Virtual reality has never been a reality for the average consumer. Since the first Sensorama—a multi-sensory machine that displays stereoscopic 3D images—in the 1950s, the technology has settled in arcades, NASA, medical fields, the military, and even Formula 1. Every commercial attempt at virtual reality, or VR, has failed. In 1995, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy lasted twelve months before the company discontinued it. Atari’s Jaguar VR followed the same trajectory a year later. Jaron Lanier, a godfather of virtual reality, saw his VR company VPL Research go bankrupt in 1990. “Every two or three years there’s another wave of interest in VR. What happens typically is that there is insane speculation that reality will be transcended or something like that,” said Lanier in Popular Mechanics. Enter Palmer Luckey.
As a home-schooled kid growing up in Long Beach, California, Luckey was obsessed with how to get more immersive gameplay in videogames. In his teens, he worked at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies’ Mixed Reality Lab and tested VR reserved for well-endowed institutions. The experience floored him. His fixation overflowed from work to free time and, to his account, he amassed a total of 63 VR headsets. Still, none of them reached his standards. So he tinkered.
Six generations of prototypes later, Luckey finally got something he was satisfied with. He named it the Rift. The news floated around online forums, and John Carmack, a legendary game developer most famous for the Doom series, got word. Luckey sent Carmack a deconstructed version of the headset. Carmack was so impressed that he demoed it at a popular gaming convention called E3. This was the watershed moment for Palmer Luckey’s invention.
The Rift sparked enough interest that Luckey sought out a leadership team and made a company, Oculus VR Inc. Next came a Kickstarter campaign. Luckey set a funding goal of $500,000, then he lowered it to $250,000 out of nerves. The company raised $2.4 million in hours. More people joined the cause, and more press took notice. Oculus added $75 million in Series B funding in December 2013. Then it went mainstream. On March 25, 2014, Facebook announced they acquired Oculus for $2 billion—a reported $400 million in cash and the remainder in stock.
The Facebook purchase irritated a number of original backers and the gaming elite. Oculus VP of Product, Nate Mitchell, asserts that the financial wiggle room is paramount in order to deliver a high-quality, affordable product. “Let’s say we’re trying to pack in everything we can for $300. If the device needs to be profitable, then the company couldn’t spend much more than $100 on hardware itself. But now that it doesn’t need to preserve its profit margin you can take all of that margin money, apply it to components, and still keep the price exactly the same,” he said in Wired UK. Luckey told PC & Tech Authority the goal is to have a consumer product that is roughly $300 by next year.
How did Palmer Luckey succeed when so many others stumbled? A good deal had to do with moxie. Mark Bolas, The Mixed Reality Lab’s director, said Luckey, “had a passion in his eye that is rare to fine,” in Popular Mechanics. The rest of the work relied on cheap and available modules. For early Rift prototypes, Luckey transplanted an iPhone’s screen, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer—all inexpensive parts due to the ubiquity of smartphones. This process of using existing technology is not new in the gaming world. Gunpei Yokoi, the creator of Nintendo Gameboy, transferred LCD displays and semiconductors from cheap Sharp and Casio calculators to create Nintendo’s Game & Watch series, as explained in PC & Tech Authority. But the tinkering continues.
Oculus spends millions of dollars on milliseconds of improvements because VR is one of the few things that good, or even great, is not good enough. Only perfect will do. Otherwise, it will make you sick. The visuals must be crystal clear and low latency, meaning not smear or fuzz with the turn of a head, as a shaky image will induce nausea. The action must fill a full field of view in order to fully trick a brain that a gamer is present in an artificial world. The Rift uses an external camera to track and predict motion to shave milliseconds of latency, and they upgraded from LCD to AMOLED screens, which change color in less than a millisecond as opposed to 15 milliseconds for LCD.
And still, after all this, there is another variable: the games. No matter how impressive the Oculus Rift’s hardware is, if there are no games worth playing, then the Rift has missed its target audience. For developers, this means keeping in mind a new set of rules. “In many cases presence trumps game design; it’s much more important to have your game deliver a sense of presence than it is to conform to a given genre,” said SCE Research & Development engineer Anton Mikhailov in GamesTM.
In other words, feeling like you’re in a world is more important than your actions in the world. This is why Andy Tudor, creative director at British videogame company Slightly Mad Studios, believes sedentary experiences—roller coasters, driving games—are the most successful. More movement may bring more problems. “Less perfect perhaps is the VR suitability of gaming’s most pervasive and popular genre, the first-person action game, for whether seated or standing, unless invested and harnessed into a VR treadmill, gamers will have to be largely immobile. Meanwhile in the game world, legs and arms might be pumping away at the periphery and the disconnect between what players are seeing and feeling will work to reduce all-important presence,” wrote GamesTM.
The future of virtual reality is bright but unclear. Soon after Oculus landed on the radar Sony announced its Project Morpheus, a similar VR headset for gaming. Mark Zuckerberg has a grander vision for the technology, one of communications and learning platform—taking students inside a museum, or putting executives across the world into one boardroom. Oculus even hired a director of film and television to cater to Hollywood inquiries. If Oculus and Sony can satisfy gamers’ infamous sky-high standards, then maybe VR has a chance at a bigger audience.
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