Just got back from Oculus Connect 2, the company’s 2nd annual developer conference. Maybe it’s the hangover, or maybe the contact high from spending three days with over 1,500 of VR’s best and brightest, but I’m giddy, and now feeling extremely optimistic about the chances of VR leaping the chasm to market acceptance. OC2 was La Bamba, with great talks spanning tech, design and art direction, and another round of miraculous demos that topped last year’s, something I didn’t think was possible. While there was still a pioneering world-changer vibe going through the hall, you could also feel that the industry is becoming much more real and getting down to business. Consumer VR is going to ship soon, and it’s going to rock. Walk with me…
The featured demos were transcendent. ToyBox, a multi-user game room experience, is impossible to convey– like so much VR– but it goes something like this. I was in a room-sized space with another player, a real live Oculus employee, physically located somewhere else in the building, who acted as a guide, taking me through a bunch of fun activities. I mean, stupid fun: we threw balls, blocks, stuffed toys. We played ping-pong in real time. We lit fireworks and threw them each other. My guide’s avatar was (mercifully) rendered as an abstract, semitransparent blue man with an HMD. He was just a head and hands, actually– no body. And it’s the hands that are key: this experience was created to show the capabilities of Oculus Touch, the new hand controllers for the system. The controllers are wonderfully intuitive. As for the quality of the experience, there was no latency at all for the voice or the graphics. This is just a must-see. I wish you could be inside my head right now!
I think they’ve almost nailed these controllers. I have a few small gripes; but they’re probably nothing the design team hasn’t already heard. The other noteworthy Touch demo was Medium, a sculpting program in the spirit of Tilt Brush, but quite different in many respects. Medium was wonderful. It made me feel like I was in control and could sculpt anything. The UI needs a lot of work, but hey, this was a demo. (Shortly after my session I bumped into Tilt Brush creator Patrick Hackett and asked him what he thought of Medium. He replied, “great, now I can keep working on a painting program, and someone else can worry about sculpting!” … or words to that effect. I thought that was pretty cool.)
The talks were excellent. After Brendan Iribe’s typical corporate fare, Michael Abrash once again threw down with a keynote about perception science and the ridiculous work his research team is doing on simulating all the senses. Then John Carmack gave his usual extemporaneous standup keynote, and only went over time by 15 minutes. (Maybe a personal best.) Inspiring talk! There was also an eye-opening session by the lead developer and art director of the amazing set of demos we saw last year at Connect 1. (I’m still quaking from the T-Rex experience). The session provided insights on everything from polygon budgets to performance issues in Unreal Engine, and gave us an insider’s look into the thought process that went into the designs.
If there was a weak spot, it was the gamepad demo suite. This was a set of demos designed to show off the Rift in use with an Xbox controller. I tried maybe four of eight available games. The controller worked fine (I’m a huge fan of using a gamepad to control VR, because for many uses it’s actually far more ergonomic than waving your arms around). The issue was that out of four games I tried, only one of them felt like it actually needed to be in VR. The others could just as well have been console or even smartphone games. The lone standout was Eve Valkyrie, a space shooter where you are in a starship cockpit in the center of the action. I felt like Luke Skywalker! Kudos to CCP and team.
The dearth of must-have VR games got me slightly panicky: Oculus is betting big on gaming as VR’s wedge into the market, but I didn’t see enough titles to convince me that we are going to see an impressive array of titles at launch. And I think that would be a big problem. I talked myself down from the ledge by rationalizing that Oculus has enough resources, and enough motivated game developers wanting to partner, that this will solve itself in the next six months. It better!…
Speaking of Eve Valkyrie… A personal highlight was having drinks with my (much taller) brother from another mother Hilmar Veigar Pétursson of CCP Games, the creators of Eve Valkyrie and Eve Online. This guy has a friend for life, ever since his VRML shoutout during this year’s E3 Oculus press event (starts at 20:35). Back in the day, Hilmar and his team at OZ Interactive made some of the coolest VRML stuff ever. Though our paths wound around each other for two decades, they never actually crossed until last night. Skål, brother! Good times.
Oculus Connect 2 was a wild ride. The conference is a great resource for developers and I felt privileged to attend. And extremely hopeful for 2016.