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FeaturesOculus Connect 6: Oculus Link, Hand-Tracking, Facebook Horizon and What it All Means

This year’s annual Oculus Connect event, taking place this week in San Jose, California, has offered a couple of nice surprises. By now you’ll have no doubt heard about all of the big news stories – and undoubtedly formed your own opinion – but in reality a hands-on appraisal could well offer a different perspective you may not have thought of, and that’s what VR/AR Pioneers is here to do: help you to assess what...

This year’s annual Oculus Connect event, taking place this week in San Jose, California, has offered a couple of nice surprises. By now you’ll have no doubt heard about all of the big news stories – and undoubtedly formed your own opinion – but in reality a hands-on appraisal could well offer a different perspective you may not have thought of, and that’s what VR/AR Pioneers is here to do: help you to assess what changes these new announcements may bring to you development strategy.

In the absence of new hardware it was perhaps inevitable that Oculus would lead with significant software updates. The rumours of AR glasses and new mobile-based VR headsets prior to the event teetered on ludicrous, as anyone with industry knowledge would surely have realised, but the strategy for Oculus’ existing hardware revealed today may also appear a little short-sighted at first.

Oculus Link is a simple solution to a problem no-one in the industry had, but that the consumer audience most definitely do. Via a USB-C cable (of which, Oculus will offer a long, officially branded edition, though any high quality cable will do the job) the Oculus Quest – suggested to be the sales leader of all Oculus’ headsets by a significant margin – will be able to play PC-based Oculus Rift titles. In essence, the process will bypass the Oculus Quest’s built-in processing capabilities and instead use those on-board the PC, making the Oculus Quest perform in a similar fashion to the original Oculus Rift or the recently released Oculus Rift S.

So what does this mean for the Oculus Rift S? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Given that both products retail with the same pricetag and that one of them offers one marketplace and cabled-only gameplay, while the offers will grant access to two and gameplay with or without tethering (depending on the software being used), there’s only one real choice here. Any basic off-the-cuff analysis of the situation would determine that Oculus’ previously championed three-tier strategy (Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift) has been abandoned, and all future efforts will be placed solely on the Oculus Quest.

This makes things easier for consumers, but it doesn’t really change things (in the short term) for developers. Your PC-based high-end VR experiences will still have a potential audience – and arguably a bigger one – and any Oculus Quest titles currently in development will still sit right at home on the device. The only question that remains is for exactly how long will Oculus continue to support the PC-based Oculus Store? Is this a means to an end, or a long-term strategy?

This can also be asked of the next big announcement: hand-tracking. Not in so much as what the end goal is – that’s pretty obvious – but how long the support will last for existing controllers. Oculus stated that all current Oculus Quest titles will be supported by future generations of the hardware, however with hand-tracking inevitably becoming an integral part of the device how long will they continue to ship it with the controllers included.

“Hand-tracking has long been positioned as an ideal alternative to traditional VR gamepads, which can present unnecessary friction to hundreds of millions of future casual users,” states J.C. Kuang, Analyst at Greenlight Insights. “Oculus’ unique ability to leverage computer vision in a scalable way brings a dramatic value-add to the burgeoning [Oculus] Quest platform, while crucially reducing friction for new users in hopes of VR and AR becoming the next mass computing platform.”

Kuang’s brief analysis is of course right on the money: Nintendo has previously demonstrated that one path to mainstream success can be achieved through providing an accessible input solution that feels natural to all users, with the Wii’s TV Remote-style controller. Hand-tracking goes one-step further by removing the need for any buttons at all.

My own personal experience with the technology was more hit-than-miss, but still not without flaws. Demonstrated on a bespoke introduction software simply called Elixir (an enterprise experience was also available), the user was taken through a short series of exercises that had you hold your hands flat, point with a single finger, grab and shake all interpreted in real-time from natural gestures. In these basic instances every was perfect; the device is able to interpret small movements even such as moving your thumb to the tips of individual fingers. However, grander gestures such as sweeping arcs or stretching your arms far ahead caused tracking to be lost entirely. As with the controller tracking on the Oculus Quest shown at last year’s Oculus Connect (nearly eight months prior to launch) the issues that remain are entirely software based, and I am convinced they will be mostly remedied before the hand-tracking beta coming in ‘early 2020’.

Ignoring the distant future for now – the ‘Half Dome’ prototypes and Oculus’ newfound commitment to AR (well, at least official commitment) – the final big announcement came in the way of Facebook Horizon. Looking like a significant overhaul of the previous social platform, Facebook Spaces, with a dash of inspiration from Media Molecule’s PlayStation 4 exclusive Dreams thrown-in for good measure, Facebook Horizon has the potential to redefine expectations. Though not yet entirely convincing (Facebook Spaces never quite lived-up to the hype, after all) it’s clear that Facebook is continuing to invest in the idea of a VR social platform heavily. The later shown realistic avatar prototypes (using cameras placed within a headset for real-time facial expressions) is evidence that there’s a long road ahead.

Facebook Horizon

Should developers of social platforms be worried? Well, unless you’ve already dug-in on a unique proposition it’s certainly getting harder to differentiate yourself in the niche-of-a-niche space. Much like the idea of VR gloves and bodysuits, Facebook is coming to claim your space and so you should certainly be making efforts to raise awareness of exactly what makes your platform unique.

It’s always easy to suggest that the next year after Oculus Connect will be interesting, but now it seems that Oculus (and of course, Facebook) has a fair assessment of exactly where the market is and how slowly it will grow. That ‘1 billion in VR’ that Mark Zuckerberg is aiming for is still a distant future, but this year’s Oculus Connect seemed to demonstrate a rejuvenated effort to address the fundamental issues preventing this from happening and a more realistic view of how to overcome them. For those of us on the outside following the leader is always the easiest path, but there’s still plenty of room to innovate in the immersive industry, and the attendees here appear to be all the more encouraged to do so.

Kevin Joyce

Kevin Joyce was been working with immersive technology since 2013, establishing VRFocus.com as one of the leading AR and VR publications before joining Admix, a non-intrusive advertising platform designed specifically for immersive experiences, as Lead Evangelist.

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