Oculus Rift Takes Virtual Reality Mainstream

Start-up Oculus VR's affordable headset incorporates smartphone technology

Virtual reality has been hyped as the next big thing for decades—and yet, it never seems to deliver. Despite the potential, particularly in the world of gaming, numerous attempts have left players dizzy with disappointment, and just plain dizzy. So why should you believe us when we say that this is the year?

Two words: Oculus Rift.

The Rift is the brainchild of 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, a start-up in Irvine, Calif. Luckey was weaned on late 20th-century dreams of virtual reality. He’d read about the cyberspace Metaverse in the novel Snow Crash, watched Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, and seen Jeff Bridges teleport into the world of Tron. Coming of age in California during the dot-com boom, he assumed that brilliant geeks were already cooking up a fantastically immersive simulated world. “I grew up imagining it was some technology that people must have in a lab somewhere,” he recalls.

But although basic virtual reality technology had been around for decades and had been adopted by deep-pocketed entities such as the U.S. military, it still wasn’t ready for mass market applications, such as gaming. That wasn’t for lack of effort—in the 1990s the once-buzzed-about Virtuality Group put out a series of virtual reality arcade game machines, while Nintendo Co. released the Virtual Boy “console,” built around a stereoscopic headset. But chunky displays, expensive hardware, lackluster games, and sluggish processing doomed these attempts.

Today, Luckey’s in his own lab at Oculus VR, which has drawn attention for both the people on his team and their progress in creating a high-quality VR headset. The headset—the Oculus Rift—should arrive early in 2014 for around US $300 and will allow third-party game developers to bring their creative skills to bear.

By figuring out how to make the technology both immersive and affordable, Luckey has become the boy wonder of the game biz. He has earned praise from game developers known for being on the bleeding edge of new technologies, such as Valve Corp. (creators of the Counter-Strike, Half-Life, and Portal series) and Epic Games (makers of the Gears of War titles). “The folks at Oculus understand the new world order in which we live,” says Cliff Bleszinski, the former design director at Epic. “Crowdfunding, community, and hacking are driving many areas of innovation, and they’re leveraging that.”

In the greatest endorsement, John Carmack, the cocreator of Doom and Quake—who is considered by many to be the industry’s greatest graphics programmer [see “The Wizardry of Id,” IEEE Spectrum, August 2002]—joined Oculus as chief technology officer in August following the death of original CTO Andrew Scott Reisse in June 2013.

Carmack compares work on the Rift to the early days of Id Software, the company he cofounded in 1991 that repeatedly revolutionized both computer graphics and gaming. (Initially, Carmack split his time and continued to work at Id, but this past November he left to focus on Oculus.) “I have fond memories of the development work that led to a lot of great things in modern gaming—the intensity of the first-person experience, LAN and Internet play, game mods, and so on,” Carmack blogged about his new position at Oculus. “Duct-taping a strap and hot-gluing sensors onto Luckey’s early prototype Rift and writing the code to drive it ranks right up there. Now is a special time.”

The time began for Luckey in 2009, at age 17, when he started tinkering with the head-mounted displays then available. Many of the key challenges in creating virtual reality, he realized, had been solved by the makers of mobile phones and handheld games: Powerful mobile processors, high-fidelity graphics software, and precision motion trackers were all available. The missing link, he thought, was the right optics.

The solution he devised was to build a headset with a single screen and two lenses. The low-cost lenses provided the necessarily wide field of view. Although they introduced some geometric distortion, Luckey knew this could be compensated for with modern graphics hardware. “In the VR heyday in the ’90s, computers didn’t have that,” Luckey says. “This lets Rift be as cheap as it is using parts off the shelf.”

By 2011, Luckey was in the perfect place to refine his research: as a head-mounted-display designer at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. The institute is a U.S. Army–funded R&D facility in Los Angeles that uses Hollywood talent to create high-end training and education simulations. Working with the VR pioneer Mark Bolas, Luckey learned the nuances of how people perceive VR environments and began building head-mounted displays. One of them was FOV2GO, a bare-bones project that uses a cardboard mount to hold an iPhone in front of the viewer while rendering a scene.

But his biggest break came early last year when he received an unexpected e-mail from Carmack. The celebrated coder had come across some of Luckey’s online postings, and he wanted to know if he could buy one of Luckey’s headsets. Carmack had been fascinated by virtual reality since seeing the Holodeck on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as a teen, and he had been chipping away for decades at the technology needed for VR as he helped create Id’s first-person shooter games. Carmack said a decade ago that he considered it a “moral imperative” to create affordable virtual reality for games. Luckey, a huge fan of Carmack’s, immediately sent him the only prototype he had. “You’re John Carmack,” Luckey recalls thinking at the time, “you can get what you want.”

Carmack asked if he could demo the prototype to some people, and Luckey agreed. But Luckey had no clue just how many people Carmack had in mind until Carmack presented the Rift at the biggest gaming convention in the country, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), in Los Angeles. One popular game site heralded that the “Rift could be the closest we’ve come to Star Trek’s Holodeck” and another describing it as “a gaming experience with a level of immersion genuinely unlike anything else we have ever encountered.”

The positive press didn’t just generate interest; it brought in cash. Following the E3 splash, Luckey sought backing on the online fund-raising site Kickstarter, hoping to raise $250 000. Less than two days later, he had more than $1 million (by the time the 30-day funding campaign closed, $2 437 429 had been pledged). “Kickstarter ended up being the only way I could get funded,” Luckey says. “When you have a project with no proven market and [with a technology that’s] failed so many times in past, it’s kind of crazy to go to traditional investors.”

Game developers have already been buying Oculus Rift development kits to build titles that will support the Rift. While the larger companies aren’t revealing what they’re working on yet, Rift is being publicly embraced by independent developers. Ryan Anderson, a recent college graduate in Goshen, N.Y., is creating a first-person horror game, Specter Seekers, for the Rift. Anderson could be making games for the large mobile market, but he sees this as a way of getting in on the ground floor. “There’s not much market now,” he acknowledges, but “in a few years I think people will be eating this up.”

The novelty is also a challenge, though, especially when trying to solve problems that are unique to head-mounted VR displays. For example, “Trying to use head-tracking to get your character to move—that’s not something well documented yet,” Anderson says. “That’s more figuring it out on your own.”

For developers such as Anton Yudinstev, chief executive officer and president of the Russia-based Gaijin Entertainment, coding on the Rift means keeping one eye on the future while still making the most of today’s technology. Graphic resolution and precise tracking of the wearer’s movements are among the critical challenges, but the most important issue is latency: making the virtual view respond to the players’ actions and movements as smoothly as in the real world. In a virtual-reality environment, slow movement is disorienting—even nauseating.

Problems such as those give pause to Lewis Ward, research director for IDC. He notes how earlier enthusiasm over 3-D gaming failed to pan out on platforms such as the PlayStation 3. Home viewers resisted wearing glasses to watch 3-D movies at home, despite the hopes of television manufacturers. “Until those sorts of technology become mainstream, I’m really skeptical that a much larger and more expensive headset will get here,” Ward says.

But the smart money is betting that Rift will overcome the factors that doomed those earlier attempts, and that it will do so in time for consumers to play this year. The time simply seems right, to some observers. With the arrival of Google Glass, there’s finally “an appetite” for this kind of experience, says analyst Scott Steinberg of TechSavvy Global.

Luckey says the most popular application now available on the Rift developer prototypes isn’t a game at all. It’s VR Cinema, which puts viewers inside a sort of wraparound theater and lets them watch movies inside the goggles. And if the declining cost of components over the next few years lets Oculus price the headset under $100, Luckey believes that VR entertainment will become ubiquitous. The next step, he says, is reducing the weight and size of the displays. “In the next couple years,” he promises, “we’ll get to where it will be as light and small as ski goggles.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Virtual Reality’s Moment.”

A correction to this article was made on 24 January 2014.

About the Author

An IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, David Kushner often writes about hacking, social media, and computer gaming. “VR has been the holy grail of geekdom for decades, but now, especially with John Carmack [cocreator of Doom] on the Oculus team, it could finally be a reality,” says Kushner.

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