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Oculus had to dig into Android to make VR work on a phone

Palmer Luckey is the founder of Oculus VR, but he's not able to give much information about the pricing or release date of the Gear VR Innovator Edition, a portable virtual reality headset that's powered by the upcoming Galaxy Note 4 from Samsung.

"You’d have to ask [Samsung] about pricing and release dates and stuff, it’s their product," he told Polygon.

He was also quick to point out that the Innovator Edition, the initial release of the hardware, is something for developers and VR enthusiasts. This isn't a mass market product yet, and features will be added for the "final" release of Gear VR.

Know that you’re signing up to be kind of a beta tester

"It all depends on what the time line is, but the goal is to have future mobile VR stuff have everything that’s on the PC version, except maybe being limited by the horse power," he explained. "So you want positional tracking, higher frame rates, higher resolution, then of course the mobile hardware is going to get faster and faster and better and better and better. Right now it’s equivalent to a gaming PC from about a decade ago, but it’s rapidly getting better."

Luckey also stated not to look for much of an upgrade path from the Innovator's Edition, it's unlikely to be forwards or backwards compatible with other devices, or future versions of the hardware. This is, again, something for the hardcore VR market while the rest of the tech is being figured out.

"If you’re getting into it, know that you’re signing up to be kind of a beta tester," he explained.

Beta testing the future

Luckey brushed aside fears that Gear VR may "compete" with the PC version of the Oculus Rift. "It’s running our store and platform. It’s hard to compete with yourself," he stated.

A VR product of this kind offers many advantages over the PC, though. Developers will be able to code for a single piece of hardware, so they'll be able to know exactly how the game will run for all players. The question of performance on PCs of differing power is gone, if the game runs well on test hardware, it will run well for everyone. Samsung has also listened to Oculus to make sure the hardware worked well in VR.

"Think of it like a developer making a game for a console. The nice benefit they have is they know what the console is, and they can develop right up to the limits of that console," he said. "We have the added benefit of working closely with Samsung on the hardware, we’re actually making optimizations to their hardware, software and firmware that enable us to do things we need to do."

So what did they need from Samsung?

"One of the first things was a low-persistance display mode, because that’s really critical to eliminating motion blur and judder and making everything look nice. We also have a high-speed, low-latency interface directly from our external sensor into the phone. So it’s not using the phone’s built-in sensor, it’s using an external sensor that has five times the sampling rate, higher-quality components and much more comprehensive calibration procedures at the factory."

Oculus worked with Samsung to make sure they were able to use every bit of the phone's power. "Carmack has also done a lot of work with them on the phone layer, on the OS side. Being able to prioritize VR processes so it always gives the full CPU to VR. If you get an e-mail or notification or a call, it can never prioritize over the VR thread that’s running. It has to wait until the CPU is doing whatever it needs to be doing for VR, which is very nice."

So don't expect to get lost in a game, only to lose frame rate or performance when a call comes in or you get an e-mail. The software is always focused on delivering the best experience for VR, and will only resume standard operations once you shut down the virtual reality experience. It's set up to squeeze every bit of performance out of the phone, and to not let any other processes get in the way of that goal.

"It’s also the kind of low-level access you have to be careful about granting," Luckey said. Imagine if every app could grab this much of the phone's "attention," you'd have every game and application try to maximize the hardware and pull attention to itself. This level of trust shows the commitment Samsung has to VR, at least in this early experiment.

"It’s nice for them to give us the sort of low-level access that most developers just can’t do on Android," Palmer explained, in something of a large understatement.

The Innovator's Edition still doesn't have a specific release date and price, but the game selection already includes many of the best-known games from the independent VR community, including the stunning Titans of Space. This is a new direction for virtual reality, and it's still unknown if it will find an audience or wider developer support outside of the existing base of enthusiasts.

Polygon asked Palmer if the Oculus software, from Oculus Home which operates as a VR storefront and Oculus Cinema that allows you to watch video content in a virtual movie theater, gives us a hint about what we can expect from Oculus in the future.

His answer was direct. "You ain't seen nothing yet."

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