A Growing Rift

vrmageddon

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 and the omnipresence of shoot-em-up content in the demo salon made it feel 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 have been gracious 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 soon, 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.

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