PTN interviews GameFace Labs on the future of virtual reality

GameFace Labs is developing a powerful mobile VR headset which runs on Android. Their product in development aims to deliver a standalone mobile VR experience which can also be a tethered PC experience in the same headset. They talk about their progress as a development team and the future of the booming world of VR:
How did you get into developing VR hardware? Briefly, tell us your story up till now.
Our core team all have a passion for emerging video technologies, starting with Stereoscopic 3D gaming. Back in 2009 3D was getting bigger, companies were rolling 3D TVs out, but there wasn’t really any content. We started converting 2D games into stereoscopic 3D and would then record gameplay and upload it to our platform. We did this by leveraging Beta software shared with us by nVidia, who had just started 3D Vision Live. From there we moved onto 3D tablets.
With several glasses-free 3D tablets hitting the market around the same time, we agreed with a few companies (Gadmei, NEO3DO and Hampoo) to have the 3Dizzy app pre-installed on their devices, but 3D really didn’t take off like we all wanted it to and right round the corner was VR. As gamers, we were immediately interested in the potential for VR, just as everyone was, but from our time with nVidia we knew that mobile was getting really good and that the future of VR is inevitably an untethered experience, so we made a decision early on to focus on mobile.
What is it about VR that is so important to you? You could have started a tech startup in many hot areas: AI, internet of things, cloud, etc.
We’re interested to see the way content creators use VR as a medium to tell stories as well as they ways it will impact everyday life. The trend for content over the past century has been to make it gradually more and more immersive – and VR is definitely the next natural step – so it’s going to be interesting to see how interactive content evolves and how consumer expectations evolve alongside it.
We firmly believe for VR to go mainstream, a GameFace like headset, with self contained computing is the only solution. Just as PC gaming has always been relatively niche, PC based VR is a great starting point, but simply isn’t poised to cross the chasm. For this, users will want a high powered, long lasting wireless headset without any risk of overheating, or cables restricting movement.
How does your hardware compare against the other popular VR headsets coming out?
The biggest difference is that it’s a completely self-contained device and requires no external computer to power it. It uses the latest and greatest in mobile GPU technology, as well as bleeding edge components from the display, sensor, battery and cooling markets and uses a custom build of Android that’s optimized for its core purposes. We wanted it to be more akin to a games console than a headset, so it’s easy to use, it has enough on board power that it can handle great experiences without ever being tethered to an external machine and we have a complete ecosystem where the hardware and software experience is easier to standardize.
Experiences will be consistent across the board and it will be easier for developers to optimize applications since all end users will be utilizing identical hardware. By partnering with Valve, we now have access to Lighthouse along with a plethora of incredible VR technologies we are integrating into the GameFace headset, including the means to tether via HDMI to a PC to access the SteamVR / OpenVR ecosystem.
At the end of the day we wanted to make the most badass tool for developers that we could possibly make. We wanted to build a device that encapsulates the future of VR and serves as the most badass developer tool we could build – because they’re the most important people for VR at the moment. Good content changes everything.
What are the biggest challenges you have been facing up to this point, and more broadly, what would you say are the biggest challenges that VR developers (both hardware and software) face today?
There are many challenges facing companies of our size, especially those that enter the hardware market, but more broadly VR is really still in its infancy. It’s going to be a while before we have truly mainstream adoption, so in that regard all VR companies have a huge task ahead of them in educating the public and cultivating developer support to create compelling applications for VR. It’s also too early to say what will work and what won’t, so in a way everyone that’s involved in the scene at the moment are the pioneers, which is a very dangerous (but exciting) position to be in.
For content creators, there really aren’t many established rules for the medium at the moment, it’s not like photography or film, it’s there just waiting for someone to come along and do so many of the right things at the same time that everyone will get it and VR will become huge.
Where do you see VR in 10 years, both in terms of technology and also cultural impact?
It’s really impossible to make predictions about technology, but we believe in VR and we believe it has the potential to be the most engaging and immersive medium ever created. The thing that really drives this message home is the adoption of the developer community, something that we really haven’t seen before with other wearable tech or with stereoscopic 3D.
Over the next few years, we’re going to be seeing a lot more devices on the market, and gradually we’re going to start seeing some really good content. Whilst headsets today are a little heavy, they’re only going to get better from this point forward. Soon we’ll have plenty of devices that are lightweight and comfortable. In terms of how it will impact on culture, I believe it will raise expectations for the level of interaction expected in a number of different environments, but I don’t believe it will be fundamentally be any different to how people align themselves with their devices today. If they’re staring at their smart devices for 8 hours a day in 2015, they’ll only be moving the screen closer to their face by 2020. It will get closer and closer until it’s in our minds!
Do you see the internet evolving into a kind of ‘Metaverse’ as described by Neal Stephenson; a kind of digital parallel universe inhabited by billions of people accessible through virtual reality? Or is that idea going out of fashion?
 What is your own take on this idea?
Of course. The internet is just a metaverse viewed on a flat screen. All we need to do is modify the way we interact with it to make it more compelling for VR, but it’s already all out there just waiting for it. They’ll be a standard soon enough, Mozilla are already doing some interesting things with WebGL for viewing web sites inside a HMD.
What are the plans for GameFace in 2016?
2016 will see our Developer Kits released in the Summer, although we will have early versions in the hands of developers before that. We have some other developments on the hardware side that we’ll announce and we’ll also make some exciting additions to our team, but I’m afraid I can’t give you any more info than that at this stage.
Apart from your own VR products, what products in the industry would you rate most highly? Is Oculus in the leading position?
The greatest VR experience I’ve personally tried so far is Tilt Brush on the Vive. The Vive really shows what’s possible in VR when you have incredible full-body tracking and are free (ish) to walk and explore your surroundings. There are a lot of other great experiences out there – Eve Valkrie’s always fun (and it’s multiplayer), DarkNet on the GearVR too.
What would you recommend to people wanting to enter the field of VR as developers at this point in time?
Get familiar with Unity, get familiar with the Unreal Engine and get an early bird signup code from our website so you can get a GameFace Labs developer kit before anybody else.
What is your opinion about impact of VR on education in a near future and longer term?
There are obvious benefits of being able to offer certain experiences in virtual reality, but we also feel that the education sector is woeful at utilizing modern technology and making it relevant for its students. Anywhere that VR adds to the learning process, we would be all for it, but it relies on the skill of the content creators and the educators to make sure it’s meaningful for students.