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Eric Johnson

Oculus VR's Palmer Luckey, left, and Nate Mitchell, right. At center, AllThingsD's Lauren Goode tries out the Oculus Rift at CES 2013.

Oculus VR’s Palmer Luckey, left, and Nate Mitchell, right. At center, AllThingsD’s Lauren Goode tries out the Oculus Rift at CES 2013.

There were plenty of great onstage interviews at D11 last week, but — as attendees doubtless know — the conversations that happen offstage are often just as engaging. Such was the case on the last day of the conference, when Oculus VR co-founders Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell drove up from their office in Irvine, Calif., for lunch and an hour-long chat.

Oculus is a 30-person startup focused on just one thing: Virtual-reality videogames, by way of a wearable headset that plugs into gamers’ PCs. Its much-anticipated VR headset, the Oculus Rift, was funded on Kickstarter last year to the tune of $2.4 million, and an early version is now in the hands of thousands of game developers. A consumer version is on the way — though the company has yet to announce a release date.

At conferences like this year’s GDC, Luckey has publicly acknowledged that the first versions of the headset won’t be perfect, because developers are still learning what game mechanics work (or don’t) in VR. In this wide-ranging Q&A, Luckey and Mitchell told AllThingsD about that learning process, the Rift’s limitations, its ballpark price point, what they want from developers, messing with coworkers wearing the Rift, and how it stacks up to other next-gen technology like the Xbox Kinect and Google Glass.

For easier reading, we’ve split the chat into two parts. Part One is below. And here’s Part Two.

(Before we begin, a sad note: This interview took place last Thursday, one day before Oculus VR’s lead engineer and fellow co-founder Andrew Reisse was struck and killed as a bystander during a high-speed car chase. The company memorialized Reisse as a “brilliant computer graphics engineer” on its blog on Saturday).

AT1T7403-X2Asa Mathat / D: All Things Digital

AllThingsD: How do you control people’s high expectations for the Rift? At GDC, Palmer called virtual reality the “holy grail of gaming,” but was quick to clarify that the first version you release won’t completely fulfill that promise.

Palmer Luckey: The developer kit, especially, but yeah, even the first consumer Rift has a long way to go. People who research it tend to have good expectations, but there’s two other sets: You have people who think that VR tech is already super-advanced, that it’s like “The Matrix” already, and that we just happen to be cheaper. And then you have people who think that it’s completely broken and hopeless. The best way is to get them to look inside of a Rift, and usually they’re like, “Oh, I get it. It’s not the Matrix, but it’s also not terribly broken.”

Who’s the audience for the Rift? Who’s going to really appreciate it?

EQ7G8237-X2Luckey: I don’t think it’s just hardcore gamers. At GDC, Valve talked about how players who were very skilled at Team Fortress 2 felt like the Rift lowered their skill level. I play a ton of TF2: You’re jumping off things and spinning around and then instantly snapping back, constantly whipping back and forth as you walk along. But what they found with people who didn’t play games as much, who weren’t TF2 players — they reported that it increased their perceived skills. I think the Rift can open up the possibility, for a lot of games that have been “hardcore games,” for normal people to play them. They have the right muscle memory built up. Every day, they look around and they move their head to look around. It’s not a huge leap to do that inside of a video game when you have the proper tools.

Nate Mitchell: It also totally depends upon the content. We’ve already seen some people do Minecraft mods (unofficial modifications to the original game to support the Oculus Rift). We have the families in the office, they bring in their kids, and you’ve got 10 kids playing Minecraft in our conference room on the Rift, on the same server. That shows you that there is this huge audience of all sorts of people.

Luckey: In fact, we’ve done that some in the office, too. [laughs] It’s not just for the kids.

Mitchell: Right now, the audience is game developers, and the content is super-key to the whole user experience. Having content that appeals to those types of people, that’s what we want.

Do you need a killer app?

Mitchell: Definitely. We could use a couple killer apps. Ideally, we’d have a game for the niche market. You’d have Call of Duty 9 over here, and something like Minecraft over here, and a wide swath of games in between.

But what about a killer app that’s exclusively for the Rift? A lot of Wii owners only played Wii Sports. Do you need something like that to distinguish the game play?

Mitchell: I won’t say that we need it, but I will say that we want it. That’s something we are trying to figure out. Is it something someone else is going to develop? We’ve discussed — does it make sense to do something ourselves internally? We’re not sure yet. Right now, the focus has been, “Let’s build the tools, and help the developers get there.”

Luckey: It doesn’t make sense for our first focus to be to hire a bunch of game developers to sit and try and figure out what works best in VR, when there’s literally thousands of other people that are willing to figure it out for themselves. They want the privilege of being the first to work in this space.

OculusRift

How does the Rift fit in with other new gaming hardware coming out, like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4?

Luckey: Right now, it’s just for PC games, because that’s the open platform. Mobile support’s also possible, but that’s just more of a technical problem — phones are not powerful enough to provide a good VR experience right now. There’s no technical reason that the Rift can’t work on consoles. It has standard input/outputs, it wouldn’t be a lot of work. It’s just a matter of console manufacturers deciding to license it as a peripheral. They’re the gatekeepers.

Have you talked to them about that?

Luckey: We can’t say.

Mitchell: I think when you look at this upcoming console generation, we are this black sheep, doing something completely different, but we like that. We’re aiming for what we consider to be next-generation gaming. Xbox and PlayStation, they’re doing awesome stuff. And we’re big fans. That said, the Rift is going to be something entirely different.

Luckey: And we’re focusing specifically on gaming. We’re not trying to make a multi-platform home media hub for the family.

How much is the consumer version of the Rift going to cost?

Luckey: The current developer kits are $300. We don’t know what the consumer version’s going to cost — it could be more, could be less. But we’re looking to stay in that same ballpark. We’re not going to be charging $800 or something. We have to be affordable. If you’re not affordable, you may as well not exist for a huge segment of the market.

I guess you would know, since you have the world’s largest private collection of VR headsets.

Mitchell: [laughs]

Luckey: I’m one of the few people where it’s different. I would spend whatever it was. Gamers are not known to be the most affluent population of people. If something’s even $600, it doesn’t matter how good it is, how great of an experience it is — if they just can’t afford it, then it really might as well not exist. We’re going for the mainstream, but time will tell what the market is.

Mitchell: A big part of it’s going to be the content. If it’s only Call of Duty 9, it’s only going to be the niche hardcore gamers. If we can get other stuff on there, which I think we’re already making exciting progress on, I think it’s going to be a lot broader. The three tenets for us are immersion, wearability and affordability. If we can nail those three things, that’s the killer combination that makes it a consumer VR device.

Luckey: The other thing is, it’s possible to make better hardware if you sell it at that lower price point. When you can sell thousands of something, or tens or hundreds or millions of something, you can afford to put better components into it than if you were only making a hundred of these things for $10,000 each. There are people who’ve said, “You should sell a version with better specs for $1,000,” but it’d be better to sell it for $200 and sell more of them.

What are the limitations of the Rift right now, beyond needing to be wired into a PC?

Mitchell: We don’t have positional tracking right now.

Luckey: [That means] you can’t track movement through space, you can only track rotation.

Mitchell: That’s a big one, something we’d love to solve for the consumer version. The only other “limitation,” I’d say right now — well, there’s things we want to improve, like weight. The more comfortable it is, the more immersive it is. So, there’s that. There’s resolution. We want to bring the resolution up for the consumer version.

IMG_4587And, for the foreseeable future, will players still need to use a handheld console-like controller?

Luckey: We don’t know yet.

Mitchell: Human-computer interaction and user input, especially for VR, is something that we’re constantly researching and evaluating.

Luckey: The reason we’re using gamepads (now) is that everyone knows how to use it, so we don’t need to teach a new [control] device while we’re demoing. But we do know that a keyboard, mouse or gamepad isn’t the best possible VR gaming interface.

Mitchell: It’s another abstraction. We’d love to — well, we’re exploring the possibilities.

Luckey: [waving hand] Use your imagination. [he and Mitchell both laugh]

Mitchell: Microsoft, with the new Kinect, is doing some really interesting stuff. Leap Motion is doing incredible stuff. This tech is out there. It’s a matter of packaging it just right for virtual reality, so that we’re putting players totally inside the game. We always joke, you want to look down in the game and go, ‘Yes, I’m Batman!’ And then you pull out your lightsaber or whatever it is — I know, I’m destroying canon here –

Luckey: — I, I’ll just leave that.

Mitchell: [laughs]

Luckey: One of the things I talked about at GDC is that other game consoles, it’s very abstract. You’re controlling something on a screen, using a controller that’s nothing like how you interact in real life. If you hand a person who doesn’t game a 360 controller, it’s like, “Here’s a 16-button, dual analog controller. Use it!” It’s very difficult for someone to pick it up.

And that was the brilliance of the Wiimote, right? If you want to bowl, here’s the controller, just move it like you’re bowling.

Luckey: Even then, it was an abstraction. But it’s clear you want a control interface so that people feel they’re inside the game. It’s clear that you want to take it to the level where they’re not just looking around in the game, but they’re interacting in the same way that they would interact with real life. On Kinect, no matter how great the tracking is, you’re still controlling something on a screen. You don’t feel like you’re inside of the game if you’re looking at a screen in your living room. It’s never going to feel good until you can feel like you’re actually that person.

In Part Two of this Q&A, Luckey and Mitchell discuss Google Glass, motion sickness, messing with coworkers, and their long-term plans for the company.

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Mark Cerny gives us our first look at the PS4's internals.

Andrew Cunningham

By the time Sony unveiled the PlayStation 4 at last night's press conference, the rumor mill had already basically told us what the console would be made of inside the (as-yet-nonexistent) box: an x86 processor and GPU from AMD and lots of memory.

Sony didn't reveal all of the specifics about its new console last night (and, indeed, the console itself was a notable no-show), but it did give us enough information to be able to draw some conclusions about just what the hardware can do. Let's talk about what components Sony is using, why it's using them, and what kind of performance we can expect from Sony's latest console when it ships this holiday season.

The CPU


AMD's Jaguar architecture, used for the PS4's eight CPU cores, is a follow-up to the company's Bobcat architecture for netbooks and low-power devices. AMD

We'll get started with the components of most interest to gamers: the chip that actually pushes all those polygons.

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Joseph Dumary

Next-gen TV—with a 4K "Ultra HD" picture resolution—was this year's hot topic at CES. But its success may be in the hands of console gamers.

With leaked details of octal-core processor banks paired with 8GB of RAM, the PlayStation 4 "Orbis" is sounding powerful (just for comparison of RAM alone, the 8GB of system memory is roughly 32 times more than the current model). But to see where 4K comes in, it's worth taking a trip back seven years.

In 2005, very few people had an HDTV. According to one study, there were "as many" as 10 million homes with high-definition screens—globally. The problem, according to many commentators, was the lack of HD content: nobody wanted to buy an HDTV because there was little HD content; very little HD content was made because there were very few people to sell it to. Classic catch-22.

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Click here to read Two Weird New Games Are Coming To Vita Very Soon

Believe it or not, the PlayStation Vita has been quietly picking up steam this fall. Two new Vita games from Japan with weird premises and even weirder titles—Dokuro and Orgarhythm—are coming to the U.S. within the next couple of weeks. More »

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 A Hacker Speaks

Among hackers and modders, Sony's PSP is a favorite for its hack-ability. Depending on one's knowledge, the portable console can be altered to play custom games and programs (homebrews) as well as pirated games. Taking all it's learned from the weaknesses of the PSP, Sony developed the PS Vita with safeguards against such hacks and mods. But recently, a hacker in Japan has utilized a security hole to hack into the Vita and successfully run his own custom program, much to Sony's chagrin. The hacker known as "Wololo" recently talked with Kotaku about the Vita's security. More »

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Click here to read Japan's Newest RPG Hero Is Unemployed

A strong innocent youth with a thirst for adventure, a soldier with a sense of duty and honor, an outcast warrior… The heroes of the fantasy RPGs of yesteryear have always been people of strong moral fiber and a will to stand up and fight. Now, game developer e-smile in their new game Ore-ni Hatarakette Iwaretemo (How Can You Ask Me to Work) brings us the hero of modern Japan: a NEET. More »

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Johnny Cash didn’t live lightly.

From picking cotton to help his impoverished, Depression-wracked family; to his exhausting tour schedule; to struggling with a serious drug addiction; to his songs about guns, murder, revenge, punishment and repentance—Johnny Cash was a troubled man who sought redemption through his music.

To commemorate what would be the county-music master’s 80th birthday on Feb. 26, several celebrations, projects and events are scheduled throughout the year. Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark. is being restored. Columbia/Legacy will release a series of archived recordings, starting with a collection of his gospel and spiritual songs from 1970s and ’80s called Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth, which will be available in April. A Johnny Cash Museum is scheduled to open this summer in Nashville.

And here on LightBox we have rare and unpublished photos of the Man in Black from the Sony Music Archive. Many of these images were taken by Don Hunstein, a prolific music photographer at Columbia records for 30 years, and date from the late ’50s to the early ’70s; they include pictures of Cash and his wife June right after she gave birth to their only son, John Carter Cash, in 1970, as well as the musician at home in California or fishing on his farm in San Antonio.

Johnny Cash was born to farmers in Kingsland, Ark. on Feb. 26, 1932. As the fourth of five children, he recalled in a 1969 TIME article that although his family was dirt poor, “I was never hungry a day in my life….at breakfast it was just fatback and biscuits—but that was plenty.” After high school, Cash worked at an auto plant in Pontiac, Mich. (where, as far as we know, he did not actually construct a car from stolen parts, as he later pretended to in his 1976 song “One Piece at a Time”). He joined the Air Force for a few years, and then in 1954 he married Vivian Liberto and the couple moved to Memphis.

Cash had always been musical—as a child he sang at the Dyess Central Baptist Church and he reportedly learned to play the guitar while in the Air Force —so when he moved to Memphis, he hooked up with two musicians, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, and auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. He recorded “Hey, Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry” for Phillips, the latter of which became his first hit, peaking at No. 14 on the Billboard’s Top 20 in 1955. He followed it up with “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” which shot up to No. 1 and stayed there for 43 weeks. It would sell over two million copies. (Cash’s stint at Sun Records was relatively shortlived; he switched to Columbia in 1958 because the Phillips wouldn’t let him record gospel music).

Cash then embarked the grueling journey that all newly-successful musicians must endure: days and weeks and months of endless touring. By 1957, he was giving more than 200 shows a year (by some accounts, he may have played closer to 300). His marriage was faltering. He drank too much. He became addicted to amphetamines. He accidentally started a forest fire in California. He was arrested for smuggling pills into the U.S. from Mexico. In 1966, his wife filed for divorce. And yet still he released hit song after hit song: “Ring of Fire,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I Got Stripes.” Johnny Cash was a troubled man, but not so troubled that he couldn’t turn his haunted words into song.

Cash toured with the Carter Family in the 1960s—and of course he would ultimately marry June Carter in 1968, after she helped him overcome his addiction and find his faith. The couple’s live recordings at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, in 1968 and 1969 respectively, are still two of the best concert albums ever released. They were married for 35 years, until her death in May 2003 from complications from heart surgery. Cash made it only four more months before joining her in September of the same year.

But this glossed over retelling of dates and events isn’t what’s important about Johnny Cash. The reason we remember him so fondly—and why we’re celebrating his birthday nine years after he passed—is the gift he had for music and the way he made us feel. Cash’s world-weary bass-baritone voice expressed a forlorn pain that, until we heard his songs, we didn’t even know we had. He gave a voice to the working man, the luckless, the outlaw, the convict—and to those of us who weren’t any of those things but who sometimes identified with them anyway.

“Well, we’re doing mighty fine, I do suppose / In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,” Cash once sang, “But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought ‘a be a man in black.”

Thank you for being that man, Johnny Cash. Happy birthday.

Claire Suddath is a staff writer at TIME Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @clairesuddath or on Facebook.

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It's a confusing time in the world of mobile and portable gaming. Consumers seem to be moving away from the idea that they need an entirely separate device to play games on the go, settling for cheap, generally simple touchscreen games on their cell phones and tablets. Nintendo, following up the insanely successful DS system that rested on a seemingly gimmicky double screen design, added a newer glasses-free 3D gimmick to its Nintendo 3DS—only to see extremely slow sales force it into a premature price drop. Sony's PlayStation Portable, meanwhile, has carved out a niche for itself as a serious gamer's system, especially in Japan, but is beginning to show its age as a system designed in the pre-smartphone era.

For the new PlayStation Vita, Sony responded to this confusion by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the system. For hardcore gamers, there are two analog sticks—a first for a portable system—and a gigantic screen loaded with pixels. For casual players, there's the now-ubiquitous touchscreen as well as a unique rear touch panel to enable new tactile, touchy-feely gameplay. The Vita has two cameras, a GPS receiver, and a 3G data option. There's music and video players, a Web browser, Google Maps, and even a proximity-based social network. Oh, and it also plays games, I guess (more on those in a separate post).

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Click here to read <em>Wipeout 2048</em> Was This Close to a Beautiful Zombie Apocalypse

For some odd reason Wipeout 2048 lead designer Karl Jones and game director Stuart Tilley decided it was a good idea to explain in detail just how cool the futuristic PlayStation Vita racer was before they scrapped the terror-inducing Zombie secret game mode. More »

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