If it weren’t for Palmer Luckey, it might have been easy to walk away from Oculus Connect 2 pretty disappointed this year. Days ahead of the company’s majorly anticipated developer conference, the Oculus Rift creator took to Reddit to temper expectations, confirming that Oculus VR would not be launching pre-orders for the long awaited virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD). This cast doubt over if the VR specialist would even reveal the price and date for the device and, sure enough, yesterday’s keynote talk came and went without so much as a hint of these specifics.
It was a noticeable absence and no doubt the biggest flaw in the show for many, but at least Luckey had lessened the sting, allowing both the company and the wider VR community to double down on the wealth of information that Oculus VR had to share elsewhere.
Oculus VR’s keynote speeches, although obviously developer-focused, are already beginning to resemble what one might expect from Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) or Microsoft at an E3 press showing. We saw the first hints of that at last year’s inaugural event, and it was clearer than ever during CEO Brendan Iribe’s opening session yesterday morning. Iribe himself has grown into a natural in the on-stage role, casually joking about CTO John Carmack’s memorable, unscripted keynote speech from last year within moments of walking out onto the stage. His intro gave way to the first surprise; an appearance from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Oculus VR is clearly in much more comfortable territory with its parent company now than it was a year and a half ago when Facebook purchased the company for $2 billion USD. The cynicism that met that announcement has been all but forgotten, and neither side is concerned about having a more direct involvement with the other anymore. Zuckerberg ultimately had little to say other than the same heart-warming messages of community and futurism that would be reiterated throughout the day, but his simple appearance was more than enough, conveying just how committed the CEO is to the VR company.
Zuckerberg’s comments gave way to a string of announcements, starting with Oculus VR and Samsung’s mobile HMD, the Gear VR. Following a no-show for the consumer version of the device at Samsung’s most recent Unpacked press conference, it was somewhat surreal to see it revealed so casually here with what could at best be described as minor iterations. That’s not to say the new Gear VR itself underwhelmed; the HMD was arguably the star of the show with its highly encouraging $99 price tag and November 2015 release window, but Samsung could have stood to gain more by announcing it at its own high-profile event.
The importance of that price tag can’t be understated, however. Those that have spent the past year tinkering with the Innovator’s Editions of Gear VR will know that the device really is a worthy introduction to this new medium. And, with support for all of Samsung’s 2015 smartphones, it’s now more accessible than ever. You can picture Oculus VR’s own ‘one-two punch’ approach easily, providing an easy, low(er) cost entry into VR now and preparing for the time that people are looking to upgrade in 1 or 2 years’ time with the Oculus Rift. Gear VR itself seems to be part of the company’s strategy for mainstream adoption of its PC-based HMD.
If it wasn’t already obvious, Oculus VR certainly proved its commitment to Gear VR following the reveal. The company made one of the biggest software reveals of the day in confirming that Netflix would be coming (and has since arrived) on the mobile device. This was backed up with the charming if inevitable Oculus Arcade, smartly bringing videogame classics such as Pac-Man to VR in a nostalgic and homely way. The VR industry may desperately want to learn more about the Oculus Rift, but Oculus VR made it clear that Gear VR has a bright future ahead of it too.
With the mobile side of things out of the way, Oculus VR was free to spend the rest of the conference on what everyone had come to see: the Oculus Rift. VP of Product Nate Mitchell took to the stage to deliver a solid, if unspectacular update on the device, confirming a December launch date for SDK 1.0 and revealing that there were now over 200,000 registered developers in the company’s Dev Center.
Mitchell also handled the content side, revealing a handful of new titles that are coming to the device. Giving these projects the kind of reveal they deserve is always going to be a struggle when there’s so much to fit in in an hour-long press conference, and that showed here. The presentation’s mix of old and new software somewhat smothered exciting reveals such as the news that manic multiplayer brawler, Gang Beasts, is on its way to the Oculus Rift. Again, this isn’t a consumer-facing show, but an on-stage demo showcasing how this would work would be have welcome. Instead, fans are just left with questions about the VR port.
Of course, one title did get the kind of announcement it truly deserved. Palmer Luckey himself took to the stage to announce that the unstoppable juggernaut that is Minecraft would be coming to the Oculus Rift, with a Gear VR version confirmed later on. Luckey’s talk was somewhat jarring, opening with a discussion of the perfect VR metaverse before admitting that that wasn’t what he was on stage to reveal. It worked to some degree; Minecraft was certainly the last thing on our minds when he paused for the big reveal. But it was a welcome surprise given the title’s long history with the Oculus Rift, having originally been planned for the device before creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson scrapped it following the Facebook news. Of course, Notch no longer owners Minecraft, and Oculus VR partner Microsoft does, so it’s not hard to see how it made its way back to VR.
It’s tempting to move straight onto Oculus Touch from here, but it would be a disservice to not mention Head of Developer Strategy Anna Sweet’s announcements for the Oculus Platform. Sandwiching these reveals between games and Touch make them easy to overlook, but Sweet actually offered a tantalising look into the console-like hub that fans can expect to explore when the Gear VR and Oculus Rift launch. It will be interesting to see how the company’s own spin on achievements, friends lists and even early access titles play out in VR.
Winding down the main keynote, Oculus Touch took centre stage. The kit is a fitting closer for the show as, in many ways, it’s the most exciting part of Oculus VR’s work right now. Anyone that’s tried the Toybox demo knows that Oculus Touch is the missing link that developers (literally) haven’t been able to put their fingers on for the past 3 years. Amazingly, it’s only been 3 months since its reveal, but the keynote proved that software for Touch has come a long way, no doubt boosted by the fact that many of the developers that got early access to the kits had already been playing with the HTC Vive and its own position-tracked controllers.
Perhaps the most appreciated part of the show from a videogame fan’s point of view, however, was closing with the reveal of Bullet Train, Epic Games’ own Oculus Touch demo that offers the most compelling take on the VR first-person shooter (FPS) yet seen. It may simply be a tech demo, but this was a welcome surprise, proving that VR can deliver the kind of high fidelity, fast paced action experiences that the AAA scene is currently pushing out. In fact, it was more than a tech demo, it was a promise that VR will have the kinds of experiences that compete with the biggest titles out there.
The opening keynote was followed in identical fashion to last year. Chief Scientist Michael Abrash promptly took over from Iribe to deliver another fascinating insight into the future of VR. If the first hour of Oculus VR’s show had proved that VR is here, Abrash offered a compelling counterpoint, listing off the areas in which the technology still has to improve. The legendary developer was even so brave as to outright admit that many of these areas don’t yet even have the foundations needed to build solutions upon. This talk wasn’t to discourage or take away from all that had come before, but instead enlighten the audience with the incredible depths that VR can go to in order to fully convince our bodies of the new worlds we see before us.
This of course brings us to Carmack. The industry hero almost literally stole the show last year by simply cramming as much in-depth advice and unflinching facts as he could before he had to be interrupted. This year the leash was kept much tighter and Carmack barely ran over his allotted time, but anyone at Connect itself will know that the talk really didn’t end there, as the developer no doubt spent the event’s remaining hours in the corridors and halls, answering every question fired his way.
And that sums up Oculus Connect 2 quite nicely. The company itself held back, choosing not to do its full Oculus Rift release date and pricing blowout, but that didn’t stop it from having a great show. When that information will be revealed is now a complete mystery (and may well now remain so until a sudden announcement), but this was an event that made it ever clearer the wait will be worth it.