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Jason Rubin
Jason Rubin

Some scratched their heads (or maybe we should say headsets) last year when Facebook announced its acquisition of virtual reality pioneer Oculus for $2 billion.  After all, the Irvine, Calif.-based virtual reality headset maker, which operates an engineering office in Seattle, appeared to be many moons away from rolling out its invention to the masses.

Some questioned where the social networking giant wanted to take Oculus, a technology that most in mainstream America have never heard of let alone tried.

We got a clearer picture of the prospects today at CES as Jason Rubin, head of studios at Oculus, shared some details about the virtual reality market and where Facebook may fit in.

Rubin did not give any clues on when a consumer version of the headset might be available, stressing that the company is “not racing to release hardware to monetize,” but rather “racing to create hardware that is as good as it can possibly be.”

oculus12Here’s more from what Rubin, the former THQ president who previously co-created the hit game Crash Bandicoot, had to say in today’s gaming panel at CES.

While virtual reality is in the early innings, he thinks there’s a huge opportunity for a small team to emerge to define the category, just as Angry Birds maker Rovio did with mobile and Zynga did with Facebook.

“There is a huge interest in VR right now, which has made my job somewhat easy, because everybody wants to hear about it. There is also a lot of big teams that have fallen by the wayside, and people want to get involved in something new that doesn’t require hundreds of people to manage… They are looking for something interesting, something new.

The other thing is, when they come to me, I say: ‘Look, wouldn’t you like to turn back the clock and be there when social was on the horizon? But everyone said: Facebook, as a game platform? Zero install base, it is never going to work.’ And then Zynga comes out of it. Or be there at the beginning of mobile when everybody said: ‘Touch screen, how is that ever (going to work). People don’t want to play games on their phone.’ And then end being Rovio or someone else.

The early movers do really well in these situations because they fail, and they learn how to do the right thing on the second or third attempt. And by the time the big companies that are looking at a number of assets they can deploy to make various games, and they say there is a zero install base in VR right now, we need to focus on these other (things). They will miss it, they always do….Some of them are very interested in it. I am surprised actually at how some of the big companies are embracing VR internally and are excited by it, but it will be the littler smaller teams that are willing to say: ‘You know what, I am going to fail, and if it breaks even, I am happy with that. But I am going to get the knowledge base. Those are the ones I am looking for, who are excited about figuring it out.

On the prospects to great a big breakout success in VR: “I say this. And I really believe it. One of these early teams will generate a billionaire or a group of splitting of billion dollars, just as Rovio did and just as Zynga did. I truly believe that this is one of those fundamental changes that is not easy — the games are totally different. There is a comfort that you have to get over, and the camera movement we have been doing for decades now in the game industry, does not work well in VR. There are other challenges to VR that you have to overcome, just like with touch screens…. This may be a bigger challenge even than touch screens, but they will get it, I am confident of that. I’ve been through enough new launches of it-will-never-work-hardware that I know this one is going to fly. Somebody is going to make … a lot of money and also create amazing content that becomes the beginning of VR, just as Doom was the beginning of 3D games in a lot of ways, or at least first-person shooters.

On why Mark Zuckerberg thinks VR is a new platform: “I can actually tell you why Facebook acquired Oculus because Mark (Zuckerberg) has been pretty clear about this: He believes that every decade or so, and those are his numbers, a new platform comes along, and he believes that this is a new platform. That this will revolutionize the way people interact with a lot of things.”

On creating an “Uber of VR:” “Though we sit here and talk about games and film and the obvious, we have no idea what the Uber is of VR. When they put the iPhone out, no one said this is going to revolutionize taxi driving or car sharing. Nobody had any clue that that was going to happen. And we believe in real estate, and architecture and medicine and many areas we are not focusing on internally right now—  that we believe if the ecosystem is there, it will be built. People will use VR for its inherent advantages over other past platforms, and it will become a future platform. That is exactly why they did it.”

Early-stages of VR: “But, as you said, very early stages. And it is easy to dismiss it because it is so early. But important to note that Oculus, at least, has not released hardware that it calls final, because it realizes how early it is. It is not racing a market. It is trying to get this right, so that a consumer, when they put on an actual consumer headset, gets the experience that they expect and leads to the Ubers and the fantastic game play and other things.”

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