We sit down with the VP of Product at Oculus Rift to get all the details.
By Bennett Ring on May 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm
Nate Mitchell is the VP of Product behind the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset turning heads and stomachs with its impressive technology and affordable entry-level pricing. Bennett Ring sat down with Nate to talk all things VR, what’s in store for the Rift, and whether or not the PS4 will be powerful enough to run their tech.
GON: You’ve been associated with some interesting start-ups. What attracted you to Oculus?
Nate Mitchell: When we met Palmer I was obviously intrigued. Palmer is an incredibly interesting guy, an incredibly smart guy, and when we got talking about the Rift, it became clear there was this great blend between Palmer’s hardware experience and our software experience – Michael Antonov (Chief software architect at Oculus, formerly of Gaikai and Autodesk), Brendan Iribe (CEO of Oculus, formerly of Gaikai and Autodesk) and I . Then when Palmer actually showed us the Rift, just the most basic demo, I remember the moment I put it up to my eyes, and then took it off, I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved in the project, and that this was the future of gaming. At that moment we jumped on board and decided to invest our time and energy to make Oculus a next generation VR gaming platform.
GON: Looking at the eventual launch of the consumer version, what do you think will be more important – having perfect hardware, or nurturing a rich software ecosystem for it? And how do you balance those two very separate requirements?
Nate Mitchell: It’s a great question. It does really rely on both of those things being great. In the most basic sense, great software is a must-have. Without software, the hardware is really nothing. But our team’s focus is on hardware. The way we balance it is to not focus too much on the games. We have game developers out there making games, we’re not making first party content. Our goal is to build the absolute best hardware possible, giving game developers all the tools they need, and hopefully that in turn cultivates that great software ecosystem, that brings us the triple A, killer app for the Rift.
GON: There’s the open source Vireio driver that has been developed by fans of the Rift, why aren’t you doing that internally when it seems to be a really promising way getting a large library of software to work with your hardware for a minimal amount of effort?
Nate Mitchell: Vireio Perception was actually developed by a guy called CyberReality, a member of the MTBS3D forums, and we’ve since hired him as our community manager. We really, firmly don’t believe that a great VR experience can be achieved at the driver level. I think that if you play any of the games that Vireio supports, there are a handful that work pretty well. For example, Half Life 2, which is all first person, very few cut-scenes, basically all done through the eyes of Gordon Freeman, that’s a perfect fit, right? So Vireio Perception with Half Life 2 on the Rift is a decent experience, but the vast majority of the games that the driver supports, you get a mediocre, if not poor experience, that really disorients the user. You can’t have low latency head tracking when you’re doing mouse emulation. Even the best games just don’t play well in VR with Virieo Perception – or any other driver. It really does need to be implemented by the game developer.
That’s something we’ve preached since day one, because VR is hard. VR is incredibly challenging. The UI alone requires game design changes, let alone camera controls and things like that. That’s why we’re investing so much into creating a great SDK, to let developers really tap into the hardware and develop an ultra-low latency VR experience. Everything else, those are nice hacks, and they might be cool experiences, but it’s not something where we would invest our time. We’d rather focus on “made-for-VR” gaming, or ports done by the developer, at the metal, where you get the highest quality experience.
GON: Do you think there’s a lot of crossover for developers of first person games, so they’ll be better at VR?
Nate Mitchell: That’s really hard to say. It really depends on the developer and the experience they’ve created. First person lends itself very nicely to the Rift, but we already have a number of third person developers and RTS/God games investigating the Rift having as much success, if not more, than first person games.
GON: In terms of the consumer launch, from your perspective what’s the number one thing you need to do to make this the killer device?
Nate Mitchell: The number one thing on the top of our list, since day one, has been a higher resolution display. The Rift is all about immersing you visually in the virtual world, and the display is at the crux of the experience. Right now, the dev kit is still relatively low resolution because of the high magnification. Bringing that res up, hopefully in the 1080 range, increasing pixel density, just ups the level of immersion so much. It makes it a much more fun experience. We’ve been investigating that stuff in the office for a while. I can promise you that it helps quite a bit.
GON: I’ve been using the Rift dev kit, and the resolution is obviously a big issue. You mentioned Half Life 2, and when I was looking at Alex, the female companion, her head was just 10 pixels across. This is at relatively close range. You lose a lot of her emotions. It made me think that maybe 1080p probably isn’t going to be the ideal solution either. Do you think it’s realistic to aim for a 2560 x 1440 panel in the next year and a half?
Nate Mitchell: That’s hard to say, because I’m not deep in that display industry, but obviously that tech is there and people are working on it. Whether or not that’s something we can tap into I can’t say. But what I can say is that 1080p in a form factor like the Rift is approximately double the pixel density of the developer’s kit. It’s a night and day difference. What you’re saying is true, you really want a 4K display in there, but even that 1080p is such a huge jump in terms of immersion and visual quality that it’s certainly going to be enough for the consumer version of Rift. But yeah, you’re absolutely right, I’d love to see even higher resolution versions. There is another challenge though, as the game has to render a consistently higher resolution every time we up the resolution of the display. One subtle benefit of the current panel is that even high-end games can render at that low resolution and easily hit 60 frames per second. Jump to a 4K screen and you’re not going to render Battlefield 3 at 60 frames per second. Maybe you can, but you’re going to need some truly serious graphical horsepower to get there. Again, we’re just on the cusp of the hardware being ready for all this. You look out five years, and you’re right, that’s the direction we’ll go.
GON: It’s interesting that a lot of the media coverage of Rift doesn’t cover what’s powering it – the system at the end of the HDMI cable. They want higher res, without thinking about the PC requirements to power it. On that note, the Playstation 4’s specs are out, do you think it’s powerful enough to run a 1080p Rift?
Nate Mitchell: Absolutely. It really all depends on the content. Look at two random games. Minecraft running on a PS4 versus Battlefield 3 running on a PS4, there’s a completely different graphical horsepower need under the hood to get those running for the Rift. You’re going to be able to have quality high-end smaller experiences in the consumer version, running off a tablet. Even potentially Ouya or the Ouya 2. It’s not necessarily the hardware that is the bottleneck, it’s the content. I think you’ll find the PS4, based on the specs they released, has definitely enough horsepower there to get some high quality Rift experiences. It’s going to really depend on how game developers leverage the hardware.
Based on what I’ve seen of the next-gen engine technology, like Unreal Engine 4, people are designing their engines this time around for 60 frames per second up front, there’s now a stigma about 30 frames per second, which lends itself really well to transition to VR gaming.
GON: Sony has experimented with consumer Head Mounted Displays in the past with their HMZT1 and T2, are you concerned that they’re going to come in and copy the Rift’s idea, pumping their immense resources into their competing product?
Nate Mitchell: No. The Rift SDK is not a DLL that anyone can just hack into. The whole SDK and all the work we’ve done is tied to the Rift hardware. So Sony would have to copy our hardware…
GON: That’s what I’m saying though – how do you stop Sony or another company from looking at what you’re doing, how you use the lenses with the screen, and using that basic design to build their own VR headset? Do patents protect you enough to stop Sony from doing that?
Nate Mitchell: We are well protected and we take Intellectual Property protection super seriously. I can’t go into any of the details, but it’s not something that we’re worried about. I think what is a more realistic situation is one of the big game manufacturers like Sony, stepping up and saying they’re going to develop their own competitor to the Oculus Rift. Different SDK, different system, but same goal of consumer VR. At that point it’s just a question of who has the better hardware, who writes the better software. Everything we do here every day to build the Oculus platform, we’re confident that we’re going to stay in front. It’s a challenge.
GON: How do you stay in front when you’re facing off against these multi-billion dollar behemoths, who have thousands of engineers? What is it about Oculus that puts you in this rare position to be the leader in such an exciting new hardware field?
Nate Mitchell: I don’t want to give away all our cards, we’ve got a couple of things up our sleeve that give us an advantage. But I can say that people in very large companies are very surprised at just how much we’ve done in such a limited time frame. Even more than that, and I think it’s the crux of it, is the building of a great team with top talent in the industry to work on this next-gen platform. We’ve already started that process, we’ve built an incredible team, who we believe are the best in the world to deliver consumer virtual reality, and we continue to expand that team even today. Incredibly smart, passionate developers working on this thing, iterating in ways that big companies just can’t. We’re building our dream, hoping it comes together.
Tune in for part two of our massive Oculus Rift interview tomorrow.