As you'll no doubt have seen from our big fat Oculus Rift Hands-On Preview, we got to sit down, test out the VR headset, and have a chat with Oculus founder and Rift creator Palmer Luckey, alongside Oculus' VP of Product Nate Mitchell. Here's the interview in full:
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): So first of all, why the “Rift”? I'm just going to put this out there...that's a badass name!
Palmer Luckey: Well I was just trying to come up with something cool, you know? And I really wanted the name to reflect the idea of breaking into another reality. I just came up with it sitting at a 'Stop' light in my car, and I was just like 'The Rift...' that sounds pretty cool. So I posted it up online when I got home, and said 'Guys, we're making a headset, and it's going to be called The Rift!' and the rest was history.
Matt Gardner: What's the story behind the Rift? How did this project come about?
Palmer Luckey: I've been interested in head mounted displays and stereoscopic 3D displays for some time now, and I'd tried out tons and tons of head mounted displays. I actually have 43 unique units now, including doubles, and none of them are very good. [Laughs.] Well, what I mean by that is that none of them are lightweight or have a great field of view with good head tracking. So, being a tinkerer, I resolved to build my own head mounted display and build it the way I'd want it to be. It took a couple of years, but technology kept marching on and all of a sudden made it possible.
Matt Gardner: So can you sum up the Rift in a sentence? And what differentiates it from those other 43 headsets?
Palmer Luckey: It's an ultra-wide field of view, ultra-low latency, virtual reality headset.
So, most VR headsets have a pretty low field of view. They're like wearing a TV on your head: they're good for movies and TV maybe, but not really for immersing you into a game. The other big thing is that the Rift has really low tracker latency so when you move your head, the image moves in time with your head. It's not like you're moving your head and then the image follows. That's what a lot of other headsets with higher latency are doing: instead of feeling like you're in the game, it just feels like you're controlling the game with your head, and that's not nearly as immersive.
Nate Mitchell: Yeah, in terms of the 'Elevator Pitch', I'd say that the Rift is the first device which really lets you step inside the virtual worlds and environments that you've always wanted to experience.
Matt Gardner: So how did the partnership with id come about?
Palmer Luckey: Well, John Carmack had been working with virtual reality on his own for some time, and he'd been testing out some of the head mounted displays like I had done, and I'd been working on this project for some time, I'd been posting on internet forums with my progress and he saw that and contacted me. So he rings me up and says 'Hi, I'm John Carmack. I'd like to buy one of your head mounted displays' and I was like 'Oh no John, I'll just send you one for free.'
So I sent him a handbuilt prototype for free and when he got that he basically gave up working on anything other platform and just started to use that instead, and he showed that off at E3 with Doom 3: BFG. It wasn't as if I approached him for a partnership, or he approached me for a partnership, he just asked if he could have one of my HMDs and I sent him one!
Matt Gardner: How are are you working in terms of grounding this as an affordable consumer product, and how conscious are you of price at this point?
Palmer Luckey: Well, we're gearing this up to be a consumer product. I mean we're pushing forward in terms of the technology, but we're very aware that it needs to be affordable. If we price ourselves out of the market then we're going to end up just like the dozens of other head mounted display companies out there who've made really high-performance but extremely expensive models in the tens of thousands of dollars. It's fun from a designer's perspective, but not for the consumer. If we have to put it up by an extra hundred to really make it great then we'll do it, but the main thing is finding a balance between creating a truly excellent product, and making it something that most gamers can afford.
Matt Gardner: So why the Kickstarter campaign, then? Was it to gauge interest with regard to consumers, designers, publishers? Where will the money go from the Kickstarter?
Nate Mitchell: The Kickstarter was really a way for us to get the developer kits into the hands of developers very quickly and very easily. Kickstarter is a great platform for connecting with a community but it also allowed us to gauge interest on both sides – from consumers and developers – to work out all of the transaction stuff and the fiddly money side of things, and ensure we had enough dev kits. And we did that all through Kickstarter, it's super convenient. At the end of the day, the community is really going to be responsible for making this thing phenomenal: developer feedback and the software that they bring to the Rift will be the stuff that gets presented to consumers. So we're very excited.
Palmer Luckey: To add to that, you mentioned that some Kickstarters are very specific – so this money is going here, and this money is going here. We don't have any big research and development problems to overcome. We're not going to be using this money for further hardware research or design development. We've pretty much got the design locked down and finalised. The money is really for buying the parts, building the dev kit models and then shipping them out to people.
It was working before the Kickstarter even lauched. We showed to Valve, Epic, id, Unity, and a bunch of other developers, and they were impressed even with those early prototypes.
Matt Gardner: So would it be accurate to encapsulate the Kickstarter campaign in terms of 'hardware is only as good as the software on it'?
Nate Mitchell: Absolutely. At the end of the day, content is the centrepoint of a great experience. If there's nothing to do with this headset, then it's meaningless. But great games, great software, great experiences, whether it's Doom 3: BFG or a game where you fly through outer space, those are the things that are really going to make the Rift so much fun to play with.
Palmer Luckey: Good hardware only takes you so far.
Matt Gardner: How did it feel when the Kickstarter target got smashed so quickly, and by a community of consumers as well as developers saying 'this is something we want'?
Palmer Luckey: Who doesn't want to play on this! [Laughs.]
Nate Mitchell: We were incredibly excited. It was fantastic to get so much support from the community. We were definitely surprised, and I remember getting off this flight back from China and immediately calling Palmer and just yelling 'We already broke the target!'
Palmer Luckey: It's funny because just the week before I'd been like 'What if we don't reach the target. I mean, $250,000 is a lot of money. What if we only reach, say, $80,000?' But that would still have been a lot of developers, that would still have been a success.
Nate Mitchell: Exactly. At the end of the day, the more developers who get these kits, the easier it is for us to manufacture something great at the SDK level. Beyond that, the more people backing the project just means more awesome content on the devices, and more excitement and more support.
Matt Gardner: So how does it work in terms of platforms?
Palmer Luckey: It can work with anything. I mean, we're targeting PC right now, but there's no reason why it could technically work with other platforms, even current gen consoles if they were able to render the 3D fast enough. We're probably looking towards next-gen in terms of that extra horsepower to ensure 60fps for optimal head tracking, but it's not its own platform. It's a display that could potentially work with anything, and we're just concentrating on PC right now.
It's not a very big jump to make a 3D game compatible with the Rift. It has to be done, though, it's not just going to be compatible with old titles, and it has to be done by the original developer. But it can be done really quickly.
Nate Mitchell: And that just opens up even more possibilities, that's kind of even more exciting.
Palmer Luckey: I know! It's almost more exciting to look back and be able to patch a bunch of old titles that you've wanted to play again. WipEout could be crazy. One of the reasons we're making really intuitive SDKs is to make the issue of porting games across, making games compatible with the Rift, trivially easy.
Matt Gardner: Is it customisable. The Rift team wear glasses. John Carmack wears glasses. Can it be modified?
Palmer Luckey: If you're far-sighted you'll be ok, if you have perfect vision you'll be ok. At the moment, you might have a little bit of trouble if you're near-sighted as the focus is set out to infinity, but it's not a hard engineering problem to solve to be able to put in a feature where the focus would be adjustable like binoculars. Or we could have lens inserts for correcting vision. Those features probably won't make it into the dev kits because we're trying to get them ready really fast and we've only got a short period of time. But for the consumer version it will definitely be adjustable. I'm near-sighted so if anything I have to do it for myself!
Matt Gardner: Have you been experimenting with combining the Rift with more physical controller inputs, like motion control for example?
Palmer Luckey: Oh we have lots of ideas where that's concerned, lots of prototype ideas at least. Whether or not any of them will make it to retail is something completely different. [Laughs.]
Nate Mitchell: We've got a few toys...
Palmer Luckey: Yeah, on the fun prototyping side, I have a few things integrated into the Rift. I have an omni-directional treadmill integrated into it in my garage, other motion sensing hardware too, I have a mocap suit...none of these thins will probably make it across onto the consumer side, but just for playing around in R&D there are tons of cool things we can do.
Take the omni-directional treadmill, for example. People have been working with those for some time, but the one thing that's not gotten any cheaper over the last 50 years or so is big heavy machinery that's used to move other big heavy things. It hasn't happened.
Matt Gardner: So what sort of time window are you looking at for the Rift?
Nate Mitchell: We can't commit to anything right now. We'll ship the dev kits in December, and then we need time to figure out everything to make the Rift as great as it can be.
Palmer Luckey: It's half on us, and half on the parts suppliers being able to ship the displays that we need. We want to get it out as soon as possible but we won't ship it until it's ready.
Matt Gardner: Can you give us a rundown of the folks interested at this stage?
Palmer Luckey: Everyone!
Nate Mitchell: We can't reveal that information just yet, but you'll no doubt have guessed at one or two. We can say that there has been a lot of developer feedback and we're super excited, and that all of the fans and the community will be excited, right across the board.
Matt Gardner: Thanks so much for chatting to us today.
Nate Mitchell: No, thank you. The more people we can get excited about the Rift, the better!
Palmer Luckey: Thanks, we're really glad you enjoyed it.