Oculus Connect 2 marked the first time in three years Oculus VR hasn't had brand new, evolved hardware to show off. That's a big deal—it means the Rift is almost here. It's coming in the first few months of 2016, with the Oculus Touch controller following a few months later.
Of the demos I tried at Oculus Connect 2, the most fun and compelling all used the Oculus Touch. The controller feels just as intuitive as it did when I tried it and wrote about it at E3. Those demos left me wondering if the Rift—or VR in general—will be able to thrive without motion controls as part of the package. So when I had a chance to talk to Oculus VP of Product Nate Mitchell, we spent much of the interview discussing Oculus Touch: why they're shipping the Rift before Touch is finished, what still needs to be done to finalize the hardware, and whether it was a tough decision to make the Touch an optional peripheral (spoiler: it was).
The following is an excerpt of my interview with Nate Mitchell. You can read a bit more, discussing the price of the Rift headset, here.
Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: When I used the earlier prototypes, like Crescent Bay for example, I could tell there were things that could be improved, rough edges that would be smoothed out for the next version. After using Touch at E3 and now here, even though you’re not planning to put it out for another eight months or something, it totally feels done today. So my question is, what are the things that need to be done to Touch for its release? Because it feels so ready right now.
Nate Mitchell, Oculus VP of Product: Touch needs to be totally finalized, locked up. We have improvements we still want to make to button layout, button throw, stick layout. We’re still evolving Touch. Even what we have today here isn’t the final industrial design for the hardware. So there’s that part, and there’s the part we talked about before, taking it to mass production. We’re still at the stage where we are—well, I can’t say too much, but there’s still a lot to do in terms of getting it to mass production. That’s one of the main things the team is working on.
PCG: So the things you still want to change like you said, stick layout and button layout, are those decisions being driven by taking it to E3 and taking it here and noting how people use it? Or is more a roadmap you already had in place?
Mitchell: The answer to your first question is yes, but not as much as just using it in the office everyday. The Medium team, for example, they’re using their Touch controllers every single day, day-in and day-out, to develop. It’s really that level of dogfooding where you start realize there’s a way we can improve the product.
Even when we launched Touch initially we knew we weren’t quite done with it. Ergonomics weren’t perfect. We still had some experimental features in there, in terms of the implementation, we weren’t sure how we were going to land. There were even features we didn’t talk about E3 because we weren’t sure they were going to make it into the final product. So we had them in the hardware, but we weren’t sure they were going to go out the door.
PCG: Like what?
Mitchell: I don’t think I can comment on that stuff.
PCG: So they’re not in there now?
Mitchell: I don’t think they’re in the hardware now. There’s just stuff we could have added in, stuff that the hardware has support for, especially the underlying electronics, that maybe we didn’t surface. I think actually the prototypes here are slightly different than the ones we had at E3. The point is, there’s a lot of work to do to get into mass production, and I’m flattered you say it feels like a great product, because that’s how we want it to feel. And we’re really proud of where it is. We want to make it even better.
PCG: Although one of the joysticks on mine had clearly been through some abuse and was getting a little sticky.
Mitchell: Manufacturing! We will nail stuff like that to make sure our process, all the engineering behind it, is flawless.
PCG: That’s a problem with plenty of controllers, like when the PS4 launched, the Dualshock 4 rubber would break off of it.
Mitchell: We don’t want it to be a problem with ours. That’s the stuff we want to watch in validation phases.
PCG: Can you comment on what the battery life is going to be like for it?
Mitchell: I don’t think we’re commenting on battery life quite yet.
PCG: But it is going to be wireless, and I assume the goal is to play games for a significant period of time with it?
Mitchell: Yes, absolutely.
PCG: Up until this point, you guys have been incredibly patient with not pushing out the Rift. You’d say when it’s done, when it’s done.
Mitchell: [Laughs] I’m waiting for you to say ‘now you’re super impatient!’
PCG: I’m wondering why, if Touch is going to come out Q2, why put the headset out a few months before Touch?
Mitchell: There are a couple factors. One is, there is this huge amount of great content that’s available, that would be available on Rift today, that’s going to be available on Rift when it ships, that doesn’t need to wait until Q2 to ship.
Let’s just pretend for a second. If Rift ships in the beginning of Q1 and Touch ships in the beginning of Q2, there’s still a 3 month delay between those dates where people could be using the device, having fun, enjoying their content. And most importantly, where developers can actually be selling their games to people. And building their business, making progress on their games, iterating, shipping updates. Really starting the ecosystem as soon as possible on the Rift side is really important.
Also, we haven’t announced the price for Touch, and that’s another thing. Cost is all-up going to be a barrier to entry for this thing to begin with. We could wait for Touch, but at the end of the day we’ve decided to make Touch an attachment to the Rift, so selling it separately after the fact doesn’t hurt anything. People will jump into it, developers will make content for it, and there’s no reason to necessarily hold the Rift, which is ready to get out the door, for Touch, when Touch can come whenever.
And one of the other important things to keep in mind is there hasn’t been that much Touch-enabled content made to date. We’re going to see a lot more in the next few months, but the reality is if we shipped right now there wouldn’t be that many great games and experiences to play. Whereas with a gamepad, there’s three years of content that’s available to you. Things like EVE Valkyrie, Lucky’s Tale, some of these experiences have been in development for a super long time, and those developers are, believe me, ready to get that stuff to you as soon as you’re ready to play it.
PCG: Cost seemed like a big flag to me, because if you look at Touch, it basically has the same capabilities of an Xbox controller, just split in two. But using it, as well as the HTC Vive, motion control feels, I don't want to say necessary, but such an incredible addition to VR. This is overly dramatic, but it almost feels like shipping the Wii without the Wiimote. There were great Wii games you could play with a Classic controller or whatever, but I wonder what the adoption of games using Touch will be if it’s not in the box.
Mitchell: I wonder that too. We’re going to find out.
PCG: Is that something you're concerned about?
Mitchell: Oh, absolutely!
PCG: Was it a hard decision?
Mitchell: Absolutely it’s a hard decision. There are a lot of trade-offs. I just gave you a few of the reasons why I think it does make sense to launch Touch when it’s ready, and launch the Rift when it’s ready, and not tie the two together. Especially when it comes to, again, making developers successful.
I think adoption of Touch is going to be a challenge for developers. Some of the greatest peripherals in the world have had only a 30% attachment.
PCG: Like what?
Mitchell: I’d have to pull the exact numbers, but those are generous attachment numbers. Okay, so for some games, we’d have to look up the numbers, but some of the most popular console-selling games of all time, $30, $40, $50, Sonics and Crash Bandicoots, they have like 25, 20 percent attachment rates. Super Mario 64, if we look up the attachment rate, is much smaller than you think [Ed note: according to Wikipedia, Super Mario 64 is the best-selling N64 game at 11 million copies, out of 33 million consoles sold, a 33% attach rate].
So we’re going to be selling an attachment that’s more expensive, that’s a hardware peripheral. Very few hardware peripherals have ever succeeded unless they’re in the box. I’m talking against Touch for a second. Kinect, not doing super hot. PS Move...There’s a long line of dead peripherals.
Two things. One, we think Touch isn’t going to fall into that category because of what you just said. Because it’s such a fundamentally cool, awesome, incredible experience. It’s an experience people want that we’ve never had in gaming before. I don’t want to talk down to any other devices, but there have been a lot of peripherals out there that haven’t delivered anything that’s really gotten people fired up, like ‘oh my god, I need this in my life right now.’ When people try Touch for the first time, they usually come out with the same sentiment you just had.
We think there will be a pretty high adoption rate. We will see. Price will be the biggest barrier to entry. I think content will be number two. I think In the beginning of Touch you're going to see mostly indie games from developers who can afford to take a risk, who believe, who want it out there. As [Oculus chief architect Atmin Binstock] said earlier, this is the golden age of VR where people are going to develop these experiences people will remember forever. That’s where we’re going to start, but you’re not necessarily going to see some big publisher build a Touch game anytime soon because of everything you’re talking about.
Now, what happens for generation two, generation three of VR, we’ll see. Part of this first generation is we have Rift, we have Touch. There are a lot of other VR platforms coming out, we’ve also got GearVR. We’re going to see what works and what doesn’t. Do people lean towards simple touchpad experiences like GearVR? Do they want gamepad? Do they want Touch? Do they want something else? We will incorporate a lot of that thinking into version two of Rift.
PCG: That was a very thorough answer.
Mitchell: We think about this stuff a lot.