To John Carmack: Ship Gamer Goggles First, Then Put Faces And Bodies Into Cyberspace
John Carmack, CTO of Oculus Rift, tweeted:
Everyone has had some time to digest the FB deal now. I think it is going to be positive, but clearly many disagree. Much of the ranting has been emotional or tribal, but I am interested in reading coherent viewpoints about objective outcomes. What are the hazards? What should be done to guard against them? What are the tests for failure? Blog and I’ll read.
I have already blogged on this but will make this a more focused response to John specifically.
Here are my objective premises:
- VR goggles, as currently implemented by the Rift, conceal the face and prevent full optical facial / eye capture.
- VR goggles, ACIBTR, conceal the external environment — in other words, they are VR, not AR.
- Real-time person-to-person social contact is primarily based on nonverbal (especially facial) expression.
- Gamer-style “alternate reality” experiences are not primarily social, and are based on ignoring the external environment.
Here are my conclusions:
- A truly immersive social virtual environment must integrate accurate, low-latency, detailed facial and body capture.
- Therefore such an environment can’t be fundamentally based on opaque VR goggles, and will require new technologies and sensor integrations.
- Opaque VR goggles are, however, ideal for gamer-style experiences.
- Gamer experiences have never had full facial/body capture, and are based on ignoring the external environment.
- The more immersive such experiences are, the more people will want to participate in them.
- This means that gratuitous mandatory social features, in otherwise unrelated VR experiences, would fundamentally break that immersion and would damage the platform substantially.
- Goggle research and development will mostly directly benefit “post-goggle” augmented reality technology.
The hazards for Rift:
- If Facebook’s monetization strategy results in mandatory encounters with Facebook as part of all Rift experiences, this could break the primary thing that makes Rift compelling: convincing immersion in another reality that doesn’t much overlap with this one.
- If Facebook tries to build an “online social environment” with Rift as we have historically known them (Second Life, Google Lively, PlayStation Home, Worlds Inc., etc., etc., etc.), it will be as niche as all those others. Most importantly, it will radically fail to achieve Facebook’s ubiquity ambitions.
- This is because true socializing requires full facial and nonverbal bandwidth, and Rift today cannot provide that. Nor can any VR/AR technology yet created, but that’s the research challenge here!
- If Facebook and Rift fail to pioneer the innovation necessary to deliver true augmented social reality (including controlled perception of your actual environment, and full facial and body capture of all virtual world participants), some other company will get there first.
- That other company, and not Facebook, will truly own the future of cyberspace.
- If Rift fails to initially deliver a deeply immersive alternate reality platform, it will not get developers to buy in.
- This risk seems smallest based on Rift’s technical trajectory.
What should be done to guard against them:
- Facebook integration should be very easy as part of the Rift platform, but must be 100% completely developer opt-in. Any mandatory Facebook integration will damage your long-term goals (creating the first true social virtual world, requiring fundamentally new technology innovation) and will further lose you mindshare among those skeptical of Facebook.
- Facebook should resist the temptation to build a Rift-based virtual world. I know everyone there is itching to get started on Snow Crash, and you could certainly build a fantastic one. But it would still be fundamentally for gamers, because gamers are self-selected to enjoy surreal online places that happen to be inhabited by un-expressive avatars.
- The world has lots of such places already; they’re called MMOGs, and the MMOG developers can do a better job putting their games into Rift than Facebook can.
- Facebook and Rift should immediately begin a long-term research project dedicated to post-goggle technology. Goggles are not the endgame here; in a fully social cyberspace, you’ll be able to see everyone around you (including those physically next to you), faces, bodies, and all. If you really want to put your long-term money where your mouth is, shoot for the post-goggle moon.
- Retinal projection glasses? LCD projectors inside a pair of glasses? Ubiquitous depth cameras? Facial tracking cameras? Full environment capture? Whatever it takes to really get there, start on it immediately. This may take over a decade to finally pan out, but you have the resources to look ahead that far now. This, and nothing less, is what’s going to make VR/AR as ubiquitous as Facebook itself is today.
- Meanwhile, of course, ship a fantastic Rift that provides gamers — and technophiles generally — with a stunning experience they’ve never had before. Sell the hardware at just over cost. Brand it with Facebook if you like, but try to make your money back on some small flat fee of title revenue (5%? as with Unreal now?), so you get paid something reasonable whether the developer wants to integrate with Facebook or not.
Tests for failure:
- Mandatory Facebook integration for Rift causes developers to flee Rift platform before it ships.
- “FaceRift” virtual world launches; Second Life furries love it, rest of world laughs, yawns, moves on.
- Valve and Microsoft team up to launch “Holodeck” in 2020, combining AR glasses with six Kinect 3’s to provide a virtual world in which you can stand next to and see your actual friends; immediately sell billions, leaving Facebook as “that old web site.”
- Initial Rift titles make some people queasy and fail to impress the others; Rift fails to sell to every gamer with a PC and a relative lack of motion sickness.
John, you’ve changed the world several times already. You have the resources now to make the biggest impact yet, but it’s got to be both a short-term (Rift) and long-term (true social AR) play. Don’t get the two confused, and you can build the future of cyberspace. Good luck.
(And minor blast from the past: I interviewed you at the PGL Championships in San Francisco fifteen years ago. Cheers!)