Sunday 18 August 2019

Reality check: VR chief's vision is a billion users teleported by technology

Is virtual reality still the next big thing? Adrian Weckler caught up with Nate Mitchell, the co-founder of one of the world's biggest virtual reality companies, Facebook-owned Oculus VR. He reveals the major hurdles in the fight to be the next major platform and bring 'mixed' reality to the masses

Oculus VR co-founder Nate Mitchell. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Mark Zuckerberg has been emphatic about it. Virtual reality, he has insisted for the last three years, is the next big computing platform. The Facebook founder is so convinced that he bought what was the biggest virtual reality hardware firm, Oculus VR, in 2014 for almost €2bn.

But since then, the hype around virtual reality has ebbed as adoption into mainstream life has proved slower than many pundits predicted.

That hasn't dimmed the enthusiasm of some of the industry's foremost VR entrepreneurs. One of them is Nate Mitchell. Together with Palmer Luckey, Brendan Iribe and others, Mitchell was the founder of Oculus VR in 2012. As such, he shared in the spoils when the company was bought by Zuckerberg in 2014 and he now sits as vice president for product in the Facebook-owned Oculus.

As the company announces a raft of price cuts to existing products and plans for a new untethered VR headset that aims to overcome current limitations, Mitchell explained its progess to technology editor Adrian Weckler.

Adrian Weckler [AW]: Are you happy with sales of Oculus virtual reality hardware to date?

Nate Mitchell [NM]: We're trying to get, as Mark [Zuckerberg] said, a billion people into VR. We're trying to do that as fast as we can. But we're satisfied and happy with where sales are today. Obviously, a big part of what we're doing is to try to increase sales by reducing price, making VR more accessible and more affordable to more people. We've just announced we're bringing the price of the Rift down to $399 [€449 in Ireland].

We're announced Oculus Go, a $199 standalone device, for someone who doesn't have the right phone or PC. We think this is a sweet spot for getting more people in.

AW: How much of a subsidy do those price cuts represent? It's hard to see a profit at those pricing levels.

NM: Our goal hasn't ever been to make money on the hardware. Our goal is really to build this platform, this ecosystem where developers can be super-successful. If our developers are successful, they're going to build more experiences that are going to draw more people in. Those people are going to spend more money that's going to fund more development. And that's the virtuous cycle of any computing platform that you want to start. So we do go very low on the profit of the hardware to basically focus on delivering all that value to users at the lowest possible price.

AW: But it's one thing to go low on the profits, it's another thing to effectively subsidise the products to tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars. I'm just wondering is that a strategic decision that has been taken in terms of pushing the wider ecosystem?

NM: We don't break out financials for the products, we don't really talk about subsidies, but what I can say is we are focused on not making money on the hardware, really delivering the most affordable products that we can to consumers.

AW: When you were starting out with Oculus, which areas did you think would be adopted quickest and how have they actually fared?

NM: From my perspective I thought gaming would be the primary driver for adoption. I think we've seen that to be somewhat true. The other activity has really been video and more passive experiences. I didn't expect as much video. When we started, we wanted to go out and deliver the holodeck. The promise of the holodeck isn't just about games, it's about this limitless potential with VR as a computing platform.

One exciting thing right now is the number of enterprise companies experimenting with VR either for training, collaboration or for products in retail. Audi is a good example, with the technology deployed at dealerships, using it as a tool to actually sell Audi cars.

AW: Mark Zuckerberg is still defending VR, calling out those who say it is "isolating and anti-social". But isn't one of its biggest challenges the idea of cutting yourself off from the person sitting beside you with a big headset?

NM: We don't see it first as cutting off the outside world. We see it really as replacing or immersing you in this other virtual world. So you can think of them as parallel paths. What we're trying to do is take your perceptual system and really teleport you somewhere else.

That is a very powerful tool for certain use cases. In terms of how people will use that and how that will intersect with everyday life, I think people will become more accustomed to it over time. It's a concept of basically immersing yourself in something and going fully in.

AW: But you can't wear it outside the house.

NM: Well, you can wear Oculus Go. I do think it's going to be a little bit of time before we see Oculus Go on buses but I also thought it would be longer before we saw Gear VR on airplanes but if you fly regularly, you see people using VR.

AW: Yes, but you've no choice. On a plane, you're not waiting for your stop or wondering if someone's going to sit down beside you. It's a different use case.

NM: It is. But I don't use my laptop sitting at the bus stop or sitting on a bus. There are different devices for different use cases, different instances and different jobs. VR isn't necessarily just better at everything that you can do in real life.

AW: But to get a billion people using it, to make it the next major platform, doesn't it have to be used more?

NM: I don't personally see it as replacing traditional computing platforms. I see it living alongside them as a complement. Just like mobile phones have not replaced laptop computers. Tablets exist.

These are new product categories, different devices for different use cases. That's the way VR and AR [augmented reality] are going to evolve in that they will sit alongside as complementary computing platforms that people will use every day alongside some of these traditional platforms. In some cases they may actually replace them.

We may get perfect VR and AR devices that do away with traditional laptops or televisions. But I think we're actually pretty far away from that.

But don't get too focused on what the device does only today. You talked about cutting off your sensory experience in the real world, but one of the things we are excited about is the technology that's associated with this concept of true mixed reality. This is where you take the real world and you bring it into the virtual world. There's lots of different depth systems today that can map a space. The point I'm trying to make is that in future, VR system won't only just teleport you someplace else, you might have a switch that brings the whole real world into your view.

But I take your point. There are social hurdles to overcome. But it's somewhat similar to just sitting glued to your laptop or your phone. If you're doing that, you're also sending different signals to the person beside you.

AW: Do you see any fusion between virtual reality and augmented reality?

NM: My take on that is that there are no great AR devices out yet for consumers. There are some people doing some incredible work across the industry, trying to enable AR. There's some really exciting stuff happening on mobile devices today with ARKit and ARCore.

When we think about traditional AR we have this concept of sunglasses that I put on and get all this information available.

But no one has cracked the code on that in a consumer device yet. I do think when that is fully available, it will be really exciting and that there are use cases in terms of information that we today rely on our phones for.

The challenge it has is that AR has to be great to actually deliver on that promise and there are no great AR devices today and we're still probably a ways off from them.

AW: Mark Zuckerberg says that VR kit isn't always going to be this big and clunky on your head. What do you think?

NM: I describe them as being like ski goggles.

AW: So will they be more like sunglasses in a few years' time?

NM: I'm not going to put the stake in the ground on what they might look like in a couple of years' time.

But I think there are three main things or hurdles that need to be overcome to take VR to this billion-user place. We have price. There's the content use cases, which goes to what I am going to be doing with this device every day, such that I need one. That's another big hurdle here. And the third one is that form factor. Form factor has to improve from where it is today to be a billion-user device. Rift, Oculus Go, Gear VR, these alone are not going to get us to a billion users.

We need to make it as frictionless as possible, as affordable and as accessible as possible to really get more people in. When will we get to sunglasses? I don't know and I don't think we're ready to say. But we do think there are big improvements to be made in the ergonomics.

Whatever about cameras and other features, ultimately just the ergonomics of having less weight out in front of your face would make it a more comfortable experience and you could use it for longer periods of time.

This stuff is going to happen but we're not there yet.

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