After 20 years working with VR, Jesse Schell speaks his mind

He started working with VR in 1993, and professionally in 1995. Now he's making prototypes for the Oculus Rift and teaching students how to develop in VR. What does he think of the medium's future?
Jesse Schell has picked up a reputation as a futurist, but in terms of VR, he's almost a historian. He's been working with the technology since 1993, and was the creative director of the Disney Imagineering virtual reality studio, where he produced Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride in the mid 1990s. He's worked with the technology since that time, and has multiple Oculus Rift projects in development at his studio, Schell Games. He also works with experimental game technologies at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, where he's an instructor. He's also the author of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Gamasutra caught up with Schell at this past weekend's Oculus Connect event in Los Angeles, where he was demoing some of his VR prototypes, and discussed the potential of the medium and its audience.

You have a background working for Disney and doing attraction-y stuff.

Jesse Schell: Well, yeah. I started doing VR professionally -- I mean, I guess I started doing VR in '93. Yeah, my joke is I was putting on my first VR helmet when Palmer was getting his first diaper on. So I started that stuff in grad school, and then started working at Disney in '95 doing VR -- the Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride VR and a few others. And then I've been doing it continuously at the university since then. And so when it started to be a reality for consumers, it was exciting.

From your perspective, is it arriving, finally? Because you've been playing with it for 20 years!

JS: Yeah, it is arriving. It's really funny, because when the specs for the Rift were announced, I realized, "Oh, my God. These were the same specs we had at Disney in 1995 -- the only thing is, this unit costs $300, and ours cost $300,000." So it was 1,000 times cheaper.
1,000 times cheaper: Oculus' newest prototype, Crescent Bay
I feel like it is finally arriving. I think it's a few different things: I think the six degrees of freedom is really important, and that's possible because of optical tracking. So optical tracking is now possible. One of the things that's so genius about the Rift is using the GPU to compensate for the deficiencies of the lenses, which was a thing -- it was always like, "You could do this, but you need $600 lenses," and that's just, "What the hell are you gonna do?" But no. Now, you have cheap-ass plastic lenses and correct for it in software, which is absolutely genius. So, anyway, I think it's a number of things. OLED is really important, because it gives a really fast latency. So it's like a number of things have converged so that this is the right time.

Another thing is that a number of developers who are jumping on this are the kind of people who have been hoping for VR for a long time, fairly enthusiastic. What do you think about regular people? Are they ready for VR?

"I suspect that for most people the novelty factor is going to wear off pretty quick."
JS: No. Well, everybody's ready to give it a quickie try. And that's what's going to be great about stuff like the Gear. A lot of people will be like, "Oh, great. I just snap my cell phone in here and look around a little bit and I try a couple things." My personal opinion is, that's going to have a great novelty factor and people will check it out, sort of like 3D movies, or something. And I suspect that for most people the novelty factor is going to wear off pretty quick. I will be surprised if there are sustaining applications that people will still be doing a year later in the casual market.
Samsung's Gear VR, which transforms a Note 4 phone into a VR headset, in collaboration with Oculus

Do you think that there's a roadmap for getting widespread adoption?

"I would put out there that I believe that there's going to be a sustainable market that is probably roughly the size of, I don't know, call it 20 percent of the Steam market."
JS: I personally think there are a few different paths here. One of them is -- the first big real market that we're going to see, other than the novelty market -- which can be big but it'll be short-lived and it'll be over -- the first big market is going to be hardcore gamers. I would put out there that I believe that there's going to be a sustainable market that is probably roughly the size of, I don't know, call it 20 percent of the Steam market, of people who will really, really be into this. They'll be into it hardcore. Some people will be disappointed; those definitely aren't like Facebook numbers or anything. But I think they're sustainable numbers. And people who are really into it? They'll pay a lot. They'll pay $200 for a game. They'll pay a $300-a-year annual subscription for a thing that is really gripping in that way.

It'll be like the MMO market in 1999 all over again.

JS: That's a great parallel. I think it'll be a lot like that. And exactly how big that'll be, I don't know. Because one of the things I haven't talked about is venues. People always talk about platforms, platforms, platforms, but really it's about, "Where do you play?" There's a reason we don't play MMOs in the living room. For like the entire history of MMOs, we've had one or two go to the living room, and they've all died. And they've all done really well at the PC desk. So what I always say is, "houses have multiple venues." One of them is the hearth. And that's the living room. The family gathers together, and it's a group thing. And then you have the workbench. That's where usually the PC lives. It's a place you go privately, you do hard work, it's very lean-forward. Usually the PC's there. Steam wants to live in the workbench. Game consoles are designed for the hearth. So it makes for a very strange question: What does a head mounted display want to be doing in the hearth? It doesn't want to be there. Because it's a one-person-at-a-time experience. It wants to be a workbench experience.
"Because while I think hardcore gamers are going to be big into VR proper, augmented reality is going to be for kids."
So, anyway... Longer term, I think the thing people aren't looking at now is augmented reality. Because while I think hardcore gamers are going to be big into VR proper, augmented reality is going to be for kids. Because adults are going to be too embarrassed to run around outside chasing after some invisible phantom. But a nine year-old, running around the yard, playing kickball with Pikachu? Like, oh my God. Kids are going to love this thing so much. But people aren't quite there, and augmented reality platforms are a bit different than VR, although the technologies are really related.

I feel like whatever we're seeing now, be it Gear VR, Oculus Rift, Sony Morpheus, it's not the form it's going to take, ultimately.

JS: I think that's right. I do think some of these things are fairly well positioned to get something out there. The thing that nobody is really talking about is the importance of the hands. Being able to look around, that's a nice piece of the puzzle. But it's not the most important piece of the puzzle. Any time anybody talks about VR, anytime you see any fantasy of it, there's always a hand reaching into a world. You don't have that! Maybe Oculus is going to surprise us? So far they haven't, but maybe they will.

They've been kind of talking it down, I think, actually.

JS: Right. They're talking about, "Hands aren't important! You don't need hands! Quadriplegics is our market." I don't know exactly where they're going with that. Sony, on the other hand, has a little bit of a leg up with the PS Move.

Yeah, and I tried it with the Move. It added something.

JS: It does! It adds your fucking hands, is what it adds.

Or your mittens, anyway.

"I don't think game controllers are going to be the right path, ultimately."
JS: More like mittens, it's true. So I think exactly how you reach in and interact is very important. Because I don't think game controllers are going to be the right path, ultimately.

Do you think that the breakthrough, then, hasn't happened yet for VR, maybe?

JS: I think we've got a piece of it. It's like, "Hey, Edison invented the light bulb. That's awesome. Maybe someone should invent AC power. Maybe that would be a useful thing for us to have." So I think there are going to be a few pieces that need to come into place for it to take on mass market numbers, like mass market game console numbers, there are going to have to be a number of things that have to chunk into place.
"I believe that starting in 2015, there will be a sustainable market forever onward for VR."
I think we'll see it over the next 10 years. Maybe eight years? But it's going to take some time. But we're finally going to see some forward progress. I believe that starting in 2015, there will be a sustainable market forever onward for VR. It'll start small and it'll get bigger.

Do you think there's a generational element? In the sense that people who are younger kids, who are coming up toward it, are going to be more accepting because it's new to them?

JS: Well, that's always true.

Right. But do you think that's going to be a significant factor?

JS: I think it's much more true for augmented reality. I think it's way more true for augmented reality. Yeah, for VR, I don't know. I don't know about that. Because I really do think that kids are going to be less interested in VR because of how isolating it is.
"Head mounted displays are inherently antisocial."
Because kids tend not to like that. You don't see kids on Steam. Where's Steam for kids? They'd rather be playing Nintendo games in the living room with their friends, in a very social environment, and the head mounted displays are inherently antisocial.

Whether it's online interaction or other forms of interactivity, can that obstacle be overcome?

JS: Yeah, that definitely will be part of it. It won't work for kids, though.

In general?

JS: I think that'll be the strength of it. For people who are really into online interactions, this will be the ultimate online interaction. This will be the first time you'll be able to make eye contact with other avatars. And that will be a real thing. The power of it as a communication medium, ultimately, is going to be amazing. I feel certain that's ultimately why Facebook was interested, because they saw that potential. There's a ways we have to go. We still have to get the eye tracking working properly, because that's a big part of it. We need to get emotional recognition working properly, so we can get all that going, if you're going to have this be a meaningful communication medium. But those things are on the way.

Certainly, they're being funded right now, in some lab, properly.

JS: Oh, yeah. We, at the school, we do a great eye-tracking system we've been using, and it's really interesting. A game you can entirely play with your eyes is -- it sort of changes the way you think about game design. There's a lot of stuff coming. The next decade is going to be amazing. Stuff's just going to keep coming.

It's kind of hard to predict! You're kind of at the bleeding edge of it, because of the ETC, right?

JS: Yeah, that's what we do. That's our job, to prepare all these students for the future. We always have to be thinking -- we always say, "If we prepare you for the present, all we've done is prepare you for the past." And that's no good. So we're always trying to go out a step, and out a step. Stuff like eye tracking, systems like the Myo, these muscular sensor systems. We're always trying to be like, "What could possibly be next?" It's tough, but it's fun. You don't have to get everything right. You get into questions of debate, like, what's not going to work and why. It's what's exciting about it.

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