Oculus Rift Inches Closer to Completion, Is Still ‘Many Months Away’

Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus VR, got on stage this morning at Web Summit 2014 to talk about how the Oculus Rift has progressed post-Facebook acquisition. As it turns out, it’s progressed pretty far, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing the latest crack at virtual reality any time soon.

Iribe toed a fine line during his on-stage conversation with Peter Ruben of Wired. Iribe stated that a consumer release for the Oculus Rift is ‘many months away,’ deftly avoiding the ‘y’ word while heavily implying that the commercial release is indeed still at least a year away.

The holdup isn’t due to hardware—Iribe did say that the Crescent Bay prototype shown off earlier this year is ‘very close’ to what the finished product will look like in terms of internal specs. Instead, Oculus VR is using all of that new Facebook money to solve problems like motion sickness and the industrial design of the product. Iribe admitted that he cringes a little when he sees the DK1, and hopes that the Oculus Rift will eventually look like a regular (in a loose sense) pair of sunglasses. He even took time to throw some subtle jabs at Sony’s Project Morpheus, saying that Oculus has let Sony see their prototypes before anyone else in the hopes that Project Morpheus (and other potential major competitors in the VR market) will not ‘poison the well’ by overlooking problems like motion sickness and giving VR a bad name (again) in the process.

The biggest hurdle sounds like the lack of an input method. Iribe remarked that hand gestures by themselves likely aren’t going to provide the kind of VR experience most people are looking for, and said that a good chunk of that new Facebook money is being channeled into R&D to figure out how to implement intuitive VR controls. Iribe offered up no details about where that R&D is headed, so it sounds like this will be a problem that prevents an Oculus Rift release for some time.

While Iribe asserted that gaming is still at the core of Oculus Rift, it became clear from the conversation that Oculus Rift is aiming to be much more than that. Iribe was particularly enthusiastic about the potential for face-to-face communication using VR, allowing people from all over the world to have regular, in-person chats without leaving home. It’s not immediately clear how that’s advantageous over video chat platforms like Skype, but we’ll have to wait and see what Oculus cooks up to know for sure.

The potential for VR extends far past social media and entertainment. Before Iribe got on stage, Skip Rizzo, a professor at USC and the Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, spoke briefly about how VR devices like the Oculus Rift can be applied to clinical psychology. Early research is being done into how virtual reality war scenarios can help clinical psychologists guide PTSD sufferers through traumatic memories during therapy. The technology is even being applied to clinical training in the form of virtual AI patients. The thinking goes that students can make mistakes in a consequence-free environment, allowing them to learn from those experiences before moving on to treat human patients.

Before leaving the stage, Iribe talked about the importance of community and transparency, calling community building around a product ‘one of the most important aspects of launching a new company’ today. While there’s no doubt that Oculus Rift was made possible by the enthusiastic developer community that Kickstarted it, the transparency part is a little more questionable, considering much of that community was taken by surprise when Oculus VR was purchased by Facebook. It’s hard to say how much that rift has healed in the meantime (or to what extent it ever existed), but considering that Oculus VR still has the likes of John Carmack, formerly of Id and a titan in the advent of 3D gaming, it’s likely that developer support for games will be just fine, as long as Oculus can get something out to market in a timely manner.

The talk wrapped up with Iribe dropping a hint about the next big advance in VR—creating a full-body VR experience, where people can sense their own body in a virtual world. Turns out, the immersion that the VR experience hinges gets tarnished when you’re just a disembodied head in a digital landscape.

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