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Oculus Shift

I had my first experiences with the Oculus Rift (The wearable, next-gen virtual reality hardware whose parent-company Facebook recently acquired), at this year’s South By Southwest Festival. There were Oculus development units present in nearly every exhibition hall, converted storefront, rented bar, and pop-up branding-tent – it would have been difficult to make it out of Austin without having experienced SOMETHING via Oculus hardware.
On the way home, I read through the slides from two panels given by a (now-former) Valve VR expert named Michael Abrash, who was a part of the Quake team at id Software in the 1990s. At the Game Developers Conference in March of last year, Abrash gave a talk titled “Why Virtual Reality Is Hard (And Where It Might Be Going).” In it, he argued that the Rift signified the viability of VR, and enumerated the reasons that it would be different this time (Primarily: convergence of technologies, “including a lot of stuff that was developed for mobile but is useful for VR too”).
The rest of the talk laid out some of the technical challenges that the first version of the Rift Development Kit had only begun to address. If you are a technology nerd, I can’t recommend reading through this heavily-annotated deck (PDF) enough – it is a great breakdown of the complexity of the problem and why it can’t be solved by simply strapping screens to your eyes.
Basically, his point was: building virtual reality is exceptionally hard.

This year’s model

This January, at Valve’s “Dev Days” conference, Abrash reemerged with a new talk, this time titled “What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be Within Two Years” (Annotated PDF). Before launching into the talk, Abrash very deliberately summarized his thesis:

“Compelling, consumer-priced VR hardware is coming, probably within two years. It’s for real this time – we’ve built prototypes, and it’s pretty incredible. Our technology should work for consumer products. VR will be best and will evolve most rapidly on the PC. Steam will support it well. And we think it’s possible that it could transform the entire entertainment industry.”

Abrash then shared the results of a year’s worth of progress against the key challenges that he had laid out in his 2013 talk, much of which was achieved via Valve’s close collaboration with Oculus. There was a decidedly more “assured” tone to this talk, and it seems this shift in assured-ness was primarily driven by the pronounced improvement of a state referred to as “presence.” From his slide notes:

“Presence is distinct from immersion, which merely means that you feel surrounded by the image of the virtual world; presence means that you feel like you’re in the virtual world. Trying to describe presence is bound to come up short – you can only really understand it by experiencing it.”

The remainder of this talk details the various attributes that need to be maintained to reliably achieve “presence,” with several slides towards the end of the deck pointing the way forward under the heading “There’s a lot left to be done.”

Facebook and beyond

In the last month or so, Oculus has announced a new version of their hardware development kit, was acquired by Facebook in spectacular fashion, and has hired Michael Abrash away from Valve, as their “Chief Scientist.”
Perhaps predictably, most of the immediate reaction has been negative. We’ve seen indignant kickstarter blowback, the cancellation of a Minecraft port, and standard-issue piling-on.
So: why all the uproar? While it’s tempting to dismiss the outcry as a kneejerk “Because Facebook” reaction, there’s more to this. The most effectively-articulated summary I’ve seen has come from Peter Berkman on Tumblr. He writes:

“It is deeply upsetting to watch independently operating forces that create life-changing innovations get sucked into the old system just as they reach potential to break a standard model.”

One thing that I haven’t seen discussed much in the flurry of discussion on this topic is that the “great potential” that the outraged masses are so defensive of hinges on technology that is still very much “not done.” Below is Abrash’s summary of what’s still left to do, all of it above and beyond the most recent Oculus Rift hardware:

“There’s still a lot to be solved and improved. […] the optics in particular are far from optimal. […] We think we’re close on head tracking, but we don’t have a shippable solution yet, and then there’s eye tracking, which could greatly enhance presence but is nowhere near solved. Going to a wireless connection and eliminating the tether would be a big plus. And while we believe that it’s possible to modify existing display panels to support low persistence, global display, and low latency, that remains to be proven, and will require the close cooperation of a display manufacturer.”

Bridging a gap of that breadth takes resources, and Abrash says so plainly in his first blog post as an Oculus employee: “The resources and long-term commitment that Facebook brings gives Oculus the runway it needs to solve the hard problems of VR — and some of them are hard indeed.”
John Carmack, formerly of id Software fame and also an Oculus employee, hints that this step was something that the Oculus team saw as inevitable. In a response to Berkman’s post, he wrote:

“There is a case to be made for being like Valve, and trying to build a new VR ecosystem like Steam from the ground up. This is probably what most of the passionate fans wanted to see. The difference is that, for years, the industry thought Valve was nuts, and they had the field to themselves. Valve deserves all their success for having the vision and perseverance to see it through to the current state.”
“VR won’t be like that. The experience is too obviously powerful, and it makes converts on contact. The fairly rapid involvement of the Titans is inevitable, and the real questions were how deeply to partner, and with who.”

It’ll be awhile before we know whether Facebook’s Oculus acquisition will be looked back on as the move that gave the technology the push it needed, or a horrible mistake that locked us all into face-mounted advertising forever (or both). Every technical project struggles with the limits of available resources, and it’s hard to know the realities unless you’re involved in the day-to-day. I think it’s important to take a step back and listen to those who have been leading the charge on solving the hard problems of VR – and they’re saying that these are the resources they need to advance the technology. While the internet at large is decrying the work that Oculus is giving away to Facebook, the team seems more interested in what they could still build.

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