Thursday morning, California and we've been up all morning to get Luckey. The inventor of the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was among a series of speakers unveiling a swathe of new media partnerships, a new app store, an update to former rival Samsung's Gear VR project and, to T3 Award winner Palmer Luckey's evident delight, the arrival of Minecraft on his own VR platform.
Oculus’ work with Samsung is a clear play at expanding the appeal of VR to the mainstream. The follow-up to the original Gear VR, which was essentially a premium-priced accessory for the Galaxy Note and S6, still works in conjunction with Galaxy phones, but will cost a considerably reduced $99 (£65-ish) when it launches in sometime in November. That's far less than Oculus Rift, which is likely to cost over $1,000 if you include the cost of the PC required to power it.
The previous version of Gear VR was something of a half-way house between developer tool and consumer device, but version 2 moves it further into the latter category. Ironically, not only did Oculus get to announce Samsung's latest hardware, but when T3 spoke to Samsung earlier today TO BORROW A GEAR VR, the company's spokesman made not even the faintest of hints of the Gear VR 2. Impressive restraint.
Oculus already manufactures - although it isn’t yet released to general consumers - the Oculus Rift, a headset that offers more advanced VR, primarily for gaming, but with possibilities in everything from experiential marketing to brain surgery to a new kind of movie making. The Gear VR is, if you like, the cheap Android phone to the Rift’s Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.
Also announced were a number of new media partnerships, for both Gear VR and Rift, including deals with Netflix, Twitch, Hulu and Vimeo. These place video centre stage. It wasn't clear how the Oculus Rift will present the content, which will be in both 2D or 3D, but any move away from presenting the headset as a gaming device clears the way for wider consumer interest.
Netflix’s CTO John Carmack wrote in a blogpost that “in many conditions the ‘best seat in the house’ may be in the Gear VR that you pull out of your backpack,” implying that the company is aiming at the iPad’s sit- back-and-relax market.
Beyond video, non-hardcore gaming was also a focus of the event. Oculus unveiled the Arcade for Gear VR, a place where users can play gently maturing old classics such as Pac-man and Sonic the Hedgehog in the environs of a virtual arcade. This replaces NewRetroArcade, which is similar but, being emulator based, perhaps less, strictly speaking, legally watertight.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, who bought Oculus for $2 billion (£1.3 billion) in JUly 2014, made a surprise appearance on stage. He proceeded to mildly belittle the preceding announcements, describing the Gear VR 2 as “just a 360 video” before adding that “in the future you're going to feel like you're right there,” when using a virtual reality headset. “There is always a richer and more immersive medium. The next logical step is fully immersive VR,” he told the audience.
Oculus is currently a company facing huge expectations, not least because it's never actually released a product in the traditional sense - Oculus Rift headsets to date have only been available to developers. Its user base to date is tiny.
Facebook, by contrast, has signed up over 1.5 billion to its service. How it now goes about helping Oculus go mainstream, and how it expects its products to add to its core business of helping people share their thoughts and emotions at a distance will be very interesting to see.