2016 was a formative year for VR: the major headsets shipped to consumers, the first apps and games have been polished and sold, and developing for VR became even more accessible. This year the VR industry also faced the reality that it won’t become the next computing platform overnight.
The enthusiasm and revolutionary spirit I felt at the first Oculus Connect, while still present, was expressed in a more mature acknowledgement of reality this year. A lot of hard, interesting work stands between the present and mainstream adoption for VR and how people approach their work has subtly shifted to reflect the required effort. The single enthusiast with her back of the envelope ideas and radical visions has grown into a start-up or a studio with a list of present challenges and a roadmap to delivery. The wild visions of the grand, yet-unseen metaverse are still on the minds of even the biggest players in VR, but effort to construct those visions is backed by more pragmatic thinking.
Oculus Connect 3
The year for Oculus wasn’t as smooth as they would have wished. In addition to difficulties executing their launch, the Vive presented strong external competition with room-scale, hand-controllers and aggressive distribution of dev kits . While I’ve remained a fan of Oculus’ people and products, I admittedly went to Connect with an attitude of Oculus needing to win me back. In this regard Connect succeeded at its key purpose: Daniel and I walked away excited about the development opportunities the Oculus stack provides.
There was something for everyone in Oculus’ announcements: social, WebVR, room-scale, mobile, dev grants, and Abrash’s trademark visions of near future hardware. Despite how early or staged some demos may have seemed, we were happy to see them sharing concepts and listening for feedback. Many of the demos were also backed with a promise to get concrete SDKs in our hands very soon.
Steam Dev Days
Steam Dev Days’ audience was entirely developers and the lack of press or VCs gave the event a more idealistic, scrappier atmosphere. Connect felt like it was a gathering to build an industry, but Dev Days felt like a gathering to reinforce a culture. Valve believes no single entity will solve all of VR’s challenges and only by being open to many contributing parties will VR build a long-term future. Openness and symbiotic development ran deep in all of Valve’s presentations. It felt like all of Valve’s staff, regardless of role, could be found in the hallways to provide insight or to listen to feedback.
Having had a generally positive experience with the Vive and SteamVR, my main feeling going into Dev Days was, “What’s next? What will broaden this platform?” While the conference instilled me with a lot trust in Valve as a partner, I didn’t leave with many concrete roadmaps or usable artifacts for some core layers in the VR stack. While they talked about SDK additions, refined lighthouses and input research, absent were mentions of WebVR, persistent identity, next-gen hardware, and social VR that extends across experiences.
Two Approaches, One Happy Developer
Oculus Connect promised working foundations for most core VR services with the stipulation that you work inside their semi-closed platform. Steam Dev Days promised an open, gatekeeper-free community where many flavours of core service can begin to develop and interact. It’s natural to desire siding with one approach over the other, but at this point in VR’s development I’m actually quite glad both co-exist.
As a developer, consumer and end-user I want the open dream that Valve advocates. The model has supported innovation on the web where individuals and teams can cultivate new ideas, designs and libraries. Their output can have wide applicability, influence, and even commercial success without ever having to answer to a gatekeeper. It’s energizing to imagine a scenario where VR content can sandwich together technologies as web developers do today, but we have a long way to go. On top of the presentation and interaction already dealt with on the web, VR content has to deal with interoperability around rigged avatars, model formats, shaders, physics, 3D audio and complex two-handed user interactions. Tim Sweeney’s Dev Days keynote framed these challenges and resonated with us, both in its potential visions of the future and in the dangers of letting closed infrastructure ruin the potential of the metaverse.
Today, we don’t live in the future where such an open stack exists and we have experiences we want to bring to users now. The stack of Oculus SDK’s streamlines many of the foundational services for us in a performant and cohesively integrated way. Whether thinking about social VR at scale (Facebook demo), identity across experiences (Avatars/Rooms), or WebVR that doesn’t kick you back to the desktop between transitions, Oculus has provided tools for building more complete experiences now. Using their tools isn’t without trade-offs. We are initially unsettled by the idea of another browser (Carmel) and we also have criticisms of the aesthetic choices in the Oculus avatars, but they are a readily available and will get us digging deeper into VR UX sooner rather than later.
Above all else, we have returned from our travels with two key feelings. Firstly, we are as excited as ever to be developing for VR/AR. There were interesting announcements made at both conferences and we remain confident in VR’s eventual role as a key computing platform. Secondly, we are as excited as ever by the people we are developing amongst. We had great conversations with people from Oculus, Valve, Facebook, HTC, Epic and many game & app developers. Everyone was filled with enthusiasm, great ideas, and a roll-up our sleeves attitude towards making VR’s future bright. There is little doubt in our minds that amazing content and innovation will come from this community by the time these conferences come around next year.