Some major questions remain unanswered by Facebook’s Oculus team regarding how open and accessible its Oculus Quest hardware will be to buyers. With some prompting this weekend, one of the gaming industry’s thought leaders commented with some strong language on the situation.
Critically, it is unclear how easy it will be for the average Oculus Quest buyer in 2019 to become developers so they could load up software that runs on the headset without going through Facebook’s Oculus Store. That’s the way it is done today with the standalone Oculus Go headset.
Signs are there that Oculus Quest will have a dev mode for sideloading apps. How accessible will that developer mode be to all buyers? Can a company like @epicgames get a hypothetical Fortnite VR installed this way? What about an alternate store? @TimSweeneyEpic @ID_AA_Carmack https://t.co/5nxhmgNPLL
— Ian Hamilton (@hmltn) October 27, 2018
While it is important for developers to get full access to all the computation and graphics power in a standalone headset, certain services might kept active and beyond user or developer control for safety, security or privacy reasons. For example, we know Quest includes a visible external light that is wired directly to the power rail of the headset, and we expect its operation not to be changeable by apps or the end user.
Likewise, Oculus uses what it calls a “Guardian” system which defines safe boundaries for play. Facebook uses the system on Rift today while Valve offers its own “Chaperone” system with adjustable settings on PC. Even Microsoft uses the concept of “Boundaries” on PC with its inside-out tracking system to define play areas that are clear from floor to ceiling. Google’s Daydream OS running on Lenovo’s standalone Mirage Solo automatically restricts head movement to a very small area, but that feature can be deactivated by developers for a dangerous testing session.
Bleh, a closed platform attempt around VR.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) October 28, 2018
The issue here is the same path used by developers to test their apps on computers is also often used by enthusiastic early adopters to become the first to test those apps. On the standalone Oculus Go headset, for instance, you can install stuff from a connected PC, but that’s not nearly as easy as, say, installing Fortnite on an Android phone and bypassing the Google Play Store to do it. The argument could be made that security, safety, and privacy of whomever is using a VR headset demands a more restrictive console-like platform similar to an Xbox, Nintendo or PS4.
It certainly seems like Oculus is heading toward a console approach for Quest, but the company still hasn’t clarified its plan for some of these things. Company representatives, however, made it clear earlier this year that they are aware of the issues at stake when it comes to how they run current and future platforms.
“It’s an existential crisis for us to make sure we get data handling right,” said Max Cohen, head of product for the Oculus Platform, during a phone interview at the time. Jenny Hall, who leads privacy programs for the Oculus legal team, also said “privacy is something that we need the entire community of think about, we can’t just fix it or think about it on our own.”
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney is not one to mince words when it comes to these kinds of questions because his company makes both games, like Fortnite, and the tools for other developers to make games, namely Unreal Engine. When creators use Unreal Engine — and some of the biggest game development teams do — “you pay Epic 5% of gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product per calendar quarter.”
Since Apple, Valve, Google and Microsoft are usually taking about 30 percent of the sale price of each game for the privilege of selling products on those respective digital storefronts, it makes sense why it matters so much to Sweeney that when he has a hit like Fortnite he can get it onto PC or Android while paying 0% of the revenue from that digital universe to Google or Microsoft.
A permission-based security model like iOS and Android is the first and strongest line of protection. Locked-down stores do nothing significant to prevent malware; that’s just the old excuse they use to justify their monopoly on digital distribution and commerce.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) October 28, 2018
A reply to Sweeney suggested “users don’t read the permission warnings and you can’t push security patches without a central store. I think developer mode is a reasonable compromise.”
When it was suggested that security and privacy are more important than that, Sweeney replied, “Apple’s lousy software distribution and commerce monopoly isn’t the key to the safety of apps; the real driver is their excellent OS security model. The web will always lag hopelessly far behind what’s possible natively.”