The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality

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Caption: Development Kit 2, March 2014 Photos by Dan Winters

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. If 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.

“This is the first time that we’ve succeeded in stimulating parts of the human visual system directly.”

But then Iribe got a call from Michael Abrash, an engineer at Valve; the gaming software company had conducted VR research for a while and had begun collaborating with Oculus. Valve had a new proto­type, and it didn’t make people sick. In fact, no one who had tried the demonstration had felt any discomfort. Iribe, who was famously sensitive to VR-induced discomfort—“cold sweat syndrome,” he calls it, or sometimes “the uncomfortable valley”—flew up to Valve’s offices outside Seattle to be the ultimate guinea pig.

Abrash escorted Iribe into a small room tucked off a hallway. The walls and ceilings were plastered with printouts of QR-code-like symbols called fiducial markers; in the corner, a young engineer named Atman Binstock manned a computer. Connected to the computer was Valve’s proto­type headset—or at least the very beginnings of a headset, all exposed circuit boards and cables. Iribe slipped it over his head and found himself in a room, the air filled with hundreds of small cubes.

He turned his head to look behind him—more floating cubes. Cubes to the left, cubes to the right, cubes overhead, floating away into infinity. Iribe leaned forward and peered around to see the side of the cube closest to him; he crouched and could see its underside. A small camera on the headset was reading the fiducial markers on the (real) wall and using that spatial information to track

his position among the (virtual) cubes. So far, so good; no motion sickness yet.

Binstock tapped some keys and moved the demo to its next stage. Inside the headset, Iribe stood in a giant chamber, a web browser page on each wall. Iribe picked out a word on the wall across from him and started shaking his head back and forth, rotating as fast as he could, waiting for the word to smear across his vision and make him dizzy. Nothing. In any of Oculus’ own proto­type headsets, Iribe would have gotten nauseated long ago, but he was still feeling good.

As Binstock continued clicking through the demo, Iribe faded in and out of a series of rooms—bare-bones virtual worlds filled with cubes and spheres. In all of them he took his time, moving, crouching, panning this way and that, taking in his 360-degree surroundings. Eventually he came to the grand finale, in which he floated slowly though a vast structure, its interior walls like some glowing mashup of Tron and a Death Star trench. The demo was at an end.

But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. “Again,” he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the proto­type. His head felt strange—not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. “How long was I in there?” he asked Abrash and Binstock.

Videogame legend John Carmack, seen here in 2009, would leave id Software to join Oculus as CTO.

Drew “Prognar” Campbell

It had been close to 45 minutes.

That’s it, Iribe thought. This is going to be bigger than I ever expected.

And that’s saying something, because 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 Cuar


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