Strap the black box to your face and you are taken to another world, hiding from the alien stalking you around a space station, or looking across a colorful island inhabited by a cartoon fox. The games you play on the Oculus Rift headset leave you focused on the singularly unique experience the hardware provides, ignoring the fact that it is all housed in a simple plastic container.
But when the Oculus Rift makes its way to consumers, it won't resemble its current form. And it will likely not resemble the target-render that Oculus posted on its Kickstarter page back in August 2012. That's why it went out last month and acquired the Carbon Design Group.
"The development kits didn't have the magic of Carbon applied to them. The development kits were designed by engineers," says Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR. "I am pretty confident that whatever Carbon comes up with is going to be a lot more consumer friendly and visually friendly."
For a new category of technology that has yet to find success, it is even more important that the package is appealing to the public, that people find it approachable and comfortable. The alternative is to release something offputting, that turns consumers away from, not only the Oculus Rift, but from virtual reality altogether.
"Initially, [our design] was something really familiar to people, modeled after ski goggles, because so many people have used them. And we continue to want it as light as ski goggles and as comfortable as ski goggles," says Iribe. "We will have to see where the final consumer product lands. We are still working through a number of designs, getting closer all the time. That's going to largely be up to Peter and the Carbon team."
With Facebook's acquisition of Oculus in March, the company got the means to achieve the goal of creating affordable, mainstream virtual reality tech by hiring the people needed to make it happen. That meant acquiring the design consultancy they had been working with for months.
Peter Bristol, Carbon's creative director, says, "I can't talk specifically what we've been working on for those months, but the surprising stuff is how much you don't know. From what experiences are compelling to what you might do in the Rift. It's pretty wide open."
Prior to serious acquisition talks, half the Carbon team was already working on Oculus devices, comprising both pie-in-the-sky future projects at Oculus's R&D division in Seattle, Washington (not far from Seattle-based Carbon), and more practical matters revolving around the headset and other mysterious consumer initiatives at Oculus's HQ in Southern California. It was basically as if Carbon was already part of Oculus.
Looking back, Iribe recounts his contributions to Oculus's internal discussions: "I wish they were just part of the team. We are working like one team. Why don't we just see if they are interested in joining up?"
Now the other half will spend a few months winding down its projects for other clients and then the whole team can face the task of making virtual reality an actuality. And with 10 months of work for Oculus already under the firm's belt, the designers and developers at Carbon are well on their way.
Carbon has worked on the industrial design for a variety of gadgets, such as fitness monitors and personal security cameras. But most relevant to Oculus is Carbon's experience in designing the controller for Microsoft's Xbox 360 video game console, hailed by many as the best ever made. Developing a VR input device is one of things that Oculus has stated is on its agenda. But first, it must finish the Oculus Rift headset, the consumer gateway to the burgeoning VR market.
"There are challenges on every front. The ergonomics of wearing screens for a long period of time is an incredible challenge. The manufacturing realities of bringing such an integrated hardware/software system to life and helping support the hardware side. The whole thing is quite an amazing challenge," says Bristol.
While Oculus is keeping things quiet for now about the timing of the consumer version of the Oculus Rift and the nature of the other devices the company is working on, Bristol acknowledges that there are generalities to designing gadgets that hold true for the Rift headset.
Bristol says, "It is always remembering why the product is going to exist. That's the first principle of a problem, 'Why would we make this?' In the case of all the Oculus work, it's to bring VR to life in the right way. So things need to always answer that. And that means make it simpler to use, make it more comfortable, make people more comfortable wearing it or looking at it. It's all of those things that allow the real functionality to work. You don't want any stumbling blocks along the way to people experiencing great VR."
And he's right; everything must be carefully considered. This is a company that's only two years old, but has been annointed in the tech world as the leader of the next big thing that could change everything. Bristol acknowledges the responsibility to live up to all that, but then moves beyond it.
"It does have overwhelming pressure if you think about it, but there are so many real problems to solve. We believe that solving all of the challenges, as the first step in getting VR right, is the right way to approach it," says Bristol. "Of course, we got to make it look great, but there is an inherent beauty in a well-solved problem."
In the end, the proof will be in finished product. Oculus could debut the consumer hardware at its planned Oculus Connect developer conference in September. Or maybe we'll see it at CES next January. For Carbon, their work isn't finished until people strap that final Rift headset on and comfortably ease into another place.