The annual Sundance Film festival kicked off on Monday and for the first time, the line-up will include a film made with the help of virtual reality technology or VR. The movie was made by Story Studio, a division of Oculus VR. The company has said is wants to produce original VR content as well as work with Hollywood to make more films using VR. We spoke with CEO Brendan Iribe to find out more about Oculus’ plans.
We have been hearing a ton about virtual reality. But the biggest hurdle to reaching consumers seems to be about content and you guys are hoping to change that.
Well there’ve been a number of hurdles. We needed to create a product which would be really comfortable for people. Whether it was gaming or cinema, you wanted to be able to enjoy that for five, ten, twenty, thirty, sixty minutes and feel good in it, take it off and want to go back and do it again. And then want to go do it the next day. Now that we’ve started to get over a lot of those challenges – the elephant in the room of nausea and discomfort – we’re starting to really get close to having that pretty well addressed for some forms of content. Of course, developers can make people feel whatever they want so it’ll largely be up to content developers. But now that it’s getting really close, we’re starting to work with content developers to get ready for the consumer launch.
What would Oculus movies made by former Pixar employees look like?
We have one group up in Seattle that’s been working on different tech demos for games. They are a group of former game developers. We have another group, which we are going to be talking a lot about at Sundance. They are working on the cinema side. We are all about games. We are all about putting you in the game, and as we created those made-for-VR experiences internally, they started to look a lot like cinematic experiences. So as we showed different people, a number of people said, has Hollywood seen this yet? One or two directors came down and tried it, and they turned and said, I want to make a movie with this. This is awesome. How do we get started? We’re looking that these incredible directors, and we are saying, I don’t know how to get started. You’re the cinema expert. We are the game guys. We’ll need to come back to you. The last thing I want to do is to make a movie with you and screw it up. So we put together this story studio group to figure out how to do VR cinema. And then educate and inspire the community, and provide these samples to directors so that they can be successful with VR cinema.
Is it harder to make a movie or game for VR technology than it is to make a Hollywood film?
I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier … it’s so new and so innovative that just by nature of it being so new, there are a lot of challenges. It’s unknown whereas traditional film is a very mature medium. VR Cinema is this completely rich, 360 environment where you can lean in and out, you can interact with the environment and with characters. It’s a brand-new medium that Hollywood and even game developers haven’t been working with yet. We’ve been dreaming about it but we haven’t been creating content. So, yes, there a lot of challenges to how new it is. But the same time, there’s a huge amount of opportunity to be a pioneer and to be one of the first developers to get it right and to start proving how to do it.
Is this medium, in some ways perhaps a future or a near future threat to the movie business, or perhaps the theater business?
I don’t think so. Just like the traditional film business that we know of originally wasn’t a big threat to the stage. That’s the way everybody was experiencing entertainment – you go to the theater and watched somebody perform on a stage and then as we started to capture frames and get movies going, you started to have this new medium that took a while to get going. It took a long time to get sound and color. And then to get to at a real kind of mass-market adoption to get to the TV. These things took a pretty long time and even today still have players. But now you have movie theaters and TVs and it’s a big, big medium where we see that same kind of leap from traditional 2D content to real true VR where you are getting that magical sense of presence, where you actually feel like you’re in the movie. I am dying to be in gravity, in space, looking out over the entire world and a new universe and Earth, but it’s going take a while to fully be realized. And I don’t think it’s going to necessarily disrupt traditional 2-D medium for quite a long time.
Let’s talk a little bit about Facebook as a parent company. How are you going to navigate that as your company progresses; just avoiding some of these things that people don’t actually like about Facebook?
Well, it’s important to understand the kind of partnership we formed with Facebook. We were given the independence and autonomy to continue down the path that we are on. That was really important to this acquisition and to the relationship. Mark and the Facebook team didn’t want to disrupt what we were doing. They did this with instagram. It turned out to be a huge success since Instagram didn’t get disrupted in any way and they stayed on their mission. The same with Whatsapp. It’s really up to the Whatsapp team to decide what to do. Even more so with Oculus, given how different we are as a platform, and as a company, developing our own hardware and building out this virtual-reality platform. If anybody would’ve been potentially affected it would have been something that was a lot closer to Facebook like Instagram or Whatsapp. For Oculus, It’s like hands-off, help them as they need it and just do whatever we can to accelerate and make them a bigger, better, faster company, especially getting a consumer product out.
I get that the way this is set up offers you guys a lot of freedom set up but if that’s the case then why was Facebook interested in buying you guys? What is the win for them there?
Well you you have to ask Mark himself to get the full details. But when we sat down and we talked about where we wanted to go and the vision that we had for VR, the idea was that this is the only platform that can give you this magical sense of presence. It will begin with games, start in games and always be rooted in a 3D gaming engine at the core, running in real-time that you’re moving around inside. But the different applications of where this would eventually go were so broad and so exciting. The potential to be courtside and watch a game or have a social experience where you’re able to talk to other people and truly believe other people are face-to-face with you, in the room with you, and yet they could be hundreds of miles or thousands of miles away. It has the potential to make the world a much more connected and smaller place. With VR, long-term, we are going to be able to give people this view where they really feel present like they went to London or they went to Barcelona or they went to the moon or to Mars and that is the potential that VR has and no other platform has. Mark got very excited about the future of virtual reality and augmented reality and Oculus is the pioneer and leader on the VR side.
Are you worried at all about the fact that the technology you’re working with really cuts the viewer off from the environment? In the end, we might find that people might be more interested in augmented reality?
No, we are not worried about that at all. VR and AR are very different user experiences. In VR, you are totally immersed, you’re teleporting to another environment, whether that’s somewhere on earth or somewhere in a fantasy environment. You’re really in this new place and there can be other people there with you. You’re not going to get that in AR. We’re not looking at people walking around all day, every day in VR glasses. We’re looking at it as being largely an entertainment platform where you’re getting you are going into the rift. Whether its 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes or two hours, you are going to get an entertainment experience, a social experience. But you’re not going to wear VR glasses and walk across the street and look both ways and I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody for a really incredibly long time. In AR, that is the goal. How successful is AR going to be unless we’re all wearing these glasses all day long, every day? That’s the dream of AR – to complement and in many ways replace the cell phone. That’s going to take a really long time. I haven’t seen anything – whether it’s Hololens or Magically – that is even remotely close to being able to replace my prescription glasses that I wear today and have me walk around the office or my house or even outside and cross the street. We are really far from that. Google tried with glass. It was awesome for them to take a huge risk and go for it. I think it was very early and we’ll see a few attempts at this and it’s anybody’s guess how long will it take to get down to that form factor, and that user experience.
You guys were early as well and I think that’s been really good for you. You’re the most talked about company in VR right now. That comes with a little bit of responsibility to make an argument that this thing is really useful. I know that people have used this and have been really impressed by it. But do you feel the pressure to make that argument in a way that Glass failed perhaps?
I think we try to set expectation. It’s incredibly important to who we are as a company, how we got started on kickstarter, working with our backers, and our community, setting expectation right from the beginning at what we’re making, how it was going to work, how well it was going to work in the beginning. It’s easy to dream about AR and this holographic reality we could walk around in. It’s easy to dream about VR and teleportation and social experiences. You also have to back up to where we are today right now, what works, what doesn’t, and set expectation with consumers. We’re delivering VR and it’s going to be amazing. It’s not going to be for everybody, and it’s not going to be that perfect VR we are all dreaming of, for a while. It’s going to evolve incrementally and Oculus has done a pretty good job at trying to really be honest and transparent with where we are – putting out developer kits, taking feedback, not shipping a consumer product until we feel like the technology and the platform and everything was at a place where consumers could embrace and enjoy.
I know, you’re killing me … I’m waiting for the consumer version. Can you help me out? When is that going to happen?
I am waiting for it also. I’m really excited. We’re not there yet. We are getting close, and at this point we have said the Crescent Day feature prototype that we’ve been showing is really, really close to the consumer we won on the Rift side. Gear VR on the mobile side is also very close and on the PC rift side we are very close with Crescent Bay. So it’s not going to be too much longer, but there are things that we still want to get right. There are things we are still fixing. It’s been pretty well known that I’m the most sensitive in the company. I want to be able to use this thing for 30, 60, 90 minutes comfortably, enjoy it every time I use it, take it off, and want to go back in quickly the next day, or later that day. We are really close. We are not quite there but it’s going to be worth the wait.
What are the ethical questions you’re concerned about?
We’re very concerned always about health and safety. So we’re doing a lot of user testing. We’re looking at all the different aspects of health and safety. We put the warnings out there, even though none of us love those warnings out there. We are trying to really make sure that consumers and everybody is aware of this being a very new platform, a very new technology. It’s early days. There’s a lot of unknowns to this that we’re working on as fast as we can to find out more information about. So a lot of uncharted territory, which is super exciting, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and we are taking that very seriously. Facebook is also helping us take that seriously. They have a number of different teams here on different kinds of policy. So they’ve really dug into help us on this. At the same time on the ethical side, VR can be used or has been in the past used for a lot of good. It’s been offered as therapy on the psychological side of things. You can simulate vertigo or claustrophobia, there’s all these things you can do in VR when you can suddenly make people feel present in an environment they are not really in. You can start stimulating a lot of things and learning a lot. Right now are really just focused on video games so we’re not out there actually engaged too deeply with all the different research centers that are doing that. We leave that up to them to use our product just like they could use an iPhone or a tablet. So we’re excited to see where this all goes and how it applies to other places beyond games and cinema. But right now that (games and cinema) is where we are focused.