Virtual reality: an update from Oculus at SXSW

Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, took to the stage with his colleagues at South By Southwest’s Gaming Expo this weekend, to discuss how the past year has been for the VR brand (hint: it’s been good) and where he sees the technology going next.

Alongside wearables and AI, virtual reality is one of the buzzwords of SXSW this year: there are upwards of 364 sessions with ‘virtual reality’ in their title; 21 mention Oculus by name. But where other panels are gazing into the future of the technology, Luckey’s panel had its feet firmly on the ground. Now that Oculus has become the household name for VR, the brand is focused on preparing to launch. A date for that didn’t emerge from this panel – although late 2015 is still the goal – but plenty of other insights did.

The first use for VR, Luckey said, will undoubtedly be gaming – but we’ll go beyond that within the next five years. “It’s going to be a computing platform. That’s not to say Oculus will be the only one. And VR is going to go far beyond games: it’s about parallel worlds, about doing communication and work within a virtual space.” Rather than VR spreading into other sectors, he suggested, other sectors will move into gaming. “The games industry will encompass a lot of other content.”

Asked how he sees the two technologies of augmented reality (images projected onto the real world) and virtual reality (an entirely unreal environment) cohabiting, he said: “We’re probably going to see the two things converge. Me personally, I’m more excited about escaping this reality into fantastical new places. As a gamer, I’m a lot more excited about virtual reality. We know you can go in and have these great experiences.” That’s not proven for augmented reality, he said. The use cases being offered tend to be more prosaic – fixing sinks, seeing restaurant recommendations overlaid on real views; “I’m not excited by them so much.”

Augmented reality “could be awesome for games,” Nate Mitchell, Oculus’ VP Product added; but virtual reality definitely will be.

Two of the biggest issues with today’s VR tech are lag – the drag between frame updates that can bring about motion sickness when using the headsets – and input – the way we interact with and have an effect on the VR environment. “I’ve been a major proponent for six degrees of freedom,” said Luckey. “I don’t think anyone has nailed input yet – even basic finger tracking or haptic interactions. What we have, it’s not even close to what could be done.”

In the near-term, he’s most excited about getting the headset out so that the developers working with Oculus can show off their games. Paul Bettner, CEO of a company called Playful that has made a VR game called Lucky’s Tale for Oculus, hinted at what we could expect: “VR isn’t a gimmick for these games,” he said. “It makes gameplay fundamentally more satisfying – not just more immersive.”

In the long-term, Luckey and Mitchell are both keen to see the effects of VR on education: they spoke eagerly of the day in the future when their kids can put on an Oculus headset and visit the Colosseum, or go to a virtual Jurassic Park to learn about dinosaurs.

WGSN and Homebuildlife subscribers can read our Design Futures report on the potential of VR across entertainment, retail and lifestyle here.

– Sarah Housley


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