GBR Innovator Series: Palmer Luckey Doesn’t Expect Overnight Success With VR

Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey took the stage at the second annual Oculus Connect inside the Dolby Theater in Hollywood to announce that the very game he played in college that got him thinking about VR — Minecraft — is coming to Oculus Rift. Of course, Luckey wasn’t the main attraction at this year’s event. That honor went to Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO that Palmer sold Oculus VR to last year for $2 billion. A lot has happened since that acquisition, and Oculus VR is gearing up for its official launch in 2016. Luckey talks about the present and future state of virtual reality in this exclusive interview.

What were your goals heading into Oculus Rift?

Honestly, my goal was to create a virtual reality device for myself. The latter morphed into something where I realized this was something that other people would be interested in too, and that other people wanted to develop software for. We had ability to do voice chat and emote and build things inside virtual worlds with low-latency broadband connections. All the pieces were there. In 2010, the Rift was a rough prototype and the hardware side took a long time to catch up. I knew since 2010 that virtual worlds weren’t decades away, they were years away.

What are you most excited about with Oculus and VR gaming?

I’m most excited about seeing all of these great titles that game developers put so much time into brought into virtual reality. I blew a lot of homework off in the short time I was in college playing games like Minecraft, and now its coming to VR. So being able to step into franchises that we’re already familiar with in VR is exciting. Gaming is what got me thinking about what a metaverse would look like; a digital world parallel to our own where millions of people will work, live and play and you can do anything and not be bound by the laws of the physical world.

How do you see virtual reality and augmented reality converging in the future?

I do believe we’ll see these technologies converge into the same hardware in the future, but it’s quite a few years away. We need to make different trade-offs in software and hardware. VR is a lot more understood as a medium because it’s been explored for decades now. You can put a person inside a VR world and play games and tell stories. AR has mostly been shown as a utility tool to get things done like get directions and information from the world around you. No one has made AR a good entertainment tool yet. So they’re very different market segments today and it’ll be a long time before they do converge. Digi-Capital has forecast VR will account for $30 billion by 2020, while AR will generate $120 billion in that same time. What are your thoughts on that? AR is easier to render than VR, but you can do VR with mobile devices. We partnered with Samsung to do that with Gear VR, which launches in November for $99. You can get a compelling VR experience on a mobile phone. As far as those numbers, none of those analysts know anything. We purposely have not spoken with any analysts.

How do you see the VR business expanding?

A lot of what the analysts are saying is pretty optimistic. VR is going to take awhile to become mainstream. Mark Zuckerberg confirmed this when he said Oculus was a 5- to 10-year bet on the next major computing platform. Analysts saying that by 2020 VR will be hugely mainstream; it’s unlikely for a lot of those predictions to come true. iPod was considered a huge success, but it took a while to sell 1 million copies. With Palm Pilot they only sold a few million units in the first few years. It took over a decade for that to come about. But people still consider it a success. You don’t need to immediately take over everything to be considered a success.

How do you see price points dropping for VR technology?

Phones that came out in 2008 and 2009 that were selling for $800 or $900 are now being sold for $59 with equivalent technology to those top-of-the-line flagships. VR will see the same drop-off in price. VR will be accessible to a huge number of people under $100 over time. It won’t cost the $1,000 it takes today because you need a PC and headset. That will change over time.

How did you get to the Oculus Touch technology you’re demoing now?

Touch is something we do every day in reality, and when it’s missing in VR it disconnects you. You lose that sense of presence. We made over 300 prototypes to get to where we are today. And a lot of the assumptions you make in the beginning of the process don’t pan out. We perfectly track its orientation and position in 3D space, and we need to do that with low latency.

What opportunity does VR open up for social media?

Social media is one of the two biggest opportunities for VR. In the future we’ll capture full 360-degree depth capture and send those to people so they can play it back in HMD. All forms of digital communication today from email to text messages to Skype are all abstractions from how we interact in the real world. People still go to conferences and have business trips even though they could use Skype. VR can make the virtual world indistinguishable from the real world. You’ll be able to get all of the nuance and depth and human connection through an avatar without flying across the world to see someone. We’re starting to see it workable. In Toy Box two people in a VR environment can do all types of things. It’s a multiplayer, multi-user experience with avatars and voice chat and 360-degree spatial sounds. People can be 3,000 miles away and pass a virtual block from one hand to the other. The trick now is making it believable enough over the next 10 years.

Where does the future of VR leave the TV screen?

In the near-term TVs aren’t going anyway. There’s a lot of content for TV and it integrates more naturally into life. That could change as VR and AR converge over the same hardware. With glasses or contacts that you can wear all the time, you could project TVs virtually anywhere you want.

What are your thoughts on VR amusement parks?

I’m not a huge believer in those. I believe the at-home VR experience will progress so rapidly that no theme park will be able to keep up. People will get similar experiences or better at home. Looking back at death of arcades, you could get better experience at home than at the arcades and no arcade could keep up with that. At-home VR will dominate. I’m not sure if people will be able to sell VR as something to go somewhere and use like putting VR headsets on roller coasters. At home would be where most content developers go.

How far away are we from a Ready Player One future?

Ready Player One isn’t that far into the future. I’m comparing it to things like The Matrix where you have direct neural implants. HMDs and data gloves exist today, but they’re not to the point where VR is indistinguishable from reality. Even in Ready Player One you could tell the different between the real world and virtual world. A lot of that technology is very close to existing.

Where do you see VR 10 years from now?

It’s a hard game to predict things 10 years out. I believe there will be VR of that Ready Player One caliber, where it’s close enough to reality. There’s a difference between tricking the subconscious mind and tricking the conscious mind. We’re pretty close to accepting VR with the subconscious mind.