Week One, Oculus Go

Tom Nickel
10 min readMay 18, 2018

The reviews are nearly unanimous — the new Oculus Go VR headset is a major step forward. Until now, VR devices have been deeply dependent on non-VR devices, like smartphones and computers. It didn’t feel right. I’m not a major VR techie but I’m not a newbie either. I’ve given many first-timer VR demos, and it was obvious as I tried to quickly jam the iphone into place or adjust the massive computer cables, that this technology just wasn’t quite there yet and everyone knew it.

Maybe it still isn’t quite there. Maybe we’ll be feeling that and saying it about new VR equipment for years to come. There is often something we see after the fact.

What I see right now with the Go is a platform worth developing for. The visual quality is well over the threshold needed to support immersive experiences. The price isn’t bad. Crucially — it is not difficult to transfer files to the Go, to be saved and played locally from the headset, or to access files on the web from inside the device.

A platform for developing what? Well, the Go has obvious and important limitations. The motion tracking and the controller are both very basic. The Go is not a good game machine. There are VR games that can be played very well in the Go, but they are not and will never be the sophisticated ones requiring six degrees of freedom and multiple controller options.

Not being for gamers has big implications for new content to be developed, and for the product’s growth moving forward. So who is it for? Oculus (Facebook) must be pretty sure there are many people just on the outside looking in, who don’t want to get into VR to play games. I agree. There must be something else to do.

There is. It looks like the main categories for non-gamers that are reasonably well-supported on the Go are 360 Videos and Social VR. Since one of my main goals is to play 360 videos in social VR spaces, it’s pretty much the perfect headset for me, at least for right now.

360 Video

Credit: Uploadvr (video frame grab)

360 video is not at all like standard video or any other medium we are used to because it is not separate from us in a frame. Instead, we are inside it. When a 360 video is played in an Oculus Room, a big bubble emerges … and then you are inside the bubble, and then you are inside the video. It is a very effective transition from being in the room as an avatar, to being inside the video, as 360s should be experienced.

Thousands of 360 videos have been produced and uploaded somewhere, even though it is still very early in the evolution of the craft. Perhaps for that reason, most of them aren’t very interesting. They are often referred to or categorized as ‘experiences’ –swimming with dolphins, riding a roller coaster, visiting the Eiffel Tower. The very best producers, like the New York Times group, have brought complete environments to life in 360 videos, places that we need to know about, like refugee camps.

A 360 video of a refugee camp, seen through the eyes of a 12-year old Syrian girl named Sidra, became a highly effective fundraiser, which led to a Ted Talk, which spawned the idea of VR as an Empathy Machine. A 360 video did all that. I don’t think VR is an Empathy Machine, but I do think our brains are, and a deep sense of presence in someone else’s world can definitely feed into the tremendous capacity for empathy we already have.

“Clouds over Sidra” is exceptional. High quality 360 video pieces are few and far between. Some amount of 360 content is available in the Library which is available right at Oculus Go start-up. Some of it is free; some videos or packages of videos have a small fee. But I wouldn’t go back and watch very many of them again. Experiencing an art installation in Copenhagen, a rain forest hut in Papua New Guinea, and the Moscow subway is really cool. And that’s that.

Places can be amazing in media, but what makes us come back is people. People and their stories that make us want to know what happens next. How they solve their problems, or not. Overcome their obstacles, or avoid them by going off in new directions. It’s people that fascinate us. People that make us return for more. And people’s stories aren’t a big part of 360 videos. Yet.

We haven’t learned much about 360 video storytelling. The Oculus Go is good at showing 360 videos but there aren’t all that many good 360 videos to show. A few really good ones. A few more that are OK. If this type of content is what you want to get immersed in and be entertained by for a while, don’t buy an Oculus Go, yet. There isn’t enough material. There will be, but there isn’t now. If that was what I wanted, I would be bored already after my first week.

Fortunately, sitting back and watching is not what I had in mind. I like to make video. I’m not actually all that good at it, but I’ve been doing it for a very long time and I’ve learned a few things so I can at least get by. One of the few things I’m good at is seeing what can be done with new video technologies before lots of people start doing it.

I’ve been making 360 videos for about a year and a half, using “prosumer-level” equipment — a series of $400-ish Ricoh Theta cameras and PC-based editing software not really designed for 360 video. That’s OK. I can produce at 2K and I’m not sure people receive their streaming Youtube much better than that anyway. In terms of quality, I think what this equipment can do is almost really good. For the moment, that’s not bad.

If you’re a viewer, wait a bit. If you’re a producer, now is a good time to jump in. You’ve got a lot to unlearn.

Social VR

But wait! That’s not all! Narratives about people aren’t the only thing that keep us coming back — just being with other people will do it too, in the right circumstances. And lots of different circumstances are being created and offered for free in social VR right now, places where you can just be with other people. Watching movies. Playing cards. Hanging out around a campfire and chatting.

That’s what happens in Social VR, which was not accessible in the old days (last week) of mobile, smartphone-based VR. It is accessible now on the Oculus Go, some of it anyway.

Like 360 video, social VR is still very new. There are only a handful of places for being with other people that are up and running most of the time. Some public intellectuals and science fiction novelists have speculated that most our social life could be in VR someday, with “the real world” (TRW) as kind of an afterthought. We’re not there yet. But the outlines of Neil Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”-world are beginning to show, faintly.

AltspaceVR is probably the best-known Social VR space. It has a typically dramatic story of early Internet fame (within its small niche), but not enough money to avoid a sad shut-down … and then a sudden re-birth with the help of Microsoft. Now the place looks like a category leader when you check out the other social VR you can get to in the Oculus Go. One thing I noticed in my Week One — there are plenty of other relative newcomers checking out AltspaceVR right now, in their Week One with the new Oculus Go. A little awkward, just like me.

I went through the start-up sequence for people new to AltspaceVR — avatar editing, newcomers message board, Campfire. I went to a scheduled event,

‘Chew on This Storytelling’, where an enthusiastic host introduced an autistic 13 year old in Australia, who talked about the apps he’s made to help other autistic kids handle basic life functions better. He told his story, showed a brief video, and took questions from the avatars assembled there, which added to the sense of shared presence. He handled everything very well, seemed very authentic and he also knew what he was doing. I stayed for the whole event as did most others.

I was impressed. I enjoyed myself. I felt that it was time well-spent. I guess it was social, even though I didn’t interact directly with anyone. Still, I felt that I had been part of an experience with others.

Unfortunately, there are not a great many engaging activities like this every day, even at the level of the one ‘Chew on this Storytelling’ event I have attended. But there are some and there will be lots more in time. I expect to be an active participant in the process of making Social VR fun and engaging. Our son already is.

He has been leading weekly meditation classes in VR for over a year. AltspaceVR is where he started. He has expanded to other locations, PlutoVR and Sansar. Sansar is in the same corporate family that brought us Second Life, where he was sermonizing up on the virtual pulpit one day back in 2006 while I was down in the virtual pews — when he played a short video during the worship service, his avatar walked down from the virtual pulpit over toward my Dad/Tom avatar. When his avatar reached mine, he put his avatar hand on my avatar shoulder, sending a huge non-avatar energy shock through my actual non-avatar body. It was an ontological shock I guess.

I wasn’t a complete stranger to his meditation class in AltspaceVR. I had attended several before, but on-screen, not in a headset, not immersed. The Oculus Go made a qualitative difference. By feeling present in the meditation room, I also felt like I was part of something, part of a group. There were at least 20 avatars there when the session started. People checked in, if they wanted to, before the meditation. They were there from Russia, Denmark, England, Singapore, the US.

The first meditation was progressive relaxation, a body awareness exercise. The second was a loving-kindness (Metta) meditation, which involves finding a source of love and directing it. Each one lasted about ten minutes and when they were over and I opened my actual eyes into the virtual room, there were still at least 20 avatars there. Everyone stayed.

I meditate by myself every day. I have meditated in groups many times, and it is a different experience than meditating alone. I believe that non-local group meditation in VR is a new form, with elements of being alone as well as social elements. When I’m in VR with a group of people, I feel there with them — not where my body is, but where my brain is telling me *I* am.

When I closed my eyes during the meditations, I wasn’t conscious of being anywhere. When I opened my eyes, it felt wonderful to see all those avatars still present in the room with *me*. We had all done something powerful and unusual together. It was exhilarating.

It was also my most deeply engaging experience by far in my Week One with the Oculus Go. I’m not exactly your typical first-week Go explorer, but it is easy to imagine that many people will be able to have similarly reinforcing social VR experiences, that will encourage them to keep coming back.

On the 360 video side, I’m a low budget, single camera director but I can make very watchable material with what I have. I’ve interviewed people, for example, with a 360 camera between us. I call it a 360Cast.

Spherical Video meets Webpage

Watching a 360Cast in the headset feels like being right in the middle of a good talk. A lot of mainstream media programming consists of interviews. People talking with each other can be entertaining, informative and stimulating — and 360 video is made for it.

I have produced a short series of 360Casts based on interviews conducted in Cambodia. I intend to display them in Social VR spaces like AltspaceVR and to conduct live events in which the interview subjects are on-hand to talk one-on-one or with groups of people interested in learning more about what’s going on in Cambodia today. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself

Here at the end of Week One, I can load my best 360Casts and other 360 video clips of Cambodian Living Arts’ and Khmer Magic Music Bus performers onto the Oculus Go and play them. They look better than I have ever seen them. Next I need to weave the 360 segments into stories and figure out how to play them in places like Altspace VR. I have some ideas that I now know are realistic. And as long as I have new ideas I’m excited to try out, I will probably keep loving my Oculus Go.

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Tom Nickel

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