For an Oculus Connect conference with no new hardware, there wasn’t a shortage of notable announcements. The start of the week was marked by Facebook’s acquisition of Central Labs, with a mind to working on neural interfaces for the Oculus platform – meaning you could one day possibly navigate VR using just the power of your mind.
If that’s too sci-fi for you, we also caught word of changes coming to Oculus in the nearer future: hand tracking capability for the Oculus Quest, and the ability to run Rift VR games on the Quest headset with a new cable peripheral, the Oculus Link.
But it’s hard to talk about VR or gaming in the home without mentioning Sony and Microsoft, both of whom are on the cusp of releasing the latest iterations of their home consoles – while Microsoft has said the next Xbox will launch in late 2020, we expect Sony to do the same for the next PlayStation too.
Both the Xbox Scarlett and PS5 are likely to occupy price points similar to the $399 / £399 / AU$732 Oculus Quest, and there are many households that will end up having to choose between the known strengths of a traditional console experience and the growing potential of VR headsets. We put the question to some of Facebook’s top executives working in VR and AR, to see what they thought about the incoming competition.
Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth is Facebook’s Vice President of AR/VR, and has worked at the company for fourteen years, since starting as one of its first engineers. When asked whether next-generation game consoles pose a threat, he’s adamant that the experience is too different to compare:
“It’s one of the great benefits we have of working in virtual reality is that we’re working on something that is truly unique. The thing that we’re building is a thing that is hard to get in another way.”
Bosworth cites both the untethered VR play of the Oculus Rift, with six degrees of freedom in the virtual world, as well as the more powerful experiences available with the PC-bound Oculus Rift, saying that “we feel like we’re doing something that’s pretty different from what anyone else is doing, not just in terms of what we’re trying to support but in terms of how people use the product.”
That’s echoed by Facebook’s Head of VR/AR Content, Mike Verdu, who stresses the “immersive VR experience” as something distinct from what traditional consoles offer. Verdu adds that developers are only now “discovering what those experiences can be like,” citing “new types of games, new types of mechanics, and all of the learning around how to create a beautiful, full length game.”
One of the things that marks out VR is the range of possible inputs, controllers, and processors that come with a headset, and how the experience varies between more portable models like the Oculus Go or the PC-tethered Rift S – so yes, you can’t compare too directly with the Xbox or PlayStation as platforms.
But it is competition. There are more devices competing for our time than ever, and VR headsets are closer to home consoles than anything else – because given the spatial and visual restrictions of VR headsets, even an untethered model like the Quest isn’t portable in the same way as a Switch Lite or a mobile phone. It’s a lot harder to whip out an Oculus headset on your commute or walk down the street with it in use.
With Oculus settling in comfortably around the $399 / £399 / AU$732 price point of its Rift S and Quest headsets – and the older Rift not much cheaper – there’s a clear question of which ecosystem you’d rather buy into for the next hardware cycle. But the question isn’t just Rift S vs Quest, or even PS5 vs Xbox Two. Consumers will increasingly find themselves choosing between established home gaming consoles or the possibilities of a new medium in VR.
Change is coming
Since the launch of the Quest in May, Facebook has been open in calling it the last model of the first generation of their VR hardware. While Facebook is still improving the features of that model, there’s a clear sense of the next chapter being unwritten, with plenty of potential features involving hand tracking, haptic feedback, or even neural interfaces paving the way for the next generation of products.
Bosworth is open about the amount that could change, saying that “we are working on headsets with better optics, better computing, better displays... Certainly there are things that are foundational, that can continue to improve.” He adds that Oculus is still asking whether its headsets “can get more comfortable, or balance the weight more effectively,” even citing work on “straps that work on people with more hairstyles.” Not quite mind control in VR, but a sign of the small iterative changes coming in what is still a nascent medium.
The future is a lot clearer for Xbox and PlayStation, with gamers knowing roughly what to expect, even if next-gen consoles will be expanding the scope of the games they can run. Increasing resolutions on televisions, too, will bring more 4K gaming – and even 8K gaming – to players, even as sharper VR displays with higher frame rates iron out headache and motion sickness problems.
We know that the next generation of PSVR will be coming to the PS5 as well, meaning that the sense of competition is only likely to increase. If Sony is able to iterate on its own VR hardware in the same way as Oculus, we may see a PlayStation console able to succeed on all fronts.
Facebook’s VP of Special Gaming Initiatives, Jason Rubin, tells us that VR is still “maybe centuries - but certainly decades and decades - away from getting to the end of what it is trying to do.” While there are VR games and experiences worth trying now, Oculus is still competing with console makers that know their medium well – and players who largely like to know what they’re getting.