John Carmack "not all that excited" by next-gen hardware

The legendary programmer does see a bright future with VR headsets though

Virtual reality, once thought of as a gimmicky, far-fetched idea, is becoming reality, and id Software's John Carmack is pushing hard to make VR headsets a part of every gamer's standard equipment. The Doom creator spent most of E3 showing off his own special VR headset in conjunction with the Doom 3 BFG Edition. For Carmack, prettier graphics are nice, but they won't fundamentally change the gameplay experience; VR, on the other hand, could have a dramatic impact.

As it turns out, a man by the name of Palmer Luckey had been working on something similar to what Carmack was tooling around with: an Oculus Rift head-mounted display.

"I was building these things myself but then I came across another guy with a huge personal collection of head mount displays and he's been working on these in his workshop. He's offering this as a kit for only $500, and he sent it to me. I added my sensors and software and stuff on there... When we decided to re-issue Doom 3, the thought was 'how do you interest people in an 8-year old title?' The idea was that we had serious stuff, Microsoft and Sony are pushing the 3D TV stuff, but I'm still not a huge backer of that. I think I did as good a job as possible with it. It's kind of neat, but it's a toss-up if you want to play it, especially on a console where you have to deal with frame-rate."

"In many ways I am not all that excited about the next generation. It will let us do everything we want to do now, with the knobs turned up"

John Carmack

"[Luckey] is starting a Kickstarter to help fund the first batch at $100 a kit. The hope is to sell these at $500 a kit with sensor and a copy of Doom 3 it could be about $600. I may wind up subsidizing a set of this first batch as they are so incredibly cool. I'm hoping that we will have these available around August... to have a chance, to have an impact on how VR is going to go, as this is better than most high-end units."

Interestingly, while the demo we played was with an Xbox 360 controller, Microsoft hasn't shown much interest, while Sony has, Carmack noted. Not only that, but Carmack told us that he's "actually going to be talking with Valve next month." Carmack didn't say who this was, but we're guessing it's Valve's Michael Abrash, who's already spoken publicly of his interest in wearable computing.

"I got a friend up there who is working with augmented reality, so there is a lot of overlap. It will be fun sitting down to talk about that stuff. So yeah, it is one of those things that we feel we're on the cusp of something rolling. This is neat, but I know three ways we can make this much better with available things, it just takes more effort and work. This is all stuff that can be done, it is not expensive and certainly in a price point of something like this could be a radical experience," Carmack said.

The demo we tried was certainly impressive, and the goggles do track your head motions, mapped to the left analog aiming controls, pretty well. The downside is it's a somewhat isolating experience.


"Certainly it doesn't cover every gaming experience, because a lot of gaming is social. It is you and your buddy sitting there, and eventually you will be able to see your buddy's avatar and everything, but there is still the living room atmosphere that you won't get with something like this. I do think it will be able to cover a large fraction of the gaming market out there though," Carmack told us.

Carmack sees this as just the beginning, and he thinks it can tie in nicely to the booming mobile market. "In a couple years, we hope that instead of being tethered to a PC, you build it off mobile-phone hardware, an iPhone 5 or whatever. No wires, you use the cameras for optical positioning and then you can walk around. You can set up your arena and play in Virtual Reality," he said.

"Sony and Microsoft are going to fight over gigaflops and teraflops and GPUs and all this. In the end, it won't make that much difference. When you get to this, it makes a really big difference in the experience"

John Carmack

"It won't sweep the world in a year or two, but so much of what we've always been trying to do with games is simulate that holodeck experience and put you in a different world. This could do it in a way that you could never, ever get in a traditional game," he continued. "The thing is, when you walk around E3, you are still looking into a screen playing an interactive movie. That's just not the same level of experience that you get with this. You can integrate additional factors of actual motion. With a different sensor on here, you can get down on your hands and knees and put your hands on the virtual floor. That's really, really cool."

It's always enjoyable to listen to someone speak on a topic they're hugely passionate about, and we could tell that Carmack could barely contain himself while talking about VR and his headset. This, he argues, not the fight over polygons, is what can change the industry.

"Sony and Microsoft are going to fight over gigaflops and teraflops and GPUs and all this. In the end, it won't make that much difference. When you get to this, it makes a really big difference in the experience. Nintendo went and brought motion into the gaming sphere and while only having a tenth of the processing power was able to outsell all of them in all of these ways. I think someone has an opportunity to do this here. It takes a whole ecosystem though, but it is almost perfect," he enthused.

Carmack asserted that Microsoft should have put its research into something like this VR technology rather than Kinect. "They screwed up the latency on all of it... I still think it is unfortunate; they did some very good software work in that, but it should have gone into something like this though," he said.

Ultimately, technology doesn't hold back game designers anymore, Carmack said and that's why he doesn't view the next graphical leap as being too important.

"When people ask how tapped out is the current console generation, PCs are 10 times as powerful but you really are still not technically limited. Any creative vision that a designer could come up with, we can do a pretty good job representing on current generation and certainly on PC. In many ways I am not all that excited about the next generation. It will let us do everything we want to do now, with the knobs turned up," he said.

"If you take a current game like Halo which is a 30 hertz game at 720p; if you run that at 1080p, 60 frames with high dynamic frame buffers, all of a sudden you've sucked up all the power you have in the next-generation. It will be what we already have, but a lot better. You will be able to redesign with a focus on D11, but it will not really change anyone's world. It will look a lot better, it will move towards the movie rendering experience and that is better and better, but it's not like the first time you've ever played an FPS. It won't be like putting yourself in the virtual world. All the little things you can do on that, such as playing an audio cue over here, and turning your attention to that. That will be more of the discontinuous step like we've had with first going to 3D or first using a mouse," he elaborated.

So when will VR headsets fulfill Carmack's dream and become a mainstream market reality? It's hard to say, but Luckey's Kickstarter is beginning in another week or two and then if a major player gets involved, who knows?

"As a fully consumer thing, it is hard to imagine that happening in less than a year. Sony is already interested in this thing, and they are interested in seeing how they want to follow this up. I can easily imagine something like that. Sony conceivably could have a product out in the next year. I have no inkling on internal plans, but as a company I think they can do it," Carmack said.

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Latest comments (30)

Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd4 years ago
Count me in. Exciting stuff.
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James Brightman Editor in Chief, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
One thing I didn't mention in the story is that his prototype doesn't fit over my prescription glasses, so my vision was pretty blurry, but even so, it was very cool and definitely immersive.
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Darryl Linington Owner/Editor, ITF Gaming4 years ago
I find that many developers tend to forget about those of us who wear glasses. I tested out some prototype glasses at a company here in Johannesburg, South Africa and felt so awkward because they did not fit over my glasses.
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Show all comments (30)
Greg Knight Freelance Developer 4 years ago
Have I just been transported back 10 years?
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Matt Martin Editor, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
John Carmack wears glasses, right?

Is this something worth following as viable new gaming tech or just an eccentric playing around?
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Ben Furneaux Designer, Turbulenz Limited4 years ago
VR done well is easily the most immersive experience you can have — there's a lot of potential there. It's really exciting to see someone as smart and influential as Carmack's pushing it forward.
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Rodney Smith Developer 4 years ago
If you want to sign up for the prototype go here:

Could be the best $500 you ever spent (excluding that time in Vegas)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rodney Smith on 20th June 2012 9:17am

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Sam Brown Programmer, Cool Games Ltd.4 years ago
I so want Charles Stross to be right - not about the main plot, but about the Specs and mobile technology. In fact, I believe there's an endorsement from Carmack in the blurb. With both Carmack and Google looking into it I have real hope this time.

I grew up near an arcade with a Virtuality machine in it, and my first gaming job was with a combat sim company who dabbled in supporting VR. If I had the money there'd be bits of mobile phone strapped to my face with gaffer tape right now. :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 20th June 2012 10:05am

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James Prendergast Research Chemist 4 years ago
Wait, so it costs $100 to make the kit? Maybe another $50 for the game (no idea about the sensor) and he's going to try and sell them for $500-600? Is that sort of mark-up usual for products? 80%ish?

If I knew it cost so little and I wasn't sure on the pay-back of the experience from buying one of these then I certainly wouldn't get one.
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Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd4 years ago
Rather than cramming all the tech into the visor, it's worth looking into pico projector technology (becoming available on mobiles) to project the image onto normal-sized eyewear. You'll probably get more resolution and a clearer image this way.

I believe there is an Israeli company out there that can project images onto treated clear glasses (only the wearer sees the image)

it seems to me that this is the holy grail of 3d gaming.
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Stephen Woollard Online Infrastructure Specialist, Electronic Arts4 years ago
@James - I read that the same way; are they saying it'll be $100 to make and $500 to buy? If so, count me out. A healthy return is one thing, but if that's the case it's just blatant profiteering. Can we get some clarity on this?

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see where this goes, if anywhere. I remember back in the early 80's VR was going to be the Next Big Thing™ but it flopped horribly, mainly because of two things - cost and the fact it made people feel sick.

Kind of reminds me of the current state of 3D TVs :-)

I also had a bit of a chuckle on the comment from Mr Carmack about how to get people interested in an eight year old game. Here's an idea - make a new one. Doom 4 would get my interest a damn sight quicker than a Doom 3 "reboot" (I really hate that term) ever would.
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Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd4 years ago
And i love that picture! What a wonderfully geeky image!
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
Me personally... Not interested in wearing a VR headset.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters4 years ago
@Tameem - Because processing elsewhere and transmitting to the glasses would introduce lag? Lag in games normally is annoying, but in VR headset it's critical, since it gives people motion sickness.
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Alex Cole Artist, EightPixelsSquare4 years ago
finally, games might get interesting again.

wake me up when this comes out :D
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Rodney Smith Developer 4 years ago
@James/Stephen - I think the large mark-up is a function of the low volume expected. Even at $whatever$ price its still the best out there.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago

VR is still gimmicky.

Carmack is an excellent graphics programmer.

However, new breakthroughs in games will now be made via the hands of the game designer, not the graphics programmer.

There is already enough graphics out there. I want games that mean something. Give me new voices, give me interesting ideas in subject matter, make the tools solid and easy enough to use that these new voices and ideas can get out there.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 20th June 2012 4:31pm

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Shane McCafferty iOS Developer/Consultant, Shane McCafferty4 years ago
Great picture!

It still sounds and looks like madhattery right now but with Carmack involved I'm certainly a little more interested.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 4 years ago
@Rodney, that may be (and really he can charge whatever he wants for it!) but if it's a kickstarter project how does that work out? You're looking for people to be donating $500 to something that they have to assemble themselves which will likely only work with one game ever? I don't know how many people would do that.

$500 is just too expensive for me to ever consider that proposition. I don't have that sort of money to be throwing away.
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Yannick Boucher Project Manager, Crytek4 years ago
I thought VR headsets were a thing from 1995... ?
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 4 years ago
Couldn't agree more Tim. However, I'm not going to lie... I have a 3DS but I have the option of turning the 3D off and I don't have to wear some stupid head prison to enjoy it.
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 4 years ago
VR is much MUCH better than any 3D TV, it is completely immersive and that is a whole different experience..

And comparing 3DS to a HMD is BS, they're completely different products..
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American McGee CEO, Spicy Horse4 years ago
As someone who had a chance to wear these at E3, I have to jump in here and add to the discussion. These things literally blew me away. This is coming from someone who has tried every version of VR goggles going back 20 years - from off-the-shelf stuff offered by Sony to $30kUSD head-mount medical imaging displays. Nothing I've ever seen compares to the quality or immersion of these hand made goggles. John is onto something here.

And I agree 100% with John's assessment that the next great leap forward isn't going to come from an increase in processing power (on console). Nor is it something that pure design can deliver on. It's going to be a wedding of new tech and platform which opens opportunity for new design. See the Wii. See iPhone. Pay no attention to Kinect.

My prediction: VR goggles + mobile devices + tactile/haptic feedback screen (plus tilt, touch, accel input) = the next big thing. I'd bet money on it.
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Tony Johns4 years ago
I think I have been transported back 20 years ago,

in the 90s, that was where all of this multimedia gaming consoles and virtual reality stuff mostly took in the minds of those who dreamed big.

but now since we are having multimedia type of game consoles that can do more than just play games on them, I feel that with Virtual Reality, the biggest barrier is how to communicate to normal users that playing with a thing on your face is attractive to other people playing with you.
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How many people play games to be attractive?
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Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd4 years ago
@Christopher: how many people are willing to make themselves look less attractive and stupid at the same time, all the while running the risk of being burgled and being none the wiser until they disconnect your XBox.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
Call me crazy, but doesn't this modern VR sort of shut out gamers who are disabled/differently able/prone to claustrophobia/don't have access to anything other than physical media.

Yeah, yeah, I know the future is all bright and shiny and VR-like every day, but if the industry keeps ONLY making toys those who work in it can afford without trying to fit in as many folks who aren't driving fancy cars and making decent money, it's going to suffer and continue struggling as it bounces from target audience to target audience.

Just a thought...
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Kirill Yarovoy Game designer / Narrative designer / Writer 3 years ago
I have strong feeling of Deja-vu.
Arent VR technology was available already in 199X era? I remember back then there was some VR devices for sale and even some games supported it (on PC, not on consoles, they always sucked in terms of innovations, because of closed architecture and lack of upgradeability), everyone was excited about VR back in 199X, there was a lot of movies and tv series about this, U.S. Army started VR training program etc... then everyone forgot about VR for about 10 years, and now everyone hyping about Oculus Rift like it something new and special and like everyone forgot VR technology that was availalbe before.
Same thing happened with 3D, i played games in 3D somewhere since 2001, before it became mainstream...
i saw some movies in 3D long before Avatar...
I dont see anything really new and exciting about Oculus Rift, also without stands that holds your torso and allows to run in every direction (now its virtuix omni, they claim its a 1st device, bit yet again i remember som "giant trackballs for legs" in 199X era) such things cant provide full VR expirience, and such things not going to be mainstream even if Oculus will, because of their size and price.
Thats all pretty much old tech. Im not excited about it!

I would be really excited when i'll see VR devices with direct connection and stimulation of brain, so they can fake neural signals and replace real eyes\ears video\audio stream with VR simulation, and will intercept neural signals that goes to real limbs and will re-route them as input controls intro VR applications.
Actually there is a company with name Neural Signals Inc. (google for it) that already does 1st steps in this direction, but at the moment they focused on helping disabled people with help of such method of interception and faking neural signals via invasive and non invasive brain-computer interface (BCI), and there are more companies like this.

I think giants of game industry should invest into researches of such companies, they will shoot two rabbits: wil help to build a better future for disabled people, and better future of game and movie industry, because same tech can be later used for enterntainment and artistic purposes... and this better future is not so distant as it seems.
Oculus Rift, however, is a tech of past already!
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Andreia Quinta Creative & People Photographer, Studio52 London3 years ago
This isn't it. Tech needs to improve another 10 to 15 years, it's like trying to make Jurassic Park with CGI in 1980. It's definitely part of the process of getting there eventually, and important. But it's not there yet.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Andreia Quinta on 29th May 2013 12:31pm

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises3 years ago
I feel like I already read this a year ago...
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