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Oculus VR heads discuss the problem with PC-driven VR, and standalone hardware

The launch date for the consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset draws closer, although details on exactly when that may be remain guarded. The hardware team is looking at display that actually run above 1080p resolution, and we know that virtual reality becomes uncomfortable at anything less than 60fps.

With even next-generation systems sometimes having problems hitting that spec at all, much less with having to render each frame twice for the stereoscopic effect, consumers who want to run the most taxing games in virtual reality are going to have to spend some money for upgrades.

I asked Nate Mitchell, the VP of Product at Oculus VR, whether he worries about that aspect of the hardware. "Yes," he answered. So how do you fix that particular issue?

"We have John Carmack," Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said with a smile.

This is a major problem

John Carmack is a huge asset, but getting virtual reality programs to run at a high enough resolution and framerate that the players don't get sick is an incredibly important part of the Oculus strategy. The hardware is useless if the system driving it can't give the player a good experience.

"I think there are a couple of things," Mitchell stated. "We’re researching different techniques, such as asynchronous time warp, that potentially can help games that are rendering at lower frame rates artificially render at higher frame rates. It’s not perfect, but it can help some."

"It can make an unplayable experience into a working but not awesome experience," Luckey continued.

"I’m a big fan of not having people buy this thing and then finding out they’re woefully unequipped"

So there will be things done in software to help systems run virtual reality programs well, but it’s not the ideal solution.

"In a very practical sense, it is one of the major challenges we have, looking at the user experience," Mitchell said. "If your mom wants to buy a Rift, and you’re like ‘mom, go buy it at the store.’ She says ‘what do I hook it up to?’ You say well, you need a computer. What kind of computer? You say one with a high-end graphics card. She asks which one."

"You have this massive problem. To really take VR to the mainstream we need to make that an easier solution," he stated. "We’ve always targeted on the Oculus Rift side the high-end gaming PCs, and then we’ll continue to target those high-end PCs, but there are many different ways to approach this, whether it’s a specification or where it’s a benchmark for where you need to be. We can have our own benchmarking tool that you can run to see if [your computer] is Oculus ready."

"I’m a big fan of not having people buy this thing and then finding out they’re woefully unequipped," Luckey said.

This is true for a number of reasons: If someone makes a large electronics purchase and then finds out it doesn’t work or work well on their hardware, they’re going to have a low opinion of the brand and the product. Hardware returns are also expensive for manufacturers and retailers.

The idea is to make sure your system can run the games and experiences you want to play well before you buy the hardware, to avoid that situation altogether. Such a tool could even give you some ideas of what hardware needs to be upgraded in your system to get things ready to go.

"We don’t have the hard answer yet. There’s no good solution, we’re exploring a lot of different approaches to it," Mitchell said.

Standalone hardware

The rumor has been that Oculus is partnering with Samsung to release a standalone version of the Oculus Rift that uses Samsung phones in exchange for access to the company’s latest generation of screens. This situation would allow Oculus and Samsung to know exactly what hardware is running the display, and thus be able to provide an optimally tuned experience.

"Some want to do really cool stuff. Some want to sell more stuff," Luckey said.

I asked if there was any validity to the report.

"No comment," Mitchell said.

He was, on the other hand, willing to talk about the concept of such a device. "We can say that Carmack is still working on our Android SDK, we have a lot of developers working with the Android SDK, and it is in the hands of developers, now. They’re giving us feedback and making improvements," he said.

"There are a lot of companies that have approached us with partnerships. Early on the question was always ‘when are we going to see the Rift on the Xbox or the PlayStation 4,’ right? There are companies across the world who have many different platforms especially the hardware manufacturers," he continued.

"Some want to do really cool stuff. Some want to sell more stuff," Luckey said.

"There’s always interest from us in exploring those opportunities," Mitchell said.

A standalone version of the hardware would allow players to remove the guesswork, and download games and programs they know would work well with the hardware. The two men had nothing to report today, but it's clear the possibility for such a product exists.