The Best Oculus Experience Yet Is a Gray Room Full of Junk
As I strapped on my Oculus Rift headset—a production model, the one you’ll soon be able to buy—a woman whose name I can’t remember stepped into an adjoining room, closed the door, and did the same. I adjusted the strap, popped headphones over my ears, put a Touch Controller on each hand, and waited. A moment later, I heard her say, “Hello!” Suddenly we were together in an odd blue-gray virtual room that looked like a dentist’s waiting room in 2150. She waved at me from across a gray slab of table. We spent the next 20 minutes or so within this room (which at one point lost all gravity and became a spacescape, but was otherwise just a room), playing inside the most remarkable virtual-reality experience I’ve ever tried.
Oculus developed this demo, called Toybox, as a way of testing its Touch Controllers and experimenting with the many ways people might interact in virtual worlds. How do people hand each other objects? Can they high-five? Can you play a game together, or against each other? How does all that work? More important, how does it feel? It’s not so much a game as just a space, a room full of objects you’re meant to fiddle with. My new friend appeared in Toybox as a disembodied, glowing head with a Rift over its eyes, but I could hear her speak and see her move. Together we built and moved a tower of blocks, fired slingshots, and played ping-pong. At one point she held a firecracker, and asked me to light it. I looked down to my left, picked up a lighter with a press of the trigger underneath my left middle finger, and lit it with a super-cool smoker-guy flick of the wrist. Then I reached out and lit the firecracker in her hand. It promptly exploded in our faces.
After spending a few minutes in Toybox, you understand exactly why Facebook wanted Oculus. VR isn’t just a way to transport yourself anywhere; it’s a way for people to go there together. You can imagine and invent just about anything, then invite someone along to experience it with you. A colleague who also did the Toybox demo said he fell a little in love with his demo-mate—even though she was just a voice and a weird glowing head. I get that. Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg called the zero-gravity ping-pong “the craziest Oculus experience I’ve had recently.” And, he said, “What’s really amazing is sharing these experiences with your friends.”
Like so many things currently available for the Rift, Toybox is a glimpse of what could be. As Oculus prepares to ship its first consumer version, it’s trying to build and bundle as many kinds of content as possible. “I have no idea, in the long run, what kinds of amazing new genres will be created,” says Jason Rubin, Oculus’ head of worldwide studios. “But we’re trying to fill a pipeline with breadth, a lot of variety, and a bunch of new stuff as well.” They’re still trying to figure out what people will want, and do, in this new device, so in the meantime they’re trying everything.
The most important thing for Oculus, now that the first version of the Rift is ready to go on sale, is making sure there’s enough to do with your new $599 gadget. Through Rubin’s studio, the company has funded and aided developers in making VR-first games, and has a long and extensive content roadmap. The goal was to be as broad as possible: Some Oculus games are first-person shooters, some are sports games, some are third-person epics. One, The Climb, is a rock-climbing sim—seriously, that’s all you do. But it’s terrifying. “You wouldn’t make a climbing game on any other medium,” Rubin says. “But you make a climbing game in VR, and you can actually look around for your next handhold, and you look down and you can actually see all the way to the ground, it suddenly makes sense.” Nothing is off the table, because there are no rules yet about what does and doesn’t work.
All of Oculus’ experience and data suggests consumers want a little bit of everything. As we speak in a conference room, a three-hour line of people stretches away from Oculus’ black monolith of a CES booth, waiting to try the headset. Each person answers a survey afterward. “Everybody likes something different,” says Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. “When we’ve shown a slate of a dozen different titles, each one is someone’s favorite. Showing this variety, and having this variety, is really important.”
Oculus’s always planned to sell hardware at cost, because it wants as many people as possible using VR. Maybe that’s why, when pre-orders started, Oculs saw such a backlash at the $599 price. (A $1,500 bundle includes a Rift and a computer to power it.) Iribe shrugs at the uproar. The first iPhone cost a bundle, he says, as did the Apple II. Good things start expensive and get cheaper. If the price is too high, he says, the Gear VR’s pretty great, and only 99 bucks. That’s the one they wanted to be as cheap as possible. “And then,” Iribe told his team, “let’s optimize for quality on the Rift, and maybe the price point gets pushed up, and it’s a really premium experience. But it’s the best VR in the world.” The best VR in the world costs $599 to make. “That is our break-even number,” Iribe says. “And break-even as long as we sell a lot of Rifts. If we don’t sell very many, we don’t break even.”
Step one for Oculus: sell a lot of Rifts in 2016. That one appears to be pretty easy. “I think there was some expectation around the cost that had to get reset,” Iribe says, “but overall, preorder-wise, we were overwhelmed with interest. And we were overwhelmed with preorders.” And Oculus is still cranking on hardware, of course—this is just version one. “Think back to the first cellphone,” Rubin says. “The brick. You think about what that looks like. This,” he says, pointing to the huge picture of the Rift above me in the conference room, “is going to look like a brick at some point.” Iribe makes a face and cuts him off, half-smiling: “It’s a beautiful device.” “It is, absolutely,” Rubin says. “But someday in the future…”
More immediately, Oculus’s next job is to keep people engrossed in their headsets for hours, days, weeks, and months. “The demos are knocking it out of the park,” Rubin says. He’s given 1,000 demos—literally, a thousand. He counted. Just before we met, he’d shown the super-intense shooter Bullet Train to three NFL players, all of whom were sweaty and elated by the end. So he knows this thing is great. “The next thing for us to do,” he says, “is keep people happy over the long term.”
It’s impossible to know what people will want from virtual reality when the novelty wears off, but it’ll probably be something like Toybox: Games we can play together not just side by side, but really, truly together. Experiences we can have as if we’re both really there. Who knows what they’ll look like?
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