Oculus VR seems to be in a tricky spot right now.
After years of effort, this was the year the company beat competitors HTC and Sony to market (and store shelves) with a commercial version of its Rift VR headset.
But it hasn't been able to ship enough headsets fast enough to satisfy public demand. and the relatively steep hardware requirements to run VR on PC (either on a Rift or on an HTC Vive) have led some market analysts to forecast a slow start for the VR market this year -- something Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg foretold late last year.
This week Anna Sweet, Oculus' head of developer relations, acknowledged that the VR market is still very young and encouraged developers who are concerned about the state of VR adoption to stick with it -- and with Oculus.
"The market is new, for us and for all the other platforms out there. It takes a while to get hardware out into the world, and to develop that market," she told Gamasutra during a conversation at E3. "I think the way we think about it, and the reason we're investing in content and developers, is we want them to be able to take those risks now while the market is still new and while we're all still getting hardware out into the world."
"The reason we're investing in content and developers, is we want them to be able to take those risks now while the market is still new."
That's a common refrain for Oculus, as you might expect of a company whose fate is strongly tied to the fate of the VR market as a whole. Earlier this year Oculus founder Palmer Luckey told Gamasutra that "developers should be realistic...It's going to take time for virtual reality to become truly mass market and successful," and in the wake of the Rift launch, Sweet says Oculus plans to continue funding developers in an effort to grow Oculus' stable of software.
"We think that's a very important way to jumpstart the ecosystem, and to jumpstart VR as an industry," said Sweet. "So our plan is to keep investing for as long as we need to."
Sweet, of course, left Valve last year (after working on projects like Steam Greenlight) to join Oculus and build out (among other things) Oculus' platform and developer ecosystem. Now that Oculus has a market-viable headset and storefront in place, she says the next thing she hopes developers explore is how to build social experiences for the Rift.
"I think one of the most exciting things in VR is social; one of the things that we care a lot about experimenting in is social features," said Sweet, suggesting VR developers can reap unexpected returns by taking advantage of the tech's potential to elicit empathy with other players by making them feel as though they're right there in the room with you. "Those are areas where we are actively experimenting, and it's also where we're asking developers, you know, what is it that you guys want to do and how can we help you do that? For me in particular, that's a space I'm most excited about."
"One of the words we don't say enough is empathy"
According to Sweet, evoking empathy is one of the more under-appreciated strengths of VR as a medium. That's partly why Oculus launched its $1 million VR for Good initiative earlier this year to support "socially beneficial" VR work, which currently encompasses students and nonprofits making VR films. Sweet says the work of VR documentarians has given her a new appreciation for the tech's ability to inspire empathy, and that VR devs shouldn't shy away from making games that are as much about transporting you into other people as other places.
"When everyone talks about VR they say things like 'immersion' all the time, and I think actually one of the words we don't say enough is empathy," says Sweet. "Like, being in VR and being immersed in another world and another experience can drive empathy in a way that no other medium has been able to, which I think is really exciting. So, for me, VR for Good stuff is a way to explore that, and to really connect people in the world and to other people. I think we will expand beyond just the initial [VR for Good] program that we've rolled out so far."
Games that seek to create empathy are nothing new, of course, but the promise of VR is that everything old is new again. Three months after the launch of the Rift, Sweet says developers are (and should be) still experimenting to discover what sorts of new experiences they can build within VR -- and how the tech can push game creators to look at old, established genres with fresh eyes.
"Like a game like Job Simulator is a great example; I don't know what genre to give that when we're talking about the traditional genres of video games. It is a job simulator," adds Sweet. "And it came from that team sitting down and saying what's new, what's fun, what can we do that's different. I think that's what we're seeing developers actively learning. And I don't think we know yet. I think we're going to keep learning for a long time...I think it's going to take us a while to learn exactly what it is that works."