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Touch, hear, pal around in a virtual world: Oculus execs discuss the future

At firm's first confab for developers who'll make games to run on its headset, execs discuss, among other things, the trickiness of the controllers that'll let players pick up and move objects.

Oculus executives discussing VR's future at the company's first developer conference. Ian Sherr/CNET

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- What's next for virtual reality technology?

Ask most developers, and they'll mention obvious advancements Oculus could make with its device, such as higher-quality displays. But beyond that, the next big technological breakthrough some are expecting from the company is motion controllers -- devices that let players drive the action and manipulate objects in games with hand and body movements.

Oculus has been developing motion controllers, but it has yet to actually show them off. During a panel at Oculus' first developer conference here, executives from the company gave potential insight as to why.

The struggle, they said, is making a controller that feels as realistic as possible. While many users have become accustomed to holding an Xbox controller, motion controllers are far more complex and they still don't really simulate real-life enough to help players feel like they're in a virtual world.

This sense of tricking the brain into believing you're actually in the game is a feature developers call "presence," and it's a combination of visuals, audio and physical movement.

Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus, said the struggle is creating a technology that can sense and simulate hands in real life and in VR. "If you're going to be present, you see something, you get close to it, you can reach out for it," he said. "We have to figure out how to produce that."

But it won't be easy. Atman Binstock, one of the people who worked on the latest Oculus prototype, said the sensors that are needed to track people's hands would need to be very precise.

Audio speakers, meanwhile, are much easier. The company's newest prototype VR headset includes headphones. Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, said good audio devices are cheap to make, and alternatives in the marketplace aren't really that good.

"A lot of the cost in the audio industry goes to marketing overhead," he said. "The gaming headphone industry is uniformly terrible."

One thing there's no question of in the executive's minds is the importance of social networking, something they said will likely be one of the biggest trends among users. John Carmack, head of technology at Oculus, said the company considered work on social features, such as voice chat, for the Gear VR device it's working on with Samsung.

Long-term, he said, it'll be a key feature of VR. "I expect more of that to be going on" in the future, he said.

Why? Most people interact with other people for most things, like taking hikes or playing checkers, Luckey said. Videogames, until now, have primarily been a solo experience, even if users interact with other players over the Internet.

Not everyone wants these features, of course. Some users have said they just want to experience VR on their own, even though Oculus executives believe the social aspects will be one of the biggest features of the technology.

"We should put them all in a box," Luckey joked. "An anti-social box." After some laughter from attendees, he added, "Maybe I shouldn't have said that."