A year-long push to get apps developed for Gear VR seems to have been successful, with the consumer headset selling so well it is temporarily out of stock. Getting the Gear VR for $100 seems to be a no-brainer for many people who already have an S6, Note 5, S6 Edge or S6 Edge+. There is a long road of improvements ahead, however, for Oculus and Samsung to arm the platform with even more compelling experiences.
Unfortunately, VR’s killer feature isn’t really here yet and, when it arrives, there’s a chance it could be hobbled by current hardware. Social VR will be the ticket to truly compelling experiences and Oculus is fully aware how important the functionality will be to its future efforts.
“We believe that social VR is way more compelling than single-player VR,” Oculus’ Gareth Davis said during the Oculus Connect 2 developer event in September.
Before the end of the year Oculus is planning to release social features to developers that will make it easier for players to add friends and play games with them in VR. For example, developers could add the ability to send push notifications to your phone, inviting friends to join an experience when they don the Gear VR.
Sadly, a key feature of this social SDK may not arrive until the first quarter of next year: voice chat. That’s according to a talk given at the event in September by Davis, who moved from Facebook to work on Oculus. I’ve embedded the video below, but here’s a direct link to the relevant portion at 23 minutes and 30 seconds into the talk.
In fact, by my count only four apps currently available on Gear VR have any kind of real social features. Anshar Wars and VR Karts: Sprint feature competitive gameplay while Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes is cooperative. The fourth app from Oculus itself is the only to feature built-in voice chat and represents a tantalizing preview of what’s to come. Oculus Social Alpha, one of Carmack’s pet projects, debuted a couple weeks ago “in a very raw state.”
In the current iteration of the app, you can sit in a virtual home theater and chat with people from around the world. Your head movements and voice are carried over the Internet in an entirely believable way. I’ve had conversations with folks in at least six different countries while in Oculus Social, almost as if I had invited them into my home.
These conversations are pretty limited, however, because there are only so many things you can talk about while watching videos you aren’t really interested in seeing. That’s because the app was pushed out so quickly you can’t search for interesting videos from Twitch or Vimeo. You have to select them from a list. We know Oculus is planning much more, including inviting friends to watch Hollywood movies, but that’s how it is today.
What’s far more compelling is voice chatting while playing a game. The problem is that it’s unclear when, or if, many apps will be able to implement such a feature on current generation hardware. First, let me describe why a hacked voice chat session I had last week was so compelling and then explain why it might be very hard for top notch apps to include this feature.
On Friday, Oculus hosted its first virtual community game night. It invited Gear VR owners to don headsets and play VR Karts: Sprint. The game is very much like Mario Kart but played first-person inside VR. Each driver has side-view mirrors and players can turn around to see the other racers coming up from behind.
VR Karts doesn’t have voice chat so Will Mason called me up on the phone (we connected on our iPhones) while racing against one another inside the Gear VR. I told him one of my favorite parts of the game is to wait until people are right behind me and then I drop an obstacle right in their way. The side-view mirrors make this incredibly easy. About 30 seconds later I say “Hey Will, remember that thing I told you I like to do in this game” and immediately dropped something directly into his path, leaving trails of black smoke in my wake as the weapon nailed him and a few other racers. I rode off toward the finish line giggling like a mad man. There’s nothing like a bit of trash talk in a game and our little hack, which involved four phones, made the VR experience 10 times better. As a side note, our voice chat “hack” might’ve also been possible by using Mumble.
The problem is Gear VR developers have had to cut corners at every turn to figure out how to get things to play well on the headset. They’ve used up every bit of processing power they can to get their games up and running, leaving little room for the system to handle voice chat. Take, for example, space-fighter Anshar Wars (not the sequel), which is the only other game I’m aware of currently offering competitive multiplayer on Gear VR. Stephane Intissar, CEO of the Switzerland-based company behind the game, told me he thinks current Gear VR phones including the Note 4 Innovator Edition and Note 5/S6 versions don’t quite have enough oomph to make voice chat possible with that particular game. Future hardware, however, might provide enough power for it to feature multiplayer plus voice chat.
So to recap, when Oculus unleashes social features to developers in the next month or so, making multiplayer games easier to support, we are unlikely to see voice chat as part of the toolset until early next year when Samsung begins ramping up to release its next phone — likely the Galaxy S7. This could leave some buyers and developers in a bit of a frustrating situation. People only six months into ownership of an S6 under two year contract might not be able to voice chat with their friends in some of the best VR games.
This is all hypothetical right now and there’s nothing keeping developers from making more simplistic games like checkers or chess with voice chat working across a wider range of devices, but the amazing feeling of dodging missiles or spike strips in VR while trash talking your friends might not be experienced by many people for a long time.
Unless, of course, they buy an Oculus Rift.