Oculus Rift and the Virtual Reality Revolution

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on the next big platform for gaming

There has been no shortage of articles about the Oculus Rift since its startling debut under the auspices of John Carmack at E3 this year. And thin-skinned journalists will be less than delighted to know that, in the eyes of one individual, very few of those articles have passed muster. Who is this person watching from the shadows, quietly judging our coverage of the industry's latest stab at virtual reality? Well, its inventor, Palmer Luckey.

You see, prior to becoming one of the most talked about Kickstarter success stories, Luckey was a journalism major. He had tired of reading articles on his favourite tech sites that seemed to be written by “iPhone-toting hipsters” who had an obvious paucity of relevant knowledge. They wanted gadgets, they owned gadgets, but they didn't really understand what they were or how they worked. The very fact that this article is about Luckey rather than by him tells you all you need to know about his nascent journalism career, but when the flood of Oculus Rift coverage started this summer, the old flaws were present and correct.

"Virtual reality is going to be a platform, and not just something that you plug into the console. We're going to get to the point where the headset is the console"

“Some of them said it was John Carmack's invention,” Luckey says, grimacing. “PC Gamer had the worst article by far: they said that Carmack was working with an industrial design firm in Texas. I'm not Texan, I'm not an industrial designer, I'm not a firm. The worst part was they had a video embedded in the article in which Carmack says my name, that I live in California, and there's a URL for my website on the wall.”

The relative ease of fact-checking notwithstanding, the mistake that the Oculus Rift was a product of John Carmack's bright and questing mind was easy to make. Virtual reality may still seem to be a futuristic concept, but the games industry has been trying - and failing, often spectacularly - to harness its allure for consumers since the mid-Nineties. So when a figure like Carmack uses the world's most public gaming event to proclaim that somebody finally got it right, it's only natural to assume that he had a hand in its creation, and that he had help along the way.

In fact, Carmack's contribution was simply to stumble across some of Luckey's posts on an online forum. id Software's legendary co-founder had a longstanding interest in virtual reality technology, and, with his interest piqued by Luckey's work, he asked to buy a prototype.

“I told him I'd build him one for free instead. Only good things can come from working with John Carmack,” Luckey recalls. “E3 surprised me too, actually. I didn't know that much about him doing it until he actually did it. I was at a display conference in Boston, Display Week, and I didn't find out about it until the last day. One of my friends sent me a text: 'Dude, that's so cool, Carmack's got your headset at E3'. What?”

Carmack's largesse was both a ringing endorsement of the product and a catalyst for Luckey to shift into high gear - “The reaction was good enough,” he says. Until that point, his attempts to create a technically proficient head-mounted display had been motivated by personal considerations. In short, Luckey is a lifelong gamer, virtual reality is a cool concept, and every existing product he had managed to acquire had run the gamut from disappointing to outright embarrassing. By the time he had bought 20 different devices, it became clear that, if he wanted a good virtual reality headset, he wasn't just going to find one on eBay. He would have to take on the responsibility of building it himself.

Fortunately, with so many failed attempts to reference the major obstacles were easy to spot. “Good tracking, low latency tracking, hadn't been done very well,” he says. “Wide field of view - that's the main thing. Most of the headsets that reached the market had a pitiful field of view. [The Oculus Rift] is not just twice as wide, it's also much taller, so it's actually four to six times as large as the field of view of most other headsets. It's hard to quantify, but subjectively it's a huge difference: it's like the difference between playing on a 19-inch monitor and a 50-inch TV.”

For Luckey, display technology has the most potential to push gaming into new territory, and it could have happened a long time before the Oculus Rift breezed past its $250,000 Kickstarter goal in September. The technology in the prototype Luckey is showed at the Evolve developer conference in London last week has been available and affordable for several years. Anybody with the right skills could have built a similar headset, but nobody was trying.

“It's not exactly a case of the right place at the right time, and the right thing got picked up by the right person,” he says, though he concedes that there are elements of each of those things at play. “All of the components in this prototype have existed since late 2008. It's old stuff: four-year old technology. We have fitted it with a more modern display and a better tracker since [the Kickstarter campaign], but what everyone has been writing and raving about since then existed in 2008.”

This is the most remarkable detail in the Oculus Rift story. In less than a year, Luckey has gone from an enterprising hobbyist to a widely discussed industry figure, bringing virtual reality back into the discussion after many years without progress, and eliciting glowing praise from Carmack, Valve's Gabe Newell and Mojang's Markus Persson in the process. But for all the rapidity of the Oculus Rift's rise, it could have been created by any number of companies in the industry, and had a company done so, Luckey would have been one of its first and most eager customers.

The problem, I suggest, is that virtual reality's chequered history has led to both the industry and its consumers regarding it as a gimmick. In winning over John Carmack and people of similar standing, Luckey has been able to convince the cynics that virtual reality was not just the preserve of Star Trek fantasists.

“It's not a gimmick if it works; it's a gimmick if it's novelty for novelty's sake,” he says. “Look at motion-controllers: Have you ever seen the Sega Activator? Okay, that's a motion-control gimmick because it sucks. It's interesting, but it sucks. The power glove sucked less, but it was also pretty much a gimmick. But now that motion-control technology is in the right place, we can see that it's not a gimmick because it can actually lead to gameplay experiences that didn't exist before.

“It's not just a peripheral. Virtual reality is going to be a platform, and not just something that you plug into the console. We're going to get to the point where the headset is the console.”

It's the sort of bold claim that's far easier to make before the first dev kits have even been delivered, but Luckey clearly understands the task ahead. If the Oculus Rift is to be the first major step in getting virtual reality into consumer homes, the thing it simply cannot do without is games - compelling experiences that both use and enhance the technology. Fortunately, the Kickstarter campaign also doubled as rudimentary market research: even if a few of the backers mistakenly believed they were buying a finished product, there still leaves thousands and thousands of interested parties who are almost certainly game developers.

And the enquiries didn't stop with Kickstarter. Luckey and his associates have met with hundreds of developers since the campaign closed, and he tells me there are thousands more that he didn't have time to see. While most nascent platforms from small operations like Oculus would be devoting considerable effort and resources reaching out to developers, Luckey has the luxury of the developers coming to him. This, he explains, will be the difference between Oculus Rift and platforms that falter after their honeymoon period - like, say, Microsoft's Kinect.

“Let's look at Kinect: there are some good first-party titles, but there aren't exactly hordes of third-party developers banging down Microsoft's door pleading for Kinect integration. They maybe don't see huge potential. They aren't that excited by it. But we have so many people - from big developers to indies - saying that they need virtual reality in their games. They want to do it. They want to be inside their games, and they want that for consumers, too. It's a good enough technology that it's not just a bunch of suits at the top.”

"We have so many developers saying that they need virtual reality in their games. It's a good enough technology that it's not just a bunch of suits at the top"

One of the problems that Kinect has arguably failed to overcome is the challenge the technology made to some of the most fundamental aspects of game design - how to navigate and look around a 3D space, for example. The Oculus Rift, on the other hand, is seductively accessible when it comes to gameplay: the technology logically fits the majority of existing game genres, and is a particularly good fit for first-person shooters, racing games and just about anything that puts the player behind the eyes of an avatar. That accounst for a good number of the most popular IPs in gaming.

However, the potential of the Oculus Rift as an immersive addition to a Call of Duty play session is the least we should expect from virtual reality technology. The majority of the excitement around Luckey's device emanated from the independent sector, and there's a good reason for that: the Oculus Rift will make headshots, explosions and hairpin bends more awesome, sure, but that inviting extra layer of immersion could allow developers to move in exactly the opposite direction. Over the course of our conversation we discuss games like Hawken and Star Citizen, but we also linger over slower and more contemplative experiences like thechineseroom's Dear Esther and The Fullbright Company's forthcoming Gone Home. With virtual reality, these games would have an entirely new level of appeal.

“The whole point of Dear Esther is not to accomplish goals and hit checkpoints," Luckey says. "It's just to experience the game, to make you feel like you're there. This could be very powerful for that kind of experience, as opposed to something like Counter Strike, which is based around maximum performance and superhuman reflexes in targeting. That probably isn't the game that will benefit the most from virtual reality. Honestly, a keyboard and mouse are superhuman interfaces; with VR, you're limiting yourself to what your body can actually do.”

And for the foreseeable future the Oculus Rift's home will be on the PC, where independent developers will be able to test its potential and limitations comfortably ahead of any plans the console companies might have. Not least because, for games to perform at 30fps or 60fps, the Oculus Rift will require more powerful consoles. And more powerful consoles will arrive in due course, at which point Luckey hopes that they will provide the next step in his grand plan.

“We'll be successful even if we only sell to indies," he says. "We don't have to sell to the Halos and Call of Dutys, but at some point that's what it's going to take. Maybe not now, maybe not next year, but at some point that's what we'll need to start a virtual reality gaming revolution.”

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Latest comments (15)

Great article Matthew - gave a great incite into Luckey and into what he hopes to achieve, also enjoyed the fact corrections that will fume a few media services.

Had hoped to attend the EVOLVE event, but time restrictions and organizer issues precluded that - was it well attended? Have seen minimal coverage other than slices of Luckey's keynote.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by kevin williams on 18th December 2012 7:10pm

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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz9 years ago
Thanks Kevin.

I have no frame of reference for Evolve as I haven't attended before this year, but at its peak there were around 60 people in the crowd.
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@Laurens - hey I believe you. I worked in VR at its height and am still thrilled in the application and what it can do. Think that those lucky enough to get their SDK systems will also be thrilled - but then the reality will sink in on that "long road" of game development that Luck eluded to in his presentation. I have to state bias - am looking forward to arcade application of the technology more than home!

@Matthew - I attended a few years back and they had on average 120 attend, so assume that it was way down on expectations - same true with DEVELOP so we see a pattern in attendance. Any chance we can get you to come to our DNA London Seminar at the arcade trade show next month?

PS. Funny how the second image in your article compilation was not of the RIFT but the SONY VRV system!

Edited 2 times. Last edit by kevin williams on 18th December 2012 7:11pm

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Show all comments (15)
The problem with the recent Develop sessions has (personally) been of less relevance. Plus I really really hate that Hilton hotel (which doesnt work)
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@Chee - I am not a fan of their selection process at Develop, but likewise I did present one back in 2000.
Running our own conference (DNA Conference) has made us persona-nongranular with the current organizers - and its like rubbing salt in to offer the chance for them to support our topics - especially now digital out-of-home entertainment is finding momentum as a topic.
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Karl Engblom Studying Health Informatics, Karolinska Institutet9 years ago
Whether the Rift is patentable is something lots of people have been wondering since the start. It would be highly ironic if the elegance of it is also what makes it impossible to patent.
The main innovation of the Rift is apparently a combination of optics and software. The software preprocesses what is displayed, making it possible to use much simpler optics than headsets displaying regular images such as movies.
The software itself is difficult to patent since it just manipulates existing rendering information according to well known optical equations. The optics is, it seems, an off-the-shelf lens. But is it really impossible to patent the combination of these parts?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Karl Engblom on 18th December 2012 11:38pm

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It is interesting that some of you are beginning to touch on a ticklish subject that some of us that worked previously in VR have avoided mentioning to not be labeled as doom-and-gloom merchants. For the Rift KS project, you will notice this is a investment plan only to build some 500 hardware development kits. From this game prototypes will be created, and from that a consumer production system can be created (following further investment) at best around 2015/16.

Many of you may not be aware that Atari actually developed (with Virtuality) a VR HMD consumer system back in the 90's, but the production version was pulled at the last minute over a mixture of hardware, licensing, and liability issues. The same way that Nintendo backed away from addressing the issue with the VRBoy - there is a hidden problem over patents, and liabilities that scares off some investment in VR. Similar to photo-sensitive-epilepsy, motion induced nausea and sim-sickness - the first developer of a immersive display consumer system will have to have a liability plan in place (as no software developer will want to shoulder that responsibility)!

You may not also be aware that the currently sold (and very good) Sony HMD is not an official VR system, but is sold only as a Virtual Viewer - leaving those to customize at their own risk the system for VR application! It is this hidden issue of long-term consumer exposure and tracking latency that still has the jury out on consumer VR's viability (MS, Sony and Nintendo still sitting on the fence and allowing Rift to plough their furrow).

@Lauren - don't mind the joshing, nice to be noticed!
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Aaron Brown BA Computer Science Student, Carnegie Mellon University9 years ago
This is exciting stuff.
However, while VR will be an easy sell to gamer's it will undoubtedly be a tough sell to a bigger mainstream audience. Why? Because it physically takes gaming to a place its never been before... A place of total isolation and seclusion.
It seems far better suited for the arcade than it does as a tack on console peripheral.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Aaron Brown on 19th December 2012 3:03am

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what you recall. Totall Recall :)
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 9 years ago
I'm a gamer and you couldn't sell me this stuff. So saying it will be an easy sell to gamers is a nonsense. I don't have, and I'm certainly not alone in not having, a living room made for VR in any way shape or form. My living room barely supports Kinect 1.0.

This stuff just simply doesn't work in a living room and couch scenario. It's like everyone is so excited that they've forgotten the one basic premise i.e. it has to be usable in todays homes by ordinary people and it frankly isn't! You can claim to immerse them and then what happens when:-

They need to spin about to see the threat behind them?
They need jump over a chasm on the virtual terrain?
They need to aim shoot at a sniper?

Once you start addressing those scenarios you start to work out the additional controls you need and then how to fit the helmet into that and guess what. It doesn't fit at all. You've basically made the gamer blind to their surroundings yet are asking them to use natural motion and movement to interact with a virtual one. Cue ambulance taking Mr Jones to hospital for the latest coffee table incident involving a VR game system.
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 9 years ago
Well, since the devkit has been pushed back, who knows if it will actually see the light of day.. In the end, only a few people will enjoy HMD VR as a lot of people just don't want to put any glasses or whatever on their heads..

I Like VR, and I only which there was an easy upgrade to the Forte VFX1 which IMHO is still the best/comfortable HMD around.. I also have the vuzix VR920, but that thing just sux, it doesn't sit well on your nose, the tracking REALLY sux (which only became even more crap with every newer update), but the visuals itself are better ofcourse than the VFX1..
Putting the oculus into a VFX1 HMD would be IMHO the best comfortable design..

Will be looking forward to the oculus, but I won't hold my breath on it actually being released...
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Adrian Herber9 years ago
@Peter Dwyer I agree trying to do everything via natural motion is incredibly problematic for many reasons including the very difficult issue of making it fit into a home environment.

But VR doesn't have to go that far. I'd been imagining head movement tracking your character head, but holding a dual joystick / trigger controller in your hands for the rest of the control options. Or maybe a wiimote-type device to control your 'hands' with motion sensors, but still use good old fashioned joysticks and triggers/buttons for other control. Surely control schemes like this could open up some very immersive gameplay but still with tight game controls and easily fitting into a home.
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Dominic Eskofier Marketing & PR Coordinator, Rockstar Games9 years ago
Hey Kevin,

There have been a few articles about the keynote, see here:

Would you mind linking me to the slides of the keynote? I couldn't find them anywhere, so a link would be much appreciated.
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@Dominic - thank you for the links, interesting though the PCGames coverage seemed to underline that this was interesting but not well presented keynote. I am waiting on the slides like everyone else; seems to have been promised then nothing! Think EVOLVE may have just gone into hibernation after the last event.

@Peter - you seem to have made my point for me. I was skeptical of the full game value that KINECT, Wii+ and now RIFT offer the 'consumer' gamer. I always laughed when the demonstration areas for the KINECT is bigger that most peoples living rooms, or the Wii+ traveling demo room was bigger than most Japanese families rooms!

I work in the Out-of-Home entertainment sector; we work on projects that can not be achieved at home - and I see VR and motion tracking as things that can be dabbled with by home systems, but the same way that consoles use to claim to offer 'arcade perfect' conversions, in reality give a watered down version of the full experience.

To be able to experience full (immersive) entertainment at the correct level, the only space I see fits the requirements is something like this :

And this technology and similar applications are clearly a Out-of-Home entertainment system, not a home game platform!
Now I have said this on a consumer game discussion forum I will be banned and thrown off!!! :)
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Aaron Brown BA Computer Science Student, Carnegie Mellon University9 years ago
@Dr. Chee Ming Wong
Can tell me where my assertions are wrong or misinformed?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Aaron Brown on 20th December 2012 2:09am

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