Few technologies in recent years have inspired the kind of wide-eyed wonder seen currently swirling around that of the virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift. The story of its founder, Palmer Luckey, has already become a tech industry legend: The teenage Luckey, then a college student and hobbyist electronics noodler, became frustrated with the slow development of VR technology. So he decided to make his own headset, using duct tape and salvaged parts from past industry failures; the result was so impressive that he finessed John Carmack — the wunderkind programming lead behind landmark PC games like Doom and Quake — to go to bat for it. Luckey then went on to execute an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign, hire Carmack away from video-game development company id Software, and win praise from those who experienced the first Oculus Rift prototypes. The hype has only continued to brew in recent months, following the company's acquisition by Facebook in March for $2 billion.
The cover of Wired magazine’s June 2014 issue perhaps best summarizes the considerable levels of Oculus hyperbole. In large print, over a photo of a zealous Luckey swaddled in a hooded sweatshirt, it states: "This kid is about to change gaming, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education — and reality. The Oculus Rift is here, and it will blow your mind." It's this kind of language that has folks who are following its development — predominantly those who play games, for whom the lure of a fully immersive, head-tracking virtual reality has long been something of an interactive endgame — over the moon.
Over the weekend, Oculus took to Los Angeles to host its first Oculus Connect conference. Its attendance was comprised primarily of developers working on VR projects, on hand to learn from and rub elbows with the Rift team. There is something profoundly bizarre about walking into a space as open, airy and bright as the Loews Hollywood hotel, only to find dozens of grown men wearing VR headsets, twisting and turning their crania around like so many silent, white Ray Charles impersonators, peering around the virtual worlds inside.
After trying out the newest revision of the Oculus Rift hardware, dubbed Crescent Bay, it's hard not to believe the gospel. Attendees were shown roughly a dozen short demos over as many minutes, ranging from the surreal to the hyper-realistic. In one, the viewer stands on the ledge of a skyscraper, looking out over a virtual cityscape (anyone with a lingering fear of heights, you've been forewarned). In another demo, a Tyrannosaurus Rex lumbers down a museum hallway, roaring so close that you can practically smell his breath, its underbelly slither and bulge as it passes over you. The headset itself is lighter and less cumbersome than previous versions, its screen of a higher resolution, and its headphones are now built into the hardware. Taken together, this combination of fidelity and comfort creates the best sense of "presence" seen from a virtual reality headset — and as everyone at Oculus will tell you, that's the key.
"I knew it would happen fast when it did happen," Luckey says of his company's swift rise. It's his 22nd birthday, and he looks happily exhausted, if not a bit punch drunk. "I knew that when it got good enough, it would catch on like wildfire. But I didn't know that it would catch on like this. Virtual reality is not something like a fitness wearable, where you have to be sold on why you want it. People have wanted VR for decades — they've seen movies, played games and read books about it. And as soon as you have it and it's good enough, they instantly want it. That's helped us move as fast as we have."
Indeed, part of what has allowed Oculus to bring its new headset to fruition so quickly has been the acquisition. "Crescent Bay would have taken a lot longer without Facebook's resources," he says. "Having a $100 billion-plus company behind you helps immensely, and it's going to continue to help. Because what VR needs isn't an initial flash in the pan; it needs continued, sustained investment for…decades, probably. And they're definitely on board for that. They said they see this as a long-term project that's going to take many years to reach its full potential."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook didn't strike everyone as the best way forward for Oculus. "I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook," Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson wrote in a blog post following news of the buyout, months before selling his own company to Microsoft. "Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven't historically been a stable platform. There's nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me. I did not chip in 10 grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition." The virtual halls of the Internet echoed with disapproval and disdain, as they so often do, and many considered it the beginning of the end for Oculus.
Facebook wasn't the only multinational mega-corporation interested in paying billions of dollars for this tiny outfit. But according to Luckey, Zuckerberg and friends were the most compassionate of the lot. "One of the reasons we liked them as an option, compared to a lot of other companies, is that they didn't have this existing 10-year hardware roadmap, and where we fit into that — where we can be ripped apart and used as pieces to sell some other thing," he says. "They believe in exactly what we're doing, which is building VR as the next computing platform. It hasn't really been a struggle, since they want us to keep doing what we're doing. They know this is a long term thing." Luckey says he's relieved to finally have people to deal with logistics like shipping and customer service — roles he himself formerly held at Oculus — and says he and his impressive roster of hires have been freed up to deal with the bigger issues that stand before it: how to let people physically move around in virtual space, how to make safe returns to the real world less jarring, and how to do away with the persistent motion sickness it elicits in users, to name a few.
When asked which of VR's many applications sits closest to his heart, Luckey hardly misses a beat. "I think that virtual reality is going to revolutionize education," he says. "I think our current education system is broken, I think our current information transfer systems for education are broken, and I think virtual reality has the potential to change everything." There have been a number of studies over the years demonstrating how people form better memories when they things in real life, rather than reading about them on a piece of paper. For him, this is VR's cue.
"We still send people on field trips. Why do we do that? It's disruptive and economically inefficient," Luckey continues. "But we do it because you get something [out of them that] you can't get by reading a book. So what if you could take that and bring it to everybody — not just the people who can afford field trips, but every person in every classroom? I think that virtual reality is going to make that possible, not just as an occasional thing but as the default thing; if you're trying to teach someone about a subject, why should the default be trying to read about it on a piece of paper? The long-term goal would be that a VR headset is in every school — really, at every desk in every school — and that it would be a ubiquitous, cheap technology. Everywhere that there's an iPad today, 20 years from now I'm certain there will be a virtual reality headset."