With Oculus' latest prototype, virtual reality is a step closer to actual reality

With nearly $100 million in funding, top-tier talent and important technological breakthroughs, there seems to be no stopping Oculus VR. We caught up with CEO Brendan Iribe.
At the start of my scheduled interview with Oculus VR, there was some…guy in the meeting room where I sat with CEO Brendan Iribe. The guy was checking out the latest prototype of the VR headset -- he had it strapped onto his face, and he was in a different world. A PR rep was apologetic about the guy "intruding" on my interview time with Iribe. I didn't mind, but the person had to wrap up his Oculus experience after a couple minutes anyhow. "That was a quick favor for a good developer! Worth the wait, huh?" Iribe asked the guy. That guy, in fact, was none other than…well, no one special, really. He was just the average Oculus Rift enthusiast -- an indie game developer apparently from overseas -- who had managed to find Oculus' quiet, off-the-beaten-path meeting room at CES. He had been waiting for a couple hours to show the Oculus team an app that he made for the goggles. Oculus squeezed in the persistent developer to demo the new hardware. Sure, he had to wait a couple hours and squeeze into Oculus' busy CES schedule, but still -- the fact that this random person got to check out the brand new Crystal Cove prototype is a testament to the company-wide sentiment that it's the independents who are the reasons for the Oculus Rift's success. "You gotta do it," said Iribe of the impromptu demo. I wouldn't say we do it for everybody," he laughed, "but you gotta do it. We tend to do it more for indies. A lot of our supporters are indies, the grassroots. You want to make everyone happy, but we have to support the community that got us here."

A major breakthrough leads to major investment

So where is "here" for Oculus these days? The news for Oculus at CES was the Rift "Crystal Cove" -- a new prototype that sports OLED screens (previous models used LCD), and a positional tracking system that implements a camera and LED markers, for a more convincing VR experience. Low-persistence imaging greatly reduces motion-blur and is conducive to the way the human eyes and brain function. It all works quite nicely, even in prototype form. That's where Oculus VR is from a high-level technical vantage point. Financially, the startup managed to quash (for now) murmurs of an acquisition with a round of funding, led by Andreesen Horowitz that amounted to $75 million, bringing total funding to $93 million. That last, giant chunk of funding came right after specific tech breakthroughs. "Valve has been working right along side us on our VR technology -- Michael Abrash and the Valve VR group," said Iribe. "Simultaneously, we've been solving some problems, and they have been solving some problems, and collaborating a lot. We converged on a few 'Holy Grail' breakthroughs. Essentially, we got there two or three months ago." What happened was Valve achieved low-persistence VR imaging, which Abrash blogged about earlier this year. "You don't really know how important it is until you use it in a great headset that is well-calibrated, with tracking and low-latency and a nice [visual] experience. When they were able to make their low-persistence prototype, they showed it to us, and we were able to make our own version of it."
Motion blur, especially when you've got screens one inch from your eyeballs, has a significant, negative impact on the VR experience. I used the Crystal Cove prototype and the reduction in blur was substantial. The resolution is still the same as the last version I used, so there was that "screen door" effect, but motion blur was all but eliminated. That was particularly evident in a demo for CCP's EVE Valkyrie space combat game, in which you can turn the low-persistence on and off to see the difference. Iribe was right -- you really don't know how important this is to the comfort of the VR experience until you see it implemented. When major entrepreneur Horowitz saw the latest advancements firsthand, including the substantial reduction in motion blur in the Rift, the investor was compelled to lead the latest major amount of funding. Listening to Iribe describe how the Oculus team came to its most recent technical advancement gave me a peek into how the company and its partners operate on the basis of curiosity, testing, iteration, failure, collaboration and discovery. Motion blur had always been an issue with the Rift. The team had previously thought the way to solve motion blur was to have impractically fast frame rates: once pixels were able to switch faster, then motion blur would be a lot less. Wait for screens to get better, and the problem could solve itself. But, through a process of discovery, iteration and collaboration -- with no small amount of credit to Valve's Abrash -- a different solution to motion blur was found in low-persistence imaging. "A number of investors had invested with us in the Series A round, and it was a risky for them," said Iribe. "They asked if we could solve these problems like motion blur and we didn't know. We said we'd try our best."

Will the big publishers bite?

The obvious trajectory for the Rift's development will be for constant iteration and improvement of the current Rift feature sets: Better visualization, better motion-tracking, shrink down the components, develop better tools. And of course, Oculus needs to get the thing to market, eventually. Iribe said that a $300 price point would be reasonable for a commercially-released Rift. But there are still questions about support from big game companies. The headset has the support of the indie enthusiasts -- the small teams and lone wolves who would wait two hours outside of a CES room for a meeting; the developers who create and post fascinating VR implementations on their YouTube channels. Right now, major publishers and developers -- virtually all of which employ developers who are toying around with Oculus Rift -- are taking the wait-and-see approach with Oculus support in major games. That makes sense, as the Rift isn't even a consumer product yet. "For the most part, developers are serious enthusiasts, some companies are startups or independent and are willing to take a leap of faith on VR," said Iribe. "But a lot of the bigger companies are looking at [Rift] saying, 'probably VR is going to work, probably it's going to be a good thing. Maybe it's going to be Oculus, maybe it's going to be one of the established guys.'"


Talking to Iribe, he brings up the term "disrupt," repeatedly. But how exactly would that play out with VR? Even though video games are the focus for Oculus right now, it's not up to Oculus to decide the market for VR. Rather, the market is the one that determines the application of the technology. "Real estate, medical, architecture, movies -- how long will move theaters be around if you have an IMAX in sunglasses in your pocket? I think that's going to happen faster than people are expecting," he speculated. The VR vision goes beyond video games. "We've moved this fast -- last CES we had a duct-taped prototype, and had a lot of motion blur. A year later, we've solved most of the big hard problems. This is going to get incredibly good, incredibly fast, and it is going to apply to a lot of other markets." He added, "There will always be TV and theater experiences, [VR] is another category. But VR is going to capture a lot of users and a lot of attention." But for video games at least, people do seem to like their televisions, right? Iribe explained how just as board games were usurped by computers and computer games, VR could overtake the typical monitor and video game experience. "One day, when you have VR sunglasses, do you really want to play a monitor anymore? If so, why? This won't transform video games today -- when computers came around, board games lived on -- they still live on. There will be a lot of non-VR gaming in the future, but VR will disrupt games. Not overnight, but over the next 10-20 years." "…This might be bold to say, but I really do believe people will look back at 2013 and 2014 as a moment when virtual reality first worked -- when we realized that we had a version of VR good enough to go mass market, and kick off a whole space."

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