I have been involved in the Japanese Oculus Rift development community for some time now, but only recently realized there is hardly any information available in English about what has been going on in Japan. This is my attempt at summarizing the 9 or so months since the release of the Oculus Rift DK1. Do please cut me some slack for the sweeping generalizations I may make; I do know there are counterexamples to many of them, but referring to them would make the article even longer than it is.
The Kickstarter units
Shipping of the Oculus Rift to Kickstarter backers began in early April 2013 but did not reach Japanese shores until late that month. Once we received our units, much like everyone else in the world, we were blown away by the field of view, stereoscopy and how the visuals fluidly followed your head movement.
Once the initial shock subsided, many of us got down to develop content for the device. The types of content, however, differed greatly from that of the West. Whereas many Western demos created various worlds to transport the player to, many of the demos here reflected the heavily character-driven nature of Japan, focusing on what fictional character to meet ‘in person.’
An aside: Japan loves characters
I must put aside the Rift for a moment and explain Japan’s obsession with characters and anthropomorphizing objects. If you’re familiar with it, skip this section. Nearly everything in Japan has an anthropomorphic representation nowadays: operating systems, WW2 warships, eldritch abominations, you name it.1
One particularly high-profile example is Hatsune Miku, a Vocaloid singing synthesizer program with an accompanying anthropomorphized character. Fans of Miku have gathered to create not just songs but artwork, animation, and even MikuMikuDance, a freeware software suite which enables one to create 3D animated dancing sequences of Miku and gang with ease.
In essence, Miku became a Lenna or Utah Teapot of sorts: the first thing to try by default for hobbyist developers in Japan. Even before the Rift, it was common practice among makers to try to materialize Miku into the real world using various methods, eg. figurines, robotics, 3D printing, projection mapping, augmented reality, etc.
GOROman, one of the Kickstarter backers, was an enthusiast from the earliest days of the Rift in Japan. He created Mikulus (Miku + Oculus,) a demo where Miku sits in front of and stares at the user. Whether you find it cute or creepy depends on your tastes, but there is something quite unlike anything else about being able to perceive a life-sized, dare I say it — animated animé-style character within striking distance and looking at it straight in the eyes.
Mikulus was demoed to the public and became a hit with Vocaloid fans during the World Vocaloid Convention 2013. It went on to become one of the most popular demos here. Its popularity spawned a series of other Vocaloid character-themed demos, including Yuujii‘s Lbench, and my own Mikulus Kinect, where I experimented with full-body motion tracking.
Mikulus is currently on display at the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subculture, as part of “The Exhibition of Passion for Hatsune Miku Materialisation: Beyond the wall of dimension”, until June 1st, 2014.
Oculus Festival Japan, a.k.a. “Ocufes”
Once many hobbyist developers had their own demos and games, they ran into a problem: since so few people in Japan own Rifts right now, there was hardly anyone to show their content to! This was even more so if the demo used extra hardware like the Kinect or Razer Hydra, which many did.
Ouka Ichimon (not his real name; pronounced “oh” not “oo”) was one such enthusiast. In cooperation with GOROman, me, and other friends, he launched the Oculus Festival in Japan, or Ocufes for short. Basically, we would rent space, usually in Akihabara but often in other places, to set up PCs with Rifts and let participants freely try games and demos we developed. I exhibited my work several times, including the aforementioned Mikulus Kinect, and a silly VR rendition of Cookie Clicker where piles of cookies would rain down from above.
After holding Ocufes a few times, the event began gaining traction. GOROman drew large amounts of attention both on and off the web when he debuted Miku Miku Akushu, a version of Mikulus connected to a Novint Falcon haptic feedback device. The Falcon was designed for uses like providing gun recoil in first-person shooters, but GOROman replaced the gun handle with a mannequin hand, allowing the user to physically shake hands with Miku.
— Kenji Iguchi (@needle) September 23, 2013
Eventually, someone at the Digital Content Asociation of Japan caught word and we managed to exhibit Miku Miku Akushu at the Digital Content Expo 2013, held at The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. We did many more of such guest exhibits, often being called upon from events in Akihabara, but also sometimes in places like Tokushima.
The Japanese Rift community does more
Demo events weren’t the only stuff the Japanese Rift community did. We also did (in chronological order):
- Ura-Ocufes (roughly translated to “Ocufes behind-the-scenes”), a mini conference event where developers exchanged their discoveries and shared creations, such as a 3D parking simulator.
- The Oculus Game Jam in Japan, a two day game jam event in Tokyo by Unity Japan’s Makoto Ito. The jam produced all kinds of wacky demos, including a Wii balance board-controlled hoverboard game, a voice-activated demo where whatever you speak would fly out of your mouth as huge letters, and my multiplayer-enabled Mikulus Kinect Online.
- The Oculus Game Jam Kansai, a similar game jam but this time in western Japan.
- The Oculus Rift Advent Calendar, an online event where developers took turns updating Oculus Rift-related blog entries every day during December.2
- GOROman, Kouki & Koyama, Negipoyoc, and I each presented projects at the 5th Niconico Gakkai symposium madness talks session. Negipoyoc stunned the audience by his MikuMikuSoine app which enabled one to literally sleep alongside Miku, demoing the app by bringing in a pool chair and a blanket in the middle of his talk. Seriously.
- Multiple self-hosted development seminars, with the early enthusiasts teaching newly interested folks the basics of developing for the Rift.
- Ocu-Tabi (“Ocu-travel”), a crowdfunded video event in which GOROman and Kotaro Fujiyama will travel to Miyakojima island wearing an OVRVISION stereo camera on top of the Rift.3 GOROman will attempt to livestream his entire trip to backers. The trip hasn’t happened yet as of this writing, but the crowdfunding has already succeeded. Looking forward to this.
— GOROman turboR (@GOROman) February 10, 2014
Obviously, this won’t be all. There are plans to hold an Ocufes event during the Niconico Chokaigi 3 festival, and many more exciting/weird stuff are waiting to surface. I must say it is a truly interesting time to be a VR enthusiast in Japan!
Though so far, what I chronicled was mostly of the amateur enthusiast communities. What of big companies then?
Gaming in Japan is an overwhelmingly console- and mobile-dominated affair. While PC gaming fans for genres such as FPSs and MMORPGs do exist, their numbers are depressingly small in comparison to the West. Outside those circles, hardly anyone even knows what Steam is! Games by major developers and publishers in Japan are often released to consoles and mobiles first; PC ports is an afterthought at best. About the only domestic games exclusive to the PC are Eroge, games with explicit adult themes which cannot be released to a console.4
Thus, the current PC-centric nature of the Oculus Rift makes it a poor fit for mass adoption in Japan, at least for straightforward gaming purposes. Individual developers such as ICO’s Fumito Ueda have expressed interest, but large commercial Japanese game developers can not seriously consider VR as a business until it works in some form on consoles. Rumors of Sony developing its own VR head-mounted display for the PS4 may shake things up if it happens to be true, but starting to delve into VR only after Sony makes an announcement would place Japanese game developers way behind their Western ilk, who would have already made large strides with the PC and the Rift.
Personally I think MMORPGs may be a good fit for popularizing the Oculus Rift in Japan, as it is one of the few genres in Japan that have stable footing on the PC, not to mention the popularity of VR MMORPG-themed fiction such as Sword Art Online and .hack. Non-games such as virtual travel may also work, as the famous 90-year-old grandma YouTube video have demonstrated.
We should also keep an eye on how VR is going to work with mobile devices, which has a much higher market penetration rate than PCs. If VR were to go mainstream in Japan, my money would be on from this route, not from the PC nor the PS4.
This blog post has definitely been going way too long, but man I had trouble keeping it trimmed as more and more material kept coming to mind as I was writing them down. I hope this gives you a picture of what has been going on in the Japanese Oculus Rift enthusiast community. If you have any questions, fire away in the comments!
The frequent use of characters is true not just for geeks. Look at a random construction sign or a dentist’s ad in Japan, and chances are, there will be a character drawn on it. ↩
The term “Advent Calendar” has taken a life of its own in Japan, now often referring to this format of taking turns updating blogs. ↩
In addition, GOROman will also be wearing binaural microphones, and there will be a spherical GoPro rig for later 360° viewing. ↩
FWIW, some eroge developers have shown interest in the Rift. ↩