VRguy podcast Episode 1: Ben Lang, Road To VR – What Does 2016 Hold for VR?

This episode features Ben Lang, co-founder and executive editor of RoadToVR. Interview transcript appears below the media player. This episode was recorded on Dec 22, 2015

Among other topics, Ben and I discuss what he expects to see in CES 2016, what’s the next thing that is holding VR back and the range of VR price points.

Based in Philadelphia, Ben has held editorial positions across technology websites for some six years. He founded Road to VR in 2011 to explore the immense possibilities of virtual reality, augmented reality, and human-computer interaction. Having seen the individual pieces but never the entire puzzle, he set out to map the current state-of-the-art and to understand how far it is from a perfect simulation of reality (a la Matrix).

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Interview transcript

Yuval Boger (VRguy):      Hello everyone and welcome to the program. Today I have Ben Lang. Ben, it’s a pleasure to speak with you again.

Ben Lang:                           Thanks Yuval. Nice to be here.

VRguy:                                Perfect. For the few that don’t know you, would you mind introducing yourself and what you do in a couple minutes?

Ben Lang:                           Sure. I am the Co-founder and Executive Editor of Road to VR, so we started in 2011 and we’re the largest, independent news site covering virtual reality. We’ve been following this space kind of pre-Oculus. Sensics was of course there early on as well and a bunch of other players in the kind of pre-consumer phase of virtual reality.

Then in the last few years we’ve seen the spin up of this very consumer-oriented, consumer-priced phase of virtual reality, so we have grown from kind of a tiny little blog that was just me at the time, interested in virtual reality in general, to covering this really exciting, incredibly active new space that is very up and coming in the tech sector. That’s what I’ve been doing the last few years and I’ve learned probably more than anybody needs to know about what’s going on in the market here. It is a blast watching all of this develop.

VRguy:                                That’s great, Ben. That’s one of the reasons that I asked you to be on the show. Both of us and I guess 150,000 other people are going to make the annual trip to CES, to Las Vegas in early January. What are you most looking forward to see at the show?

Ben Lang:                           Well, I think January CES is really going to kick off 2016 as being the year that a big mass of the mainstream market gets a chance to try this desktop class virtual reality. Oculus and Samsung launched the Gear VR kind of slowly over the last year starting in late 2014, actually with some of their earlier (what they called ‘Innovator Edition’) models. Those have gotten out there now and they’ve now moved on to the full consumer launch and while that’s great and people seem to be loving it, the desktop level VR is of course a whole huge step up when you add positional tracking, motion input, and the power that comes with a desktop processor.

I think that 2016 is finally going to be the year that consumer VR starts in earnest. I’ve been joking that we’ve been at year zero for VR for three years because for those who remember in the Oculus days, they launched their Kickstarter in 2012 and I believe the anticipated shipping at the time, maybe 2014, was their rough estimate. Now here we are moving into 2016 and so of course, it’s taken a little longer to get there than maybe people were a little over eager at the beginning, there’s a long process and a pretty complicated one to launch consumer products at a large scale, at a good price, and create a good product.

After pushing back those expectations a little bit, I think 2016 is finally this year where, yes, VR is very up and coming and lots of people have heard of it, but I’m so excited personally for people like my immediate friends and family who have not had a chance like I have to step into some of these … at this point, kind of like next gen headsets, like the Vive and using really good motion input controllers. I’ve put them in the DK2 for instance, or Gear VR, and they’re like, “Wow, that’s so cool.” They’re blown away and I’m like, “Well, wait until you see what the current state of the art is because this stuff is basically kind of a year old or two year old experience at this point.”

I’m so excited for the mindshare of what VR actually is gets out there. Right now, we’re in this state where you have a lot of mainstream media outlets starting to pick up on VR because they realize it’s becoming exciting and they’re writing stories. If you go into the comments of a lot of these sections, there’s just this incredible ignorance of people who … I don’t use the word ‘ignorance’ as a bad term, it’s just people who are uninformed about what VR is because many of them know what it was back in the early days, it wasn’t really a consumer product. Now it is but you see a lot of this lingering ignorance in there saying, “Oh, it’s just like 3D TVs, nobody wants it.” “Oh, it’s just like the Kinect. The Kinect sucks, no one’s going to do it.”

I’m just excited for those people to have their minds changed, I think, once they get a chance to see what VR actually is today.

VRguy:                                Excellent. You and I and couple others sort of living on the bleeding edge, see all these technologies as they start to come to market. I mean, I’ve probably had positional tracking 10 years ago in a professional setting, but as you look at consumer VR, what do you think is the next big thing that’s missing beyond tracking, beyond input? To you, what’s the next step?

Ben Lang:                           It’s definitely going wireless. Right now we have headsets that create really incredible immersion, we have motion inputs that are very accurate and are going to totally revolutionize what it means to interact inside of a computer, but right now pretty much every headset out there that is really in a position to sell at a wide scale has a tethered cable that has to run back to the computer. This isn’t a major hindrance in the sense that it makes it unusable, but when you think about a system like the Vive where you’re actually walking around a space, you can become almost completely lost from the real world except for the cable.

I say that the cable is kind of like your only tether back into reality. The reason that is, is because as you’re walking around the Vive, let’s say, and spinning here and twisting there, eventually you’re going to wrap yourself up in the cable or it’ll snag on your foot or something like that. While the rest of your brain is very convinced that you are now in a different place doing whatever it is that you’re doing in virtual reality, some small subset of you, of your brain, has to keep track of what that cable is doing because you don’t want to trip. You’re so immersed in this space and then suddenly there’s this thing tugging at your foot and you realize, “Okay, I need to step over that cable.” That really kind of pops me back out of that deep immersion.

I think that eliminating that, going wireless, is going to be very much the next step. I think it’s thought that it’s easy, but I would say that it is probably not at the level of performance that these headsets are demanding. I think that we will get there and I think that it’s important enough that it will be a priority going forward.

VRguy:                                Okay. Now if you look at the investment that people need to make … Consumers to get VR. On one hand you’ve got the gold cardboard and, “Oh, I’ll just use my existing phone and that’s going to cost me $10.” On the other hand, a high end rendering machine and a consumer headset, you could easily get to $2,500. Do you think there is a sort of middle market for every day VR, every man’s VR? Something that’s sub $1,000 or maybe sub $500, but could give you a really good experience?

Ben Lang:                           Well, honestly I think Gear VR fills that space pretty nicely, I mean, granted it is missing positional tracking at the moment, which is very important. A lot of developers have had to design knowing that, they’ve had to design their experiences to not have positional tracking. That is a way to combat the problem, but if we get to a point where mobile VR, Gear VR in particular, I’m going to call it out specifically because right now there’s not any other mobile VR headset that is available, that works at that level.

Once positional tracking gets added to the mobile VR space, I think it’s going to be very much that nice middle ground, where if you have one of the phones that is supported, and that’s a big ‘if’, you can get a really pretty awesome VR experience out of a $99.00 add on. That is a bit different than the desktop side, like you mentioned, because unless you’ve already got the computer to run it, you are going to have to go out and get one that hits these minimum specs. At launch it seems like that’s going to be about $1,000, so if you’re not already kind of in the market…

In the same sense that I would say, if you’re not already in the market for a new phone, don’t buy a brand new S6 just to get Gear VR. I would say if you’re not in the market for a new PC, it might be hard to sell people on getting a new computer just for the headset. Granted I think there’s a lot of people out there who … We know that there’s already a big segment of hardcore gaming enthusiasts that do regularly upgrade to these beefy computers that are going to be able to handle this level of fidelity, so for them, for the people that already have it or already are going to buy a computer like that, the add on for getting a headset, for what it does compared to the cost, I think will be very appealing. Just like it would be appealing if you already had one of the compatible phones to add Gear VR for $99.

VRguy:                                One product you didn’t mention here is Playstation VR because you could say, “Well, if I already have a Playstation, now it’s $300 to $400 and I can get VR on top of it.” How do you position Playstation VR in between Gear VR on one hand or phone based VR and then high-end PC based VR?

Ben Lang:                           Yeah, that’s a really good point. The reason that I would call Gear VR the middle ground is it does require the caveat of if you own the phone, then it’s a nice, cheap, inexpensive way to get a pretty good starting VR experience. Playstation VR, I actually tend to lump in with the desktop devices and that is because at this point Sony has said it will probably run … The cost of the headset will be … I believe they said about what a game console is, so there is a huge market of people already out there with the PS4, but they will basically have to double potentially what they paid for that in order to get the headset.

I think that pushes it a little bit up toward the desktop realm of things, but certainly if you already have that Playstation 4, again they’ve got that market base out there and the experience is going to be worth it if you already have it anyway. Whether or not you should run out and get one if you’re only going to use … Whether or not you should run out and get a PS4 if you only want to use it for Playstation VR, that is a tougher question right at launch. Maybe down the road that will be more compelling, but they’ve got to build up the content library and all that.

Fortunately, we have this gamut. It’s awesome that people can … That Gear VR can provide a great mobile experience at a cheap cost and that you can work your way kind of up the ladder from a seated Gear VR experience with no positional tracking all the way up to Vive using a large room-scale space to experience virtual reality.

VRguy:                                Perfect. One last question about standardization. I think, from conversations that I’ve been having with game developers or hardware vendors, no one wants to write a game that works only on one piece of hardware. If I gave you a word processor and said, “This is great but it only works on Epson printers.” You’re going to say, “Well, I like Epson and maybe I have an Epson today, but maybe I’ll have an HP next year.” How can you guarantee that my game is going to work to this new hardware, especially in an industry that’s moving so quickly? How important is standardization and being able to work across multiple platforms for you?

Ben Lang:                           I think it’s going to be really important. We know what the console space looks like and that’s kind of a small number of very large players that are highly controlling of their ecosystem. PC has always kind of been the counterbalance to that, where you have games that will work on any PC. Even if you want to throw a very graphically intense game at low-end hardware, it’ll probably still run it, maybe poorly, but at least you aren’t restricted to a specific PC brand or anything like that.

It’s interesting what’s happening now because currently with the VR headsets, it feels a little bit like they’re trying to push it towards this console space. I think there are a couple reasons for that. I think, for one, it’s because … As you’re eluding to, the standards aren’t quite here yet. Nobody knows the best way to address all these different headsets, which could have very different things. While you can make some good guesses about what will the standard VR system be, is that a headset and controllers? Or a headset and finger input? Or that sort of thing.

Right now, things are developing so quickly that that could change. You’re right, developers don’t want to say, “I’m going to write … ” They want to try to get a large platform that’s going to potentially make them money. We’re seeing some really interesting stuff happening… It seems to me like so many players in this space want to be the key that lets developers work across multiple kind of systems. Unity and Unreal for instance, I believe both support, let’s say the Rift and the Vive. You can create a game in there that will support those headsets.

Then you have things like OSVR, Open Source Virtual Reality, of course and things like Valve’s OpenVR, which they’re saying you can take our SDK here and write for it and it’ll be compatible with a bunch of different hardware. Ultimately which one of those is the best, I’m not entirely sure, but I think that there is a definite need for that piece because developers … If there is no need to restrict to a certain platform, then I don’t think developers have any major interest in doing that, right? Why would you cut out your addressable market if there’s no technical reason why you have to do so?

VRguy:                                That’s perfect. Well Ben, thank you very much for your time and see you at CES.

Ben Lang:                           Sounds good, Yuval. Thanks for having me.

VRguy:                                Take care. Bye bye.

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