Why software (not hardware) is quickly becoming the most exciting thing about Oculus VR

Opinion

Oculus VR is a company that is working towards bringing its first product, the upcoming consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, to market. Everyone is focused on that one product, and at the airport flying into E3 it was surprising to see just how many magazine covers featured the intense-looking face of Oculus wunderkind Palmer Luckey

Facebook acquired the company for $2 billion dollars because of that product and the possibility that our future will be virtual. Oculus has gone on a hiring spree since the acquisition, and the level of talent it has hired across so many different disciplines should force us to stop thinking about the company simply in terms of one hardware product with no release date.

Oculus VR is not just a hardware company, and in fact the software may be the most exciting aspect of what it’s doing.

The hardware is one thing, someone also has to sell the games

Oculus announced the hiring of Jason Holtman a few days ago, and he's only the latest hire on a spree of talent acquisition that began with the Facebook deal. These hires can tell us something about where the company may be heading.

"At Valve, Jason was a pioneer in the digital distribution revolution that’s taken place over the last decade," the official blog posts stated.

What will he be doing? "Jason will be spearheading the business development and partnership side of the Oculus platform working closely with Marshall, head of platform engineering, and David, head of worldwide publishing, with a focus on building the world’s best developer and player VR ecosystem," the company explained.

So you have the "driving force" behind Steam working with the head of platform engineering and the head of worldwide publishing. It’s hard to know what exactly this means, but Oculus and Facebook won’t be okay with just going after the hardware aspect of the market. Cornering the act of selling the content, becoming what amounts to the Steam of virtual reality, is a huge opportunity that the companies are in a unique position to pursue.

Let’s put on our speculation glasses for a moment: We know that Oculus is working on a way to organize and launch VR content from within virtual reality, allowing you to move from game to game and experience to experience without removing the helmet.

Imagine a hallway where every door leads to another game, and you move between worlds in a sort of launching program. The Matrix already played with the idea of loading programs, but this is an opportunity for them to actually happen.

"How easy is it to plug in and dive into content, what content you’re actually playing, that’s one of the most crucial things that we’re working on now, and the software team continues to work on it," Oculus’ Nate Mitchell told us in March.

Cornering the act of selling VR content is a huge opportunity that Oculus is in a unique position to pursue.

"[The software] will ship with [the consumer version of the hardware.] It must ship with consumer. It will actually ship before consumer, because developers need time to learn it," Palmer Luckey stated. "The current solution is manageable for developers, but it would be nightmarish for consumers."

Putting on the headset and using a built-in program to launch programs and to move between them is one thing, but imagine a storefront inside virtual reality where you could look through and download demos or buy software. You could make it look however you’d like, up to and including a virtual idea of a physical storefront.

Giving a game feature placement would work the same way it does in current video game stores, you’d just be using virtual placement on virtual shelves instead of the flat presentation of Steam.

You could create a library where you open a book and "fall" into it to launch a game, or even switch between presentations depending on your mood. Oculus is in the position of being able to develop and launch a natively-designed virtual reality storefront that sells only virtual reality games.

You could put on your headset and browse by "walking around," or look at the new release racks to see what’s new. The software that will launch with the hardware will likely change the way we think about how games are sold, and in some ways it could bring back the act of browsing a physical location to look for new games. Hell, you could even put the store online so you can see other people shopping and ask about games.

You could create a library where you open a book and "fall" into it to launch a game

The software team at Oculus VR is amazingly strong, and includes some of the best minds in gaming, much less in VR. Oculus is now filled with people from 343 Industries, Valve, Microsoft, EA, id Software, Bungie, Nvidia ... the list goes on.

Facebook wants to go after a wide market, and one way to do so is to release the hardware with a suite of software including ways to watch video content in virtual reality, be surrounded by your family's photos by walking around a virtual art gallery and seeing your favorite shots framed on the wall.

Imagine inviting your friends and family to tour your personal gallery so they could be bored by your holiday snaps in a brand new way. They could offer visualization programs that put you inside light shows and environments that react to your music as you listen to it. The possibilities for software that could launch with the hardware, especially the software that has nothing to do with gaming, are all but endless.

It's unlikely any possible software suite will be talked about at E3, but it's time to start getting excited about Oculus as a software company as well as a hardware company. The software that will launch with the Rift is going to be a very big deal, and that's part of the story that people rarely discuss.

"It’s really big," Luckey told us in March. "I can’t talk about it too much yet. It’s a big project to build something like that. It can’t just be a web page or a store, it needs to be integrated for VR, and you have to figure out how to do that well."

"We have a lot of people working on it. It’s too early to say anything," he continued. "I don’t want to pull a Molyneux here."

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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