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Oculus Rift Inventor Palmer Luckey: Virtual Reality Will Make Distance Irrelevant (Q&A)

"Virtual reality has never always been about gaming," Luckey says. It's about the "metaverse," which Facebook can build.

Kurt Wagner

Will virtual reality be as significant a new technology as smartphones were a decade ago? Can VR do more than just play games? And how much is all of this going to cost?

Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey has answers to all of those questions, and more. At the gaming trade show E3 this week, he sat down with Re/code to discuss the Oculus Rift, the company’s PC-connected headset that is set to launch in early 2016.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: What is the state of Oculus and of VR right now? Do you see the consumer version as being for hardcore gamers?

In these early days, probably for at least two years, VR is going to be primarily for gamers and enthusiasts that are willing to invest in high-end machines. VR is going to become something mainstream, but it’s not going to happen right away. You just don’t have the horsepower to make it happen on a device, much less a cheap enough and comfortable enough device that a normal consumer is going to want to have. There’s also going to be more diverse content. Right now, it’s almost entirely games, because only the games industry has the tools and the talent to make immersive 3-D worlds.

I’m the most optimistic guy about VR out there. I have crazy visions of what we’ll be doing in the future. But it’s not going to reach hundreds of millions of people in the next three years.

Is VR the next iPhone?

I think it is, but the difference with the iPhone is that there had been smartphones for a really long time. The iPhone took it and refined it. It took decades of research into user interface design — you had Windows Mobile phones, you had Palm phones. I had a Nokia N800. It was a really cool device. But it was really clunky to use.

You look at VR, it just … died. We’re not building on a decade of small improvements. We’re kind of starting from scratch here. It’s unlikely that the first things to come out in that range of consumer devices are going to be the iPhone. The iPhone moment is going to take longer, and it’s probably not going to be such a huge, radical jump, it’s going to be more gradual. The Rift is not the “iPhone of VR.” Nothing out there is “the iPhone of VR.” They’re almost like the Palm Pilots and the Treos of virtual reality.

Although I guess you hope to be around longer than the Palm Pilot was.

That was separate. I don’t think technology is the thing that brought Palm down. But we’re in that early stage where people are going to look back and say, “Wow, that was so clunky. But it built the groundwork that we needed to get to virtual reality that was perfect.”

Let’s talk about price. At the Code Conference, Brendan was saying he wanted the all-in price for the Rift and the minimum PC to power it to be around $1,500.

[That]’s more that that’s what it would cost right now. It’s not what we want the price to be. But currently … we put out our recommended specs. That’s a known quantity. We want you to be able to buy a Rift and a PC for around that price. People imagine that we’re targeting that price, but it’s not — it’s just a reality. And we’re trying to be honest with people.

We could have told you $500, but if you don’t have a PC that’s good enough to run the Rift. … We still get questions from people who think the Rift is a standalone device. Like, that it doesn’t need anything at all. And there are other people who are like, “Oh, you need a computer? I have a MacBook Air.” We want to be honest with people so they know, “If I want to do this VR thing, in the first generation, I’m going to need to spend a lot of money.”

What’s your read of low-cost VR like Google Cardboard? The code name for that project was “Oculus Thrift.” Will that affect people’s perception of VR?

There are some people right now who are worried about it hurting people’s perception of VR, and there’s some validity to that. But at the same time, consumer VR is going to be out there in large numbers in the next year or two. I think people are going to realize what the deficiencies are. I don’t worry about mass middle-market people being turned off by Cardboard. It’s going to become clear that it’s its own separate segment, way below everything else that’s going on.

I’m really familiar with what Cardboard’s doing; it’s not a novel concept. Cardboard is in many ways a direct ripoff of FOV2GO, a project I helped work on when I was at ICT, and it was fairly well known in the academic VR community. The idea was to build an extremely cheap VR headset, not out of cardboard, but of foam core. And the first ones we built were for phones. This was when I was working on the Rift. But it was clear that phone sensors weren’t remotely good enough, the displays weren’t very good, and trying to run something universally on a bunch of phones is just not an optimal way to do it. I don’t think it’s going to be providing a good VR experience anytime soon.

What about social VR? People have been asking, ever since Facebook bought Oculus, when are we going to see News Feed VR?

That’s a dumb idea. That’s not the type of social VR that people are looking for. There’s a lot of better ways to have a large news feed, like a monitor or a big screen on your phone. A lot of people didn’t “get” the Facebook acquisition, because it seemed to make so little sense. And that confusion made sense in the context of a gamer looking at it. It’s worth remembering that virtual reality has never always been about gaming. Any real virtual reality enthusiast can look back at VR science fiction. It’s not about playing games … “The Matrix,” “Snow Crash,” all this fiction was not about sitting in a room playing video games. It’s about being in a parallel digital world that exists alongside our own, communicating with other people, playing with other people.

The metaverse?

The metaverse. Facebook is the company that has a lot of the infrastructure, the resources that we can use to build the metaverse in the long run. That is the type of social VR that we’re thinking about. Toybox (Oculus’ internal demo of its motion controllers, Oculus Touch) is two people in a room playing this game together. That’s a social experience. You’re in a room, doing something, and that’s just like socializing in real life. “Social” has turned into a derogatory term. “Social gaming” really means “shit gaming.” And “social features” really means “useless features.” In VR, that just doesn’t apply.

It sounds like you need different words for this stuff.

You kind of do. But at the same time, it is the natural fit. I don’t know what you would necessarily call it. “Multiplayer” is associated exclusively with games. Whereas “socializing” and “social,” those are associated with real life. VR is trying to get closer to that.

There’s all this gaming jargon out there like “local multiplayer” as opposed to “Hey, let’s play Wii Sports.”

The whole thing with VR is that it doesn’t matter, local versus networked gaming. The goal in virtual reality isn’t to have people sit in the same room with headsets on. Back in the day, when telephones were taking off, if you had said, “Hey, you’ll be at a party and you’ll all be able to be talking to someone else on a phone.” It’d be like, “How are you going to do that? You’re going to have a telephone room? Just a switchbox with 20 telephones all along the wall?” That’s how they would have looked at it backed then. Using a VR device isn’t going to be going to a box, with wires coming out of the back. Everyone’s going to have their own set of glasses, and they’ll be able to play, whether they’re actually in the same space or hundreds of miles apart. That’s the real goal of VR.

You were saying that gamers will be the most likely audience to drive the first wave of VR. What has to happen, then, for this technology to tap into non-gaming potential? Is it continuing to lower the cost? Are there other things that you want to see happen?

Cost is a big one, but things like the iPad have shown that for a certain segment of the population, you can have something be really expensive if they believe that it’s worth the price. Driving down the cost for that group of people doesn’t do much. If it’s $300 or if it’s $1,000, they’re still going to buy it. When you can get the cost down a lot more, where you’re accessing entirely new markets of people, you can do something that makes it available to everybody. Cellphones in 2008, 2009 — a good phone would be $600, $700 unsubsidized. Now, you can buy phones for less than $100 unsubsidized that are much better than any of those phones. VR is going to be the same way. If you wait five or ten years, you won’t be able to buy a headset that’s worse than CV1 [the first consumer Rift] for $100.

The other thing that’s going to change is comfort and just getting the form factor of this thing down. Right now, you have to be a certain type of person in a certain type of mode to say, “I’m going to go and play this game, and I’m going to wear this crazy thing on my head.” It’s not something you can wear in your daily life. The last thing that’s really going to matter is content. Right now, we have largely games. As you get more diverse content, things like education, business, telepresence, being able to collaboratively work in the same space from the other side of the world … people in nursing homes who are frail and unable to travel will be able to go to the places they want to go. Those are the things that are going to make everyone actually want to use VR and keep coming back to it every single day. And at that point, the form factor and price become a little less relevant.

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