The Day That Everything Changed

ARKit and ARCore bring immersive computing at scale. What we will build?

June 5, 2017 was the day that everything changed. During Apple’s 2017 World Wide Developer Conference, the company announced the beta availability of ARKit, the native software layer for blending digital objects with the real world. In the four short months since that announcement, ARKit has taken the world by storm, unleashing a series of developments that will not only put augmented reality at the forefront of mobile computing, but also provide new momentum for virtual reality. And just in time.

AR’s Long and Winding Road

Augmented Reality had been wandering in the wilderness for some years. The explosion of the smartphone market led to a crop of startups circa 2010 that brought the camera and location services together with innovative applications, such as Metaio and Layar. These types of ventures enjoyed mixed success, at best, getting acquired or pivoting, as the market was slow to materialize.

One notable exception is Vuforia, a supplier of AR middleware that spun out of Qualcomm and was purchased by CAD software giant PTC. Vuforia has continued to find purchase via a combination of enterprise and consumer applications, and powers tens of thousands of AR experiences today. But for years, even Vuforia’s AR was considered a “gimmick” for many applications, not an essential enabling layer of what many of us believe is the next step change in computing, the immersive interface.

Then along came VR.

Back In the Limelight

View story at Medium.com

Looking back on the stratospheric rise of virtual reality since the Oculus Kickstarter five years ago, I am still amazed. I am obviously jaded about this space, having worked in it for over twenty years, so I was very skeptical about the possibilities when I first tried the DK1. It wasn’t just the low resolution, nausea-inducing tracking and insufferable form factor; those should have been enough to kill this thing in its infancy. No, I was more skeptical about the market, because I had been down this road before. I couldn’t imagine that consumers were ready for an immersive computing experience, because I had seen too many failures, both personal and industry wide, that were clear indications that the world was not ready for 3D.

Obviously, I was wrong about Oculus. Enough things had changed in recent years, apparently, that folks could see the potential in a fully immersive computing experience. Not just the tech industry, but consumers and customers. And so, game on: here we are, five years into the immersive computing revolution, thanks in large part to the Oculus Rift.

With the resurgence of consumer VR came a parallel renaissance in augmented reality. AR industry players wisely took advantage of the spotlight VR cast on immersive technology, and renewed their marketing efforts, riding on its coattails.

This doesn’t mean that AR was standing still that whole time. Pokémon GO and Snapchat filters shipped as mass-market consumer AR phenomena, followed by Facebook’s camera-based AR premiered at F8 this year. Also, Microsoft Hololens and Google Tango have been pushing the envelope on industrial AR hardware for several years. But I think it’s fair to say that these projects have enjoyed additional consumer awareness due to massive buzz that was building thanks to VR.

And right as AR stepped back into the limelight, ready for its closeup, along came ARKit.

Immersion at Scale

On the heels of ARKit’s release, Google announced ARCore, an Android API that brings a subset of Tango’s AR technology to consumer-grade android phones, notably Samsung S8 and Google’s Pixel line. ARCore is similar in features to ARKit, offering single-plane surface recognition, positional tracking — so you can blend true 3D graphics, not just sprites overlaid on your camera image — and light estimation.

ARKit and ARCore leave out some of AR’s more promising features, some of which require additional hardware support, such as environment reconstruction (aka SLAM). But it’s reasonable to think that, over time, those core technologies will migrate into newer generations of mobile devices. In the interim, smart software libraries like Vuforia can fill the gap with a combination of on-device APIs and cloud-based services (not to mention much-needed provide cross-platform capability between the two operating system APIs).

While the feature sets for ARKit and ARCore don’t run the gamut of what many of us would like to see for “true” AR, this is a significant development nonetheless. Because with these two systems, we now have a baseline AR capability that spans the two most popular mobile ecosystems, and reaches nearly half a billion devices.

And Apple isn’t standing still. Today, the world changed again with the company’s press event about the upcoming iPhones. iOS 11 ships on September 19th, and with it, the ability to deliver AR to between 300 and 400 million phones. The iPhone 8, coming out on September 22nd, has even tighter integration among the components that run AR. And the iPhone X, previewed today, comes with Face ID, based on a TrueDepth camera system that has a depth camera, IR camera, flood illuminator, dot projector, and an on-device neural network on a chip (the A11 bionic chip… what?) — the better to recognize you and only you, securely. The same face tracking tech is also used to drive true 3D AR filters as well as animojis— cartoon characters that speak for you in your instant messages.

It’s safe to say that Apple appears to be doubling down on its AR bet.

Now that the big guys have stepped into AR with full force, the world has taken notice. We’re seeing a huge wave of interest in AR from game developers, storytellers, brand creatives, and enterprise application developers. It’s fair to say that we could be approaching a tipping point for immersive development that we hadn’t seen with VR, because now AR promises scale, based on the phone in your pocket, with no need to strap anything funky on your head.

VR Will Have Its Day (Again)

This reinvigorated interest in AR comes at a time when VR is sputtering a bit. Many of us knew that mass-market adoption of VR was going to take a while. Unity’s CEO (and my boss) John Riccitiello spelled this out in a keynote address at the Vision Summit in 2016, a talk which has come to be known as his “gap of disappointment” speech. The basic idea was that, while we’re bullish on the long-term growth of XR, we know that things are going to take longer than a lot of folks expect.

John also did the keynote at this year’s VRLA conference, and his talk there featured a slightly more upbeat, updated version of this concept. John laid out what he thinks it’s going to take, specifically, to get there with mass adoption of XR. Have a look if you haven’t seen it.

The biggest takeaway from this talk is that we need two critical things to hit mass scale: 1) a total cost of ownership of under 1,000 dollars, and 2) a couple of hundred million units shipped.

VR is nowhere near that yet. While costs are quickly dropping, we are generously at 10 million units (not counting Google Cardboard; but that’s a debate for another day).

ARKit and ARCore, on the other hand, get us to that mass scale in one stroke.

Now, John wasn’t talking about AR in that particular keynote. He was focused on VR. But these two technologies occupy a spectrum of immersion. At the highest level, VR, AR and headset-based mixed reality are all about immersive 3D graphics. Yes, there are some points of divergence. But in general, it’s real time 3D objects, environments and characters viewed in an immersive 360 degree environment. The skills you need to build for one translate well to the other, and consumers will become more and more ready, even expectant, for interactive 3D content regardless of its delivery medium. And of course, you can use Unity to build for all of them. Mwahah…

The recent big developments in AR threaten to steal VR’s thunder. We are already seeing a bit of an exodus by developers attracted by the lure of scale and the potential for monetization that it brings. Despite VR offering a more complete and compelling trip, the user base for AR is two orders of magnitude higher. Why invest time and energy into creating something that can be seen by 10 million people, when you can put that same energy (actually, quite a bit less in most cases… AR content tends to be much less complex) into making something for an audience of half a billion? It’s hard to argue with those numbers.

But I am guessing this is simply a stage in the ongoing development of immersive computing. In the balance, I think that it’s going to be a good thing for AR to get the attention for the next little while. VR needs more time to get the pricing and form factors right. But there’s no replacement for the sheer joy of completely enveloping yourself — head, hands and body — into an experience that takes you to another place. VR enables magical realms that AR can’t, by offering complete escape. The pendulum may swing to AR for a while, but there are so many great use cases for VR that I believe it will have its day again, and the fresh energy that AR brings to the world of immersive computing should give it enough lift to keep VR rolling too.

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It Takes a Village

The W3C VR Workshop team. See us in full 360.

After all this time, VR really is the Web’s Next Big Thing. A two-day workshop brought the Web’s best and brightest together to define the future of the medium.

TL;DR: The web community’s next big push on browser technology puts VR and AR front and center. The Immersive Web is going to happen, and sooner than we think. It will take vision, hard work, compromise, and lots of really smart people.

The New Normal

I’m not really sure how it happened, but within two years WebVR — the technology that connects web browsers to virtual reality hardware — has gone from a wacky idea to the new normal.

WebVR was hatched a few years back by WebGL creator Vlad Vukićević of Mozilla, collaborating with Google Chrome hotshot Brandon Jones, and publicly demoed for the first time at our San Francisco WebGL meetup in the summer of 2014. The demos were crude, and the tracking sucked, but it was a start, and we were excited by the possibilities.

In the year that followed, WebVR was greeted with blank stares by the VR hipster elite and outright derision by industry players. We heard familiar arguments: bad performance, because JavaScript; too much bureaucracy with standards groups; and anyway, why would you want to do something like that? To be fair, folks had a lot on their plate, and most people didn’t have the mental bandwidth think about something as abstract and forward-looking as WebVR.

But over the past year, something changed. Seed-stage investors started asking me about WebVR, wanting to know the lay of the land. VentureBeat sang its praises and touted the benefits. Microsoft announced support for WebVR in Edge and contributed to the spec to make it suitable for AR. And in a penny-drop moment, a team at Oculus approached me with their plan to get into the WebVR game in a big way. This led to WebVR being featured in the keynote at Oculus Connect 3, with a demo by my fledgling startup and WebVR prominently placed in the Oculus Developer Portal.

It appears that WebVR has arrived. In a previous post I went into some detail about why I think the timing is now. But that only covers the why. How we are going get there has been by no means clear, till now.

The Final Frontier

While all this WebVR goodness was brewing, a group from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the people that brought you the Web, organized a Workshop on Web & Virtual Reality. The workshop, hosted by Samsung in San Jose, CA on October 19th and 20th, brought together browser makers, content creators, application developers, and technical experts to discuss enabling technologies and standards for an open VR infrastructure.

The very existence of this meeting showed that the powers-that-be in W3C understand the importance of VR as the new frontier of web development. That’s a big win, in and of itself. But the reality of the event went beyond that. The technical quality of the presentations, the concrete plans shared by product vendors, and the positive energy and spirit of collaboration showed how seriously the industry is taking this initiative. In my view, this workshop was another watershed, in a watershed month for VR that included Daydream View, PlayStation VR and Oculus Connect 3.

The W3C Workshop covered broad ground and when it could, went deep. After two days of lightning talks, panel sessions and breakouts, my ears were fairly bleeding from the information overload. I am sure the organizers will post full meeting notes soon. (See the schedule page for the detailed list of speakers and topics.) In the meantime, here are some highlights.

  • Sean White keynote. An old friend from the VRML days, now VP of Technology Strategy at Mozilla, Sean White delivered a homey keynote that hearkened back to early VR and the collaboration that built the web, setting the tone for the rest of the workshop.
  • WebVR API Update and Browser Support. There are more tweaks coming in the WebVR APIs, leading to a likely 1.2 version before broad adoption. Google, Mozilla, Samsung and Oculus shared concrete plans and expected ship dates for desktop and mobile VR browsers.
  • Lightning talks. A barrage of 5-minute lightning talks covered UI design, accessibility, 360 video formats and metadata, immersive audio, multi-user networking, and declarative VR languages and 3D file formats.
  • Breakout sessions. We split the group into sessions on various topics, including high performance VR implementations, hyperlinking in VR, and extending the browser DOM into 3D.

My fingerprints can be seen on a lot of the Workshop’s content, but I take particular pride in one development that I hadn’t even planned for. glTF, the new file format standard for 3D scenes, continues to build steam, with a groundswell of endorsement from industry partners over the last several months. glTF figured prominently in many discussions over the two days. Folks even floated the idea of glTF as a built-in format that browsers could natively read and display (analogous to JPEG images for 2D), with immediate application as 3D favicons, hyperlink transition animations, and built-in layer graphics, e.g. for splash screens and heads-up displays. Whoa. Mind blown.

Rip Van VRML

As fun a time as this was for me, it was at times surreal. A generation of brilliant technologists had locked themselves in meeting rooms to design the Metaverse, along the way rehashing ideas we explored two decades before, such as 3D scene representation, VR interface design, and shared presence. In earnestness and with great enthusiasm, the kids at this workshop were reinventing wheels left and right. But how could they know? Many of them were in middle school the first time around… if they were even born yet.

A modern day Rip Van Winkle, I had fallen asleep during a 1996 VRML meeting, and woke up twenty years later in the same room. Then I began to realize that things were different. People were holding these little computers in their hands. The Internet was fast and, apparently, connected everybody on the planet. And you could fit VR equipment in your backpack! Most of all, the people leading the discussions weren’t crazy futurists on the fringe; they were sane futurists working at mainstream companies.

It was 2016, and the real world was ready for the virtual one. While most of the problems are the same as twenty years ago, now we’re looking at them through a post-Facebook, post-Pokemon Go lens, and building on technology that is thousands of times more powerful.

A Community Effort

The W3C Workshop explored a vast landscape of technologies and standards, interface design and best practices, and tools and frameworks. While it was a great kickoff, it was just that: a kickoff. There will be much hard work going forward.

We already have a head start, and some success under our belt. WebVR is maturing and really working now, with 90FPS head tracking and support in many browsers. glTF is a ratified standard from Khronos, with steadily growing support. Much of what we discussed at the workshop simply extends existing standards like HTML Video and Web Audio. So we’re not tackling any of this from a standing start, or from an ivory tower. The output from the workshop will be brought back to working groups at W3C and Khronos, or new groups will form to tackle new pieces of the problem.

That, generally, is how the process will unfold. But it’s not just about process; it’s about people. People were the key to the success of this workshop. The organizers, Dominique Hazael-Massieux, Anssi Kostiainen, and Chris Van Wiemeersch, worked tirelessly to put on a first-class event, extremely well-run with top-notch content. The familiar names of WebGL lore — Josh Carpenter, Brandon Jones, Michael Blix and Laszlo Gombos — have been joined by new ones, like Justin Rogers and Amber Roy of Oculus, Nell Waliczek and Adalberto Foresti of Microsoft, Ada Rose of Samsung, Kevin Ngo and the A-Frame team from Mozilla, and Shannon Norrell and other energetic community-builders. There were numerous positive contributions and, given the headiness of the subject matter, the mood remained light throughout the proceedings. There was a real spirit of cooperation and hope for the future.

If we can bring a fraction of this energy to bear in the coming months, we will make great progress. The movement is growing. We have enough people on this, with big brains, pure motivations and a shared vision. And that’s good… because it takes a village to build a Metaverse.

Third Time’s the Charm

How VR and the Web Have Finally Converged — In My Lifetime

Twenty five years after the first consumer VR crash, virtual reality is poised to upend human-computer interaction, the Internet has disrupted every facet of life as we knew it back then, and the two are now on a collision course. The Metaverse that we’ve all been dreaming about for decades — that shared vision of everybody connected and communicating in a web of virtual reality— is upon us.

Twice before, the industry attempted to consummate this chemical wedding… and twice now, somebody ran from the altar. Well, this time, the bride and groom are pure of heart and truly ready. The confluence of cheap VR hardware, accessible 3D development, and ubiquitous networking has set the stage for an explosion of VR content, delivered over the World Wide Web.

Why has it taken so long? And why is it happening now? I’ll tell you. But first, a little history.

The Best of Intentions

The notion of combining VR and the Web is hardly new. Tim Berners-Lee put out a request for proposals way back at the first-ever World Wide Web conference in 1994. Mark Pesce and I answered the call; the result was our problem child, VRML.

VRML was designed as a universal language for authoring 3D applications on the web, the first piece of a technology stack intended to bring Neal Stephenson’s vision of the Metaverse to life. After we made 3D rendering universal, we figured we would tackle multi-player networking and then, finally, when a new generation of VR hardware was ready, we’d connect it all together — with the assumption that these other pieces were right around the corner.

VRML was built on then-state-of-the-art tech: an open, scalable 3D infrastructure allowing anyone to create and share, with the burgeoning Internet as its backbone. We created VRML out in the open, didn’t patent anything, and gave everything away in the hope of starting an explosion of 3D creation online.

VRML captured the imagination of the fledgling Web industry. Software leaders Netscape, Microsoft and Adobe hooked up with hardware titans like Silicon Graphics, Sun, Intel, Apple and IBM to build our collective 3D future. Though a few had knives under the table, most of the big guys did their best to cooperate on standards. We created killer demo showcases. The hype train, powered by SGI’s marketing machine, kicked into high gear. Startup fortunes were made.

But there was a problem: we didn’t have a market. The processing power and bandwidth required for quality 3D weren’t in the average home. Most people with PCs didn’t even have a Web browser yet. VRML was a noble experiment, conceived with the best of intentions, that ultimately came up short. Wrong place; wrong time.

Worlds in Collision

In the 2000’s, virtual worlds like Second Life promised us the Metaverse all over again via real-time, user-generated 3D social environments, running on a new generation of cheap high-performance PCs. Second Life was, for its time, a damn good experience, much better than anything ever built in VRML.

By 2007, Second Life was at the center of its own hype bubble, hitting the cover of Business Week with the promise of a new way to play and communicate, and even make money by selling each other virtual stuff. SL gave rise to well-funded copycat startups, including one that I founded. But by 2010, most of the virtual worlds companies from that period were gone. Second Life was the sole exception, having built a solid business, though not a large one by Internet standards.

So why did the category fail?

Partly, it was because of the lack of scalability inherent in such a closed system. While VRML approached the Metaverse bottoms-up, via an open infrastructure and industry cooperation, these virtual worlds systems went at it top-down, delivering highly structured and stylized experiences, via AOL-style walled garden networks. The products provided powerful authoring for users to create their own content — but each company owned its own full stack, from client to tool to server. Without an open ecosystem it is really hard to achieve Web scale, and it’s all on the shoulders of one company to deliver continual value and growth.

Second Life and its ilk may have also floundered because open-ended worlds are inherently limited in what they have to offer compared to their achievement-oriented, MMOG cousins like Warcraft and League of Legends. It takes a lot of commitment to build a Second Life, and for many, it’s apparently not worth it, because there isn’t a big reward at the end.

But mostly, I think virtual world growth stalled because it got sideswiped by something bigger. Social networks provided 80 percent of the bang for way less effort, and ran everywhere, without needing to install custom software. Why go to the trouble of buying a gaming PC, installing a fat software package, and learning how to build 3D worlds, when you can instead sign into Farmville with a click using your Facebook ID, and grow virtual soybeans on your shiny silver Macbook?

Move along; this is not the Metaverse you’re looking for.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Half a decade after the virtual worlds bubble burst, everything has changed. Today’s smartphones have way more 3D power than the workstations that originally ran VRML; everybody is connected on fast networks; and affordable consumer VR hardware is blowing up. If now isn’t Metaverse time, I don’t know when is.

A significant development got buried in the noise around the resurgence of consumer VR. 3D is on the Web to stay, with the advent of WebGL. WebGL makes it possible to deliver hardware-accelerated 3D in a browser, programmed in JavaScript and accessible to everyone — with no additional download. WebGL runs on all desktop computers and modern smartphones. At 3 billion seats and counting, it’s ubiquitous.

But thus far, with a few exceptions WebGL has been an optional add-on to commercial sites. In the end, the results are still rendered on a flat desktop or mobile screen — granted, with more speed and sizzle, but still part of a 2D experience. Well, with a stereoscopic VR or AR display, that’s not an option: you must render in 3D. So if you want to create a Web-based application for VR, you really have no choice but to use WebGL.

Now, if you’re reading this, I am just going to assume that I don’t need to convince you why people want to create VR for the Web. To me, the idea that there won’t be VR applications built on Web tech, based on Web content, well… that’s just absurd. It’s just as absurd as someone in 2007 predicting that smartphones wouldn’t deliver Web content, and mobile apps wouldn’t someday be mostly based on HTML. Well, in 2016 they do, and they are.

Market factors will force the industry’s hand on this. The desire for cheaper, easier ways to produce, deploy and deliver VR is there: not everyone can master a game engine, and labor through the deployment and maintenance process that comes with app packaging and app store distribution. And for consumers, the long tail of applications demands an open system without the friction of app store discovery, download and installation. The makers of VR hardware used the mobile app store model as the starting point to the get the industry kick-started, but surely this is just a transient stage on the way to a fully connected Metaverse.

The technology underpinnings are now in place. In addition to WebGL, we have WebVR, a new set of VR browser APIs in development since the ink was drying on the Facebook/Oculus acquisition. We also have glTF, the new portable 3D file format that is like JPEG, but for 3D. Add to these myriad JavaScript libraries for creating VR, and the Electron framework for building native apps in HTML5, and the sky is the limit. These pieces are the kindling for a wildfire; all it’s going to take are a few simple tools and killer apps to set it off.

Which tools and killer apps? We don’t know… and we don’t care. The Metaverse may have been imagined in fiction as the product of a singular vision, a Grand Architect of the Universe mapping out how, when, why and where people will be interacting socially in VR. But that’s not how it will actually get built. The Metaverse is going to be a messy, out-of-control affair, with multiple entry points, and a face and shape that we can’t yet imagine. What we do know is that it will be comprised of a billion plus people using VR systems connected via the Web. That’s all we know. And that is enough.

Don’t take my word for any of this. Google and Mozilla are leading the way by implementing VR-enabled browsers, but you will be hearing shortly from others that are going to spearhead the effort with market applications, enabling platforms and distribution networks. The dynamics I have described here aren’t just based on two decades of my own hit-or-miss insights; they are rooted in real market pain points, developer desires, and stated strategy from big industry players.

It’s finally here.

I guess third time really is the charm.

Crossing the Rift

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.

Freedom

Virtual Reality app store censorship has claimed its first (non-porn) victim. As reported today in Ars Technica, VR journalist Dan Arthur created Ferguson Firsthand, a 3D recreation of the Michael Brown shooting, packaged as a Google Cardboard app for the iOS store. The app store booted the piece on the grounds that it referred to a “specific event”, and therefore its scope was “too narrow” to be considered a valid application.

I’m sure the appnazi behind this moronic decision was just doing his job, just following orders, as they called it back in 1945. And more’s the pity. In this instance, the result was both tragic and ironic. But more, it points to a fundamental deficiency of app store models. App stores aren’t set up for timely delivery of topical information. They’re set up for apps. Um, whatever those are. In this case, Arthur created an app to package up a story he wanted to tell, which, in the infinite wisdom of the store, was deemed too insignificant a hunk of content to warrant publication. I imagine if the piece had been included in a larger pack of content, say, Tragic Stories of Policy Brutality in America, 2015, then the app store might have approved it. (Would it have?)

Ferguson Firsthand is really a news story. But it’s packaged as an app for technical reasons: at the moment, the only way to get virtual reality delivered to people on a mobile device today is to package an app. With all due respect to its creator, this should never have been an app. It should be a web experience, instantly published, and instantly accessible without restriction and without app store gatekeepers. This is an issue of consumer convenience, but more importantly, it’s an issue of journalistic freedom.

Imagine news sites in the early days of the web. What if, back then, to get your daily news, you had to download a PDF? The web wouldn’t have happened– and you wouldn’t be reading this story right now. Information needs to be free, and the web is the key to that freedom. The Ferguson Firsthand incident is a sad outcome, and a perfect illustration of why we need WebVR, DIYVR, and an open ecosystem for VR in general.

The Metaverse is too big for an app store.

The VR Headset Nobody is Building

 

Let’s just put this out there right now: the future of VR is mobile. Morpheus, Vive and Rift will make a big splash in the living room, but for sheer numbers we are going to see maybe 10x the number of mobile VR headsets in the next few years. I’m not here to debate the point. It’s just the way I think it’s going to play out. If you don’t agree, then nothing to see here, feel free to move on.

Still with me? Then riddle me this: why isn’t anybody building the “iPod Touch of VR?” That is, a separate, dedicated, fully contained VR device capable of running apps, games and videos, retailing for $300–500. It seems to me that this is what the world needs, and I have to wonder out loud why it doesn’t exist.

The Cardboard VR approach, where you can put your existing phone into a cheap housing, seems SO sensible. The total cost of ownership is next to nothing, as low as twenty bucks, and you don’t need to get a new phone. The cardboard box will likely be succeeded by evolutionary advances like the plastic Wearality Sky. It’s more durable, has a wider field of view and maybe most importantly, it folds nicely and fits in your pocket. Gizmos like this cost a bit more, but they’re still under a hundred bucks, and therefore could become a wildly popular phone accessory and, as advertised, be the entry point to VR for most consumers.

Problem is, with Cardboard VR, quality is all over the map. Only the highest-resolution phones provide a decent experience. And until Google and Apple unclog the awful refresh rate of the built-in accelerometer, even the best Cardboard VR will start making you motion sick after a couple of minutes. That development looks like it’s a year or so out. So for the moment, Cardboard is still Street VR: the stuff of parties, promotions and live event giveaways. And a nice stocking-stuffer.

Then there’s Gear VR. I love Gear VR. It’s the closest thing I have seen to realizing the true promise of VR, and I believe I’ve tried them all. Gear VR is not at the fidelity level of the Vive or the Rift CV, but so what? It’s lightweight and comfortable, the apps are plentiful and cheap, and the experiences are good enough to keep me in there for an hour or more. Oh and look ma: no wires.

Gear VR has shown the path to usable, mobile VR. However, it only works with two phones. These are phones that, before I wanted to play with Gear VR, I didn’t own. Of course I went out and bought them, but I don’t think most people are going to buy a different phone just to do VR… especially at the price point. I do think that Note 4 and S6 owners will find the Gear VR to be a nifty accessory, maybe even a must-have in the next few years. And perhaps prospective Samsung phone buyers will view Gear as part of a Samsung ecosystem and yet another reason to make the purchase.

What I would buy, and what nobody seems to be building, is a dedicated VR appliance: the display, headset and brain are all in one unit that’s basically a phone without the 4G. It can’t make calls, but it can do WiFi to download everything. It has sensible, ergonomic input accessories bundled with it. Under the hood, it’s probably just Android or iOS (or Windows 10 mobile, maybe? hint hint) with a VR shell. And it just works. I would lay out a cool $500 for this product. I’m sure many, many other early adopters would. Then, a few years out, legions more would take the plunge when the price drops to $300.

Note to phone manufacturers: this wouldn’t replace phones, or cannibalize sales in any way. In fact, app developers could design products that use the VR headset and the phone together, with the phone as a controller or input device. It’s sort of like the way watches and phones are starting to work together now. So this could sell more phones, in addition to selling another VR device. Oh and by the way, I don’t want my primary phone to be stuck in a VR headset. I want it to make calls, and all the other stuff it already does. So I’d rather have another device anyway. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this.

So what I’m saying is, phone people: this is a new product you can sell.

So why isn’t anybody building it?

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.