The second day of Oculus Connect for the last couple of years has started the same way, with Oculus CTO and gaming legend John Carmack getting on stage and delivering what feels like a stream of consciousness on the state of VR. This year, however, Carmack took some time to reflect a bit more on the recent past instead of the present and immediate future.
Specifically, he spoke on what happened with Oculus' relationship with Samsung and why the Gear VR is essentially a dead platform. And it sounds an awful lot like Carmack wishes things had gone differently.
A complicated relationship
Oculus hasn't been shy about how hard it was to build its software into Samsung phones for the Gear VR, and what happened when the limitations of the Samsung ecosystem were lifted. Carmack has described previously how freeing it was to work without those limitations, being able to push hardware that was essentially the same thing as a Samsung Galaxy S7 in the Oculus Go to outperform the Gear VR experience in a Galaxy S8 or even S9 was a significant accomplishment. Those lessons became increasingly clear with the Oculus Quest, which featured a fairly modest processor bump from the Oculus Go but achieves considerably better performance than any smartphone-based system could even dream of.
The friction in getting this all to work was a massive hurdle for Oculus, Carmack explained on stage. Once they had solved for the early thermal issues and made it possible for the headset to be enjoyed for multiple hours without issue, there was still a wall between the Oculus experience and the rest of the phone that never really got solved. Even after some apps were interacting with the Oculus interface in a more intuitive fashion, there was never a good integrated experience with the parts of your phone you use to communicate with people. As Carmack notes, something like Instagram for VR could have been a really big deal for Gear VR users.
Some of responsibility for why people didn't stick with the Gear VR is on Oculus, as Carmack laments the company not moving fast enough on a social video solution that allowed for multiple people to watch something together and just pulled video from all of the apps on your phone. If something like the Oculus TV experience available now had been a priority when the Gear VR was in its prime, Carmack believes things might have been a little different.
During a little impromptu fireside chat at the conference, Carmack hinted at Samsung's desire to make the Gear VR way more than it was. Requests for a Gear VR capable of Six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) tracking and dedicated embedded cameras reportedly came from Samsung, and Oculus pushed back. Carmack explained the additional stress of that hardware would have likely brought a return to the thermal issues from early versions of Gear VR and the overall performance wouldn't be anywhere near as good as what is currently possible on the Quest even with the increased processor capabilities.
In his ideal world, Carmack's next Gear VR would have focused on being slimmed down and much easier to get in and out of the headset. Carmack described a fantasy version of the Gear VR where the headset was designed just for the larger phones in Samsung's portfolio and didn't need the thick molded plastic body to make it all work. Just a simple strap and the phone with the lenses, almost a more stylized version of mid-design Google Cardboard systems by his description.
It's not hard to see how divergence would have caused problems. Oculus had the data to demonstrate people stayed in simple VR experiences for longer if the experience was simple and more streamlined, and Samsung wanted to seem like it was on the cutting edge of emerging tech without a lot of thought towards how functional the experience would be. One side wanted the next Gear VR to be more like the Oculus Go, the other wanted it to be more like the Oculus Quest. In a way, the end of the Gear VR as we knew it wrote itself.