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Oculus Founder Palmer Luckey on What It Will Take to Make Virtual Reality Really Big

The entrepreneur says developers need to stop designing games that make people feel sick.

In less than two weeks, Oculus will start shipping its first consumer virtual-reality headset, Rift. It’s a big achievement for the company, which became a hit on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in 2012 and was later snapped up by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.

While virtual reality is still a small market, it’s growing quickly; 30 games are planned to launch alongside Rift on March 28, and other high-end headsets are coming soon, too. You’ll need a lot of cash to immerse yourself in this kind of virtual reality, though, as the headset costs $599 and you’ll need to pay for a powerful computer to go along with it.

While attending an Oculus gaming event this week in San Francisco (see “Fun (and Some Nausea) with the First Games for the Oculus Rift”), founder Palmer Luckey took a few minutes to chat with MIT Technology Review about how this high cost makes it difficult to get typical consumers interested in virtual reality, and why developers need to help prevent the technology from making people feel sick.

Palmer Luckey

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects it will take a decade for virtual reality to become a mass-market technology. What’s one of the biggest obstacles to getting the average person interested in using it?

Some of the trickiest things on the Rift aren’t related to our own product directly. You need a pretty high-end PC to run it now. People who already own those PCs are mostly PC gamers. There’s going to be people who also buy those machines, but I think that’s one of the biggest limiting factors right now—the computing power people own. That’s going to change as time goes on; computers will get better, they’ll get cheaper, and a few years from now everyone’s going to own machines that are capable of running good VR experiences. That’s not totally out of our control—we’ve worked with the vendors to help them optimize their hardware for virtual reality, we developed things with their roadmaps in mind. But it’s not something that can magically be fixed.

In the long run … [virtual reality is] going to be on headsets with built-in render horsepower. It’s going to be a few years before we get to the point where they can mimic the quality that we have today on a PC and it’s going to be an even longer time before they mimic the quality where they’re good enough that people are willing to use them for pretty much everything. But it’s going to happen.

Some people still feel nauseous when viewing stereoscopic virtual reality. With the Rift about to go out the door to buyers, do you feel like much of the solution lies with the kinds of games and experiences that developers build?

It largely is. Right now the hardware’s gotten good enough that it is definitely possible to make things that absolutely no one or very close to no one feels uncomfortable in. And there are a few games here that are like that, where absolutely nobody’s going to feel uncomfortable. But there are other games where they make design decisions that mean that a greater number of people are going to be uncomfortable.

The good news is that as people use VR they tend to acclimatize and they can adjust to those things. But it really is a game design decision.

What are some of those decisions that you think currently make people uncomfortable?

Changes in velocity. Moving at speed doesn’t actually make people sick; once you’re moving and at equilibrium that’s fine. The issue is constant deceleration and acceleration. It’s actually the duration of that change, rather than the magnitude, that makes people change. An instant acceleration from zero to 100, like truly instant, actually makes very few people ill. But slowly ramping it up and then ramping it down is a lot more uncomfortable for a lot of people.

Taking control of the camera in ways that don’t match with their vestibular system, especially very strong motions, is something you can’t do. In a lot of [non-virtual reality] games you can grab the camera and point it at something you want the player to see; you can’t really do that in virtual reality. It’s not so great.

Things like spinning the horizon line or doing a barrel roll when you’re not actually getting the matching vestibular input; even if you did, that’s something that makes a lot of people feel pretty sick in the real world, so there’s no silver bullet to solve things like that.

One thing you’re doing to make people aware of the prospects for feeling sick is rating the games that people can buy, similar to how Samsung currently rates games in the online store for its smartphone-using Gear VR headset. Can this actually help?

It is really important to us to make sure that everyone knows what the comfort ratings for the games are, so if someone isn’t able to use everything they’re able to look at that and determine if it’s something that they think is going to be appropriate for them or not. I think most people are going to be able to use most things in our store, but we don’t want someone who knows that they’re susceptible [to nausea] to buy things not knowing what they’re getting into.

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