As competitors spring up, Oculus plans mobile VR contest

Oculus launched a developer contest today that will distribute $1 million in prizes for games and apps built for Gear VR — the mobile virtual reality headset it helped Samsung build.

The Mobile VR Jam requires ideas to be submitted by April 20, and final products by May 11. Oculus will announce the winners in June. The top game will take home $200,000, and $100,000 will go to the top app.

The announcement comes just days after reports that Valve and Nvidia will release virtual reality headsets at next week’s Game Developer Conference. While Gear VR was the first notable headset to market and Oculus, virtual reality’s harbringer, has sold 100,000 units of its latest developer kit, virtual reality has not yet hit the mainstream.

Content will play a major role in the first headset consumers ultimately decide to buy. That makes Valve scary, as it owns Steam, an online game store with a ravenous community.

A silhouette of a virtual reality headset believed to be the Valve SteamVR surfaced on Reddit February 24.

A silhouette of a virtual reality headset believed to be the Valve SteamVR surfaced on Reddit February 24.

So why put up $1 million for Gear VR, a mobile, but less powerful, device on which Oculus collaborated? Samsung hasn’t released how many units it has sold, but Gear VR doesn’t appear to be a blockbuster (it’s still in the “Innovator Edition” phase, after all). It could use a boost from more big and inventive content. And whatever competitors come up with can be used on Oculus Rift too.

Oculus held a VR Jam back in 2013, when it offered up around $50,000 in prizes for content developed for its prototype headset. The gaming winner, Darknet, is still in production today.

As the virtual reality race heats up, let’s see which headset emerges as the Playstation and which is the Dreamcast. But, please, no Virtual Boys.

Responsive web design is coming to VR

Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR are all trying to get developers excited about building immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences. But as VR is capturing our imaginations, developers are left to wonder whether this new world will once again be dominated by competing and incompatible platforms, just the way mobile and desktop computing have been for so long.

Some developers think they’ve found a solution to this problem. “Remember the old ‘write once, run anywhere’ promise,” asked Google employee and VR enthusiast Boris Smus in a blog post this week, adding: “The web is the closest thing we have to fulfilling it.” Instead of building native apps that just work on one platform or even just one single VR headset, developers could build their VR experiences in HTML, and simply have them run in a browser.

This idea, commonly known as WebVR, is championed by a variety of developers and organizations, with one big proponent being Mozilla. The browser maker launched its own MozVR website for web-based VR experiences last year, and added VR support to the nightly (pre-alpha) builds of Firefox last month. There are also efforts to bring VR to Chrome, and Google launched a website highlighting VR Chrome experiments when it unveiled its own DIY Cardboard VR viewer last year.

Mozilla is one of the early proponents of web-based VR.

Mozilla is one of the early proponents of web-based VR.

However, so far, these efforts aren’t compatible. “The latest VR wave has barely begun and already the web VR world is fragmented,” wrote Smus, adding: “Case in point, don’t work on Oculus, and demos don’t work in Cardboard.” Developers can now either wait until Google, Mozilla, Oculus and others agree on a common standard — or simply get their own cross-platform approach ready.

That’s exactly what Smus did this week by launching what he calls “responsive WebVR.” The idea: Make HTML-based VR work across headsets, and even without any headset at all. His inspiration? Responsive web design that automatically detects whether a user accesses a site with a desktop or a mobile browser, and optimizes the experience accordingly:

“Responsive web design promises content which automatically adapts to your viewing environment by using fluid layouts, flexible images, proportional grids; a cocktail of modern web technologies. Similarly, WebVR experiences need to work even without VR hardware.”

Smus’ WebVR boilerplate open source project allows developers to create HTML-based VR experiences that work with both Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, as well as with no VR headset at all, using a phone’s gyroscope to allow users to tilt the display to explore worlds. For now, it still requires developers to download a special build of Chrome, but developers should feel encouraged by the promise of cross-platform capabilities — and the potential of web-based experiences that work in an ordinary desktop or mobile browser as well as a VR headset is pretty exciting.

Oculus will host a developer conference this fall

It looks like bringing back F8 wasn’t enough for Facebook. Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook in March, will host its first developer conference Sept. 19-20 in Los Angeles. The conference, which is called Connect, will feature CEO Brendan Iribe, founder Palmer Luckey and CTO and virtual reality pioneer John Carmack as keynote speakers. The first consumer version of Oculus’ Rift virtual reality headset is expected to debut in the next year, so the conference could feature updates on the form it will take. Applications to attend open July 10.

What exactly do we think we’re doing when we back a Kickstarter project?

The backlash to the acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook — from backers who had helped finance the startup on Kickstarter — says a lot about the personal and emotional connection that crowdfunders feel. Even though they have no legal standing, that connection can be a powerful force