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Oculus CTO John Carmack: Samsung Let Us Bypass Android "Development Hell"

"The reason this project was nice was the tight partnership with Samsung and that we were targeting one device."

Courtesy Oculus VR

In a non-stop unscripted talk at the Oculus Connect conference today, Oculus VR CTO John Carmack took a candid deep dive into the lingering technological problems with the company’s upcoming mobile headset, the Gear VR. But he also explained why partnering with Samsung has made life easier.

Oculus’ other headset, the still-in-prototype flagship Oculus Rift, must be tethered to a PC in order to create a convincing virtual reality experience, which surrounds the user in a virtual world and lets them look around freely in it. The Gear VR does much the same thing, but is wireless, and the processing happens on an Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, instead of a PC.

Prior to coming to work at Oculus last year, Carmack had briefly experimented with developing for Android but backed away because of the fragmentation in Android ecosystem.

“I’ve got a lot of negative things to say about the Android development experience… Some of them are fundamental,” Carmack said. “But the reason this project was nice was the tight partnership with Samsung and that we were targeting one device.”

Focusing on one prominent Android device meant “bypass[ing] the development hell of Android” and made everything more like developing for a console, Carmack said.

The Gear VR, which was announced earlier this month, is scheduled to go on sale this fall. Carmack praised Google’s virtual reality headset Cardboard for boosting the profile of mobile VR, and said in a tongue and cheek way that being made out of cardboard helps manage expectations.

Earlier in the day at Oculus Connect, company executives balanced Jobsian hype for the future with the announcement of another intermediate step on the road to consumer-ready VR: A new prototype of the Oculus Rift that further extends its motion tracking capabilities. Carmack acknowledged that VR advocates are itching for the day when the company can drop the labels “development kit” or, as in the case of Gear VR, “innovator edition.”

The two big unsolved problems afflicting the Gear VR, he said, are a “flicker” in some types of content caused by a too-low refresh rate of 60hz, and the lack of a positional-tracking camera, which the latest versions of the Rift have. Positional tracking is a harder problem, but screen makers like Samsung could conceivably fix the refresh rate by re-embracing interlaced video, Carmack said. The main obstacle there, he noted, was industry “inertia” rather than a technological hurdle.

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