Now that Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was working on its way back in 1977, virtual reality is so old. Despite these storied origins, over the following five decades, tech's perennial "next big thing" never quite managed its moment in the sun. When the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR all arrived to muted fanfare, after 2016 came and went, you had to wonder if VR was ever going to make good on its tantalizing promise. Like winning a major trophy at Tottenham Hotspur or vegan cheese that doesn't taste gross.
Then last Christmas, when we were least expecting it, it finally hit its inflection point with virtual reality. The perpetrator? Facebook's Oculus Quest 2 headset, which, according to Super Data, has sold over 1.1 million units since its launch in October 2020, is actually legitimately good. It works without plugging into a console or computer, is refreshingly comfortable to wear, and has a powerful content catalogue to immerse yourself in, if pop culture is permeated by the most popular titles in their own right. Mike Verdu, VP of Content at Facebook Reality Labs, says, "I got my hair cut and was asked what I was doing and, unprompted, the barber brought up Beat Saber."
Since 2019, Verdu has been the man in charge of making Oculus a success, a self-professed "VR skeptic" turned believer, no mean feat if you consider the historical precedent.
I have often caught it between an audience of early adopter loyalists and the average Joe in need of a headset that just works straight out of the box since Facebook gained the technology's most prominent brand for $2.3 billion in 2014. With little fanfare, exclusive titles such as Respawn Entertainment (Apex Legends, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order) and Insomniac Games (Spider-Man, Ratchet & Clank) came and went, while the technology itself was restricted to those with super-powerful, super-costly PC configurations. With the fully wireless Quest in 2018, all of that has changed.
"It really felt like the experience I had with the first iPhone when I first tried Quest," says Verdu. "It was like an epiphany, like you've got these momentous moments where you're like, 'Oh, the world has changed them deeply.'"
Admittedly, this is exactly what you would expect someone to say whose job it is to sell the world on VR, but both the critical reception of the updated Quest 2 and its sales figures go a long way to validating the fervour of Verdu. They made more than $1 million in revenue by one in three paid apps on the Oculus store, while in its first year, the latest The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners made a thoroughly respectable $29 m on sale. These headsets are being purchased and used beyond the holiday season. Thus, as part of a recent earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg has already confirmed that a Quest 2 successor is in the works.
"When you move from one console generation to another, you can have seven or eight generations of phones," explains Verdu. "I think this is going to be more of a model than a Xbox or a PlayStation for this company."
It is this annual launch of new product launches that enabled Oculus in 2018 to pivot from PC-reliant headsets to the wireless Oculus Go, paving the way for its more fully formed Quest successor a year later. With more capable mobile chipsets and increasingly detailed displays justifying such a quick-fire cadence, the underlying technology of Crucially VR could support this vision. The enormous challenge that's coming? To keep Quest owners engaged with their headsets, enough new content. For the platform, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series and a revival of the long-dormant Splinter Cell franchise have already been confirmed, while we have teased several similar titles of unannounced stature.
Meanwhile, to bridge the gap between major releases, it's really down to smaller teams. As Verdu's barber found out for himself, despite being made by a team of three from Prague, the arcade rhythm game Beat Saber quickly became synonymous with virtual reality. For Call Of Duty-esque online shooter Onward, which was almost single-handedly created by Dante Buckley, founder and CEO of Downpour Interactive for Oculus Rift, before being ported to Quest last year where it generated more than $10 million in revenue in six months, it is a similar story.
I grew up playing games like Call Of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo, and I looked at the market and was like, "What do I want to play?" Right now, what's not there? I'm going to go build that,' Buckley says. "That's insane, I know, but you have one life to live."
Elsewhere, as Coatsink Software did with the Jurassic World Aftermath of last year, upstart publishers are being trusted to sherpa huge franchises to a new life in VR. A cel-shaded velociraptor freakout fest, Aftermath sees players stumble through Isla Nublar's rubble while being stalked by the least friendly inhabitants of the Cretaceous Period. It's an idea that a team that has been immersed in virtual reality since the Kickstarter-funded DK1 (Development Kit) back in 2013 came to life in little more than a year.
"My brother and I were huge fans of Jurassic Park as kids; I watched it three times in a row when I was six years old," explains Coat sink CEO Tom Beardsmore. So this game was completely surreal to get to September 2019 on the Universal lot of pitching. Until it does, you never imagine it's going to come to fruition.
The major hurdle facing Verdu right now is time, with the hardware in place and the Oculus Store proving an increasingly viable platform for developers. Just last month, Dan Riccio, former chief of hardware engineering at Apple, moved to an unspecified new role reported by Bloomberg in the development of VR and AR (augmented reality) headsets. Similarly, in an interview with the Washington Post late last year, PlayStation head honcho Jim Ryan teased an eventual follow up to the moderately successful PlayStation VR headset.
About the upshot? To carve out the VR market for itself and the Quest for the next year, Facebook has almost free rein. Verdu will have to convince even more consumers to try VR in order to make good on that opportunity, something that is easier to do in a pandemic when half the world is stuck at home in desperate need of entertainment, but still notoriously tricky.
"Transmitting an experience that you don't really get until you try it is the biggest obstacle to VR adoption," says Verdu. "So in mixed reality streaming, we've made a lot of progress where we actually show a player inside the environment they're seeing."
While it is no surprise that Facebook believes that the future of virtual reality is social, I can't imagine otherwise when Animal Crossing's Twitter-engulfing escapism and Among Us 'ability to tear apart friendships with a mere mention of the word "sus" were some defining cultural moments of the past year. Word of mouth" is very much the order of the day until virtual reality translations can better share their experiences." This technology is still a work in progress, even after half a century of work. The Oculus Quest is right at the forefront of its revolution when it's never been easier or more fun to jump right in, thanks to a combination of foresight and perseverance.