [Bristol]’s team. He took a really ugly prototype, Crescent Bay, and figured out how to package it into a beautiful and elegant piece of consumer electronics. The fabric application, figuring out how to integrate audio into the straps...I think it established what consumer VR would be. Almost all VR since then has been derivative of Rift CV1 in some way. It showed people that VR could be a consumer product.
Atman Binstock: It was great thinking. But given that Quest 2 is now succeeding without it, I think it’s clear that the fabric was not actually make or break. That’s not to say the decision was wrong. It just probably wasn’t worth the time and effort that went into it. And this is similar to a lot of other things we’ve learned along the way — what’s really important, and what’s just nice to have.
BRINGING YOUR HANDS INTO VR
Many forget — or never even knew — that Rift originally launched with an Xbox One controller in the box. The launch of Touch in December 2016 transformed Rift, bringing popular games like Robo Recall, Arizona Sunshine, and SUPERHOT VR to the platform and confirming that hand presence was an important part of the VR package. By the following summer Touch and Rift were permanently bundled together, as developers experimented with Touch and all the interactions it opened up.
Ruth Bram: Do you remember playing Crytek’s The Climb with a gamepad on Rift? It’s hard to even imagine now, but that’s how it was initially released. When we launched the Touch update, it made all the difference. Touch opened up a world of possibilities.
Atman Binstock: As soon as I joined Oculus, I started on our controller program, which became the Touch program. It was like, “Okay, we’re going to have to track 6DOF controllers.” This is clear — a gamepad is not enough. And our goal was not just to track controllers but to bring your hands into VR. We wanted the controller to make you feel like your hands were there, and you could manipulate things naturally. That hand presence was a key thing that would amplify the experience, so that was the origin of Touch.
Caitlin Kalinowski: Carbon had been working on a controller before the acquisition. I just don’t know that everyone realized it had to be ready for the Rift launch and how important it would be, that hand presence.
Peter Bristol: We probably made hundreds of models — just simple sticks with clay, crumpled paper, sanded foams, et cetera — trying to figure out how to get the ergonomics to work. It was this messy body of work, and we thought it would be received really poorly, but I think when Oculus saw that breadth of exploration up-front, taking a “This can be anything” approach, I think there was some really strong relationship building.
The idea of the controllers becoming your hands set the trajectory of the entire program. That clarity is reflected clearly in the ergonomics of the Touch controllers. We were trying to get your hands into this natural pose while holding the controllers, so that your virtual hands matched your real hands. We also developed movements like the grip trigger to be similar to motions you use in the real world, so it would feel intuitive to use.
"Touch was more than an input device. We gave a developer the Touch controllers, it changed the way they thought about VR."
Jason Rubin - VP, Play
Michael Abrash - Chief Scientist, Facebook Reality Labs: Touch was probably the biggest breakthrough early on, because Touch was really something genuinely novel that gave you a sense of hands in VR that you hadn’t had previously.
Nick Everist - Product Manager, Rift S / VR Input Devices: I think it’s really the magic of VR. If you were to stare at Touch in your hand, you’d probably be confused what it does. The ring, most people don’t understand what the tracking ring is doing necessarily. A lot of people tend to think it’s like hand protection. But once you’re in VR, Touch is just an extension of your hand. The magic of seeing your fingers move and point — those kinds of movements just translate and make sense intuitively.
Atman Binstock: We were originally going to show off Touch at Connect 2. That was the plan. So when Brendan said “We need to be at E3," that plan got tossed. We worked really hard to make E3, and the team built Toybox in that time too!
Toybox became our gold standard for co-designing hardware and software together. You’d have someone say, “Hey, what if we did this with the grip trigger?” and we could try it out and say, “Oh now I can grab things a different way” or “Oh, that didn’t work, let’s iterate on it.” That became a basic philosophy for all of our input experimentation, simultaneously developing the experiences and the hardware technology to enable them.
Caitlin Kalinowski: Toybox was the first time you were in VR with somebody else who wasn’t really right there with you. This was, I think, the killer app. Crescent Bay brought your head into VR, but when we got to Touch and Toybox it was 100 times more interesting.
Atman Binstock: Toybox was originally a single person test bed — it wasn’t a demo. There was a table with a bunch of toys laid out, and the team had gone wild with experimentation. Right after we decided to aim for the E3 public demo, the big risky move we took was, “Hey, let’s make this multiplayer. We’re just going to have head, hands, and voice, but it’ll be so much better. You can play together. We can have a guided tour.”
There had been a couple VR multiplayer experiences, but this was the first time we were going to have hands and head and voice — the beginnings of avatars. And when we first got it all working, we immediately knew “Okay, this is a massive step up in terms of the amount of social presence we’re delivering.”
Caitlin Kalinowski: You could interact with somebody else, you could be social, and that was when we knew “Oh, this is going to be even bigger than we thought with just self-presence.”
Atman Binstock: It was like we’d crossed the threshold. It was powerful. It was enough to focus on social presence as a key part of the Rift and Touch experience rather than just an aspirational thing down the road.
Mark [Zuckerberg] was sold. Like, it was his favorite demo.
Bill Muehl - CEO, Twisted Pixel: I'd say that the Toybox demo was the moment we knew we had to partner with Oculus and develop for VR because, coincidentally, we had been developing an internal prototype at Twisted Pixel that we referred to as the "Hands" game. It was a first-person action / thriller that emphasized high quality hand animations. We had been experimenting with traditional controllers, but it felt a bit abstract. Once we tried the Touch controller prototypes, suddenly all those restrictions were gone. That prototype ended up being our first VR game, Wilson's Heart on the Rift.
Chad Dezern - Head of Creative, Insomniac Games: We played the Toybox demo at E3 2016 and I’ll never forget how it felt to see my hands in VR for the first time. Before we left the LA Convention Center that day, we’d conceived an idea for a VR spellcasting game that gave players the ability to cast spells with natural hand gestures — and started developing The Unspoken very soon after that.
Mike Doran - Director of Production, Oculus Studios: Everybody remembers the first time they played through the Toybox demo. That sold a lot of developers on the promise of VR. It got to the point where even some of the larger companies had developed teams that were just moonlighting with VR unofficially, and they sort of said “Look, we really believe in this. We want to be in the space. We want to work on it.”
Jason Rubin: Touch was more than an input device. We gave a developer the Touch controllers, it changed the way they thought about VR.
Mat Kraemer - Head of Design, Sanzaru: We were approached at the time by Jason Rubin and his group. They wanted to do a sports game in VR for the launch of the Touch, and that’s kind of how our entire relationship with Oculus started.
Early on, we got one set of Touch controllers. We were working on the game before we had a set of controllers for everybody in the studio. I think we only had like one or two controllers that we had to keep sharing.
"I’ll never forget how it felt to see my hands in VR for the first time."
Chad Dezern - Head of Creative, Insomniac Games
Bill Muehl - CEO, Twisted Pixel: When we started prototyping Wilson’s Heart on the Crescent Bay kits, it was still very early days of Touch hardware development. Supply was extremely limited. When Oculus said they were shipping our first pair, I remember the hardware rep telling me: "There are less than ten of these. In the world. Each one is literally handmade by a couple people at Oculus's hardware labs. Do not break them." And he didn't sound like he was bluffing.
We were careful, but it wouldn't be VR development without accidentally slamming the desk and monitor a few times. Fortunately those early prototypes were tough!
Shaun McCabe - Head of Technology, Insomniac Games: One of my favorite memories of Touch involved my Mom. She visited our office when we were working on The Unspoken and got to try it out. She was 70 at the time and never grokked how to use a controller, but I remember telling her what button to press to throw a fireball and then telling her, “Now throw it”. She nailed the target on her first try!
Shouldn’t have been a surprise; she’s a heck of a softball player. But it really underscored how Touch opened the doors to a whole range of players.
One of VR’s early successes, Lone Echo released in July 2017 and took full advantage of VR’s capabilities to tell a dazzling space opera a few thousand miles above Saturn’s rings. Zero-G movement, realistic object interactions, and brilliant character writing helped Ready at Dawn set the bar for what big-budget VR gaming could accomplish. Four years later, it’s still a must-play — as is its multiplayer spin-off, the free-to-play future-sport Echo VR.
Ru Weerasuriya - Creative Director, Lone Echo: We’d actually already started to develop Lone Echo before Touch. We didn’t even know Touch existed, and we created the early movement profile on a regular game controller.
But there was always this notion that something was missing, and the moment that Touch came into play I felt like we finally crossed that boundary. It wasn’t just the presence of being in that setting, but the presence that came from using Touch to connect with Lone Echo’s world in this tactile way. That was the missing piece.
For a while we were still working on Lone Echo as a game designed for gamepads and Touch. I still remember the day we said — it was one of the simplest conversations, and I expected it to be one of the hardest — but we asked Oculus if we could be exclusive to Touch, and the answer was as simple as “If that’s what you think you should do, then that’s what you’re going to do.” That was it. And from then on, Lone Echo really became about touching and interacting with the world.
Chad Dezern - Head of Creative, Insomniac Games: We played Ready at Dawn’s Echo Arena at a fairly early stage — I believe it was at OC3 — and were deeply impressed by the locomotion scheme. Grabbing a railing, pushing off in weightless space — I’ll never forget what it felt like to play that for the first time. That got us thinking about the possibilities of mapping hand inputs to movement schemes, which in turn influenced early prototyping for Stormland.
Jason Rubin: The way game development works is you get these little moments of brilliance, these sparks of genius, from various developers that other developers then pick up on and combine with their own sparks of genius, and it just builds on itself.
So, I could go back and tell you specific moments. There’s a moment in Arizona Sunshine where a bus comes over the edge of a cliff that changed my entire way of looking at things. There was Beat Saber and everything that it did. There were moments in Lone Echo that I just totally lost the fact that I wasn’t in a space station, where I was looking at a human and felt emotions for this human that I wouldn’t have felt on a flat screen. All these little bits that various developers — and I’m missing a hundred of them by the way — brought to VR that got and will get remixed with new brilliant ideas.
Patrick O’Luanaigh - CEO, nDreams: I really loved Lone Echo. The zero-G movement mechanic and the overall polish and detail that they delivered back in 2017 — it was truly impressive.
"A good VR game is a continual conversation between the player and designer. The player is continually asking, 'Can I…?' and it’s the job of the designer to keep answering 'YES!' as long as possible."
Ruan Rothmann - Lead Designer, GORN
Grace Morales Lingad - Creative Director, Sanzaru: I was listening to Greg Kasavin talk about Hades on a podcast the other day, and he talked about how game development isn’t just the big stuff. It’s also the millions of little moments, and we have to get as many of those in the game as possible because you never know which is really going to resonate. It’s going to be different for every individual.
Mat Kraemer: Lone Echo, for example, will put you in a room and there’s like seven objects you can interact with, but they will do every single permutation of what you can do with those objects. It takes a lot of time, but the moment that players throw a water bottle at Liv and she’s like, “Hey, stop!” Like, holy cow! We looked at Lone Echo quite a bit when developing Asgard’s Wrath.
Mike Doran: The amount of effort that they put into Liv. She would react to every single thing you did, whether you threw an object at her or pointed at her for too long or almost anything really. I thought that was amazing. I wish we could scale that to the next level where you’re in a room full of AI characters reacting to you at that level of fidelity.
David Yee- Director of Production, Oculus Studios: Lone Echo was really about the relationship you build with Liv. It’s between you and an AI character. I think people forget that, you know? They think it’s a space adventure, they think it’s about repairing the ship, it’s about hands...it’s about all of that, but guiding the experience is this idea that you’re dealing with this AI that thinks of you as a real person. Lone Echo is social VR — even if it’s with an AI.
Brendan Walker - Principal Engineer, Polyarc: I was surprised at how much I grew concerned for Liv in Lone Echo, particularly in the last half of the game.
Ru Weerasuriya: VR says so much about the person playing, because it’s you. The arrival of the alien ship in Lone Echo was one of the most telling moments in my game career. We’d built this moment where Liv is trapped and you have to go save her. As that happens, the ship appears and suddenly the Kronos Station starts breaking apart, and you’re realizing “Oh my god, she’s going to die! What am I going to do?”
You design these moments and you imagine people will react a certain way. We had an expectation of what would happen — and then in focus testing, I think we got six different ways people approached it, and none of them were invalid.
Some people cut Liv loose, she goes to safety, and they just watched the arrival happen like “That’s amazing.” And we’re like “That’s great, we put a lot of time into that effect.” But other people cut her loose, realized the thing was breaking, and the first thing they did was try to grab her hand, right? And then another person panicked, cut Liv loose, and turned around before they saw anything. They just fled.
That doesn’t usually happen in games, but in VR all of those responses are valid. You are the protagonist, and this is how you would react.
Mike Doran: There are things we took for granted that now we couldn’t. Like, every time we do a cinematic now, you have full control over your head. You can’t tell a player “Hey, you can’t move your head,” right?
Ruan Rothmann - Lead Designer, GORN: A good VR game is a continual conversation between the player and designer. The player is continually asking, “Can I…?” and it’s the job of the designer to keep answering “YES!” as long as possible.
David Yee: With Lone Echo, there was a lot of time spent watching people and saying, “Hey, they’re paying attention to this thing. Are we okay with that?” If they chose to look at something, or they expected to be able to see something, or touch something, or do something with it, then not allowing them to do that pulls them out of the experience immediately.
Yelena Rachitsky: VR is a combination of many disciplines. It’s theater and architecture, thinking about physical set design and perspective and bodies in a physical space. A little bit of magic, too — magicians have to think about guiding attention, which is important in VR.
Ru Weerasuriya: In some ways, we all had to go back to school when designing for VR. A lot of old notions about gaming don’t really apply. If players see a drawer and expect, “Well, it’s a game, I’m not going to be able to interact with it,” and suddenly the drawer pulls out, they’re like, “Oh my god, what else did I miss?” And they go back, and they start opening drawers and looking inside.
It’s not about what’s in the drawer, it’s about knowing that you are actually truly there in that environment.
OCULUS START + LAUNCH PAD
Oculus realized early on that we needed to nurture the growing VR developer community and give them the support they needed to be successful. Oculus Launch Pad debuted in March 2016 and Oculus Start in January 2018. Different programs, executed differently, but the goal in both cases is helping developers express their creativity and make VR a more vibrant and welcoming space.
Allison Lee - Developer Program Manager: Launch Pad was around long before me and I’m sure it’ll be around long after me. It’s an incubator for newer VR devs that are looking to experiment and express specific types of messages. We look at three different things when developers apply. First, their technical ability. Then diversity, whether diversity of thought or diversity of person. And then, the last one is innovation. We’re looking for folks that are not only trying new things in VR, but looking to tell their story differently by combining it with new mechanics. Launch Pad members create experiences that make us think differently.
Rita Brennan Turkowski - Developer Program Manager: Kasey [Galang] had the foresight to see that our developers needed a program that would help them express their creativity, and give them an edge-up that they may not have received from a big company before. With Start, we try to reach all developers who are preparing to publish in VR, and not only give them the resources they need but a community of like-minded developers to share their journey with. We also want to ensure they have our best resources at their disposal — and in the end, help them get better visibility for their work. It’s an ongoing relationship.
Allison Lee: Launch Pad and Start are very different programs, but like two sides of the same coin.
Rita Brennan Turkowski: Yeah, we nurture a lot of the Launch Pad grads.
"What we’re doing is we’re looking at how we can create specific change in the game industry, because when we authentically support diverse creators and help them produce top-tier content — that’s what we believe broadens the audience."
Lisa Brewster - Store Manager
Allison Lee: Bizarre Barber is one of my favorite Launch Pad successes. I love Maria Mishurenko’s advocacy for accessibility. She has been a vocal advocate for more accessible game design and applications within VR, and Bizarre Barber is one example of how she’s implemented that.
Thomas Van Bouwel - Developer, Cubism: I love games that manage to show what makes VR as a medium great, while still being accessible to newcomers. Bizarre Barber's hair cutting mechanic is a great example of this. It's easy to learn — no buttons required — and fun to watch other people play!
Allison Lee: Alton Glass is another Launch Pad alumni. He created and championed our IN PROTEST series alongside Amy Seidenwurm and our DE&I teams. He has a really interesting eye that combines documentary filmmaking with VR 6DOF mechanics. It’s this great mix that grabs you and informs you while incorporating current and historical context. It’s just a really powerful experience.
Rita Brennan Turkowski: Real VR Fishing is a Start alumni and not only is it really popular, I was thrilled to see it featured in an Oculus TV commercial. My mom called one night and she’s like, “Oh, I saw the Quest on TV and someone was fishing in VR.” I realized it was Real VR Fishing and got very excited. [Laughs] I’m incredibly proud of them.
Mark Choi - COO, MIRAGESOFT, Inc.: When we started Real VR Fishing, I wanted to prove that even a small studio from South Korea could create content that could be recognized worldwide. Oculus Start played a major role in our development and launch. We got good advice from our fellow Oculus Start members and from Oculus’s developer relations team too.
But most importantly, studios are assigned an Oculus Start manager who helps you prepare your content and pitch deck. Luckily, I met Rita. She helped our team polish Real VR Fishing, and I believe we could not have come this far without her help and advice.
Allison Lee: Real VR Fishing was so surprising. We all thought it would be super niche, but it’s this cool combination of a meditation app and a competitive game.
Rita Brennan Turkowski: It’s very popular, and they have an incredibly diverse audience, which I love.
But we will take a look at whatever you’re creating. Our goal is to help developers publish well, and we do that by welcoming you into this community of several thousand developers. It’s a safe community to share your ideas and thoughts, and to take those ideas as far as you can with both our support and the support of your developer peers.
Cubism is a good example, a game that was being created by a solo developer without much support. The Start program, especially our large community of dedicated developers, played a large role in getting Cubism over the finish line and onto Quest. The people that play it really love it.
Mike Verdu - VP, Content: One of the best things about the Start and Launch Pad programs is the community that’s formed, embodied in the networks that people create as they go through the programs, graduate, and build great VR apps in the future.
Thomas Van Bouwel - Developer, Cubism: People at Start were very supportive of Cubism as it graduated to the official store, and I'm immensely grateful for their help championing the game over the years.
As someone who transitioned from a career in architecture to one of VR development, I know how important it is to find a community of peers when you're starting out. The biggest value I see Oculus Start provide new developers is creating this sort of supportive community, especially in their Discord server. It's a great place for developers to help each other out with everything from technical questions to improving their game's pitches.
Allison Lee: We want to give developers the opportunity to show us their weird idea and prove to us that the weird can work. Developers get into VR because they had that random fever dream they wanted to bring to life or they have this story that they want to express, and it’s on us to support that.
That support is what will make VR a better platform, not just for developers but for players.
Lisa Brewster: I think that everyone who is in a position to influence what stories get told needs to start looking at who actually has a voice on their platform and who doesn’t. Then see if that reflects their values — and if it doesn’t, try to understand why. Measure it. Set goals. What we’re doing is we’re looking at how we can create specific change in the game industry, because when we authentically support diverse creators and help them produce top-tier content — that’s what we believe broadens the audience.
Beat Saber didn’t come out of Oculus Start, but it could have. Developed by a small team in Czech Republic, Beat Saber released in Early Access on May 1, 2018 and immediately became one of the most popular VR games on offer. It wasn’t the first rhythm game to hit VR headsets, but it was intuitive, exciting, and eye-catching. Slicing blocks in half quickly became one of the main reasons people bought a VR headset, and that impact continues to this day.
"I once took my Quest with me to a bachelor party and converted three people to VR users with one demo of Beat Saber."
Brendan Walker - Principal Engineer, Polyarc
Ján Ilavský - Head of Development, Beat Games: Vladimír [Hrinčár] and I, we’ve known each other since we were nine years old, so we’ve been working together for a long time. Almost 25 years, or even 30 maybe.
We started working on Beat Saber in 2016. It was just an idea, a small project. Let’s try cutting cubes. And when we finally had something playable we started looking for music to put in the game. Originally I wanted to create all the music myself, but we realized it might not be the best thing to do, so let’s talk to some people who do a lot of music. Who can we actually talk to in Czech Republic? And Jaroslav was the only guy who came to mind, so I called him—
Jaroslav Beck - Head of Music, Beat Games: I think it’s important to say that Ján didn’t contact me. I actually contacted him. And I was in Los Angeles, I wasn’t even in Czech Republic, because I was working for Blizzard at the time. I saw Beat Saber on Facebook, some teaser video Ján released, and it was this a-ha moment. I actually thought it was done by some AAA studio. I tried to figure out who was behind it and then I found out that it was somebody currently in Czech Republic and it just blew my mind.
I contacted Ján, flew to Czech Republic to meet him, and we started to work on the first few songs.
Ján Ilavský: We stopped working on Beat Saber entirely for like four or five months. I was used to creating mobile games where you have this limited space and you are able to create very nice visuals. Very detailed, everything looks super crisp, and so on. And back then, everything looked really bad in VR. I was fighting with the visuals a lot, like how do we make these effects look good in VR? And so at some point, around January 2017, we actually decided to stop working on Beat Saber because I didn’t see how it could actually become a game that looked good.
But then we showcased it at some local event and people were like “You have to finish. This game is really good.”
"When you see Beat Saber videos, some of those people look like superheroes playing the game."
Ján Ilavský - Head of Development, Beat Games
Michaela Dvořáková - Product Portfolio Manager: I tried Beat Saber for the first time in 2017, and it was the first experience I had that absolutely changed my point of view and how I actually thought about VR.
Jaroslav Beck: I think what I really like about Beat Saber and what I’ve seen since the very beginning is that you instantly get it. You understand what’s going on two seconds after seeing it. I think that helped make it successful because it just looks so cool and you instantly get what your purpose is in this game without reading any manual or anything.
Mike Verdu - VP, Content: Beat Saber is the rarest of things. The talented team at Beat Games made no assumptions about what VR should be. They just said, “How can we make the very best experience in VR given the constraints that we have?” And as a result, what they created was so much fun — combining VR and music — and also very elegant and intuitive, the embodiment of “simple to learn, hard to master.”
Ján Ilavský: When you see Beat Saber videos, some of those people look like superheroes playing the game. Maybe that’s why it went viral when we released that first trailer. People were like, “Oh my God, what is this?”
Jaroslav Beck: I think VR and rhythm games are really the ultimate combo because you can be inside it, right? You are in it and 100-percent focused, and you have no other distractions. For me, Beat Saber unlocks a new level of music experience and appreciation.
Michaela Dvořáková: What was really interesting is that when the game released in Early Access in May 2018, the reactions from the VR community and press and media — they were mostly saying this game doesn’t feel like Early Access. This feels like a full game already. That was already such a great result for us.
Jaroslav Beck: I feel that our mission is not just to create a great game but to build the game in the best possible way, because Beat Saber is so many people’s introduction to VR.
Chris Pruett - Director of Content Ecosystem: Beat Saber is our number one biggest hit, easily the number one top selling piece of software in VR today across all platforms. It’s a phenomenon. It’s fantastic. And the team is fantastic.
Brendan Walker - Principal Engineer, Polyarc: I once took my Quest with me to a bachelor party and converted three people to VR users with one demo of Beat Saber.
Rita Brennan Turkowski: A friend of mine thought Quest was something you buy just to play Beat Saber. She’s not in tech, she’s not a gamer, and I was actually surprised she even knew about Quest at all, but she said, “Oh, that’s the rhythm game machine, right?” And I’m like, “Oh, you mean Beat Saber?” And she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, yeah, but it’s actually way more than that.” [Laughs]
GROWING FROM GEAR VR
Oculus Go may have been the first headset released post-Rift, but it had more in common with Samsung and Oculus’s efforts on Gear VR. First released in 2014 (via the Innovator Edition dev kit), Gear VR leveraged Samsung’s Galaxy and Note phones to facilitate an early mobile VR experience, pre-Rift and even pre-Oculus Store.
Chris Pruett: Gear VR is a product we built in conjunction with Samsung. They built the phone, we built the software and the ecosystem. And the quality of Gear VR was very, very, high for what it was. Like people would put it on and be completely astonished that a phone could do that.
But there was a chicken and egg problem, right? You have to ship the hardware or nobody can build something — but who was going to buy the hardware on day one if there’s no content? We tried to solve that with this Innovator Edition product that we released first.
Jason Rubin - VP, Play: The first thing I did when I started, day one, Max Cohen called me into his office and he was the head of the Samsung Gear VR. He said you have 90 days to launch. We need software. There was almost nothing to do on it at the time.
And so, the first thing we did was Intro to VR, which ended up shipping with CV1 too. We redid it at a higher resolution and everything else, but that ended up being a lot of people’s introduction to VR, this 360-degree video. They went to the top of a mountain, and they went to Hawaii. What else did they do? Cirque du Soleil, and — I think they went to a yurt in Mongolia. And they did all of those things in that 90-day period and we were up the night before to make it happen. We shipped it.
Sean Liu - Director of Product, Hardware: When I was hired, it was a rag-tag team on the mobile side and we needed content for Gear VR. We had these SDK samples we’d send out to developers. One that showed photos in VR, one that showed videos in VR, and Max Cohen asked, “Can you productize these?
We decided, “Let’s make an Oculus Videos app and Oculus Cinema and then Oculus 360 Photos.” And there were essentially just three of us who needed to build these apps.
Chris Pruett: What sealed the deal was a very particular piece of software called Gunjack which was made by CCP. A lot of big developers were sort-of waiting in the wings to make an investment in Gear VR, which was fine except that you’d look at the store and say, “Well, it’s very thin. There’s no content.”
But Gunjack looked like a professional video game. It played like a professional video game. It had polish and it showed you the promise of what the Gear VR hardware could do. What happened is we sent some folks to Korea and showed Gunjack to Samsung, and Samsung said, “Let’s do it.” That was the critical point at which Gear VR was either going to die or become a real thing, and it became a real thing.
Oculus Go released May 1, 2018, a new all-in-one take on the Gear VR vision. Oculus’s first standalone headset, Go pioneered multiple advances in ergonomics and audio that eventually made their way to Quest. It was also our first non-gaming device, with a $199 USD price point and a media and entertainment focus that influenced how we thought about VR’s growing audience.
Nicole Brendis - Product Marketing: The vision for Oculus Go was to take Gear VR and turn it into an all-in-one device instead of needing a phone to snap in.
"Quest wouldn’t have existed without Go existing first."
Chris Pruett - Director of Content Ecosystem
John Carmack is really the person that pushed for the creation of Oculus Go. He was super passionate about it, and about making VR less complex. And he was very keen on content discovery as well. There were a lot of partnerships with National Geographic and such that Oculus Go really helped us explore. Carmack worked really hard on getting that content on Go and making it discoverable, with the understanding that it would attract different types of users and developers. It really set the tone for Horizon and a lot of the other non-gaming experiences that we’re building today.
One use case we really focused on was laying down in bed and watching Netflix in VR. Was that comfortable? Did Go move with you?
Matt Dickman - Technical Program Manager, Safety, Certification & Compliance: Go was the first time we really thought intentionally about accessibility and what that might mean in VR. You look at the attachment points inside the headset. Those were designed to hold the fabric interface originally — but you could repurpose those mounts to accommodate prescription lens inserts. That sort of thinking around comfort and ergonomics takes a long time (and internal design support) but it led to the accessories you see on Quest 2 today.
Chris Pruett: Go’s form factor was badass. Very, very comfortable. You weren’t burning phone battery. The lenses were better. The screens were better. Everything was better.
Nicole Brendis: We really focused on ergonomics. If you look at Go’s strap, it was the first time that you could put a ponytail through it. We could better accommodate different types of hair, versus Rift’s harder architecture.
Go’s audio was also really innovative. I think that was the first time we built the audio into the arm straps. If you look at CV1, it still used fold-down headphones.
Chris Pruett: People used Go — and they mostly used it for video and that was a good experience. But it also showed us that video on its own was not going to carry a VR headset. We needed to produce an ecosystem that could support higher quality content if we wanted to make it fly.
We learned a ton from Go, though. Quest wouldn’t have existed without Go existing first.
Quest | Rift S
Both Rift S and Quest released in May, 2019. Both featured inside-out tracking and new Touch controllers, but there was a fundamental difference between the two. Rift S was a refined PC VR headset, and Quest a bold new mobile headset that many at Oculus didn’t think was possible — until it was.
"I always believed that long-term, standalone VR would be the path forward. The question was more of when."
Atman Binstock - Chief Architect of Oculus VR
Nick Everist - Product Manager, Rift S / VR Input Devices: When I joined, everybody was working towards the same goal, everybody wanted VR to succeed and wanted developers to succeed — but there were different paths to get there.
Rift S was one of those paths. I see Rift S as a workhorse. Kind-of an unsung hero workhorse. It brought a lot of new users into VR and into the PC ecosystem. The quality of tracking, the ease of setup. It’s also incredibly comfortable, thanks to the halo strap. It has outperformed where we ever thought it would for sure, and it’s done really, really well. So yeah, I really see it as a workhorse.
But the end goal was always wider adoption though. We wanted developers to succeed, and that required scale.
Peter Bristol - Head of Industrial Design for FRL: Carmack had been an advocate of mobile VR since day one. The instinct was that to get to scale, you can’t have a computer. If our goal is to connect people in VR, you need people to be using VR. We needed some time to get there, needed to go through the process, but I think especially now in hindsight, it was 100 percent the right decision.
Lisa Brewster - Store Manager: When we launched Quest, that’s when I knew it was time to get my mom into VR. She came to the Facebook campus in the Rift days and tried a demo and really loved it. She was just waiting for the technology to catch up to the point where she didn’t need the PC.
Caitlin Kalinowski - Head of VR Hardware: At some point I started to hear Carmack talk about mobile. I didn’t know that mobile chipsets could even handle VR at the time. Those two achievements, inside-out tracking and mobile chipset VR, changed everything — and we didn’t know when we started that it would even be possible.
Atman Binstock: I always believed that long-term, standalone VR would be the path forward. The question was more of when. My personal belief was that something like Rift and Touch was the experience we’d need to deliver on standalone. Not the same level of performance as a PC, but the self-presence, interaction, and social-presence.
Sean Liu: The first dispute we had was whether you could get accurate inside-out position tracking on mobile. The Rift was previously an outside-in tracking solution, and a lot of people didn’t think that the same quality of tracking could be replicated on mobile.
Atman Binstock: The moment where I started thinking we were really going to ship standalone VR — that Quest essentially became possible — was when we acquired 13th Lab’s SLAM [Simultaneous Location And Mapping] team.
Oskar Linde - Machine Perception Architect: At 13th Lab, the vision we had was that smartphones were going to get better and better and cameras were going to become ubiquitous. All devices were going to have a camera in them, and it would become the most important sensor for mobile devices. We built a startup around that and we developed the world’s first consumer application using SLAM technology. We used it to build AR applications on mobile phones back then.
I got a phone call from this guy, Mark Zuckerberg. He had just acquired Oculus, I think two days earlier, and he was telling me his product vision for Oculus. It was pretty interesting to hear because his vision was basically Oculus Quest. It had to deliver the full VR experience, but it also needed to be mobile and standalone. You should be able to buy it and use it out of the box without needing a PC.
I believe some people at Oculus had told him that that was basically impossible. You needed something he called inside-out tracking, and the technology was still far from being ready — especially with the limited compute offered by mobile devices. But apparently Mark didn’t take them at their word. He went out and did his own research, he found me and my company, and he sold me on this vision of building a standalone VR headset.
Ryan Brown - Engineer, DK2 / Rift / Quest: I think a lot of people thought that doing inside-out tracking on a mobile platform was not really possible in the near term. Facebook deserves credit there, because inside-out tracking was a risky long-term investment that required a lot of foresight.
"If our goal is to connect people in VR, you need people to be using VR."
Peter Bristol - Head of Industrial Design for FRL
Oskar Linde: We built this prototype device that was basically a Crescent Bay headset with two cameras mounted on it, running inside-out tracking and it...yeah, it worked better than we expected.
I wanted to replicate the experience I got using a Rift with four cameras, so I wrote the first outline of the Quest product requirements — 6DOF controllers, inside-out tracking for both the headset and controllers, and I designed it to have four cameras to enable full freedom of motion. Most people probably didn’t believe it was possible and the ones who thought it was possible, thought it was overkill.
Sean Liu: The problem is if you tweak the camera’s location even a little, tracking breaks. Let’s say you drop the device, the cameras will wobble a little. Our headsets and cameras actually had to be strong enough to get the cameras to not wobble, and our headset had to adapt to any variations on the fly.
Oskar Linde: I specified probably the tightest optical center tolerances in the industry at the time, which was less than 20 micrometers. We did a lot of engineering across hardware and software to get things right from the start, and I think that’s one of the key reasons we were eventually successful. That rigor kept us from having to solve many problems later.
Anna Kozminski - Software Program Manager, Insight: It’s all the fun and joy of building something physical. You have to contend with the reality of the physical world and how that impacts the software that you tried to run.
Oskar Linde: Oculus Connect 3 was where we demoed the Santa Cruz prototype for the first time. That was the absolute highlight of the project for me. The first time we got Santa Cruz to run was probably Sunday night before the trade show. We probably showed it to less than five people within Oculus before we rushed to show the press. We were super proud of it.
Anna Kozminski: There is this theory called the Kano model, and part of the Kano model is these “must-be” features. If these “must-be” features don’t work, everybody hates the product — but if they do work, nobody notices. They’re just expected. And that’s the trajectory inside-out tracking is on, I think. It doesn’t mean much to the user, but if we’d failed, then Quest wouldn’t exist.
BEAT SABER SAVES QUEST
Anna Kozminski: When I joined, we ended up rewriting most of the controller tracking tech about five months before launch. So that was really exciting.
Oskar Linde: We focused on inside-out tracking for a long time because that was the hardest problem. We didn’t invest a ton of resources into controller tracking initially because we always felt that it was a more bounded problem.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy - Product Manager, Quest / Quest 2: I joined Oculus the week after OC5, when we told the world that Santa Cruz is now Oculus Quest and we’re going to ship it next spring. So I join, and I’m like “I just heard that Quest is shipping within the next eight months.” It must be pretty far along, and my job is really getting it across the finish line.
And Quest was in a good place, in some ways. But we had a lot of work to do still, and the biggest challenge at that time was tracking.
Sean Liu: Quest would have failed without Beat Saber.
Chris Pruett: Sean’s probably right — but for a different reason than you might think.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: Beat Saber was a thing, right? And it was starting to be a big thing. I remember we said look, if we can get Beat Saber to be the same experience on Quest as it is on Rift, we’re on the right track.
Ján Ilavský - Head of Development - Beat Games: I remember Oculus said, “Okay, we have this new headset. It’s standalone.” And we were super busy back then, but I said “Sure, give it to us and we’ll see.” I had a Quest in my closet for like six months, and I didn’t open it. Luckily they were really patient with us.
Chris Pruett: A guy named Trevor Dasch on the team I ran at the time actually did the initial port. It wasn’t what shipped, but it convinced the Beat Games team that they should port to Quest.
Anyway, once we had Beat Saber on Quest, we realized the tracking needed work. The tracking seemed very good until you tried to play Beat Saber on Expert+ difficulty, and if you were good enough to play on Expert+ you’d find that although you had the skill, you couldn’t get the score.
Anna Kozminski: In a lot of SLAM cases, you're generally not tracking objects with the kind of speed you might see in Beat Saber.
Oskar Linde: When I’m playing Beat Saber, I record a g-force of almost 30 g on my IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). You wouldn’t think it’s that high, but it is. The IMU we had in the system back then capped out at 16 g. We had to go in and change the IMU as a result of Beat Saber.
Anna Kozminski: And then when you get really excited, you might put your controllers outside of the field of view. We had to come up with all kinds of methods to predict where someone’s arms are when we don't see them, and then when they come back into view, make that appear seamless.
Chris Pruett: We actually invented a KPI for the tracking team based on Beat Saber scoring. It was actually really funny because a lot of the folks on the tracking team were not good enough at Beat Saber to validate their work.
Anna Kozminski: We had Beat Saber competitions throughout Oculus to find the best players. Those people became our gold standard, including Andrew Melim. He was the Engineering Manager for our controller tracking software stack and a really good Beat Saber player too.
Chris Pruett: Ask Jenny Spurlock about this question because she’s the expert.
Nick Everist: I was calling it the Spurlock Method.
Jenny Spurlock - Engineering Director, Input Explorations: [Laughs] Yup, that’s called the Spurlock Method. I started doing a statistical benchmark where I would play songs in Beat Saber and record the data and look at the gap between Rift S and Quest to see what was going on. I noticed the gap between the Rift and Rift S was small and the gap between Rift and Quest was really large. We ended up using that method to pinpoint the problem.
It was huge. Without Beat Saber, we probably would not have known or been able to pinpoint what was going on.
TOUCH WITH A TOUCHPAD
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: I think right around the time I joined the company, there was a fundamental debate about what Quest was supposed to be.
Sean Liu: We had this huge debate internally: Do we have a thumb stick or not? There was a version of Quest’s Touch controllers that featured a touchpad. We wanted VR to be the next computing platform and when people see a joystick, they immediately think...it’s a gaming device.
Nick Everist: Yeah, more like a touchpad like you’d have on a laptop.
Jenny Spurlock: When I joined, Quest’s Touch controllers had a trackpad. Go had a single 3DOF controller, so originally we were looking at something similar for Quest. And when you have a single remote, it has to be symmetrical. The user needs to be able to pick it up with either hand, so it originally had no grip trigger, nothing except the trackpad and then an index finger was added, then a second controller, then a grip, and that’s why it was narrow versus the more ergonomic handle that you saw with the original Touch.
Sean Liu: At one of the Connects, we had a developer roundtable. We’d shipped out initial dev units with the touchpad, and a lot of developers didn’t like it.
Jenny Spurlock: Me and my team personally created a bunch of ports for the trackpad. We hacked together a system to run old content with the trackpad, designed new controls for Robo Recall and stuff. We tried to get it the best it could possibly be. But there was an interaction gap.
Sean Liu: Developers said, “This isn’t good for locomotion and we don’t know how to solve that.” The problem was there’s no easy way to recenter on a touchpad, and you also couldn’t mash all the way to the edge for quick movements like you could with a thumbstick. You don’t have the accuracy or precision.
Mike Doran - Director of Production, Oculus Studios: Not having an analog stick on a controller — or at least a slide pad or something that’s familiar — is just one step too far for developers to accept, and I think that means it’s also one step too far for players to accept.
Sean Liu: I think we did the right thing in the end. 70% of the roundtable developers were like this requires a massive rework of our input system, and isn’t going to work for us. And only 30% said that they were good with it — the SUPERHOT team, for instance, who were going “Yeah, we don’t need thumbsticks. We’re just punching.” [Laughs]
Jenny Spurlock: We modified Quest’s Touch controllers to fit buttons and thumbsticks at that point.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: I think the decision to make Quest a gaming-first device was the right one. By building a gaming first device, you’re proving out some fairly complex use-cases from the start. Getting the tracking right, building a device that was more ergonomic, lighter, all that. Now look at how fitness has emerged on Quest. There are people who use Supernatural for instance as their primary means of fitness. That happens because everything you need already exists in the gaming device. Everything you need is in the kitchen. All you need is to put the right dish together.
A LINK TO THE PC
Oculus Link released as a beta feature in November 2019, giving Quest owners a viable way to experience some of the best VR games the PC has to offer. With Link, Quest offered the best of both worlds — a tethered and standalone headset in the same package. But few people (even at Oculus) thought that Link would happen as quickly as it did, nor that it could provide such an impressive experience with just a single USB-C cable.
Nick Everist: We didn’t necessarily think it was possible to hit the quality bar we wanted for PC VR, at least in the short-term, with Quest and Link. The USB-C ecosystem was not necessarily widespread with consumers quite yet, and we didn’t really know what was possible.
I think Link surprised a lot of people at how quickly it was able to actually be a thing.
Amanda Watson - Software Engineer, GearVR / Quest / Link: I think the coolest thing about Oculus Link was that it was kind-of the first project where the PC and mobile VR people at Oculus worked together to build something. It was really, really cool figuring out how to architect that. These were a lot of the old-school Oculus people that had worked on CV1 and just had a really cool idea and wanted to see it happen.
"I think Link surprised a lot of people at how quickly it was able to actually be a thing."
Nick Everist - Product Manager, Rift S / VR Input Devices
Every time we hit a bug during development, we’d always think “Oh, is this the end? Is this the fundamental ceiling of latency?” It was always just another bug.
The controllers were the biggest problem for a while. I think I am formally credited as the person who made the controllers not feel like a rubber chicken — that’s how people usually described the latency early on. Again, the whole time we’re thinking “Maybe this is the end,” and then we looked into it and it turned out to be a math problem. Our math was wrong.
Caitlin Kalinowski - Head of VR Hardware: When we got Link working, being able to play PC games on Quest and not have — I mean, I have five headsets here, but I don’t use them. I just use Quest 2 now, and that’s been awesome.
Use-cases that can’t be done natively on a mobile headset? How about Asgard’s Wrath? Released in October of 2019, Sanzaru’s acclaimed Asgard’s Wrath pushed the limits of VR gaming by plunging players into a gorgeous 30+ hour RPG inspired by Norse mythology. And it all started years earlier with Toybox...
Grace Morales Lingad - Creative Director, Sanzaru: Asgard’s Wrath actually started as a Touch-centric demo like VR Sports Challenge. It was meant as a Toybox-like demo early on and grew from there.
Mike Doran: One of the first things we all saw was the Toybox demo. We said, wow, the scale was really cool — being able to pick things up and hold them to your face and have that dollhouse effect.
How can we take that to the next level and develop more of a game mechanic around it?
Grace Morales Lingad: Asgard’s Wrath was a much different game back then. It was more focused on being the god and helping this puny mortal.
"A lot people were like, 'Are people really going to sit in VR for three to four hours?' And when we got the numbers back, it blew our minds, because we had people staying in there for three-plus hours repeatedly."
Mat Kraemer - Head of Design, Sanzaru
Mike Doran: Then along the way it became a tower defense game where you were picking up little Toybox-size objects and putting them down as your defensive armaments. There’s a couple places where you still see the tower defense game, a couple of boss encounters where you’re firing these giant cannons down on massive armies in the distance. Also, not a lot of people realize that our entire inventory is a series of shelves with tiny little units or objects, and those shelves were originally the UI for selecting towers.
Grace Morales Lingad: Then we introduced the idea of flipping back and forth between god and mortal.
Mike Doran: We had this one map that was a beach, and there were three caves on the beach, and you’d send your little human character into a cave and she came out with a sword. She went to the second cave, she came out with a shield.
And everybody was like “...I want to go in the cave.” The crew at Sanzaru hacked together this rough prototype over a weekend or two where you could swap perspectives, and that made all the difference in the world.
Mat Kraemer - Head of Design, Sanzaru: It was amazing to us when Wrath released. We weren’t sure how long people would stay in there. A lot people were like, “Are people really going to sit in VR for three to four hours?” And when we got the numbers back, it blew our minds, because we had people staying in there for three-plus hours repeatedly, coming back day in and day out, just like you would when you bought the new Zelda. That was really nice to see, and a testament to all the things that we learned along the way.
Grace Morales Lingad: Yeah, and some of what we learned was almost in defiance of convention. Like teleportation movement — that was not going to work in Wrath because I wanted free-flowing and high-intensity combat. It’s a game of inches and that wasn’t going to happen if you were always at arm’s length and popping in and out. I wanted the characters to be moving constantly, so we had to make free movement work.
Mat Kraemer: I think in VR, having options for different types of players is the way to go, because there’s just so much discrepancy in terms of what people can tolerate. And that’s something we think about when we build all our games. You maybe just bought a Quest, and this is the first game you’re playing. Okay, we’ve got settings for you. And then you have the guys from the CV1 days, and they’re just diehards flying around in free motion and we have to make the game for them too.
Grace Morales Lingad: It’s really heartening to see that across the games industry as a whole. Catering the experience to all players so they can get what they want to get out of a game, that’s really nice to see.
I really miss trade shows because it was always fun to see people play our game for the first time — especially because this could be their first time dipping their toe into VR. Seeing how they react is really exciting.
Mat Kraemer: With Asgard's Wrath, we wanted to make a real-deal, big game. I’m tired of playing the ten-minute demos and I’m tired of limited movement. I wanted to play a God of War style game. I wanted to play a Zelda style game in VR. I want to make the game that makes you buy an Oculus headset, so when people look at Oculus hardware, they say “I want to play Sanzaru’s next big thing.”
That is what I want to make, and I think as a developer being given the opportunity to do that has been awesome.
Mike Doran: The vision was truly unique, and Asgard’s Wrath had a scale and a scope that I think not very many VR games to this day can match.
Hand tracking was added to Quest in December 2019 as part of the v12 update, giving players a glimpse of the future. While controllers will likely remain important for games in particular, Michael Abrash and others at Oculus believe that you’ll soon spend most of your time in VR using just your hands — to navigate, to work, and to interact with others. But getting hand tracking to work on Quest was harder than it seemed, with one fateful conversation convincing multiple research teams to try and solve a problem that had never been solved before.
Michael Abrash - Chief Scientist, Facebook Reality Labs: In terms of interaction, maybe the single biggest breakthrough is hand tracking. Controllers are useful, but you don’t walk around the world with them, right? Hand tracking opens up the possibility of interacting with the virtual world in a more natural and lower-friction way. You just put the headset on and bam, you can do things.
I think hand tracking in Quest was one of those really big steps forward.
Rob Wang - Research Lead for Hands: My team was originally part of a startup, just four guys hacking on hand tracking in San Francisco, and we jumped at the opportunity to bring hand-tracking into VR.
Before the acquisition, we were actually looking at putting a depth-sensing camera on your laptop or desk so you could control your computer with hand gestures in addition to your keyboard and mouse. There were a number of reasons why that was a bad idea, but when VR came along we took that depth sensor and stuck it — literally with double-sided tape — onto a VR headset, and we were able to bring people’s hands into VR. Michael Abrash found out about what we were doing, came over to give us a DK2, and convinced us to join Oculus Research.
Jenny Spurlock - Engineering Director, Input Explorations: I was pretty passionate about hand tracking from the beginning. I think the benefits are tremendous in terms of having interfaces that are easier for people to use.
The challenge with hands is that people bring in expectations from the real world. They’re an expert in using their own hands. They know how to grab things and feel things. They expect hand tracking to work in the same way.
Rob Wang: By 2017, we'd built a pretty solid hand-tracking system for VR, but it still required a depth-sensing camera. One day, Oskar Linde and I were catching up, and he said, “Rob, you really need to think about bringing hand-tracking to Quest,” and I was like, “Quest doesn’t have a depth sensor.” He said, “Well, maybe you can do something with the SLAM cameras.”
"The challenge with hands is that people bring in expectations from the real world. They’re an expert in using their own hands. They expect hand tracking to work in the same way."
We took a 45-minute walk around campus, and the whole time he talked about why hands could be good for Quest and why it should be possible to track them with low resolution, monochrome cameras.
Nobody had ever shown good quality hand-tracking anywhere without a depth sensor before. It was an open problem in the computer vision community. Oskar said “Well, let’s see how far you can take it, right?” So we allocated one engineer, Shangchen Han, to dig into this. Then at the end of 2017 we pivoted the whole team to look at monochrome-based hand-tracking, and by the end of 2018 we had a highly polished hand-tracking system that worked with the cameras on Quest.
I can’t thank Oskar enough for that. That conversation changed the direction of our whole team.
Jenny Spurlock: I had my team partner with the research team and we started incubating hand tracking — and we did so for actually a period of three-plus years. We built a lot of experimental prototypes early on just trying to figure out what hands do or enable in VR. Then we started to look at “How can we make this a usable interaction?” We developed the ray casting model that you use to interact, and also the pinch algorithm that you use to “click,” and then worked with the product team to get it on Quest.
I think we’re just at the beginning of what hands can do though. We’ve seen a lot of experimentation happening out there. A lot of developers have been implementing ways to grab objects, which we didn’t expect and don’t have a lot of native support for yet. We’re going to have to push for that.
Mike Verdu - VP, Content: Looking into the future, I do hope we get to a time when your hands are the input mechanism that works best for VR. We’ve released an early version of hands functionality and are seeing a fair number of developers adopt it, and I think you’re going to see that technology improve over time and gain broader and broader acceptance.
Development of Quest 2 actually started with the development of the Quest 2 controller, a chance for the input team to rethink the Quest version of Touch and get back to the celebrated ergonomics of the Rift’s original Touch controllers.
Nick Everist - Product Manager, Rift S / VR Input Devices: We started the Quest 2 controller before Quest 2 even existed — like, before we even started development on the headset — because we were worried about the ergonomics of the original Quest’s controllers.
I started what we were calling at the time “Flip-Ring Touch,” which was really what it sounds like: take the original Touch controllers, flip the ring, and do nothing else. Or at least, as little as possible.
Jenny Spurlock: With the Quest 2 controllers, we fixed a lot of the problems we had with Quest. There’s a more ergonomic shape. We brought back the thumb rest, the look and feel is much better. You have a lot more surface area.
Nick Everist: The button placement, the grip handle length — a lot of those are much, much closer to the original Touch, with the ring inverted. And we did our best to shift the center of gravity further back as well, so that it sits in your hand better.
Jenny Spurlock: And we fixed the battery door coming off.
Nick Everist: We had a pretty complicated magnetic battery door on Quest’s Touch controllers and we changed that for Quest 2 because we had a lot of accidental removals.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy - Product Manager, Quest / Quest 2: Of all the things we achieved, my personal favorite is — and I give Nick and the firmware team and the hardware team all the credit for this — but along the way, a bunch of people decided, “Hey, you know what? With this architecture, we can actually squeeze more battery life from the Quest 2 controllers.” Not just more, but a lot more.
Nick Everist: We knew that going into Quest 2 we wanted to evolve the architecture to better handle a lot of haptic events. But we spent a lot of time — especially Patrick Mccleary and Bo Adepoju — getting the system built in a really efficient way, spent a lot of time on electrical engineering. It was like a pet project.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: When Quest 2 released, we didn’t see many people talking about battery life — and then like a month later people started to say, “Hey, I haven’t changed my batteries. I play every day and I haven’t changed my batteries.” And I was like “See! This is what I told you!”
Changing batteries is an annoyance. It’s irritating. Four times the battery life might seem like a small change, but day-to-day it can actually be a huge deal.
BUILDING A QUEST SUCCESSOR
We released Quest 2 a year-and-a-half after its predecessor, with our goal to give both players and developers a higher-powered device for $100 USD less than the original Quest. Unexpected challenges — including the COVID-19 pandemic — complicated this timeline, but we managed to ship Quest 2 in October of 2020 and it’s been embraced faster than any Oculus headset to-date.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: When we started Quest 2, we looked at all the things we did on the original Quest and CV1 and we said what are the things we need in a mass market device? And there were some people at the company who said, “We have this pure vision for the future of VR, and that pure vision cannot be diluted so early in its evolution.”
But I said no, it does not work like that. Right now, people still have very little idea about what VR is or should be. So give them something affordable. Give them something that’s easy to use. Think about the setup process. Think about accessibility. Make it available in more places, make it affordable, make it friendly. Find all kinds of games — it should not just play one genre of games.
Paint a picture where you give people something they want to get into every day.
Atman Binstock: Quest 2 was totally an aggressive-but-plausible program when it started. We wanted an aggressive price, and we had set an aggressive schedule, but it was doable. And then COVID-19 hit, and it turned from an aggressive program into a nearly impossible program that required massive heroics from everyone involved to ship successfully.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: This was a hard project. We were moving fast — and then COVID.
Anna Kozminski - Software Program Manager, Insight: When we were building the Quest 2 roadmap, I thought we absolutely could not ship something so quickly with such a big improvement. We had to get more lightweight with the frame, which means some of the sensors are floating. All these engineering challenges and constraints, doing that at such a quick pace? I didn’t think it was possible.
"Make the product for everyone, right? Design it so that a diverse population can use it."
Matt Dickman - Technical Program Manager, Safety, Certification & Compliance
Caitlin Kalinowski - Head of VR Hardware: I think price is the most important feature of Quest 2. I initially thought VR would hit this Quest 2 inflection point two-and-a-half years before it has. But when you are making an ecosystem and a platform, it’s different than making a product, and I am an expert at making a product, I am not an expert at making an ecosystem. And what I learned is you need content, you need marketing, you need enough people to have tried VR at their friend’s house or whatever — like all this stuff needs to happen. You needed inside-out. You needed the technological advances of mobile. And then you also needed a key feature that we were missing from Quest 1, which was price.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: We talked with developers and asked them “If you were to design the next generation of product, what would you prioritize?” And they pretty much said “Look, assuming you’re keeping all the good things the same, I would like to have more power, more memory — and if you can keep the price, that’d be good.” With Quest 2, we gave them more compute, more memory, and then on top of that we actually found a way to make it more affordable.
Vicki Dobbs Beck - Executive in Charge, ILMxLAB: Quest 2 has become our favorite headset just for ease of use and freedom of movement — not to mention it delivers relatively high-fidelity imagery and sound, something that’s very important to us at ILMxLAB. We’ve created two major experiences for Quest: Vader Immortal and Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge. We were able to push the state-of-the-art in different ways with each — and importantly, we made it possible for fans to truly “be in Star Wars.”
Matt Dickman - Technical Program Manager, Safety, Certification & Compliance: Accessories are an interesting piece of the Quest 2 story. For a long time we were focused on nailing the core device. There were some accessories, but Quest 2 is really the first headset to benefit from us building an entire accessories organization.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy: We learned with Quest that there’s really no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to VR, which is why Quest 2 was designed from the ground up to accommodate strap attachments. The soft strap makes the product lighter, more portable, and for me personally it makes it more ergonomic.
But I don’t expect the same to be true for you! If the soft strap doesn’t work for you, we have the Elite Strap which is more structured, and some people like that. And if you want more battery life, we have that too. Quest 2 was built on the strengths of Quest, but we give you choices. We didn’t make those choices for you.
Matt Dickman: Make the product for everyone, right? Design it so that a diverse population can use it.
Peter Bristol - Head of Industrial Design for FRL: We understand that customization is necessary. It’s important. There isn’t a right answer when it comes to ergonomics. For certain people, they’ll want the soft strap, or the battery strap. Whatever feels right. You think about glasses — there are no one-size-fits-all glasses. You need to make something for everybody, and we need that customization for VR systems as well.
DEVELOPERS ARE MAKING MONEY
Chris Pruett - Director of Content Ecosystem: I’m very happy that our goal has not been Facebook revenue, it’s been developer revenue.
Back in 2014, I had to take myself off the payroll to save the company I was at. Having understood what that feels like to be a small developer, really wondering if you’re going to survive the year, it’s super-duper important to me that the developers who are making massive investments in our platform have a real chance of success.
Lisa Brewster - Store Manager: Developers trust us to launch their games and their businesses, and if we mess up it doesn’t just reflect badly on us, it impacts them as well. I take the gravity of this very seriously and — this sounds really silly, but I have a little tradition. So like, when you’re on an airplane they use the term “souls on board,” like the passenger count. Well, the night before a big hardware launch, I always write on my hand the number of titles that are about to launch as my own “souls on board” count so that I really think about how many teams are depending on us.
It’s really important that developers are able to rely on us when building their businesses.
Ruth Bram - Executive Producer, Oculus Studios: We recently shared the news that developers are generating millions on the Oculus platform. This didn’t happen overnight. We funded numerous developers over the years to help kickstart a now robust ecosystem, helped small devs become medium-sized devs, partnered medium-sized with awesome IP, and we even built our own development team to discover and publish best practices that we still use today. Even so, I never would’ve predicted that this is where we’d be five years ago.
Tom Beardsmore - Co-founder / CEO, Coatsink: Quest 2 fulfills the initial promise of VR. We released Shadow Point on Quest and were amazed by the critical and commercial success that it brought us. 18 months later, we released Jurassic World Aftermath on Quest 2 to even greater success. The benefits are tangible across the board.
There have been plenty of ups and downs over the past 7 years, but I think the position the VR industry is in right now is at least as strong as any of us veterans could hope.
"It’s really important that developers are able to rely on us when building their businesses."
Lisa Brewster - Store Manager
Allison Lee - Developer Program Manager: Quest has done so much for the developer community. When developers submit their Launch Pad applications, it’s like they’re raising a child and releasing it into the world and looking for people to approve of it and download it. They are very personal projects that people are putting out there, and when they see others succeeding, that drives them to create more and push more and want to be involved more. So I’ve seen a huge lift in conversation recently — not only with the launch of the new hardware, but just seeing the numbers that show developers really succeeding.
Patrick O’Luanaigh - CEO, nDreams: For us, Quest and Quest 2 have moved the VR market into a much more commercially tenable position. So much so that we have now decided to co-fund and publish other developers’ VR games, and have set aside a $2 million pot to do so.
Quest 2 is the best headset at the moment, and I love how quickly you can start a gaming session anywhere.
Eric A. Anderson - Creative Director, Cyan: It’s been a really great experience launching Myst on a platform with such a wide install base and broad demographics — especially for the types of games we make! It’s night-and-day compared to shipping Obduction when VR was much more in its infancy.
Hannah Gamiel - Development Director, Cyan: VR sure isn’t dead. We have been working on VR experiences since the DK1 and Vive dev kits came out about 6-7 years ago. I have to admit that I did not expect mobile VR to happen so soon, especially at the fidelity that Quest 2 is at now.
Ruan Rothmann - Lead Designer, GORN: It’s less than a month since we released GORN on Quest, and it already looks like Quest might turn out to be our most successful platform!
The simplicity of use for the headset has also reinvigorated our love for VR and we are talking about maybe making more VR content in the future as a direct result.
Tom Kaczmarczyk - Co-founder, SUPERHOT Team: When we were eyeballing the development budget for SUPERHOT VR, we made an assumption that the game would sell zero copies and made sure the studio would still be okay if that happened. Now we’re here, nearly five years since we started working on SUPERHOT VR, and all of our lives have been substantially changed for the better by VR. The pace of growth that we’re seeing these days is just staggering.
Callum Underwood - Director, Special Projects, SUPERHOT Team: We continue to make horrifyingly large amounts of money from a game we launched years ago, and keep reaching new people – it’s fantastic!
Thomas Van Bouwel - Developer, Cubism: Without Quest, more niche games like Cubism would likely not be sustainable, but Quest's audience seems to be large and diverse enough for me to afford to work full time on the game. It's been great to see Quest turn the promise of accessible and affordable consumer VR into a reality over the last few years.
Here’s to Five More Years
What will VR look like in another five years? It’s an open question. Five years ago, few predicted — even within Oculus — that we’d have Quest and Quest 2, powerful standalone headsets that could replicate the Rift experience sans wires. It took the work and vision of thousands to get to this future, and it will take even more work and vision to get to the next milestone. Thank you for joining us.
Michael Abrash - Chief Scientist, Facebook Reality Labs: We are at the very beginning. All this innovation, all this invention still has to happen with VR.
Early VR rode on the back of other work that had been done. The cameras were cellphone cameras and the optics were basically off-the-shelf optics initially. Going from this point forward, we’re the ones who are developing it — and that’s exciting. It’s good. But it is also really, really challenging on the innovation front.
Peter Bristol - Head of Industrial Design for FRL: There are still so many problems to solve, and from day one I think we’ve been pretty well-positioned to solve them, thanks to the investments Facebook made into Michael Abrash’s Research division. We’re seeing those developments come to fruition.
You can't make the future with off-the-shelf components though, and we’re starting to get into custom-everything in order to enable the futures we believe in.
Atman Binstock: Every single program, we have moments of humility where VR teaches us something new and we’re like, “We didn’t have it all figured out.” Shipping any product is a huge battle. It’s like going to war. It’s exhausting. But each time, we get better at it. It doesn’t change the fact that there are painful lessons, every single time. But we get better at it.
Jason Rubin - VP, Play: At the beginning of any of these new technologies, the world tends to resist. People are comfortable with what they have. It takes future thinkers — and to a certain extent oddballs — to go out on a limb and work with technology that isn’t fully baked yet. Initially, it always looks like it’s going to fail, and then even as it starts to succeed people are skeptical.
"VR doesn’t need one champion. It needs as many champions as possible."
VR isn’t any different. I remember when Trip Hawkins said “We’re putting a CD-ROM drive inside a console,” and the press and consumers were like, “Cartridges don’t scratch, cartridges don’t have load times. I don’t want to buy CDs. CDs are for music, and who the hell needs 600 MBs of space anyway? No one is ever going to fill a CD.” And it felt like that!
To be sure, VR isn’t mobile phones and it’s not game consoles yet, but it’s bigger than game consoles were when they adopted CDs. It’s getting to scale, and it’s pretty clear to me that 5 to 10 years down the road, nobody’s going to be saying “VR is not a thing” and nobody’s going to be saying “Developers can't make money in VR.” They’re already saying it less.
Caitlin Kalinowski - Head of VR Hardware: VR is in this magic spot where, year over year the stuff we changed has been incredible. Like from CV1 to Go to Rift S and Quest, almost everything changed year over year. The processor, the display, inside-out tracking. And every time we made a new headset we learned more and more about VR. I would argue that the last five years of VR are the most exciting phase of any product.
Like, eventually — five years from now or whatever — we will kind of have a sense of what VR is. We do not yet. Not all of it.
Mike Verdu - VP, Content: I remember when gaming was emerging on consoles and PC, and there was this golden age where you’d see innovative new games come out all the time, and think, “Wow, I just had no idea that you could do that — not just on any single platform, but period.” And we’re in that same sort of golden age with VR.
We are just learning the language and the grammar for great VR experiences. We haven’t discovered all the possible use cases for this exciting new technology. I can’t wait to see what passionate, innovative developers do with VR in the future. I suspect in five years, we’ll be talking about use cases we can’t even imagine right now, but they will come.
Tom Beardsmore - Co-founder / CEO, Coatsink: People talk about Quest 2 being an inflection point for VR, and while I agree, I think there are even greater inflection points to come — better tech in all aspects, and bigger experiences and games.
Denny Unger - CEO & Creative Director, Cloudhead Games: I often compare VR to the Gutenberg Press, or the modern internet, in that it's a "forever technology" that has utility well beyond its current scope. How far will it continue to evolve? How far can it evolve? The answer to both is potentially forever.
Mike Doran - Director of Production, Oculus Studios: I’m in a uniquely blessed position to be able to work not only on some of the most premier games in the world, but also on a platform that’s constantly pushing the envelope. The things that are coming in the next three, five, seven years are amazing, and I wish I could talk to you about them right now. And I wish I could tell you all the great partners we have signed up that are going to blow people away when we’re finally allowed to talk about them.
I could rattle off the list of names, but you’d have to bleep them all for the piece. [Laughs]
Ian Fitz - Creator, Sealost Interactive LLC: I think the scale and scope of VR games is about to take off. As the potential audience grows, developers will be able to keep larger teams afloat and spend more development time creating games. It’s an exciting time where we’ll have VR products reaching their true potential and will be able to see which concepts work better in VR and which should remain on TVs and monitors (and which work equally well in both formats).
Brian Allgeier - Director of User Experience, Insomniac Games: Looking at the reviews for Edge of Nowhere, I’m surprised at how many people are still enjoying it and appreciate the game despite it being third person and originally designed for a traditional controller. While VR shines when played in first person with Touch controllers, I think there will always be a place for alternative VR experiences including traditional “sit-down” third person games.
Ru Weerasuriya - Creative Director, Lone Echo: I think we should not forget how far we’ve come and how many new experiences VR’s enabled. How many emotions it’s conjured up. We’ve had a chance to do things that were not possible five years ago. Things that, if you’d asked someone five years ago “Could you imagine?” the answer would’ve been, “No, no, that’s still far away.”
"It’s pretty clear to me that 5 to 10 years down the road, nobody’s going to be saying “VR is not a thing” and nobody’s going to be saying “Developers can't make money in VR.” They’re already saying it less."
Jason Rubin - VP, Play
Yelena Rachitsky - Executive Producer, Media Studios: The past five years we’ve been learning storytelling techniques in VR — how audiences connect to characters, finding the right amount of interactivity that doesn’t distract from the narrative, building worlds that audiences want to be transported to, and more. We’ve worked on many smaller projects in order to make a dent in this space, but it’s important that in the future we take big leaps and take chances on bigger projects.
The other thing I get excited about is more experimental forms of content — and an example of that is live performance. We launched this piece recently called The Under Presents that had live theater actors. There’s something special about the live-ness of it. People from anywhere in the world can give you this unique experience and take you on adventures, and the best part is you don’t even have to leave your house.
Hannah Gamiel - Development Director, Cyan: I’m a huge fan of the “Tempest” showing that The Under Presents put on. It was surreal being able to watch (and take part in) a live theatrical/improv performance, all while in VR.
Brendan Walker - Principal Engineer, Polyarc: I am hoping to see more advances in virtual character interaction. Right now, virtual character interactions are very constrained and expensive to make since they are all handcrafted, but there have been exciting advancements recently in synthetic human rendering, speech synthesis, and AI conversation systems. I’m hoping some of these advancements will help us make more dynamic and surprising character interactions in VR.
Chris Pruett: I’m super excited about VR as a storytelling mechanism. And we know other people are interested in that as well, both developers and players, and right now they’re just beyond our reach. They know what they’re looking for, and they want to know that VR can do what they’re looking for, and we just need to create and invest in the content that’s only viable in VR and will convince them to join us.
Yelena Rachitsky: In VR, there’s this concept of an empathy machine, of VR being something that people feel emotionally connected to and that could help people understand difficult or sensitive issues. I’m really excited about that, and when we launched Traveling While Black it really took off and deeply connected with a lot of people. We know there’s something there, and I think we’re just starting to explore it.
Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy - Product Manager, Quest / Quest 2: There was this very endearing moment at GDC 2019 where Jason Rubin came to me and said “Yoshida-san [Shuhei Yoshida, former president of Sony Interactive Entertainment] wants to demo Quest. Can you show him?”
And I found that interesting at first, because obviously Sony has their own VR headset. But he was one of the nicest people, super engaging, super fun, and at that point I realized — I’d heard it from a lot of people, but I realized — that VR doesn’t need one champion. It needs as many champions as possible for the community to grow and for developers to succeed.
Eventually there may be one device that sells more, one that sells less. But we are not there yet. And I had that realization watching — he had this joyous expression on his face, spending time with Quest. I really became aware at that point that VR is one big community.
Caitlin Kalinowski: There is a tendency to be like, “Oh, these are the three people who made VR happen,” or whatever. But the cool thing about consumer electronics is it takes thousands of people. Not just at the company, but outside of it as well. And being clear about that is important to me. It literally took hundreds of people within Oculus and thousands of people outside for these headsets to ship, and to make VR a reality.
Michael Abrash: So what comes next? I think my last five-year prediction is only two years old, so maybe I’ll just always be looking five years out. [Laughs]
The story of the personal computer was largely the story of Moore’s Law plus a lot of really good software. There aren’t a whole lot of fundamental differences between the Alto and the computer I’m using now except for those huge differences in scale.
It’s not going to happen that way with VR. Photons do not care about Moore’s Law, right?
For instance, in VR right now, you’re always focused at one and a half meters roughly, and that means anything closer is unclear, and it can be fatiguing to look at them. Now, we’ve come up with a couple of ways to address that, but they first require eye tracking — which no one has really shipped on a large scale. Then it must be integrated into a headset so it doesn’t use too much power, doesn’t make it too heavy, doesn’t throw off the form factor. That’s a lot more complicated than writing some software, right?
"It literally took hundreds of people within Oculus and thousands of people outside for these headsets to ship, and to make VR a reality."
Caitlin Kalinowski - Head of VR Hardware
Five years from now, I think we can be very close to 20/20 vision. I hate to call that “retina resolution” because a lot of people can see better than that. But that would be excellent resolution — and that doesn’t just speak to the resolution of the panel, but how good the optics are. I would like to see a wider field of view. We’ll see if that can actually happen in five years. I would also like to see higher dynamic range of brightness, because right now it’s much dimmer than we think, and I think it’d make a huge difference especially in terms of replicating outdoor experiences.
And lastly, I think it’s quite likely that five years from now, we could do this interview in VR and we would feel like it was a more personal experience than it is now. And I think that might be the single biggest thing. Being able to be in environments that feel real, and share spaces with other people.
Further out, one thing that is really sitting there waiting to be solved is how to get people personalized HRTFs, or head-related transfer functions. HRTFs describe how sound hits the folds of your ears, and to some extent the shape of your head and shoulders. It’s how you know where sound is coming from. If you have a proper HRTF, it is absolutely possible to produce virtual sounds that are indistinguishable from real sounds.
The trick is that right now, it takes an expensive machine and an anechoic chamber to do your HRTF, and you have to sit there for an hour. There has been progress, and the HRTFs going into production are better than the ones we had originally, but we don’t have the ability yet to just have someone take pictures of their ears and then generate their HRTF. That’s a big thing we’re working on, and it certainly won’t be 20 more years or even 15 more years.
It’s a long path, but I would also point out that from J.C.R. Licklider’s first vision of human-oriented computing in 1956 to the Alto was 17 years. From the Alto to the Macintosh was another 11 years. These things take time. You have to do all the parts of it. You have to figure out why it matters and you have to come up with the software that makes it matter and you have to start getting people to understand why it matters.
People should realize that we’ve come a long way and we’ve done a great job — but this road stretches out for the rest of their lifetimes, and that’s the most exciting part!