The Korea Games Conference this year was held at the COEX Convention Center in Seoul. BusinessKorea was able to sit down with Aaron Davies, Director of Developer Relations for Oculus VR, and talk about their upcoming product, the Oculus Rift, and the future of virtual reality. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Where do you get your parts from? Are you working with Korean companies for the display technology?
Oculus works with various companies across the globe, including multiple display technology companies local to Korea. We have a rapidly expanding office in Seoul which manages various logistics, development, and PR interests. We have quickly and virtually become a global company during the past year. Joo and Dillian, who you met on the way up, are both locals here.
We are not revealing our technology partners right now. But there are only a handful of companies in the world that can create displays that can work for VR, so we have built excellent relationships with the few best companies in the world. We are currently using LCD screens but are testing a wide variety of display technologies. There are trade-offs with different techs, such as pixel density, resolution, latency, things like that. It is a fine balancing act to put something together that works as a coherent whole. Everything is not quite apples to apples. Finding the best display for our VR headset is an interesting process of evaluating trade-offs, in our search for the Utopian VR performance. Display technology is constantly evolving; we are confident in the decisions we are making about various technologies making their way into our first consumer product, including displays and sensors.
What does your Seoul office do?
They mostly focus on developer and partner outreach, VR content, regionalized press and marketing. There are a lot of developer opportunities here in Seoul. We depend upon component and display companies for our product so we maintain great relationships with companies that are here.
Can you elaborate more on what you mean by developer relationships?
Yes. Our consumer product is not yet released, but we have been selling developer kits that companies and independent developers can use to create new VR experiences. One of the challenges of VR is that content needs to be designed specifically for the medium – so developers often look to us for guidance, resources, and support. We have emphasized that the Oculus Rift dev kits we are selling are intended for development, but some enthusiasts have already picked them up anyway. There’s actually quite a demand for them already. And the current situation is a minute snapshot of what we expect to happen at the launch of the consumer product.
It seems like you are following a computer game marketing strategy, drumming up excitement for the product a year or two before it’s ready.
Yes, but this may be a new product release paradigm, and if anything I would say the eager developers and consumers have been beating their own excitement drum without needing much help from Oculus. The product development life cycle is socialized and democratized these days. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have exclusive or surprising product launches like in the good old days. This element works to our favor though, as we have been able to get a ton of feedback from the community. The community is even setting standards about what they’re satisfied with in VR – what makes them happy. It is great feedback and we are very happy with what we’ve gotten so far. It is a green field technology, so there’s a lot to be learned. We are at the tip of the iceberg right now in terms of what people will do with and create for VR.
During the demo, when I turned my head rapidly, I got a little disoriented. Was that just me or is there still a little lag in the technology?
There is still a little bit of lag, which you’ll see continually improve as we move towards launch. The latency problems we are solving have foundations in both hardware and software. In software it’s a mix of our own platform implementation coupled with dependencies on the graphics pipeline and third party content performance. In the hardware the response depends on pixel refresh rate. Pixels in the screens that we are using have latency themselves in terms of how long the photos remain active. Using some newer display technology is going to help us solve that issue. Other facets of the disorientation problem are software drivers, firmware, sensors, display technology, tracking technology, and predictive rendering. When they work together as one they are going to make the consumer product shine. The dev kit that you looked at does not have the latest display technology that we are using. It is a milestone snapshot of what the final product is going to be. It shows the promise of the final quality.
What kind of business numbers are you expecting to see on launch day next year?
We do anticipate more demand than supply, as we’ve seen with a lot of similar products – more initial demand than units available. I think we’re already witnessing a lot of demand just from the community from the perceptions of the press and consumers. We do feel that it is going to be a very healthy market. And it is not just for gaming applications – one of the complexities of releasing a product like this is matching consumer demand for different market segments. We have interest from the medical, product design, architecture, and academic fields. But in the end this a cumulative demand from a large market on a company with finite resources. We are going to do the best we can and expect that consumer launch 1 will sell out quickly. Of course this is not just going to be a single point in time, but an ongoing manufacturing process. But we do expect high demand up front.
Are you going to have a simultaneous worldwide launch?
No one truly launches globally right away, you may not for example be able to buy a Rift in Madagascar on day one. But we do want to make VR globally accessible as soon as possible. We do have markets we are going to focus on, but we are still working on which those are. Major technology markets are obvious choices, but we also have great interest in meeting demand in emerging markets where the Oculus Rift would give a fundamentally different experience to those who have not used technology before. We wonder how the Oculus Rift will change people’s lives in Africa, South America, or Pan-Asia.
Are you going to launch in Korea on launch day?
We are targeting Korea, and Korea is absolutely a key focus for our company. We have staff here creating an ecosystem that’s going to demand the product. So it is very likely and certainly of interest for us to launch in Korea as soon as possible. But we are still finalizing which markets we will launch in for our targeted release date, which we hope to be during the 2014 holidays.
What plans do you have after the first Oculus Rift is launched?
Our vision is that the Oculus Rift becomes the premium virtual reality brand. The trick is not uniquely hardware configuration – technically someone smart could build a Rift clone with off-the-shelf parts and a 3d printer. The real magic is from talented people who make all the parts work well together so that it doesn’t run poorly and make people sick. Bringing people like John Carmack on board and the smart founders including our CEO from Gaikai and Scaleform, Brendan Iribe, gives us the best people in the industry to solve these problems. Our consumer launch is the beginning of a long and exciting journey for us. At first are primarily a vision-focused experience, so we plan to expand that to engaging the whole body. We are looking into haptics and other wearable form factors. This is just the beginning.
In the Korean sector there is a lot of talk about augmented reality through wearable devices working together in a personal cloud. Are you interested in getting into that?
We’re not dismissive of any opportunities. The magic is creating new experiences based off of new technology that blurs the lines between tangible and virtual worlds. New sensor technologies or new form factors for virtual reality inputs and outputs and introduce new experience is what we’re excited about. We’re all about providing products to consumers that they’ll love just as much as our first.
The beautiful thing is that the Rift in large part has the smartphone emergence to thank for its being feasible. The components from mobile devices have made sensors and displays affordable with the right performance and level of quality. This is the reason why VR is going to work now and it couldn’t work in the 70s, or even the 90s.
I’ve heard robotics researchers say the same thing. The computing core of the robots that they are developing now is a smartphone.
Yeah! The ubiquity of different sensors and computing points is really very exciting. Something I’m personally very excited about is in 3D, people have started to do very interesting stuff with environment captures or recreation that down the road in not too much time will turn into very customized virtual experiences. Imagine, for example, that this is my living room at home. I can capture a VR version of my home theater in which 3D characters can react to me in my own space. There’s a lot of interesting tech out there. At this point for us there’s great interest from broad industries. It just requires a lot of discipline to focus with laser accuracy on product launch and not get too distracted by other things that we don’t have the manpower or resources for right now.
How long has the Oculus Rift been in development so far?
We launched the Kickstarter in 2012, and had our 1-year anniversary in July. It is really crazy to look back and see that we’re just over a year old. Both looking at ourselves and the product a year ago, its amazing what has happened in such a short time. The accelerated pace of technology development is just so fast.
But surely there was development before the Kickstarter? You had to have something to show on Kickstarter first, after all.
Palmer Luckey, the real founder of the company, created a prototype while an active member of the forum MTBS, as an enthusiast of head-mounted displays and head-mounted virtual reality. He created the first prototype and was trying to figure out what VR content would work well with it. John Carmack hooked up with him there, created a build of Doom 3 that worked, and showed it at E3. The rest is history.
Are you running exclusively off the money you raised on Kickstarter?
No, we raised US$2.5 million on Kickstarter, than back in the first half of this year we received Series A fundraising for US$16 million. It’s likely that we will do additional rounds of fundraising for the cost of goods, manufacturing expenses, and stuff like that.
Do you think that the Series A fundraising might be a little alienating for the Kickstarter investors? They are individuals that might have felt a personal stake in the company, which was then marginalized by an influx of traditional investment funds.
I don’t think it’s like that. The Kickstarter backers got extra stuff like early versions of the dev kit so that they could develop consumer experiences for launch. The intended audience of the Kickstarter is probably very happy because they got their dev kits sooner and receive continued support from and dialog with Oculus. There is no conflict or worries, and we maintain control of our company. There is no risk of fundamental collapse of what our company was build for or around.
Who gave Series A investment?
Spark Capital and Matrix Partners co-led the round of funding. Santo Politi of Spark and Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix are now on our board of directors. The Founders Fund and Formation 8 also contributed to the funding. We had way more interest in investment than the companies that we brought on board. We do have eager investors who are looking to get a second chance with Series B investment.
Why has it taken so long for VR to be developed? I played a VR game once about 20 years ago at a theme park, and then never again. What happened?
One of the biggest deterrents to having VR take off before now was that the field of view was extremely narrow before, something like 25 degrees. 25 degrees is like having blinders on. If you have those blinders on there, then what’s the difference between wearing a helmet and watching TV? Watching a TV, we’re engaged in the experience, but we are also very aware that the experience is external to us. But if you can do 120 degrees, then your brain is telling you that you’re in a different place, in a different world.
Another thing that we get to borrow success from is that people have made the transition from 2D to 3D. Consoles, 3D games on the PC, they are common to talk about now. 20 or even 15 years ago, people couldn’t think in terms of a 3D virtual environment. So this is the next logical step for a lot of people.
What if another company, such as Samsung or LG, comes out with VR technology soon after your launch?
At Oculus, we are even more driven by the excitement of VR than the fact that Oculus is going to do it right and first for mass market. We’re all super fanboys of VR technology. There will be lots of competitors in this space eventually, we’re already seeing them emerge. But the bottom line is that whoever delivers the best VR experience will win out in the end. We are confident we have the right mix of talented people to be on top of that list, it’s not an easy thing to do.
Do you think your release date might slip, like computer game release dates often slip?
With software you either release early and patch or release later. But in our case we know what we will sacrifice to release on time. So we are confident that we will meet the release date.
The Oculus Rift’s release date has not yet been set. To keep up with developments, visit their web site at www.oculusvr.com.