Oculus Go for Old People, Part I

Tom Nickel
22 min readJun 29, 2018
Old Person in the Go

You don’t have to be old to read this article. You just have to be willing to read something written from a post-career perspective. I’m not so old that I need virtual reality because I can’t do anything in the actual one any more. I will someday, but for now, VR is a way for me to stay engaged, an endless source of projects that interest me, that I can work on by myself or with others, both of which I am doing.

I bought my Oculus Go headset about two months ago and wrote an enthusiastic early piece. I am still using it almost every day. I can’t say that I’ve done a systematic and comprehensive survey of everything there is to do once you put the headset on, so I’m not trying to write one.

I’ve just bumped my way around and taken the time to explore what caught my personal interest. There is a price for exploration, but it’s not monetary since most of the apps and content are free or very close to it. So far. But one cost is storage space in the headset — my favorite chunk of content I have downloaded so far (Atlas Obscura VR) weighs in at over a Gig. I can already see that Go space is going to be precious.

As always, though, the real price is time. Since I no longer spend the majority of my waking hours earning a living, you’d think that there would be plenty of free time to do things like check out everything in Oculus Go-world. And to some extent there is. But there is already too much to check out.

I’ve been selective and what I’ve selected might not be what you would have selected. Are you into horror and scary movies? I’m not. They will be fantastic in VR and there are some available right now that will probably give you 5 star nightmares, but I don’t know this from actual experience and I never will.

Complicated controllers make me crazy. This isn’t and doesn’t.

I should also say right up-front that not only am I a video game lightweight, the Oculus Go is too. The bar is set pretty high for games and the Go can’t compete; it isn’t designed to compete. Its tracking is not robust and its controller is much too simple, which is one of the things I love about it.

Still, there are games in the Go universe, they’re just not going to be the top games. This is just my assumption, though, because I haven’t played one yet. I haven’t felt like investing the time.

Old Person Backgrounder

Old Person in Oculus Rift Headset

I had tried computer-based VR (Oculus Rift and HTC Vive) and mobile VR (cardboard, low cost headsets) already. They’re both a hassle but I was drawn to the field anyway, just like I’ve been drawn to new media technologies since I started making video with a Sony Portapack back in 1971.

I’m not a techie, though. Sometimes non-techies think I’m a techie but real techies know instantly that I’m not. I’m not even a talented amateur. I’m just someone grudgingly willing to work through stuff I’m not good at when I am sufficiently motivated by the possibilities.

You have to be somewhat like that to produce content for VR right now, which I’ve been doing, arguably, for a year and a half. I say arguably because what I’ve been producing is 360 video, and 2D 360 video at that — which some people do not regard as ‘real VR,’ (is that an oxymoron?).

I have no need to argue because, really, it just comes down to what you see as the defining feature of VR. To me, that feature is immersiveness. By that standard, even 2D 360 video can be VR. I absolutely know this to be true because I have recorded 2D 360 video in villages in Cambodia and then showed it to people in VR headsets back home in San Francisco, and they almost always say, ‘wow, it’s like I’m in a village in Cambodia.’

outside a village in Cambodia

OK, I’m an old person, but a media-savvy-non-techie old person. I’ve been involved in an informal 360 video project with a prominent arts organization in Cambodia, trying to stay active in a way that feels meaningful to me in this new phase of my life. The convenience and the cost/quality point of the Oculus Go will help me a great deal in the work I’m doing. It is already helping me.

If I did not have this project, I would have purchased the Oculus Go anyway. I would have enjoyed just consuming the content that others are making, but not as much as I do when I am making my own as well.

Breakthrough

Anyone can see that the Oculus Go is a breakthrough in several ways. Most importantly, it reduces the hassle factor by several orders of magnitude. Using an iPhone for mobile VR in 2017 was sort of cool but it was also awkward. It was obvious that things were clearly not ready for prime time yet. But I also didn’t want to sink a couple grand into a high-end set-up that I knew I would be able to improve on for half the cost probably within 24 months. The Oculus Go as a self-contained unit makes all that go away.

Its $160 (or $200) price point is also a breakthrough, as is the resolution quality for anything near that price. I’ve been stuffing iPhones into headsets since 2016 and now all of a sudden my work looks better than ever. With good natural lighting and the right camera placement, a decent 2K 360 camera like the Ricoh Theta S or V can record excellent, totally immersive 360 video. I know this now that I can finally see it at its best without spending a significant amount of money on a high-end VR set-up.

However, the price can be right and the resolution can be pretty good, but if you’re not making your own 360 video, which most people are not, what else is there to do? Is it also a breakthrough in terms of what is available to experience in VR, even if you’re not a video producer or a gamer?

At the moment, I’d say ‘just barely, there really isn’t enough great material for the Go.’ Almost all the content that is instantly available, and there is too much of it to check out, was made for a previous generation, primarily for Samsung’s ‘Gear VR.’ That doesn’t make it out-of-date necessarily, but so far it looks to me like most of it is. It already feels too old and low-res.

This stuation is changing very rapidly. New material, and new types of material, are showing up weekly, when you select ‘Discover’ on the Oculus Go menu. I have some ideas about what we will look back on as timeless gems, like “The Honeymooners,” a hit in its time and still undeniably great comedy today and forever.

What’s Out There?

The early days of television were dominated by larger-than-life personalities, like Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle or Lucille Ball, who brought what had worked on radio into the new medium.

Ernie Kovacs Show, 1952, Wikimedia Commons

A few creative thinkers like Ernie Kovacs experimented with new approaches that took advantage of video’s unique affordances, but TV in 1948, when four networks began broadcasting prime time programming seven nights per week, was basically radio with a camera.

I expected that the first standalone VR, 70 years later, would be similar — television in a headset. For the most part, I was right, starting with the box the Oculus Go comes in. It’s an attractive, well-designed box, the kind we’ve become accustomed to for cool new devices.

On the front cover is a stylish black & white photo image of the product with two captions — one promising “1000+ apps, games, and movies,” the other stating that what you just bought is “from Facebook.” Under the caption are two rows of media company trademarks — the first two on the left are Netflix and Facebook. Other well-known entities are represented too, like The New York Times and Hulu, but a few are relatively unknown, like Ocean Rift and UltraDrawings.

Overall, the message is clear: Stuff you are familiar with is in this box, along with a few new tidbits. Plus, the whole idea is for you to sit back and watch the show. There is no suggestion that this might be just what you’re waiting for to look at content you are making with your own 360 video camera.

Articles on the future of VR talk about revolutionizing education, about VR as an empathy machine, and in some cases about the technology radically reshaping our world. Exploring what there is to explore in Oculus Go-land today reveals very little about those potential developments.

Mostly, you find content from the same folks who provide it for your UltraHD-TV, your desktop computer screen or your mobile device. Download Netflix to your Oculus Go headset and you get watch all your Netflix stuff in a really nice VR simulation of a home theater. All by yourself.

Watching all your Netflix content in that cool VR place with someone else no matter where they are is do-able, but it’s complicated, and it’s considered to be something like a Killer App, the thing that will cause people to adopt VR in droves, finally. The Killer App is getting to watch regular old TV together? Yes, I know that we’re transcending distance and all that, but is consuming commercial mass media content like NFL Football with your friends from out of town the be-all and end-all of transcending distance?

Of course it isn’t. I also know that it’s early and things will change, but habits are getting set right now. How we unconsciously feel about the purpose and function of VR is being shaped. Most of the shaping is being done by experienced shapers, but not all of it. There are a few Ernie Kovacs types in the mix, thankfully. We need more.

Early Movers and Shakers

Exploring VR content is probably no big deal for anyone who keeps up on a lot of apps for their mobile device or who buys a lot of games. I haven’t done much of either so it took me a while to figure it out. How do you look at just one topic? How do you browse through it? How do you search for something specific? This is all supposed to be obvious but it usually isn’t to me.

My Oculus Go Home

It took a few weeks of spending maybe an hour or more almost every day for the fog to lift just a bit. The interfaces and the categories users can choose from to figure out what the heck to do weren’t the ones I would have hoped for. There’s just a few high-level buttons labelled with useless terms like, “Discover” and “Just for You,” which I have not found to be useful.

I still don’t feel like I’ve wrapped my brain around even the small corner of the VR universe that is the Oculus Go universe. Just like there might be a multiverse, with infinite parallel universes of which ours is one, so there is a larger Oculus universe that includes the Oculus Rift, and a larger VR universe that includes the HTC Vive platform. And Samsung Gear VR. And Google Dream …

Oculus Go is a small player now in the VR multiverse, but it is growing and it is pointing the way to the future. Its attractiveness to developers is out of proportion to its current user base. I expect an explosion of new content by September, 2018. I don’t know what form it will come in, though. How will Oculus/Facebook play the gatekeeper role? Will new voices form their own networks? Work with emerging syndicators? All of those methods will be tried, plus others I can’t imagine.

Soon the Oculus Go will be out of its infancy, the phase I’m surveying here. The Go was born into an on-going stream of culture and technology, like the rest of us. Most of what you can play on it or experience with it was made for an earlier generation of hardware. That will soon change.

What stands out for me at this moment, as I try to comprehend a new medium and also figure out what to watch this afternoon, is a handful sources. There’s apples and oranges involved because some are sources by producing content while others aggregate it, or curate it, acting as high-level sources and early gatekeepers.

The New York Times is a major presence in the 360 VR world and has been since late 2015. The NYT VR Daily 360s are not just news coverage, although some of them are. They can take you anywhere, from window washing on a New York skyscraper to a Rohingya refugee camp.

Natalie Portman in “Fiance,” from ‘LA Noir, New York Times video

NYT VR’s ‘LA Noir’ series features top talent, like Natalie Portman and Don Cheadle. The nine short pieces are so cool I am sorry they are ahead of their time and will be missed by many people. They are an example of great work developed within the limitations of the technology.

An unseen 360 camera is treated as a character in each segment, recorded in dark atmospheric settings. Noir is inherently low-res. Having Natalie Portman a few feet away speaking to me, on the other hand, feels very close and immediate. She had my complete attention. This series will never be out-of-date, partly because of its artistic quality and also I think because of the way it puts the production capabilities of its time in a position to work successfully for a long time. Whatever it is that can’t be done, make what can be done the way it should be done anyway.

Over a huge variety of topics and types of entertainment, one thing about the NYT 360s is consistent — they all exploit the unique immersiveness of the medium. I really felt queasy with the window washers. I can picture actual Rohinga people in my mind now. And Natalie and I will always have LA.

There are hundreds of NYT VR 360s. Big content providers like NYT VR create apps to be downloaded for viewing their shows. Hmmm, I couldn’t find the NYT VR app in the Oculus Store. I assume Facebook sees them as a significant rival so why should they make things easy? Eventually I figured out how to search for it and got it on the Go. Another 40M occupied.

There’s a problem, though. As cool as it is, most of the material already looks old and outdated. I watched ‘How I Became a Laughing Yoga Photographer,’ with the 360 camera right in the middle of a circle of laughing people. It’s a great sensation and it sure made me laugh. But I wanted to see the people’s faces better than I could. I wanted to see the details of their laughing faces at better than the old VHS level of resolution. The Laughing Yoga 360, like almost all 360 video, doesn’t make the current technical limitations an asset.

I know better resolution is easily possible because I have done it. NYT VR is imaginative, informative, hip and savvy. Most of their material is showing its age. Now is not the time for them to rest on their laurels and emphasize the existing body of work. Now is the time to double down on production with new and improved equipment. Keep doing daily 360s, only more and better. It doesn’t look to me like they are.

Facebook is everywhere. Why wouldn’t they be? They’ve invested billions in VR and I doubt there has been much of a return so far. Like NYT VR, there is a Facebook 360 app. Unlike NYT VR, the Facebook app is easy to find in the Oculus store and serves as a portal not just to a lot of 360 video, but to a lot of 3D 360 video, or 360 video with spatial audio.

Some of the content in the Facebook line-up is better, just in terms of technical quality, than anything I’ve seen in NYT VR. I don’t know how the Facebook VR content gets to the app. I don’t know who makes it. But some of it is very engaging.

The first time I used the app, after scrolling down a bunch of rows — I saw my own video, video I have uploaded to Facebook, including 360 videos. I linked my Oculus Go to my Facebook account. When I selected one of my 360 videos, a 360 player seamlessly took over and did a nice job of transitioning from flat to 360 mode. It was a nice feeling.

The Facebook 360 app is just the beginning. Oculus is Facebook and from my casual calculation I’d say that 20% or more of the videos featured in the Oculus Store or in the ‘Just for You,’ ‘Discover,’ and ‘Categories’ search aids are labelled as ‘Oculus Video.’ I don’t know who really makes them or how they got there. I’d like to and I’m working on it.

Just like Facebook goes to extraordinary lengths to keep us attending to their existing web and app spaces, it is clear that they have the resources to figure out what will keep us glued to their VR space. My 360 videos, my friends’ 360 videos, all intermingled with who-knows-where-they-come-from 360 videos — that’s the Facebook formula.

Now, two new VR elements have just recently been put in place on top of this familiar base — Oculus Rooms and Oculus Venues.

My Oculus Room with my wife and my friends pics on the wall

Oculus Rooms, another app to download and consume more of that precious headset memory, is Facebook’s version of the let’s-watch-TV-and-play-games-together idea. First of all, it’s not a public utility room for you to use — it’s yours. You can customize it, put your own pictures on the wall — which is all saved, so when you come back … voila, your room on Facebook!

Your Oculus Room also comes with a game area, so it offers more than just watching. Most importantly for me, just-watching in Oculus Rooms includes 360 content played immersively, with a nifty transition from being in the room to being in the video.

My only beef at the moment, other than the fact that Facebook owns it, is I can’t figure out how to get My 360 Videos into My Oculus Room. I’m working on it. They’re working on it. I’m sure it will happen.

Oculus Rooms should keep us nicely ensconced in Facebook’s VR. It looks to me like Oculus Venues is designed to be a cash cow. Live events are accessed through the Venues app. The stand-up comedy I watched was free. They won’t all be. Not the Rolling Stones or the biggest acts on the planet. Pricing models are being discussed. I can only imagine.

How will the new politics and economics of Big Events operate? Until now, absolutely everything has been based on a highly desired but finite resource — proximity. Guess what, that’s not a finite resource anymore. There are no limits to proximity in VR, based on a person occupying a specific space so someone else can’t. We can all be front row center. We can all sit in the same seat in a gigantic pig pile. We can move around. Or we should be able to.

Clearly, there is more money to be made by creating limits artificially, by offering a limited number of front row center views so a higher price can be charged. I can see a justification for it too: When I selected ‘Attend’ for the virtual stand-up comedy show, I was immediately put into a seat in a virtual theater with other avatars in seats next to me and all around me, as it would normally be. I whispered a few words to the person next to me.

Oculus is trying to recreate the spectator experience we are accustomed to. I liked it. If there had been 650,000 avatars there, it might have felt weird. That is what Oculus might claim. However, I know that new virtual theater spaces could be automatically generated to keep the size of the only one you’re in just right.

NextVR must have thought about Beyond Scarcity Pricing more than anyone. I don’t pretend to know where VR and sports is going, but it looks like NextVR, so far, is leading the way.

I didn’t get it at all the first time I checked out NBA basketball. I felt like I was right there, sort of, under one of the baskets. For watching a game, this didn’t work all that well, so I thought, ‘not a great candidate for VR.’

Later I gave it another try and watched a series of highlight plays from the 2018 NBA Play-Offs, all right at the basket where I felt present. It was mesmerizing. I had never seen so clearly the speed and timing of cuts to the hoop and the pinpoint passes that get the ball to exactly the right point for the other guy to finish the play.

It was the same thing with the NFL for me. It rocks for highlights, especially excellent touchdown catches captured with the eye level end zone camera. Every once in a while the referee is right there at your shoulder, which is a nice touch.

I also learned that even the most in-my-face highlights have a limit beyond which I’m not interested in another amazing catch. It’s about 4–6 minutes. A so-called real world game, on the other hand, I can watch with interest for hours. I think to really get into the game itself in VR, the game itself will have to be in VR.

Tennis might be an exception. I watched from the back line and it didn’t do much for me, even though I was watching Roger Federer. They show him pretty well on TV right now. How could the camera be in the center and not get in the way?

I don’t what the future of VR is for any sport as we know them today. Will it just be highlights? I doubt it. Will some sports, maybe tennis, put us in the middle of the live action without Interfering and/or causing motion sickness?

I’ve recorded some of the Next VR I’ve experienced and I’d love to include it here. But all the videos I made of Next VR look like … videos. In theory, a 360Cam could be provided, but no one has seen fit to do so yet. If and when they do, we could each be our own sports DJ and commentator, making mash-ups of great moments we find.

Some sports will be more amenable to live immersion than others. Some new ones will be invented. But NextVR is already showing that no matter what, there is a VR way to enjoy an immersive perspective.

Atlas Obscura describes itself as, “a global community of explorers, who have together created a comprehensive database of the world’s most wondrous places …” More than anything, 360 video is about Place, and the way Atlas Obscura catalogs the special ones is pretty much guaranteed to work well in VR.

I didn’t know about the Temples of Damanhur, in Pramarzo (northern), Italy. I didn’t know that, starting back in 1978, a group of artists and visionaries built an underground world of art in eight magnificent chambers carved out of the rock by hand and dedicated to the divine nature of humanity. Maybe I’ll visit sometime, but I already know what it feels like to be there.

Atlas Obscura’s VR experience of the Temples makes most other 360 video seem primitive. Not only did the Atlas Obscura team capture all the places within the overall Place at a high level of quality, they also provide an easy navigation concept that gives the user some choice.

It took me over an hour in two sessions to visit all the different parts, listen to the accompanying audio, and examine some of the detailed works of art. The high point for me was the meditation garden, where two pyramids with colored glass walls are available for use.in personal chromo-meditation therapy. Believe it.

Just to be clear, Atlas Obscura is not the Temples of Damanhur. Atlas Obscura has provided access to the Temples using VR. The Atlas Obscura app is available for the Oculus Go, thank goodness. Videos, pictures, even written material can all tell the story. VR has the unique attribute of helping us feel present in the space, even though we know we’re not.

We will be seeing much more in VR from Atlas Obscura. It seems to me that they’re the virtual real thing. I will probably re-read this sentence in a few years and wonder how I could have thought this was It.

Within and Amaze would probably be shocked and chagrined to see themselves paired like this. They are only linked in my mind, not theirs. To me, they are VR Curators/Aggregators/Syndicators that I have never heard of before. They are not Netflix or even Hulu. They both have troves of free content and they are both prominently featured in the early days of the Oculus Go.

I looked at Amaze first and while I have not done a careful count, it feels like half their content is pretty girls tending toward very very soft porn. Maybe that’s just what I noticed. An internet model pretends the camera (you) is her boyfriend and she changes clothes several times before they don’t go out. You never see her changing, just presenting herself in her new outfit, for you, like in ‘Pretty Woman.’

from Amaze VR Youtube Channel

There is pole dancing in Amaze. There is also Stanford Wrestling, which I don’t feel benefits all that much from VR — and I was a wrestler in high school. There are Horror shorts, (which I would never watch in a million years).

There is also a common thread — Amaze does 180s, not 360s. Right now, they must feel that a 180 degree view is sufficiently immersive. You can’t turn around and see behind you in the pole dancing club or the wrestling arena, just the main event. This approach is not unusual. Oculus Venues uses it as well.

When you read the Amaze ‘About Us’ online, it is clear they have an edgy and artistic idea. But unless I am doing something wrong and no one is telling me, their content is not being updated. Nothing has changed in weeks, as far as I can see.

Within has a different feel. It is also curated content, but it’s classier, more NPR. There are dozens of brief experiences on the Within platform, cultural, natural, scientific, travel. I watched traditional dance struggling to survive in Iraq, a larger than life portrait on the streets of New York, and the piece that spawned the VR-as-Empathy-Machine meme, ‘Clouds Over Sidra,’ a Syrian refugee camp seen through the eyes of a young girl.

‘Clouds Over Sidra’ was shown in headsets at a fundraiser and, as the story goes, the results exceeded all expectations, which pointed to VR as the difference-maker. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe novelty itself was the difference-maker. The TED Talk focused on VR, not novelty, as the Empathy Machine and the idea is still in vogue at least 20 months later, which is a long time.

Chris Milk, who produced ‘Clouds Over Sidra’ is a co-founder of Within, along with data visualization artist Aaron Koblin. They are both major new-cultural forces. Koblin’s work is in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert and the Museum of Modern Art. Along with Chris Milk’s. They’ve both been winning creative-entrepreneur awards for a long time.

Within also seems to be updating its content more frequently than Amaze (ie, never, so far). It leans heavily toward documentary, with many contributions from Chris Milk, but there are some short narrative pieces as well. A 13-minute, first-time-ever 360 video work by ‘Mr Robot’ creator Sam Esmail about a young man trying to remember and forget a terrible situation is an astonishing piece of storytelling. I have been in it several times from beginning to end and I don’t feel like I’m through.

One of the first things I tend to do when I’m using the Go to relax and have fun is see what jumps out at me at Within, either something I’ve noticed before but never selected, or maybe a new title that’s right in my wheelhouse. It will be interesting to see how long that continues.

Art Plunge is the quirkiest source I’ve found yet, kind of a stocking stuffer. Art Plunge is made, of course, by Space Plunge, a Swedish company that doesn’t make anything else except Art Plunge, which is a VR gallery for entering famous paintings — where, according to the publicity … they come alive!

I’d say that’s a bit of an overstatement, but it is definitely a new sensation. The power I think comes from having seen these works of art forever, countless times, but of course only as 2D paintings in a frame, removed from us. To experience myself inside the painting, in a way I’ve never imagined, is noticeably disorienting, for a few minutes.

The ‘Mona Lisa’ is not just displayed as some 3D object, like a doll. You really enter the room where Francesco del Giocondo’s wife, Lisa, is posing. She does blink her eyes, and there are a few birds flying around outside the window, but it is not lifelike.

I can almost guarantee that someone will make a Mona Lisa Bot for us to interact with. She will be faithful to the painting in every detail. She will be an excellent AI-powered conversationalist. Maybe if we approach it right in our conversation, she will tell us what that famously enigmatic look is all about.

Because the Art Plunge, cool as it is, doesn’t really bring the works of art to life, the one that worked best for me was “The Starry Night.” There’s nothing there to bring to life, so I just enjoyed being surrounded by van Gogh’s brush strokes. “The Birth of Venus” wasn’t bad either.

After my first time using the app, I never went back on my own. But I’m finding it’s a guaranteed ‘Wow!’ for first-timers. Introducing something that’s really new, like the Oculus Go experience, is a way to be with people using VR. I think constantly about how to do it and I get plenty of chances to practice. That’s being Social with VR.

Social VR

Being Social with VR in the so-called real world (SCRW) is different than being Social in VR. I can go off by myself anytime I want when I’m in VR, that’s easy. Watch the 360 videos I make, go into Art Plunge, check out Within. I look at the time and an hour has gone by in minutes.

Being with people can make time feel that way too, the right people in the right set and setting. Being in VR with people in a natural way, familiar people and also strangers, is a thing now too, called Social VR.

Social VR is fairly limited at the moment, nothing like the mature cyberworlds envisioned by William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. But they’re getting there.

Right now, anyone could easily find five hours of good VR content for every one wonderfully-engaging hour spent in a Social VR situation. In a few years I suspect those numbers will be reversed. It’s a little hard to see but the seeds are planted, and a few little sprouts are emerging.

Next: Oculus Go for Old People, Part II — Social VR

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos