At Gamescom 2015, we had the chance to speak to Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR. In a brief conversation, we gathered some of his thoughts on the current state of VR, and where he sees it headed going in the future. So, without further ado, here are our questions, and his answers.
Tom's Hardware: If there was one challenge in VR that you had to overcome that you really wish wasn't an issue, which would it be?
Palmer Luckey: Probably unlimited GPU horsepower. It is one of the issues in VR that cannot be solved at this time. We can make our hardware as good as we want, our optics as sharp as we can, but at the end of the day we are reliant on how many flops the GPU can push, how high a framerate can it push? Right now, to get 90 frames per second [the minimum target framerate for Oculus VR] and very low latencies we need heaps of power, and we need to bump the quality of the graphics way down.
If we had unlimited GPU horsepower in everybody's computer, that will make our lives very much easier. Of course, that's not something we can control, and it's a problem that will be solved in due time.
TH: Isn't it okay to deal with the limited power we have today, because we're still in the stepping stones of VR technology?
PL: It's not just about the graphics being simple. You can have lots of objects in the virtual environment, and it can still cripple the experience. Yes, we are able to make immersive games on VR with simpler graphics on this limited power, but the reality is that our ability to create what we are imagining is being limited by the limited GPU horsepower.
TH: What is the most fun challenge that you've overcome in creating a VR experience?
PL: I'm a hardware guy, so for me it's all about building hardware that functions really well.
Many people think that the limiting factor for virtual reality is going to be the price. The reality of it is, we're trying to make the hardware as affordable as possible, and the money will be made on software. The one thing people forget, however, is that the PC that it will take to run a VR experience will be the defining factor in the total cost. Even if we sell our hardware for as little as $100, or even $50, the PC that it will take to run VR will take the total cost up much further, and that isn't something we can control.
TH: So far, I've only had good VR experiences, but I only saw my first demos recently. What is the worst VR experience that you've been through?
PL: I won't say, but it wasn't with our hardware. I'm pretty picky.
TH: Where do you see VR going in 10 years' time?
PL: It's hard to say. Ten years is a long way to shoot out, but it's all the obvious places. It will get more comfortable, more affordable, much higher resolution, the form factor will be brought down to a point where the device will look much more like an ordinary pair of sunglasses instead of a big bulky headset.
TH: Any fears of a Matrix-like future -- say, do we reach a point in development where we have a "perfect" headset?
PL: The thing to remember about science fiction is that it's looking to create a conflict to make an interesting story. Sci-fi is not a good indicator of where our technology will actually lead society. Nobody would want to watch the Matrix if the story was just about VR being really popular, and if it was a story telling how the world was a better place with it. I'm not concerned. I think that in the long run it will be a net positive to society.
TH: So, you don't fear that there will be a point when we need to say to ourselves: "We should tone it down a little, this is getting dangerous?"
PL: It is up to individuals to do that. My place is not to tell people when they've been using VR too much, or to try to control their usage. Anything that's fun to do gets abused by some people. You have to rely on people to use their own judgement.
I'd be very upset if someone were to put hardened controls on how much I could play a game, or be on the Internet or such.
TH: But you'll at least have usage terms written somewhere, indicating that you cannot be held accountable if people forget to eat [or such]?
PL: Maybe. [long pause] I don't think we will have to do that.
TH: If people do not have adequate hardware, will you be doing something to protect them against a bad experience [i.e., becoming sick]?
PL: Probably not. Trying to control that would be very difficult. What we could do is warn the user that what they are seeing is a very low frame rate, rather than just blocking it entirely. Also, we're just not going to support it. If someone is having very low framerate issues, and they have hardware that's far below our recommended spec, it's very easy to just say, "Look, we can't support it. None of our hardware was designed to work with your low-end PC."
TH: By what time do you expect VR to trickle down to a more mainstream audience, say consoles?
PL: It's hard to say. It's only a matter of time. It's all about tradeoffs between quality and costs. As the quality goes up, and the costs go down, and as the content available becomes more diverse, more people will become interested. However, you don't necessarily need to sell to everyone who has a game console to be successful in the short term.
The goal in the long run is not only to sell to people who buy game consoles, but also to people who buy mobile phones. You need to expand so that you can connect hundreds of millions of people to VR. It may not necessarily exist in the form of a phone dropping into a headset, but it will be mobile technologies -- mobile CPUs, mobile graphics cards, etc.
In the future, VR headsets are going to have all the render hardware on board, no longer being hardwired to a PC. A self-contained set of glasses is a whole other level of mainstream.