VR vs. Oculus Connect 4

In Kevin E's weekly column he looks at OC4, an event that certainly happened. Also the sky turned red.

It’s around this time of year that we start talking about some familiar topics, it’s just the way things with the calendar go. One of the usual VR vs. columns you therefore get is the traditional one after Oculus Connect talking about, well, Oculus Connect.

Had things been different, I could’ve tied it in with an opening about the strange weather effect we had in the UK yesterday. Thanks to Hurricane Ophelia (just typical the Shakespearean one heads our waydragging dust from the Sahara Desert with it, those of us, particularly in the mid to north of the UK had a dark orange or red sun and a similarly reddish sky for most of the day. London had very sepia tones in comparison. Initially I wasn’t aware of what was going on, and was wondering why the light in the living room was kind of pink, figuring eventually the sun was just reflecting oddly off the wooden blinds and having some kind of effect that way. On going out to fetch my post, however,  I found it very blustery indeed.  What I found most interesting was the innate sense of wrongness about being out in it. Like all the primal senses we’ve still got were insisting I seek shelter immediately.

The whole thing was rather brought home in London thanks to a BBC interview with Conservative politician John Redwood, his dour face staring out infront of a red sky and Big Ben surrounded by scaffolding like it was in a cage. It looked like London was slowly turning into the next Mad Max film. A feeling most Londoners trying to use the Londo Underground’s Northern Line at peak time will be familiar with. (Incidentally, Big Ben is currently undergoing renovation and much needed maintainence that will see it silenced for several years.)

I’d like to make a great analogy with this and OC4, but I really can’t. This year’s Oculus Connect felt somehow devoid of any reaction, let alone that I felt outside yesterday. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, I wasn’t feeling dread after it either, it just… was.  Which is not to say that Oculus didn’t have a lot to say, because they did, and it certainly managed to distance talk from the misguided demonstration of Facebook Spaces to show off the devastation in poor Puerto Rico.

We had the move into standalone with Oculus Go (I’m curious if this means we’ll get those light grey Oculus Touch controllers seperately) and we had the latest news on the Santa Cruz, (+4 for rhyming). The mere mention of which continues to automatically play the related song by The Thrills in my mind. These are big announcements to be sure. But they were, also, the natural steps. Natural evolutions. They were expected and were needed.

Incidentally, I do recommend reading Kevin J’s hands-on with Santa Cruz 2017, which you can find here.

In terms of content there was plenty, and yet despite Oculus’ insistence this was the biggest Oculus Connect yet that was not the feeling of those on the ground from VRFocus at the event it certainly didn’t feel like it was the case. There were updates, yes- and new trailers and titles that came out in one sort of gelatinous glob of virtual reality (VR).

Rebecca put it best this morning; “What got to me was there was this torrent of stuff. It was like a machine gun of announcements. You couldn’t catch your breath. It was so overwhelming it ended up being paradoxically underwhelming.”

Sitting here just under a week later only a handful of things really stuck in my mind. Firstly the next year is going to be interesting for the likes of NextVR. At OC3 we collectively realised that the year ahead was going to be a bumpy one for AltSpace VR following the reveal of Spaces, Rooms and Avatars. Something that ultimately came to pass. Now that Oculus and Facebook are moving into that ‘event broadcasting’ space there should really be some concern for the companies there. What they do have in their favour is that they are for more set up in their space than AltSpace was this time last year. But still, there should be a concern if the platform holder is going to effectively step into your business.

Secondly if there was a ‘winner’ at OC4 it ended up being, oddly, Samsung. The sometimes critical, always honest – in fact almost too honest for its own good keynote speech from John Carmack. A tour de force of inside and out tech opinion. As not a very tech-savvy person it continues to be a little overwhelming for the likes of me, conversely, I continue to be mesmerised whenever Michael Abrash opens his mouth. If Oculus put together a Bob Ross-esque stream on Twitch of all his talks I think I’d never leave.

In any case Samsung got a number of shout outs in a keynote that touched on, among other things, themes of the difficulties and realities of development and a slight wistfulness on Mr. Carmack’s past for how easy things used to be. But there were a couple of occasions when there was more than a little envy about Samsung’s place, its status as a juggernaut of mobile VR and interestingly and admission of frustration as to why Oculus, Samsung’s partner remember, couldn’t deliver to the same standards.

“In many ways Samsung has been doing- has done- a better job at being user focused than I feel Oculus has in many ways.” Carmack explained, describing how he was critical of the design of the initial apps and services released, such as with Milk VR. “But, you know, they released version after version and we look over, sometime, a number of versions later and Samsung had the number one application in VR for a while. And I used that to berate a bunch of people at Oculus, about ‘we need to step up our game’. Samsung is out there; listening to users, doing what they want, providing the features that they actually find valuable. While I think Oculus has in many cases focused on ‘we want to build a platform’, ‘we want to build the infrastructure for some of these things’.”

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the future as it almost feels like Oculus is torn between the two directions. If Carmack is having to press as hard as he inferred for Oculus to channel TRON, as he put it, and “fight for the users” how will that change if, say, Facebook take a more hands-on approach to things? What is more important to Oculus? Being the one to lay down and maintain the foundations or being the one operating in the penthouse?

Lastly, they may want to re-evaluate the phrase “Oculus from Facebook”. It crept in last year and made even more of an appearance at Oculus Connect 4. Whenever I see it I think it makes Oculus sound like a perfume or an aftershave. Like Augmented, the new essence for Women by Dior, or Immersion for Men, by Calvin Klein. It just sounds a bit silly in a branding sense.

Just as well it’s not really, I’m not sure I’d want to go around smelling of Oculus. What would it smell of anyway? Actually, don’t answer that – we’ll only be informed the fragrance doesn’t smell as good as Eau de Samsung the year after.

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