C&B Notes

Remember “Lawnmower Man?”

Virtual reality has been long discussed, but it has been held back by the same issue that limited the browser in a dial-up internet access world: latency.  In the case of VR, latency actually makes you sick.  Oculus, a start-up with a great backstory, may have solved this problem with a product called Rift.  This technological leap opens the door to a whole set of intriguing applications well beyond just gaming.

As he flew from Orange County to Seattle in September 2013, Brendan Iribe, the CEO of Oculus, couldn’t envision what the next six months would bring. The rhapsodic crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show.  The around-the-block lines at South by Southwest.  Most of all, the $2 billion purchase by Facebook.  That fall Oculus was still just an ambitious startup chasing virtual reality, a dream that had foiled countless entrepreneurs and technologists for two decades.  Oculus’ flagship product, the Rift, was widely seen as the most promising VR device in years, enveloping users in an all-encompassing simulacrum that felt like something out of Snow Crash or Star Trek.  But it faced the same problem that had bedeviled would-be pioneers like eMagin, Vuzix, even Nintendo: It made people want to throw up.

This was the problem with virtual reality.  It couldn’t just be really good.  It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead.  But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. I f you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick.  There were a million little problems like that, tiny technical details that would need to be solved if virtual reality were ever to become more than a futurist’s fantasy.  The Rift had made enough headway to excite long-suffering VR enthusiasts, but it was still a long way from where it needed to be.

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…the expectations surrounding the Oculus Rift have always been huge, ever since an 18-year-old named Palmer Luckey hacked together a rough proto­type in his parents’ garage in Long Beach, California, in 2011.  In June 2012, John Carmack — the legendary founder of id Software, the company that created Doom, Quake, and the entire concept of 3-D gaming — brought that early proto­type to the E3 videogame show, reintro­ducing VR to the popular conversation for the first time since The Lawnmower Man.  A year later, Oculus brought an HD proto­type to E3 and blew minds all over again.  Then it brought another, even more advanced one to CES this past January.  Then another unit to the Game Developers Conference in March.  And finally, the $2 billion purchase by Facebook.  All for a company that doesn’t even have a commercial product yet and is chasing a dream that most of the tech community had seemingly given up on decades ago.

Oculus has almost single-handedly revived that dream.  Luckey’s advances have inspired Sony to announce its own forthcoming VR hardware, for now known only as Project Morpheus.  Software developers from Gears of War maker Epic Games to EVE Online studio CCP have been designing new experiences for the Rift.  And it goes beyond gaming: Developers are producing Rift-enabled tools to let users explore everything from molecules to galaxies.  Framestore, a visual effects firm, created a virtual Game of Thrones experience for HBO; Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón has visited Oculus headquarters.  Enough Holly­wood types have come calling, in fact, that Oculus recently hired a director of film and media.

Beyond that, though, the company and its technology herald nothing less than the dawn of an entirely new era of communication.  Mark Zuckerberg gestured at the possibilities himself in a Facebook post in March when he announced the acquisition: “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.”  That’s the true promise of VR: going beyond the idea of immersion and achieving true presence — the feeling of actually existing in a virtual space.

That’s because Oculus has found a way to make a headset that does more than just hang a big screen in front of your face.  By combining stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree visuals, and a wide field of view — along with a supersize dose of engineering and software magic — it hacks your visual cortex.  As far as your brain is concerned, there’s no difference between experiencing something on the Rift and experiencing it in the real world.  “This is the first time that we’ve succeeded in stimulating parts of the human visual system directly,” says Abrash, the Valve engineer.  “I don’t get vertigo when I watch a video of the Grand Canyon on TV, but I do when I stand on a ledge in VR.”