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Interview: Oculus' Luckey Promises Big Pre-Facebook

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Now here’s a weird thing: when the news broke that Facebook had suddenly made Oculus VR’s reality much, much greener, you want to know what I was doing? Transcribing a last-day-of-GDC interview with… Oculus Rift’s resident wonderchild, Palmer Luckey. In retrospect, he almost certainly knew his company would be under Facebook’s globe-spanning blue umbrella come Tuesday, but that obviously never came up. Instead, Luckey spoke enthusiastically about Oculus’ future in gaming, his company’s research into interfaces that can simulate arms and legs in VR, all the while batting away assertions that Sony’s PlayStation VR mega-mask Morpheus is any sort of threat. So here you have it: one of the final Oculus interviews ever pre-Facebook. Let’s see how it all holds up. 

RPS: How are things going with the consumer version of the Rift? How far along are you?

Luckey: Very good. We haven’t announced a release date, but we know what we need to ship. We spent the last year researching and developing what we need to ship for our great consumer virtual reality experience, and we figured it out.

RPS: Is the consumer version gonna resemble Devkit 2, aka Crystal Cove, aka not Intel’s Sandy Bridge, which I always get it confused with?

Luckey: No. It’s quite a large improvement. That kit is the best technology that’s available today, but we need to be even better. And we have a lot of improvements.

RPS: In what areas?

Luckey: Higher resolution, lower latency, higher refresh rate, much lower weight, a few other things.

RPS: There’s obviously a number of various VR options here [at GDC]. Have you tried out any of the others that are at the show?

Luckey: Yep.

RPS: Which ones?

Luckey: I won’t say, but there’s nothing that’s even close to what we’re doing, in my opinion.

RPS: Not even Morpheus, Sony’s uncrowned (and unopposed) king of console VR?

Luckey: Nope.

RPS: Are you worried about exclusives in the future? Obviously you have EVE Valkyrie locked down on PC, but Sony snagged it on consoles. What about further down the line, though? Seeing as Oculus is the only thing that even remotely counts as a competitor, what happens if Sony starts trying to pick up exclusives on all platforms, PC or not?

Luckey: Who cares? People have always done this. Every platform has always had exclusives. There’s gonna be a lot of people who would rather work on PC, where there’s going to be a lot more power to work with, than a console that’s going to remain stuck for the better part of a decade.

RPS: You also have a big advantage on the experimental front. Oculus is a fairly open platform. People can’t, for instance, workshop a crazy idea and have it up and running on PS4 in, like, a day.

Luckey: That’s why there’s hundred of experiences that have already been made for our platform that are things that could never be done on a traditional gaming platform, and we learned so much from being open, and getting that kit out to people, not just working with a few golden developers behind closed doors.

RPS: What happens, though, if Sony goes for a game you really want on Oculus? Maybe even one that was originally created and promoted on Oculus? Do you try to outbid them?

Luckey: I don’t see that one. We don’t have plans to get into bidding wars. I think the benefits of our platform are pretty apparent, and I don’t think Sony can just go out and just buy every VR experience.

RPS: Fair enough, but why did you bother to lock down EVE Valkyrie as any sort of exclusive if you don’t care about exclusives?

Luckey: Not talking about Valkyrie. Ask them. We’ll let them speak for themselves.

RPS: OK then, to put it in another way, do you think you will try to sign other exclusivity deals in the future?

Luckey: I mean, we didn’t sign that deal because we wanted the exclusivity. We signed it because we were co-publishing the title and funding the title, because we thought it was a good title to be investing in. It wasn’t about buying the exclusivity to prevent other people from having it. It just happened that we were the only platform at that time. We want to continue to invest in games and publish games.

RPS: The other side of it is that you have your own in-house development that’s staffing up right now. How much is that about providing support to other game developers and creators? Is aiding in game development one of your central priorities?

Luckey: Yeah, we very much are, that’s why we have such a strong developer outreach team, and developer support team, because we want to help every developer as much as we can if they want to make a VR experience. That’s what we’ve been doing this whole past year with things like our game jam, and with our sharing website, and with our developer forum, and with all of that staff we’re hiring around developer relations.

RPS: Meanwhile, you’ve also been pretty adamant that you view Oculus Rift and the very concept of VR itself as a platform, while companies like Sony are more keen to make it about extending the capabilities of preexisting platforms.

Luckey: We’re focusing explicitly on VR. That’s the only thing we care about, is the best VR experience. We’re not making compromises to work with existing hardware, or making compromises to try and cut costs so that we can use existing accessories, we’re trying to build something from the ground up that is the best VR experience in the world.

RPS: All that said: You seem to be of the opinion that that Oculus and VR in general has a good chance of renewing interest in high-end PC parts, and high-end PCs because it obviously takes a little more oomph to run that kind of thing. But at the same time the PS4 is a high-end machine, or at least a mid-end, a mid-tier machine that can run VR games.

Luckey: Mid-tier in relation to… your cup of coffee? My cellphone?

RPS: My cup of coffee. Seriously though, relative to the highest-end PC parts right now.

Luckey: Sure.

RPS: Conventional wisdom says, people look at their options and say “Well, do I want to put in the time and money to secure a really good PC, or do I want to get a PlayStation box that is pre-made for me?” If both have a VR options, what do you think most people will pick?

Luckey: I think that’s a very complex question that depends on what we do in the future, largely. But, you know, whatever your assessment of consoles is today, relative to PCs, that’s going to be much different a year from now, and then five years from now, and then eight years from now. One of those is going to remain the same, the other is going to move really really fast. The top of the line PCs from a few years ago are the $300 back to school special laptops. And that’s only taken a few years for that to happen.

That’s going to continue to happen in the PC space. And there’s gonna be a lot more power on both the high end and even on the low end for VR than any other platform.

And then the other thing is, I think it’s a bold choice to say, will people buy a PC for VR or buy a console for VR? Because most people have a PC. Not everyone has a high enough end PC to run VR but in a couple of years, like I said, all PCs are going to be a lot better. even the dirt cheap ones. It’s more a question of, I already have a PC, which do I want to buy to have VR now?

RPS: But there is still the issue of PC sales declining. And instead of upgrading or buying a new machine, a lot of people are saying, “Well, an iPad more or less does all the stuff I’d buy a PC for.” At least, I get the impression that’s what people outside the hardcore PC gaming crowd are saying.

Luckey: Sure, but people are not going to stop using laptops and PCs in favor of iPads. It just will not happen. Tablets are a huge growth market. That’s not a saturated market. Not everyone has a tablet yet, but everyone already has a PC. So it makes sense that you have slowing sales in one and growing sales in the other. It doesn’t mean that PCs are on their way out. Sales may be going down, but their use is not. People are still using PCs, hugely, in a huge way.

RPS: Does your work with Valve factor into that at all? Obviously, they’re trying to take PCs to new places with a Steam Box for every season and occasion, so I imagine that’s fairly exciting for you guys.

Luckey: You know, we’re building a VR experience. The core hardware is the same either way. It’s not like these machines are much cheaper than their identical equivalent hardware-wise. It’s just a really good living room experience.

Their OS is built around living room use, not VR use. So maybe it’ll be a big deal for us at some point, but right now you can’t do VR with a Steam machine, and their focus is living room, not VR.

RPS: How has it been working with Valve on the whole? What sort of advances have they helped you make that you couldn’t have achieved on your own?

Luckey: I think it’s elevated not just us, but everybody, because, us and Valve, we’re going out there and doing speeches on how to make VR games, how to make VR hardware, and saying, you know, what the bare minimum is. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of similarities between our talks, Valve’s talks, and now Sony’s talks, so it’s more about sharing with everyone in the ecosystem, than specifically elevating either of our sides.

RPS: Was that Valve VR prototype from Steam Dev Days really as night-and-day different from Oculus Rift as some people were saying? Was it really that much better?

Luckey: Oh from Development Kit 1, yeah. I mean, from what we’ve been shipping to that it was a huge jump. But I mean, our DK2 is very very similar and our consumer product is superior to it, so it’s not like it’s some magical unicorn that can never be achieved, it’s hardware that’s already being surpassed.

RPS: You’re very PC-focused at the moment, but what happens next? Do you think you’ll expand to other areas, especially given that you now have competition encroaching on things like console and mobile?

Luckey: Maybe. I mean, we’re not ruling anything out, but right now we’re focused on PC and mobile.

RPS: How do you plan to expand into mobile? What’s happening there?

Luckey: That is the long term end-game for the mobile hardware. We’ll get as powerful as top of the line PCs today, and you’ll be able to build it into the VR headset for next to nothing. That means you can do a lot of different things without being tethered to an expensive box, it can all be in the headset itself, and it’ll take years to get there. It’ll take years to get to an experience that is as good as the PC one today, but it is- that is the eventual endgame.

RPS: What do you think, when all of that technology consolidates and streamlines, when you have that form factor, of just all of that power in such a small thing – what do you think happens to the openness and hackability of PCs?

Luckey: I don’t know. I have no idea. I know that VR has a lot of demands that are not necessarily suited to PC. Like, you want to have everything as responsive as possible, preferably you’d have a real time operating system, but it’s gonna be a while until we get there. I don’t know what it means for everyone, though.

RPS: So that’s your optimal form factor for VR, but what about optimal input? I mean, keyboard-and-mouse is barely doable, and controllers work a little better, but they’re hardly perfect.

Luckey: Gamepads are an acceptable input, not an optimal input. Keyboard-and-mouse is terrible. For VR. I love it for everything else.

So we’re doing a lot of R&D around input. I think the key thing is that input is a misnomer. It’s not about input, it’s about input AND output. And VR is all about that. Our headset is not just a display device. It’s a device that measures what you’re doing in the real world, feeds that into the game, then feeds you back the appropriate signal.

I think that VR input devices need to do the same. They need to be able to reach out into the world, input data into it in a natural way, and then also receive haptic feedback out that matches what you should be feeling, as closely as possible. And that’s not light shaking or buzzing, which is all that we have right now. Getting shot, your hands are shaking. Running, your hands are shaking. Earthquake, your hands are shaking. Not enough gas in your car, your hands are shaking. That’s not nearly good enough.

RPS: Do you think we need more varied haptic feedback, then? Like, material that can both rumble and change consistency/texture?

Luckey: You want something as close as possible. I mean, actual force feedback is tough, but skin sheer and texture simulation are feasible in the near future.

RPS: Where is that tech right now? How much can you get of that for an affordable price point?

Luckey: Quite a bit. We are researching everything that we think needs to be done to make a perfect VR experience, and input is one of those things.

RPS: How far do you want to take that? Do you just have, like, a Holodeck room in your offices?

Luckey: No, we’re not looking at Holodeck style stuff. But we’re trying to get as close as we can with other technological options. I can’t go into all the details because we’re still researching and developing. We won’t wanna promise anything we’re not sure we can deliver.

RPS: OK then, let’s stick to the basics. You want to get hands as involved in the process as possible, but what about legs? I mean, I just tried the Omni Treadmill, and it doesn’t feel like walking at all. It was just disorienting and kind of painful, slipping around in that awkward bowl-floor and whatnot.

Luckey: Yeah, it’s that it’s not quite like normal walking, it’s that it’s nothing like normal walking. Locomotion through space is not isolated to a single system. I mean, it’s not an isolated conscious system. It’s a lot of systems working together consciously and subconsciously. When you start walking or stop walking, you’re actually either burning a lot of energy to get moving or to stop moving.

I mean, we weigh hundreds of pounds. We’re like a magic grocery cart loaded with groceries. It takes a lot of energy when all that weight is moving to stop it, you know, you’re running and you stop. And your brain, and your body has trained your entire life, to know exactly how to stop your body from a walking or running state.

The problem is, with something like an omni-directional treadmill, you’re not actually running. You have no inertia, you’re in space, you never built up anything, so your brain goes through all these routines, trying to keep your balance and stop running, and then goes off balance because the response is nothing like what should be there. The muscle response is the same, the body response is the same, and your vestibular system isn’t giving you any acceleration cues.

The only part that’s right is the actual movement of your legs, and our legs have probably the poorest proprioception – that is, sense of self, knowing where parts of your body are – in the whole body. Like, dancers and ice skaters have generally very good senses of proprioception, but they have to in order to do the kinds of things they do. Our legs have really terrible proprioception in general, compared to our hands or our arms.

RPS: Right. It’s why I’m so good at tripping over my own two feet without even trying.

Luckey: There’s techniques like, in military VR, around redirected walking, which is the idea that you can, you can turn people slightly more in the virtual world in certain circumstances than they actually are, and that works because our legs suck at telling us where we are in the world. Our visual sense and our vestibular sense is overwhelmingly more powerful.

So I don’t think that tricking the weakest of all of our locomotive senses is enough to make you feel like you’re really walking through the environment. And having a harness that holds your whole waist, that’s the only reason you don’t fall over.

It’s not just, oh it feels a little off, and I’m kind of stumbling, it’s… you would just keel right over if it were not for that holding you in place, before anything close to what you’re doing in real life, your systems would work in sync, and you’d be able to at least stay upright.

So I think locomotion devices are interesting, and I think that they’re going to improve rapidly, but I don’t think any of them solved locomotion today, because on a fundamental level, they are not able to solve the biggest problem, which is dealing with your balance system, all the way from your brain to your feet, when you’re accelerating and when you’re decelerating.

RPS: So you’re quite well-versed in this stuff, but is Oculus as a whole putting in research to solve the problem? Is it a priority for you?

Luckey: Not really, because it’s almost an insurmountable problem at this point in time. It’s one thing to make you feel like you’re moving through space, purely with your visual system. It is another to try and build something that can mechanically simulate that entire chain of movements in real response. I don’t think anyone’s done that good of a job even the ones people doing, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, on gigantic pieces of machinery to do it.

RPS: Where do you draw the line on what you see as achievable from a practical standpoint? Do you look at tech and say, “Well, if we can’t have that in the hands of consumers in, like, three years, then it’s not worth our time”?

Luckey: We’re trying to make things that are feasible to deliver to consumers. And until we see evidence that something is important and feasible, we don’t waste too much effort on it. That’s why we’re working so much on equipment, and not so much on, you know, stand and spin around in circles locomotion device.

I mean, there’s others, there’s other basic problems with that, like, ignoring all the psycho nonsense. Or our headset has a cable. How do you deal with the fact that you’re going to turn around and grab a cable. Or, our camera can turn, can take you anywhere you can look as long as you’re sitting, but it loses tracking when you turn directly away. How do you solve that problem? We’re trying to optimize our technology for the way that our hardware works. Our hardware does not yet work with everything.

RPS: So I probably won’t be playing my dream Oculus Rift ice-skating game any time soon?

Luckey: Not anytime soon, no.

RPS: Maaaaaaaaan.

Luckey: And I also think that the best way to do this… the real dream is to tap into the brain, or to tap into the nervous system, and simulate these things. As long as we’re limited to basically strapping things onto the very ends of our senses, you know, oh, strap something in front of my eye, or the end of my hand, over my ear… as long as you’re doing that, you’re going to be limited in what you can do with it.

RPS: Thank you for your time. Be safe, and don’t fall in a hole or get bought by Facebook or anything like that!

Palmer Luckey seemed as animated and obsessive about both games and VR tech as ever. As we talked, his eyes lit up and darted about like fireflies. If nothing else, there was no doubting his enthusiasm, even after an exhausting week of panels and interviews. Taken in conjunction with a more recent Reddit AMA about the Facebook purchase, I’m at least optimistic about the passion of the main brains behind Oculus Rift.

Facebook itself is the big question mark, and all the good intentions in the world won’t be able to stop its behemoth stomps if it really decides to start throwing its weight around. Mark Zuckerberg claims he’s going to more or less let Oculus run independently for a while, but a) will that really end up being the case, b) for how long, and c) how radically will everything change once Facebook decides to start using Oculus tech to lay down track toward the “most social platform ever”? The final point, I feel, is especially pertinent given that Facebook has already expressed an intent to focus on mobile, and even in this interview Luckey seems pretty on board with the idea.

But then, Oculus was bound to get bought, as it never really had a clear release or distribution strategy before. The whole operation reeked of start-up upstarttery, which comes with pros (independence, a stylish jacket lapel pin that reads “indie cred”) and cons (uncertainty in fields outside your own expertise, hardware pricing woes, subpar tech and parts, etc).

Oculus clearly prizes independent creativity and openness as concepts, but I severely doubt that Luckey and co got into the hardware business with “INDIE FO LYFE” intentions. While they *might* have been able to hack it in the long run, it would’ve been an utter chore, and better (or at least equal) companies have failed to accomplish similar feats.

On top of all that, Facebook offers a mainstream push that simply can’t be matched. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked it when Oculus Rift was ‘Our Thing’, but VR’s destiny lies in either ubiquity or painful obscurity. If we really want to see it reach its full potential as just, like, a thing, the former is the only way to go. There will be bumps in the road, and maybe Facebook will torpedo the whole thing while some still-unknown crusader of justice (and rad videogames) saves the day, but one thing is certain: VR couldn’t stay a niche mom ‘n’ pop thing forever.

That said, we now have Facebook calling the shots in a medium that’s still fresh and malleable as wet putty. The same Facebook that tends to prize its own numbers and advertising partners over pretty much all else, even if – thus far – services like Instagram have largely benefited. Oculus’ unique identity is still very much alive right now, but can it stay afloat in Facebook’s bottomless blue sea, or has Luckey’s luck finally run out?

At this point, we can speculate and knee-jerk all we want, but we can’t *know*. I personally am hoping for the best, but only time will tell. This could be VR’s greatest triumph or most crushing defeat. For now all we can do is strap on our goggles, take a virtual front row seat, and cross our fingers for the best.

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