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"BWIHR: The History of the Future"

Posted: 24 June, 2020

Or, "VR Bobbins Part 2"...

I'd entirely forgotten that I'd pre-ordered History of the Future, B.J.Harris' book on Occulus, but its timing was perfect, as I've been down the Facebook rabbit hole for a while.

It's a big book, filled to the brim with first-hand accounts, interviews and email snippets, and, like most tales that lift the skirt of the games industry, it uncovers a great deal of comedy. Bethesda, Valve, The Carmack and Zuckerberg make for an interesting cast, but rightly, Luckey steals the show.

From what I can tell it's an incredibly soft-footed portrayal of Palmer Luckey that skirts a lot of his online persona. At least, what I know of his antics (which isn't much). It also doesn't fare any better when discussing Facebook, which for me, is the bigger let-down. I agree with much of the author's cynicism when discussing internal FB events, especially around the 2016 election, but I can't help but feel that there was a hell of a lot more to unpack. Anyway, that's just me being nosey.

What is in the book is the fantastic ride of a super-smart kid, with a great idea, that hit the zeitgeist in a massive way. Reading how his baby morphed from tech-for-tech's sake to a going concern is fascinating, especially when putting the current devices into context...

The Occulus quest is a great bit of hardware... for the money. It's by far the best VR screen that I've used (although I'm aware that super high-end kit is better), it's light, and it doesn't quite roast your face off. More like a slow bake. It's also the first untethered VR experience that I've had, which in and of itself is a killer-app. Except...

As detailed in the book, Facebook (Zuckerberg) want to own VR, and more specifically, tie it directly, and deeply, into their social offerings. Business is as buisness does, so no great suprises there, but the reality of this is becoming, well, shit for a lot of use cases. Which I'll get to. What jumped out at me, given the current pandemic, is the complete fucking shambles they've made of these suposed pillars. Sitting with my chums, in space hats, would have been a lift over the last 15 weeks, but instead, we're in Google hangouts, watching shit films, and complaining about the state of each other's microphones. This is such a missed opportunities for VR that it's staggering to me. I honestly don't see VR ever taking its place as that type of social hub, now. AR will absolutely eat its lunch for everything non-games. Maybe rightly so... Well done, Facebook!

The book does linger on one key business decision; Facebook's pivot, away from Occulus being the developer/PC Master Race chum, toward a mobile walled garden. Time will tell if they'll succeed at this, they certainly have the numbers, but it means -- if you want the full, untethered experience -- that you're gonna have to buy games from the Occulus store. Because of course.

To be honest the store isn't that bad, but what's on there is, as you'd expect, expensive. No Steam sales for you! Fortunately, the hardware isn't completely locked off. The Occulus devs managed to allow for side-loading (the discussion around this is also detailed in the book) but much like any other Android device, it's a fiddle. When I tried it I had to register as an Occulus dev, give them a name for my made-up organisation, and agreed to some other terms. Not entirely onerous, but enough steps to kill it stone-dead for someone non-technical. All is not lost, though! The Quest can be tethered to a PC...

Tethering is not a smooth process. The Occulus has to boot and be sat in the home screen for a little bit. It needs to be aware of its guardian, and the Occulus app also needs to be running on the PC desktop. I needed to buy a specific USB C cable, and most sessions I'll need to plug it in, two or three times, before the headset goes into Link mode. Which is in Beta. Forever.

Every step to slightly obfuscate the process of using the Quest outside Facebook's garden of eden has been taken and on top of that, the Quest's home screen, Link screen, the Occulus desktop app and the mobile app, are all flakey as fuck. They crash. A lot. Even more annoyingly, the headset will randomly re-assign the audio IO on my rig, taking over the mic and speaker settings, mid-game. There has never been a case where I want a piece of hardware to do this. Ever.

All of this is incredibly frustrating. Facebook are making excellent hardware. There's no bones about it. From build quality, to battery life, to the little glasses spacer for four-eyed-twats like me, it's Apple level. Unfortunately the software can be gash. It's going out of its way to be every-so-slightly incompatible with what is happening on the PC, adding little bits of friction, like sand in your boxers, to make things uncomfortable. This is exactly what this VR doesn't need right now.

In a world of enforced segregation, Facebook could be pushing hard with open, fun, sharable experiences, like movies, music, or sitting in a shared living room, with hand and head tracking, comedy faces, and a fuck off TV. They could be piping through the concerts in Fortnite (I know) and taking the steps toward easy access of the "meta-verse" we always wanted, but instead they've missed the boat entirely. To me, it's a myopic funnel into a few toys, which is a shame.

Without radical change, Occulus isn't a History of the Future, but an interesting side-note to compare against Apple's XR eco-system.