While the tech press was busy fondling itself over porn as the week’s big VR story, a more significant development went largely unreported. In a recent blog post, Oculus Chief Architect Atman Binstock published the lavish min hardware specs for the Oculus Rift. Binstock also announced the company’s decision to suspend all OS X and Linux development indefinitely. The news undoubtedly came as a gut-punch to the VR faithful. The lack of universal platform support means that any dreams people might have had about VR for the masses will have to be put on hold — either that or it’s time to look elsewhere for salvation.
At least we can stop deluding ourselves about one thing. The Oculus Rift is for games — period; full stop. The announcement makes this crystal clear, but in hindsight it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We saw early hints of the direction at the first Oculus Connect developer event, where it was evident that our little clubhouse of VR believers had been invaded by refugees from console and mobile gaming. The escalating hardware specs; the omnipresence of shoot-em-up content in the demo salon; even the ass-grabbing that foreshadowed GamerGate — yes, in the Year of Our Lord 2014 a woman actually got physically groped by another attendee while waiting in line for the keynote — it all felt more like a GDC than a first-ever conference devoted to building a shared virtual future.
In the months since Connect, the Oculus team had done a respectable job supporting the SDK for other operating systems. And Oculus reps at least smiled graciously whenever asked about applications that are obviously out of their gaming-first comfort zone. So it seems as if the company was really trying for a while there. But in the end it looks like they’ve decided to hunker down. I understand the strategy, and I actually think it’s the right choice for company. Developing for one platform makes the job easier. Focusing on a well-understood, lucrative product category reduces the business risk. Competition from the Vive and Project Morpheus has raised the stakes — we may have a real dogfight on our hands next year. Last but not least, Oculus is on the hook to ship something, anything, and I’m sure Facebook management’s patience isn’t infinite. I suppose it’s better for the Rift to be a success at something than not at all, so: godspeed, Oculus. But where does this leave the rest of us?
There’s hope coming from a couple of quarters. For desktops we have the Vive and OSVR. Valve has a good track record with supporting Mac and Linux, and HTC is committed to supporting all platforms, so it’s reasonable to expect we’ll get some love there. But — hello — nobody has a Vive in hand just yet. They ship over the next few months. OSVR is fully open, so I don’t think it’s out of the question that we are going to have solid cross-platform capability on those devices. Last time I looked, not that many people were using OSVR, but the move by Oculus just might open new inroads for it.
What about WebVR, you may be wondering? Oculus is the only desktop device that browsers support right now. Sign of the times: Josh Carpenter, my pal on the Mozilla VR team, told me they “just bought a bunch of PCs” and he’s got one on his desk next to his Mac Pro. Sigh.
On the mobile side, things are brighter, but still murky. Gear VR is the top choice, but it’s far from ubiquitous, and definitely not cross-platform. Cardboard looks to be the ultimate winner, but we’ll need more high-res phones and faster tracking. I hear the Cardboard team has been staffing up with high-profile talent, so maybe these are on the way soon.
Long story short… there’s no short story. Platforms are proliferating, and each of us is going to have to pick a battle. Oculus has made a choice which ultimately will benefit the industry — by all means go forth and make VR gaming a mainstream category! — but in the short term they have broadened the gap between game developers and everyone else.
Whoever controls the high ground of cyberspace controls the Metaverse.
After the meetup, we rolled to the Upload party to see the latest VR hardware, killer demos and body-painted go-go dancers. It was a VR night for the ages. It didn’t bother me that 100% of the demos I saw at Upload weren’t web-based. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier and faster right now to build a Unity or Unreal-based native app for Oculus and Gear VR. But as I’ve misquoted before: we don’t do these things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard. It’s going to take a while yet to roll out a VR web, but in the long run we think the effort will be worth it.
And so the intrepid group of warriors that kicked this night off brilliantly laid out. Virtual Reality is for everyone, not just the few: accessible, affordable and easy to create and share with the world. It’s our shared belief that VR will be on the web in a big way, and the web itself will have a VR interface in the not-too-distant future.
If you missed it, you can check out the video here.
2014 was a banner year for WebGL and my wallet. The consulting business took off and I even started seeing royalty checks from my O’Reilly Books (beer money FTW)!
So with the tax year end looming, I thought I should take a few more write-offs. I decided to drop serious coin on VR hardware, including a ridiculously powerful new Windows laptop (derp) that is only slightly smaller than my Prius, and a Samsung Gear VR with a companion Galaxy Note 4 phone that I would otherwise have zero use for. ($1000 dollars – cheap!) I made these purchases with some reservation – after all, I am Mr. DIYVR, and I’ve been quite vocal about the need for devices that anybody can afford. Well, right now I can afford ’em, so – there it is.
I had seen a few early demos of Gear VR and was pretty impressed. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love the retail version. Here’s me in our kitchen, enjoying my first postprandial trip through this mobile version of the Oculus Rift. Somewhat surprisingly, I kept my dinner down just fine. No motion sickness to speak of. And I stayed in there longer than I have ever stuck around in a Rift, playing games, flying through space and watching movie trailers.
Design-wise, I know, I know: I’m just another White Guy Wearin’ a Rift. But this thing is way more sleek than that bucket they call the DK2. And look Ma: no wires.
But this isn’t the important part. It’s what’s inside that counts. Instead of blindly groping for a keyboard, or wildly waving my arms in front of me, I simply tapped the touch pad on the side of the headset to interact with the games and apps. Instead of continually removing the device to select a new game to launch, I merely swiped the touch pad to move through a gorgeous interface they’re calling the Oculus Store. It’s simple and beautiful, like the Xbox interface but in full 3D:
Now this is the shit. I need to make the interface to Third Eye as good as this – but for browsing the whole web. So that’s my new mission. Wish me luck D-)
In the meantime, kudos to Samsung and Oculus on making the first high-production, consumer-ready VR for realz. If they can get the price down, then we’ve really got something. This fab device is, well, “it’s gear.”
Patrick Buckley and Tony Parisi
Virtual Reality has the potential to be the most powerful medium ever devised. The ability to be transported to other places, to be fully immersed in experiences, to be really there– present— with others in real time, opens up unimagined ways to communicate. This is the beginning of an entirely new chapter of collaboration, one that has the power to reshape our culture much the way radio, television, the internet or mobile phones did before. The promise of this technology is so compelling that it has spawned an entire industry and fueled the imaginations of millions worldwide. Virtual Reality is the next revolution in computing and human communication.
Unlike the big companies vying for control of this new medium through high-end hardware and closed software, we in the DIYVR movement believe that smartphones, low-cost viewers, and open source software are where the Virtual Reality revolution should and will catch fire. The smartphone is to Virtual Reality what the PC was to the internet in 1991: a critical mass of adopted technology that only needs a novel component to turn it into something far more powerful. For PC’s, it was a modem to get onto the web; for smartphones, it is a box with 2 lenses to get into Virtual Reality.
There are close to 2 Billion smartphones in use across the world. A marvel of modern technology, these devices are packed with more processing power and sensors than the first computers we put into space. They have high resolution screens and the motion tracking sensors needed to create a virtual reality experience, and they are getting better and better every month. With a cardboard box and two lenses your smartphone can be transformed into a Virtual Reality device. That is amazing! 2 Billion people could get started experimenting with VR tomorrow– if this knowledge was evenly distributed.
Oculus and Samsung are doing awesome things by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with Virtual Reality. However, their products are either far away in terms of when they will ship– Oculus will not have a commercial product for at least another year– or not affordable by the average consumer: the Gear VR headset costs a few hundred dollars and only works with a Note 4, which is an $800 phone that few people own. They are building Lamborghinis, when what the market needs is a model-T Ford. These systems also require serious expertise to develop apps for, essentially requiring professional game development teams with high-end graphics programming knowledge and deep pockets.
We think VR should be for everyone:
- Affordable headsets that work with any smartphone NOW – 2 Billion of them.
- An open technology stack, based on web standards like HTML5 and WebGL.
- Built on an open, democratic and inherently collaborative foundation like the Internet, so VR experiences can flow into each other seamlessly and anyone can publish their work without gatekeepers.
Virtual Reality is too important to be a closed system.
Imagine if the Internet was owned by AOL and we were all still getting CD-Roms in the mail with our allotted online minutes. Imagine if Gutenberg’s family controlled what got printed on paper. These are things that could have come to pass if people never fought for those technologies to be open platforms. The Internet and the printing press started as technology for the few, but became fundamental mediums of human collaboration, communication and creative exchange because they were inclusive, open and democratic with no single entity controlling them. Virtual Reality has the same potential, maybe even greater. But if the platforms are controlled by a small number of players, and the costs out of reach for most consumers, then VR will either remain stuck in its current technology novelty phase, never to cross the chasm to the mainstream, or– far worse– it will become just another corporate channel for blockbuster entertainment. Either way, it will fall far short of what it could become as a medium.
We have already lost major venues of communication to closed, locked-down proprietary systems (radio, television, mobile phones). You need to be a multibillion dollar company to afford the cost of entry to these mediums. Let’s not lose Virtual Reality. Let’s not enter a dark age where we let a couple of companies with a lot of money own Virtual Reality, and become the gatekeepers of what gets made, who gets to play, and who doesn’t. No one company or person should wield this much power. Virtual Reality is for everyone.
Back in September, I was privileged to attend the first Oculus Connect event, the developer conference for the flagship VR headset, and get a hands-on demo of the new developer kit, code-named Crescent Bay. Crescent Bay is hands-down the most awesome thing I have ever experienced with a computer. But even as I was being transported into other realms, the earth-bound part of me was wondering where they kept the cooling room for the massive PC under the hood, and sniffing for the smell of burning wires. Combine that with the specs John Carmack and team are laying down as the baseline experience, and it seems to me that this device is headed straight for the living room. It’s not cheap, it’s not mobile, and it’s not something just anybody can build for. The Oculus Rift is destined to be the next console: the experiences will be created by high-end game and film studios, and delivered as paywalled apps via some future equivalent of the app store.
Perhaps anticipating a read guard maneuver by mobile phone makers, and maybe a bit spooked by Google’s introduction of CardboardVR, Oculus has also entered into a partnership with Samsung. The GearVR is a sleek mobile VR headset, and the demos I’ve seen are also stunning. But at a $800 cost of ownership, it’s also not a device for the masses. And Samsung, too, has already set the expectation that apps for the GearVR will go through its own app store.
You probably know where I’m going with this.
Last week, DODOcase and I took our mission of an open virtual reality Metaverse to the streets. Our DIYVR Kickstarter hit its funding target in just over 3 days and it’s headed for more. So far we’ve done it all with social media: our friends, their followers, and the people’s broadcast medium, Twitter. To me, the speed with which we hit the initial target says more about folks’ desires to keep VR open and affordable than it does about the size of our respective networks. VR, after all, is a movement of the people. This is how Oculus got funded in the first place.
DIYVR is about two things: affordable mobile VR, and the open software to build it. Twenty bucks gets you viewer hardware that works with your existing smart phone, and you can have that VR dance party, literally, out in the street, right now. And you don’t need a PHD in graphics or pro tools to build something. With software like GLAM and Three.js, all it takes is a text editor and mobile browser. Sure, Unity is awesome for creating mobile VR apps, but not everybody has the budget and time to master a pro tool, or pay a pro game development shop. Let’s say you’re the web team at the Museum of Science in your favorite city. I doubt you have a half million dollars to throw at creating a VR planetarium exhibit. Nope, you’ve got two people, two months and basically no money.
One piece of collateral damage of the current wave of VR development is that many startup shops who want to get into the VR game have to justify their existence with a business model, answering questions like “what’s the killer app?” from a pre-approved list of MBA filter questions – when all they really want to do is create great experiences, albeit perhaps for very small, niche audiences. But the resources required to learn pro tools, master the 3D skills, staff up, and market and sell through app stores is just too capital-intensive to support most of these endeavors. As a result, these teams either fall into the collapsed design space of zombie shooters and VR shopping, or they give up and go home.
What’s the “business model” for a VR fly-fishing site? A 3D generative art piece? A shrine to the goddess Isis? Who the fuck knows? More importantly, who the fuck cares? If making VR becomes as cheap, unfettered, and out of control as building web pages, then nobody will worry about this stuff. Or, as Automatic Jack famously observed: “…the street finds its own uses for things.”
This is the story the big players don’t want you to hear. Time to take it to the streets.
Patrick Buckley is a cowboy, in the best way.
Seven weeks after seeing Cardboard VR at Google I/O, Buckley’s company DODOcase, makers of luxe iPad and Android tablet cases, had already put tens of thousands of their own Cardboard VR units into production. Instead of having to source individual parts, cut them to spec, and tape and glue a bunch of pieces, an enthusiast could one-stop shop a DODOcase kit and – quite quickly – assemble a VR viewer. Just add smartphone and voila! virtual reality in your pocket.
A month after shipping their first Cardboard units, DODOcase contacted me to talk about software. Patrick and co-founder Craig Dalton believe, as do I, that VR will reach the masses through low-cost hardware, free and open source software, and the blooming of a thousand content flowers. No proprietary application stacks, walled-garden app stores, and game development teams with million dollar budgets – just good old fashion HTML and a text editor.
We began to explore this idea of Cardboard VR apps built in WebGL, shared via hyperlink, and instantly accessible to consumers. Combined with DODOcase’s low-cost VR hardware– or cardware, if you will– we thought this maybe had the potential to spark a revolution in consumer virtual reality. And so, DIYVR was born: cheap hardware and free and open software so that anybody can build and experience VR.
We just launched a Kickstarter to help us realize this dream faster. 100% of the campaign proceeds will go to adding VR modules to my WebGL software project, GLAM. GLAM (GL And Markup) is a way to create 3D content using markup, CSS, and the DOM. Making VR applications should be as free and unfettered as developing web sites, and making the content should be as easy as creating a web page. GLAM has the potential to be to VR what HTML was to publishing: a great equalizer, a leveler of the playing field… a disruption of the first order. If you fund the Kickstarter, you’ll also get a nifty VR stocking stuffer in time for the holidays. (Patrick, ever the cowboy, wanted to have the campaign ready in time for Christmas. So, here we are, with 21 days left…)
Though they won’t admit it, Cardboard probably began as Google flipping the bird at Oculus VR. Why get a $350 dev kit and an expensive PC setup, and wait a year (or more?!) until Oculus ships a commercial product, when you can use a couple of bucks worth of parts and your mobile phone and get in the game now? Moreover, why tie your future to a closed platform when there’s an open alternative? I’m not sure they knew what they were starting with this; regardless, Google has sparked a full-fledged revolution. Buckley has dubbed it the “homebrew moment for virtual reality.” I say, let’s get cooking.
[text of my emcee rant from tonight’s cocktail social at HTML5DevConf]
I’m not actually here right now.
You’re seeing an incredibly powerful simulation, crunching petabytes of data at teraflops speeds. Combined with the right sensory hardware, we’re able to create illusions of size, shape, color and sound… even touch. Go ahead: touch me. Realistic, isn’t it?
This simulation is the product of the longest-running R&D experiment we know: evolution. Evolution: the first lean startup. Brought to you by the most powerful technology we’ll ever see: reality. Collisions of atoms, and sprays of electromagnetic radiation. Big data meets bright light.
So as we gather tonight to celebrate how freaking smart we are, let’s just remember where we came from. The internet is everywhere, on everything, in everything. But this is just the beginning. We have a lot farther to go before we can say that everyone and everything are truly connected.
BUT until then…
Video, audio, 2d graphics, 3d graphics, databases, threads, sockets… HTML5 is *the* platform for building content and apps across operating systems and devices. Not controlled by one vendor; write an application once, in one programming language, with one set of system services. What developer doesn’t want this? Coming soon, the browser will have virtual reality, new input devices, bluetooth networking, and real-time control – the *next* platform to power mind-blowing new experiences, new user interfaces, new control systems for connected devices.
HTML5 isn’t a technology so much as a mindset and a process. A mindset of sharing to create opportunity: grow the pie, and each slice grows bigger. A process of open collaboration and open development: stand together or fall apart. Without a standard platform, we’re trapped in silos of experience, and fall short of our true potential. With a standard platform, we’ll connect everything to everyone, and hit new heights. Big data meeting the bright light.
Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly…
— Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 7, 1954, on the rise of communism
It’s taken a while, but it looks like the final domino is about to fall. The global onslaught of WebGL was already unstoppable – once Microsoft got on board with IE 11 last year – but now it’s official, at least on the desktop. Today at WWDC, Apple announced that WebGL will turned on by default in Safari on the upcoming Mac OS X 10.10, code-named ‘Yosemite’.
Now, for the 5+% of web users who browse this way, it’s good news. I would assume that this takes desktop WebGL adoption to near 100% – blacklisted cards and ancient desktop hardware being the exceptions.
But of course, the $64B question on everybody’s minds is: what about mobile Safari? That’s what most people care about. Well, Apple didn’t say anything at WWDC, but the site HTML5 Test, a browser capability testing site, reports that WebGL is running on iOS 8.0! If you’ve got the beta installed, please go try it out and confirm this. I haven’t done yet. Also here is an independent confirmation by Jay Moretti, tweeted by AlteredQualia.
So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences...
VR is back, baby. With a vengeance.
In 1994, Mark Pesce and I worked with the world wide web development community to create the Virtual Reality Markup Language, aka VRML. The goal was to develop a standard way to represent 3D virtual worlds connected via the burgeoning Internet: Habitat cum Snow Crash as front end to a potentially world-encompassing Web. It didn’t matter that the modems were 14k dialup, the computers ran at 60Mz (that’s with an “M”) and that the “Web” at the time was AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy. We had a vision, and nothing could stop us. We roped in big companies like Netscape, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft and IBM to come along for the ride.
Fast-forward to 2004. VRML had gone bust years earlier, but I managed to sell my VR startup before the crash (yay irrational exuberance!). I took an extended break from pushing 3D rocks up virtual hills, and moved on to other things. Then, possessed by God knows what, I dove back into a 3D project. This time it was X3D, the successor to VRML featuring “modern” graphics and XML (because everybody was doing it). The idea was that broadband infrastructure and hardware had caught up to the vision. We still needed a plugin because 3D didn’t come natively in a browser. But, no problem: we were up to the task. We built some cool demos, including a kick-ass shopping experience in partnership with eBay.
We spent the next two years pitching investors who didn’t get it. I could barely see through the blood streaming past my eyes from beating my head against the wall so hard. And then, something wonderful happened: Second Life made the cover of Business Week, and a new virtual world land grab ensued. I wiped the blood off, dusted off my pitch, brought in a hotshot Valley CEO and promptly raised $10M from top venture firms to fund Vivaty, a browser-based virtual world. Good things come to those who wait I guess. Ultimately, Vivaty came up short, a victim of internal misalignment, strategic misfires, and goofy product decisions… but mostly timing. 2009 was a bad year to try to raise a B round. The VCs were all jumping out of their second-story windows over the recession. We sold our great technology to Microsoft and moved on.
(Little known story: during those lean years, we pitched Accel, who had just pumped $13M into Facebook. During due diligence, they put us in front of Zuck, who promptly threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping in eBay. “Why is this better?” Why indeed? Needless to say, that deal died stillborn. But no matter: we eventually got our funding from people who got it.)
Fast-forward again to 2014. WebGL is here, there, everywhere. Phones and tablets do kick-ass 3D. There are no more reasons to not build great shared 3D experiences. We have the rendering, the broadband, and a huge base of multimedia-savvy developers. Oh and Oculus VR is now Facebook. In one stroke, virtual reality has been validated, vindicated, and safeguarded for a new generation of entrepreneurs. Those of us with a passion for creating anything virtual are now free to try virtually anything regarding new types of user interaction and out-of-the-box business models. And I’m back at it, thinking about how to launch a VR startup.
What a difference a decade makes. Er, two decades.