Oculus VP Nate Mitchell On Touch Launch, Rift Rivalry and Oculus Connect 3

by Jamie Feltham • August 22nd, 2016

This Gamescom was an unquestionably low-key affair, not just for VR, but for the entire video game industry. Gamers still flocked in the thousands to get their hands on the latest stuff, but there were virtually no announcements from big companies.

And yet, I still managed to easily fill a 20-minute interview slot with Nate Mitchell, Oculus co-founder and VP of Product. In fairness, Oculus did have a few announcements to make last week, which we talked about in the interview below. Far more juicy, though, is the talk of Touch’s long-awaited launch later this year and how Oculus interprets its competition across the board. There’s even a tease of what to expect at Oculus Connect 3, and I couldn’t help but ask about Microsoft’s Project Scorpio. Of course, Mitchell guarded any unannounced projects, saying he’s “really excited” seven times in the below transcript. 

If you want to skim the interview, you’ll find the most notable bits highlighted in green, but by all means take a deep dive.

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Upload: Okay, Rift: First 5 Months. How do you think it’s been?

Nate Mitchell: It’s been great. We’re excited about where we are post-launch. Looking back on launch there’s always things we wish we had done better. But, overall, even now looking five months out on where we are today, things are really good.

I think the content is great and continues to get better and better and better and when you look at what’s upcoming over the next few months with Touch and even a lot of the titles that we have coming out for gamepad, like Minecraft just launched two days ago, which is pretty exciting, we’re just super excited. And I think consumer interest follows that same course. [There’s a] lot of demand for Rift which we’re really excited to see.

Upload: So Touch is obviously the big thing coming up. Do you guys see that as Oculus launch 2.0?

Nate Mitchell: We don’t think of it as Oculus launch 2.0, I do like to think about it almost as like– I’ve never really used this concept publicly but it is in a way like Rift 2.0. So we’ve been pushing new updates into Rift every single month, so our software team is constantly evolving the software stack. So if you basically track Rift on launch day, if you log in today, there’s like a bunch of new features that we’ve been rolling out: platform features, social features, bunch of stuff under the hood, bunch of store stuff.

And, especially innovation around performance and some of the neat things we’re doing there, it just continues to get better, and better, and better. So we have a bunch of stuff that we’re going to be excited to announce at the OC3 time frame, and then if you look at Touch launch coupled with all those changes and the evolution of Rift over the last– it will have been 8 months, it should be a really exciting, fresh feeling product if you walk into a Best Buy and go pick up a Touch, you can put it on and drop in and it will feel pretty new in a lot of ways.

So I’m excited for that, it’s a bit of a stretch to call it truly like Rift 2.0 because for us it’s about everything that’s happening under the hood and the software stack and everything else, but I think when you look at the total package plus the games that are launching on Touch, I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting experience.

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Upload: Do you have any regrets as launching Rift just as a gamepad device and not waiting until Touch?

Nate Mitchell: That’s a totally fair question. For us, there isn’t and that’s for a couple of reasons. I think that the primary one is that if you look at the Kickstarter was August of 2012 and we had developers with us from the very earliest days. People like CCP with EVE: Valkyrie, even like the Crytek folks. So many people who had backed the Kickstarter who had been on this journey with us from the very beginning who had been developing content either for keyboard and mouse or gamepad, who really wanted to get their content out there as soon as possible.

So for us it was really optimising for: How do we get the Rift into gamer’s hands as fast as possible? There’s all these developers with all this content — we want to ship it. We really want there to be a gamepad in the box and so all that just lined up.

The other thing is Touch just wasn’t ready. It took us longer to really hone the experience, to do a lot of the novel, fundamentally new interactions that we think are so important. Like, doing things like nailing being able to pick up a virtual object in the world and interacting with it. There really hadn’t been a controller out there, an ergonomic one that had nailed that, so we really think we’ve delivered that with Touch, plus all the social interactions.

So getting Touch right was pretty fundamental and the reality is it just wasn’t going to launch alongside Rift. So we didn’t want to hold Rift for that, and then finally when you look at the content library that we’re trying to bring together with Touch, we don’t believe in launching pieces of hardware without really deep rich content for people to dive into. So you look at Rift launch with some 30 games, Touch is going to launch with more than 30 fully featured Touch titles, most of them made for VR from the ground up. And getting that content library ready, that’s going to take us about until this second half of the year time frame; we haven’t announced the official date yet, we’ll have more details soon. But that’s really important to us in terms of launching a device and we’re really excited about the position Touch is gonna be in at the end of the year.

Upload: So when Touch launches you’ll be on a new frontier with position tracked controls. But it’s a new frontier for us because we’ve never seen you as a hardware company without a highly anticipated piece of hardware. So when Touch is out do we start seeing you as a software company for a while? Are you essentially a VR publisher from there on out or are you going to start teasing what’s next?

Nate Mitchell: We are a VR platform company. There’s kind of two ways of thinking about it. You think of a VR hardware company or a VR product company, we really think of it as a VR platform company. It’s the software, it’s the hardware, it’s the content. It’s the experiences, it’s the ecosystem, it’s the innovation. We’re pushing it all forward. So you’re right, one way to look at it right now is Touch is launching that’s right around the corner. But like I said there’s a huge team back home that’s pushing out new updates for Rift every single month.

We just announced the new Gear VR, you guys did a great piece, thank you, on the content library and we’re really excited about how all that’s coming together. So we’re shipping software non-stop at a really good click that we’re excited about. As far as new hardware, we’re definitely working on a lot of stuff back home, looking at the next generational leaps and advancements that are really going to fundamentally change the VR experience. And we’re excited about that. Nothing to share, nothing to announce at this time, but we’ll have more news to share over the next few years, next few months.

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Upload: That was going to be my next question; anything in 2017, do you think?

Nate Mitchell: Hm. We’ll have more announcements to come. When I say years what I’m really talking about is the broader, like, we’re really going to have a lot of announcements over the next few years about hardware, software, new platform features. We’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline.

There are a lot of good years ahead for VR, really. I think if you look at how fast VR has moved over the last three years, you can expect it to continue at frankly an even faster clip. So for games it’s an awesome place to be in.

Upload: So the big thing you announced this week is rolling out across Europe in stores. The first thing that struck me about that was getting in there a month before PlayStation VR. What’s the plan for you guys there? PS VR strikes me as the one that’s going to do well this holiday season based on affordability and accessibility. Do you guys have a plan to combat that right now?

Nate Mitchell: So I would frame that a little differently. I would frame that as we feel really confident in our overall product offering that it is the highest quality experience, the highest quality VR experience fundamentally, hardware, software and the system. Plus the strongest content line-up far and away. If you look at– we’re basically already through our first generation of content, [and] many of our developers have been developing for the better part of three years. With Touch launching, we’ve got titles that have been in development for two years.

So all of that stuff, much of its available today, much of it’s yet to come. When you look at that package, we really think that users are going to continue to gravitate towards that. Lot of innovations happening in the PC space and it’s going to continue to stay that way. So we feel super good about our position, I think that what the PS VR team is doing – we’re close with those guys – is really exciting. They’ve got a bunch of neat stuff in the pipe. I’m personally excited for some of the content that they’re putting out there.

But, yeah, we feel really good about where Touch and Rift are today and where they’re going to be later this year. And as far as retail, like we talked about international retail roll-out is going to start really soon, and we’re also going to have Touch demos at retail at October. It’s less about positioning ourselves in front of PlayStation and just getting VR in the hands of people who are interested in it. It’s hard for people to understand what VR is like without trying it and experiencing it, and we’re seeing a tremendous amount of success in the US in retail with our demo program which started small and has grown, And so expanding that to Europe and having Touch is really going to help people see the magic.

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Upload: Speaking of rivalries, let’s touch on Gear VR. So Google Daydream’s coming out, and for me I’m struggling to find where Gear VR fits in now that we have this platform that unites the entire Android ecosystem. Is there a future for Gear VR in Daydream, or how does it compete?

Nate Mitchell: So I think the question is really how does Daydream compete with Gear VR? So Daydream today is– we don’t know exactly what Daydream is, right? You probably have your perspective but if you look at Gear VR today we already have over a million users that used the device in the last month. So incredibly significant, both user-base and engagement, on the device. We’re really excited about the content library, you’ve obviously seen that and we have a lot more coming. I think that Gear VR is also going to be far and away the best mobile VR experience out there. Definitely today since there’s nothing else, well not much else.

But I think that’s going to stay for a long time. I mean if you look at the investments we make with Samsung, with some of the hardware partners that build those chipsets for the phones, a lot of innovation happening and the reality is that we can focus on building a super high quality VR experience on this device because there are only so many phones we have to support. If you look at what Google’s going to have to do, it’s going to be much, much harder.

If you look at where the Android ecosystem is today, Android phones are totally varying levels of quality. Daydream’s going to sit on top of that. Now of course they’re saying, I think for the most part that they’re going focus on OLED devices so that will shrink the number of phones that they have to support, but they’ve got a bunch of challenges there and, again, they’re going to be launching for their first time later this year we assume.

So, again, we feel really, really good about where Gear VR is. I think it’s going to stay far and away the best experience for a while. And we’ll see what Google does to catch up and get into a better position. But we’ll just see where they launch later this year.

Upload: But Samsung’s a partner on Google. Was that a surprise for you when you learned that?

Nate Mitchell: You’d have to ask Google more about that one. I think ultimately, look, Samsung, I do think we’ll see them– I don’t know what exactly Samsung is going to do is the truth, and we’ll see where they land with Daydream. Our partnership with Samsung has never been stronger and we’ll have more announcements around that and how that’s been evolving around OC3 timeframe.

Upload: There have been rumors recently that the Vive might redesign its first generation model and we’ve seen Gear VR do that numerous times now. Is that something you guys would consider for Rift? Still CV1 but refined ergonomically in any way.

Nate Mitchell: Probably not. I’ll give you just some history. So through the product development cycle since we’ve launched there have been things that we’re looking at improving. Nothing that we are going to share right now but simple stuff. We’re just looking at pieces of the Rift and where we can make some simple improvements for the benefit of our customers.

I think you won’t see a material feeling redesign until we basically come out with the next version of Rift and definitely nothing to share on that, but our team is constantly looking at how we push the boundaries of comfort and ergonomics with this totally new category. I think we’ve been on the forefront of that, especially if you look at Rift today I think it’s the most comfortable device out there by a long shot. You see similar stuff in Gear with Samsung and making that a great experience and that’s only going to get better and better and better and we have a lot going back to it in the pipe for future products.

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Upload: One of the elephants in the room for you guys is Microsoft. They have Project Scorpio but haven’t announced a headset for it. It just makes so much sense that Rift is the headset for Scorpio and you have such a great relationship with Microsoft. I think people think this deal is in place, without overstepping my boundaries. What do you say on that right now?

Nate Mitchell: We don’t have anything to announce right now. We do have a great relationship with Microsoft. We’re really excited about the innovation we’ve been doing with them on the Windows side, they’re excited about the Minecraft launch. Xbox One gamepad is one of the best input devices out there hands down. So deep, successful relationship with Microsoft, but nothing to announce on the Xbox front. I’m definitely personally excited about what they’re doing with Scorpio.

Upload: Yeah, it’d be a great part of the market for you guys to grab.

Nate Mitchell: I completely understand what you’re saying. Nothing to announce right now.

Upload: Okay, so Oculus Connect 3. What can we expect this year?

Nate Mitchell: Great question. So Oculus Connect 3 is…going to be about developers, just like any Connect conference for us. I think if you look at the content ecosystem over the last two years, actually four years it’s been now since we started Oculus, there’s been a ton of learnings, especially around now motion controllers, with Touch, building great mobile VR content. We want to really foster the community sharing all that knowledge together. We’ll have some exciting announcements especially around innovation on the software and hardware side, sort of across the board. But you’ll have to come to OC3 to get the full debrief. But we’re really excited and I think developers and especially content with Touch.

Upload: Will it be the best OC yet?

Nate Mitchell: Definitely, unquestionably. That’s a great question because we haven’t talked about OC3 yet and I’m trying to figure out exactly what we’re ready to share and I don’t want to spoil too much. But I do think that it will be the best OC.

Upload: As you say it’s a developer conference but at the same time press is there. Is it fair to call it your E3 in a way?

Nate Mitchell: For us it’s really about developers. It’s really about just bringing the development community together and fostering that community. We look at all of our decisions through the lens of “what’s the best thing for VR?” and early on that’s how Oculus Connect came to be to begin with was like, we basically need to go champion and bring together the VR community and pooling our knowledge and helping everyone build better experiences because ultimately that’s what’s going to move the needle on the industry, on the ecosystem, on the medium. And I think that if you look at on the feedback on OC1 and OC2 we delivered that. And a huge part of that is the people that came and engaged and we just want to continue to foster that, we think it’s so important. So I’m very excited about OC3.

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Upload: But when it comes to addressing consumers and making that big crazy, exciting E3 announcement, is that something we get from you guys later down the line? Obviously you had your press conference a year and a half ago now but you skipped it this year. Is that something we could see in the future?

Nate Mitchell: We’ll see, yeah.

Upload: Let’s talk a little bit about Minecraft, that’s obviously a big launch. Is that the killer app for you guys?

Nate Mitchell: I think that Minecraft is a killer app for the Rift, I don’t think it’s the killer app. I think when you look at VR the jury’s still out on what is the exact killer app for VR and I think you see a lot of people doing a ton of awesome innovative stuff right now across entertainment, across creation, like Oculus Medium for example. And there’s a bunch of made for VR games that we’re super fired up about across Touch and gamepad.

I think Minecraft just adds to all that. When you play Minecraft in VR and actually I’ve played way more of it on Gear than I have on Rift just because it’s been out for a while. It’s a pretty awesome experience to build something and then be able to step inside that world and experience it at scale. I think also in terms it’s one of the best social experiences on Gear VR especially. I’ve played Minecraft realms with a couple of my friends on Gear either in the same room or in different rooms. It’s very fun. I’m a big Minecraft fan to begin with so it’s just a pretty compelling experience.

But is it the killer app? We’ll see. I hope it brings a bigger audience into the ecosystem because I do think that it’s a great experience. I think that if you’re a fan of Minecraft being able to step inside Minecraft or step inside your world, your creation is something totally fundamentally new that you can only do with VR. And so for that reason it’s super exciting and we’re really excited to have it on Rift now.

Upload: It’s something of a personal victory for you guys as well with how Notch received the Facebook news to have Minecraft on your platform.

NM: You know, Notch is one of the people going way back to PAX 2012. He was one of the first people who got to try the duct tape prototype, and Palmer and I had an awesome conversation with him that I’ll never forget just around game design. He’s just a super insightful guy. I hope that he’s happy with where the Minecraft version landed because I think the Mojang and Minecraft team did a phenomenal job really making it like a VR first experience, which is a hard thing to do. Any port is hard and I think they’ve just done a world class job. So hopefully he’s happy with where it landed and it’s an honour to have it on the platform.

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