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Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney: Virtual Reality Is the Future and 'We Are 100 Percent In' (Q&A)

In 10 years' time, he says, we won't need televisions, mice, keyboards or touchscreens.

Eric Johnson for Re/code

The first step to understanding virtual reality, according to Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, is finding someone who has a high-end headset with good content that you can demo.

“I’ve never met a skeptic of VR who has tried it,” he said in an interview with Re/code at last week’s Oculus Connect conference.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will be won over immediately. He acknowledged that VR growth may be slow at first, and sustaining it will be dependent on continually improving both the hardware and the software, something that’s easier said than done.

Sweeney pitched Epic’s Unreal Engine, a suite of game-development technical tools that the company uses internally and sells to outside developers, as one of the places where that improved content will be made. But in the long term, he sees virtual reality and adjacent tech like mixed reality as something that will go way beyond games.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: Let’s start with the 10,000-foot view. What’s the landscape of virtual reality right now?

Tim Sweeney: We see this as the future of this industry. Not this year and not the next year, but over the next decade, all other forms of displays and computer-human interaction devices will be replaced by VR and its successor technologies.

If you look at the world 10 years from now, everyone’s wearing something that looks like sunglasses, but has a super high-res 8K display for each eye that gives you a seamless combination of reality and computer-generated images. It’s more convenient than an iPhone, because you don’t have to reach into your pocket to get something. You just reach out with gestures. And it will be better than the highest-end gaming PC today because you’re not looking at a monitor; your entire field of view, 130 degrees, is filled with high-quality computer imagery.

And once you have that technology, you don’t need any other displays. You don’t need a television in your home. You can project a legacy television on any surface you want. You don’t need keyboards, you don’t need mice and you don’t need touchscreens. We are 100 percent in on this. It’s not a platform where, today, you can go out and build a $100 million game like Gears of War. But it’s coming.

What excites you most about this technology?

The thing that excites me most technologically is the ability to use VR not just for games and displaying our content, but also for creating that content. We’re putting a lot of thought into what the Unreal Engine editor looks like as a VR application. The situation right now is you use a mouse to manipulate polygons and objects. The mouse is on a 2-D surface, and your world is 3-D, so there are a lot of approximations that aren’t mappable to the human brain. In VR, the experience will be dramatically better, being able to just reach out, grab objects, sculpt them and paint on surfaces, the way a real painter or sculptor would do.

So, if I’m creating a virtual version of the room we’re sitting in, I would know exactly how big to make this table because I would see it in front of me in VR.

Yeah. It’s going to take a lot of advancement in the tools, and before it’s really reached the sweet spot, it’s going to take advances in the hardware, too. Right now, anything that requires text-based interaction, the display is fairly low-resolution for that. And I look at that from the point of view of a game developer, but I also look at it from the point of view of every architect or industrial designer. They don’t want to work on some piece of graph paper and some abstract coordinate system. They want to be in that space.

Your competitor Unity is also making a big VR push. What’s the difference between what you and they are doing?

We’ve come at the problem of game development from very different directions. I have immense respect for Unity because they played a key role in establishing this indie revolution, empowering a huge number of people to get into game development. We’ve come from the direction of building AAA console games that sell tens of millions of copies, like Gears of War and Mass Effect.

Right now, it is easy to start a game, easier than ever before. It’s still pretty hard to finish a game, but what is brutally difficult is to ship a game that becomes commercially successful. The market is brutally competitive, and the standards that gamers apply to games are really high. There are two ways to be successful. One is to win the indie lottery, being one or two of the top 10,000 games that happens to get noticed by the creative merits of the game. The other — much more tried and true — formula for success is to build a game that distinguishes itself from the competition in terms of visuals, gameplay, performance, all these other things that create a really compelling experience. We are focused on solving that hard problem, shipping a successful game, and all along we’ve been willing to sacrifice the other aspects to satisfy that goal. We could make it easier to start an Unreal Engine game, but we wouldn’t do that at the expense of the end goal.

Do you expect virtual reality will be like mobile, with games being sold as a service that you pay for over time?

I think there will be two categories of experiences. There will be bite-sized chunks of entertainment, and especially with VR, that’s going to be one of the key initial segments. If you took Bullet Train [Epic Games’ latest VR demo] and turned it into an hour-long experience, you could sell that for $10 and a lot of people would be really happy to buy that for $10. And then there will be games that operate themselves as services, that will be replayable, especially those with some form of online social interaction. Those are the games that will evolve over a long period of time. You might have a game that lasts for four years, and by year four it’s something completely different from how it started. We’ll see all models. What you can’t do right now is spend two years building a VR experience with a big team and ship it. You’ve got to build something relatively quickly with a small team.

Are you interested in the idea of the virtual reality metaverse?

Yeah. There have been a lot of early attempts, not in VR, to build that — things like Second Life. The ones that are most successful commercially have always been games. It’ll be interesting to see how the metaverse idea evolves, whether it’s one universal piece of software that everybody uses, or whether it’s realized as a series of different products, each appealing to a different audience. That is one of the biggest and most fundamental questions about VR right now.

All signs point to there being many virtual and augmented reality competitors, and not just a single, dominant company. You don’t want to have five different social networks, and everybody chooses one, and then people can’t talk to other people because they’re using a different system.

And it seems like that’s the same problem as the sunglasses you described. If we’re going to use them in the real world, don’t they all need to be interoperable?

Right. If you had two manufacturers and everyone’s walking around with augmented reality in the real world, half the people are dead to you.

Have you done much with augmented reality and mixed reality?

We’ve done a lot of thinking about it. But our practical development is focused on VR right now. This is where the rubber meets the road, this year and next year. Augmented reality is further off. Right now, we think of these as separate products, but all the VR platforms will evolve in that direction. It’s really the question of miniaturization and how to deliver the best consumer experience.

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