At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this week in Los Angeles I played an early demo version of official 360-degree songs from Beat Saber and learned to steer a kayak in VR.
Afterward, I went to get lunch with UploadVR senior editor David Jagneaux ,and we found Jason Rubin “VP of Special Gaming Strategies” at Facebook at a food court in the Los Angeles Convention Center. We talked for a few minutes before realizing our interview was scheduled to begin soon. So we returned to the room, hungry, and chatted for nearly 30 minutes.
Below is a transcript of our conversation.
The Oculus Quest
Ian Hamilton: Its been a long path. Are you happy with where you are in 2019, is it where you expected it to be?
Jason Rubin: Yes, very happy. Where I expected it to be? Yes in some ways, ahead in other ways, perhaps a little slower in other ways. Look, if someone had told me the experience you can get on a PC give or take a little bit of graphic prowess and CPU would be available for $399 in a single box within really 3 years of launching the PC product … so there, that’s ahead. Where are we behind? You know [pauses] I think that we’re still exploring VR content to see what resonates. You’re looking at Beat Saber — there have to be hundreds of Beat Sabers out there, we should have hit more of them, right? We should have hit more VR-specific moments and I think we just need more developers and more consumers in VR in order to hit them. It’s inevitable and I think now we have the right hardware. Beat Saber — we’ve heard from them Quest is [one of] the best ways to play Beat Saber. But they developed Beat Saber before Quest existed. Now that Quest exists, now that you have this standalone device, I think developers will really start pursuing what makes VR sing.
Hamilton: So I was reading the headlines out that and I saw Variety tried to get unit sales and I don’t think — you’re not saying unit sales? You’re not going to give us any indication?
Rubin: No I can’t. No, sorry. We’re doing quite well. I’m sure you’ve read the articles if you haven’t noticed yourself that it was sold out on Amazon. Just anecdotally …
Hamilton: I said on Twitter I brought one to this conference and someone replied to me and said “Where’d you find it?”
Rubin: Yeah. I tried to get one from Best Buy because I wanted to have two of them at the house at one moment to try something multiplayer and there was a Best Buy pretty close to me. There were sold out and the website tells you how close they are. There was none in 250 miles … so the fact that it is sold out for all of L.A. is pretty impressive.
Hamilton: Without going into specifics, can you say whether it is the biggest launch for VR yet?
Rubin: Well I can say yesterday we announced we sold within a few weeks over $5 million worth of software. That was announced yesterday. I can say that Superhot announced that they had a 300% better launch than they did on Rift and they said it was their strongest launch…it is an extremely strong launch. As I said, you know, anecdotally it is sold out in a lot of places and that’s been picked up. It couldn’t be much stronger when you don’t have units to get into consumer’s hands.
Hamilton: Do you think the price is so low that it is keeping others from releasing standalone headsets as well?
Rubin: I believe but I do not know so I’m speaking now about what I believe that our inside out tracking — Insight — is ahead of a lot of other companies and I think that that more than anything is what’s keeping a lot of standalones from coming out. Two camera standalone, not as high quality, hooked up to PC — that is certainly possible. We’ve seen that. But all in one inside out tracking with Touch quality, or near PC Touch quality — I’m not sure that technology exists at other companies. I don’t know. And that’s required to put it in a box as a standalone. You can’t have it without that. So I can’t really answer that question because I don’t know, for example, that someone has a $599 option. I’ve seen nothing really comparable within a reasonable price point — nothing really working, so, I think we’ve done an incredible amount of R&D and I’m not sure that there’s anybody else out there doing as much R&D.
Hamilton: I found John Carmack at OC2, I think, and I asked him about inside out positional tracking and he said ‘I’d wish I’d had someone working on this for the last year.’ And that was at, like, OC2 [in 2015] and it seems like, obviously, the effort ramped up heavily after that.
Hamilton: When did it become a top priority to get Insight right?
Hamilton: And how big of an effort did that become?
Rubin: Well from very early on we knew inside out tracking was key to success not only in VR but, in the long term, its the key to success in AR. Nobody is going to be carrying around external sensors as they are walking around town with AR glasses. So inside out tracking and, more importantly, really small inside out tracking if you’re going to be using it with AR. And really fast inside out tracking — cause you don’t have the…if you’re wearing glasses that look like Ray-Ban’s you can’t have big, 20 cameras, you can’t have a large processor like — we have to nail inside out tracking for AR in the long run to work. And VR and AR. . .we’re working on both incredibly, uh, as much as we can at Facebook.
So from very early on inside out tracking was being worked on. Having said that, we also wanted to launch hardware because without an R&D kit out there — without a dev kit you can’t have software. Without software you can’t have consumers. Without consumers you can’t get feedback. So we had to launch Rift as quickly as we could to get dev kits out there, you know, and to get Rift into the marketplace to learn from the marketplace. We launched Touch a little bit later, unfortunately, I think we should have launched it with launch. But we were racing to get VR to be real so that developers you know, like, the developers you see on the walls around us, uh, the developers out there, could start prototyping. You know, Ready At Dawn needed Touch to get Lone Echo to work. Echo Arena, it was announced yesterday, is now coming to Quest. That’s awesome. That wouldn’t exist at Quest launch had we not launched pre-inside out tracking. So I think once we had that base from which developers could build software we could then divert at lot of resources to the future. Which we did. And you’re now seeing the fruits of that with Quest, and with Rift S for that matter which, is, you know, in my mind at least, a predominantly better way to do PC VR than to have the outside in tracking, and all of the USBs, or plugging it into walls, whatever you’re doing — tripods? Nobody needs that. Like, that’s not — that’s not adding in VR, it was necessary for VR.
Hamilton: Hmmmm, I think some of things we’ve put in our articles is — esports players, people that are pushing Echo Arena to its limits — whether they are going to find the experience meeting their expectations. And I guess I’m wondering was that a discussion internally.
Hamilton: About whether you were going to be able to hit that bar?
Rubin: And this is an incredibly complex thing to answer because what most people don’t realize is that all of our tracking systems improve continually. Rift tracking today, Rift, not Rift S, the outside in tracking, is significantly better than it was the day that we launched it because we keep improving upon the technology. And the same will happen with Quest. As we are sitting here machine learning is getting better at the tracking. And, as well, we’re coming up with ideas that improve the tracking. So, it is impossible to say which one is going to be better because we don’t know where either of them would end up with endless continual work. What I will say is this. Right now there are different trade-offs. There are things you can’t do well with inside out tracking, for example, put the controllers right up to your ears or behind your back because the lenses can’t see it. At the same time there are things that outside in tracking do poorly, even with three or four sensors the motion of putting your two hands in front of each other when you’ve blocked the back sensors with your body and the front sensors are in front of you, it doesn’t work, and there’s not a great solution to get around that unless you combine inside out and outside in tracking. Which is possible but, you know, on a mobile device that now grabbing a lot of CPU/GPU. The point of this answer is not to tell you which one is better or worse, it is to say we really are in an evolutionary process with all of our tracking systems that, even since launch a few weeks ago, things have changed and will continue to change and tracking will just get better. What I am sure of, and I will make a statement about, is that ultimately people don’t want the hassle of external trackers if they can get the same or nearly equivalent quality without it. We believe that strongly and the consumer has been telling us that and, we think post-launch, we’re hearing that.
Hamilton: Let me, I’m going to have to figure out a way you’re actually going to give me something useful here because…
Rubin: Ok [Laughs]
Hamilton: Is the future of Quest more graphical power or less weight?
Hamilton: Which is the bigger priority?
Rubin: [Pause] To answer that question you could go around Oculus and you could ask different people and you would get different answers. And that’s true, by the way, of a huge vector of options. Is higher resolution screens more important than wireless transmission, say, from a PC if you’re making a PC headset? Hard to say, some people care about the resolution, don’t care about the wire. Some people say the wire kills it. I don’t care about the resolution I’m fine with where we are. And all of these things are trade offs. What I know is a few years from now you will have a lighter device that simultaneously has better tracking, higher resolution screens and higher CPU/GPU. All of those thing will come true. The balance of where we focus more or less is up for debate internally as we speak but all of those things will happen to these devices.
PC VR market
Hamilton: I think the reason I ask that question is because of that PC connection, right, there is — were you surprised by the desire and the response when Quest hit of people begging, more or less, for some kind of a PC connection. I mean, we’ve seen how many different solutions to hack that — to hack that through?
Hamilton: People trying to get their PC inside their headset. I’m wondering …
Rubin: You know, on that you know Carmack …
Hamilton: Carmack has made some comments that its being worked on or its being looked at. I guess I’m wanting to know the priority level there.
Rubin: Right, well, first of all if all these people who have PCs are trying to get Quest to work with their PCs what that’s telling you is that they appreciate the tracking. So lets just put a pin in that, right. These are people who are willing to probably to be our users already, because they have a library of VR titles they want to use otherwise they would be fine with Quest, and they want to abandon their outside-in tracked system, whatever that is, because that’s all that’s out there, give or take Microsoft’s two camera solution, and they want to move to Quest. Which says to you there is a large percentage of people on the PC that prefer the inside out tracking of Quest, perhaps they want the IPD as opposed to digital IPD perhaps they like one strap over another because Rift S has a- you know, whatever. So, just put a pin in that.