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VR: Palmer Luckey's Quest to Change the World


There's something about college drop-outs. Some of the top businessmen and innovators - Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, James Cameron, to name a few - left school. If Palmer Luckey, founder of VR firm Oculus, can truly be mentioned in the same breath as the computing pioneers Gates and Jobs, then virtual reality indeed will have had the impact Luckey is striving for. Luckey, still only 21 years old, has been investigating VR for years and he abandoned his journalism major studies to pursue his dream.

GamesIndustry International chatted at length with the young man at the recent D.I.C.E. Summit to see what his vision of the future really looks like.

Unlike older members of the industry, Luckey's age shows. We were sprawled out across a large lounger sofa. He was worried about how his speech just went. "People online were like, it looks like Palmer ate a bad burrito. It was supposed to be co-presented by me and our CEO Brendan [Iribe] and something really critical came up and he flew out of Vegas this morning on a moment's notice. I had to redo the whole speech. That was part of it," he explained.

That's how it goes in the high-tech startup world. You have to be prepared to react. Truth be told, Palmer's speech didn't yield any new revelations, but it doesn't matter because Oculus Rift is looking like the real deal. The buzz is palpable, not just from gamers but notable developers. Luckey admitted it's a lot of pressure to handle at a young age, but he believes it's all worth it if he can change the world.

"It is a lot of pressure. You know that what you're doing, it isn't about you anymore. I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing it because I think it's important for everyone - or at least a large group of people. I think VR is going to change the world. And even if it doesn't, just making games is an important thing and a lot of people are counting on me to do something [good]. So even that puts a lot of pressure on a person," he said.

"People imagine that we have some continuous development process. This is actually one of the more frustrating things I have to deal with. People are saying Oculus is just vaporware"

"The thing that helps is I'm in a very good position but technology is really what's driving VR forward, more than one person or even Oculus. VR has come back now where it's captured the public interest, and people are really interested in VR again. It's impossible that it's going to die almost whatever I do. I could have a crazy meltdown and go beat it on the streets of San Diego [and VR would move forward]."

The amazing thing is Luckey has no formal engineering training. He's completely self-taught. When asked about creating a VR headset, he makes it sound so simple, like anyone could just do it.

"It was kind of a mad, crazy rush to learn all of this stuff. A lot of it is out there in the public record, on the Internet or old military studies, things like that, but a lot of the information on VR is actually pre-Internet. We're talking about '80s or mid-90s and there are a lot of companies that have no mention beyond maybe a press release that happened to be digitized for an archive for a newspaper or something. And so it was a combination of reading everything I could find on the Internet and then also doing a lot of real world footwork and finding people who are there when it happened and talking to them, learning about their [projects], reverse engineering it and just by doing that you can figure out a lot of the background," he described.

Virtual Reality vs. Current Reality

Reverse engineering. Simple. "Perfect VR" can't be far off, right? "I'm not saying our tech will pull it off, but perfect VR I think would be the most important technological advancement that we've ever made," Luckey enthused. If you ask futurists like Google's Ray Kurzweil, we'll all soon have computer chips enhancing our brains, and we'll be plugged into networks and virtual reality, no headsets or external hardware necessary. Kurzweil, of course, also thinks humanity will become immortal. Luckey isn't quite sold on Kurzweil's theories.

"There are three types of singularitarians. There are people who think that someday we might live forever. Then there are the people who think we can prove today that someday we'll live forever. And there are people who believe that we can prove today that within their lifetimes they will live forever. I'm definitely in the first camp. I'm not as optimistic as Kurzweil in many regards. 15 years is probably a generous estimate [for a VR neural interface]. There are so many X factors," he said.

He continued, "There are things you cannot predict. You look at lists of things that could happen in the future. We're going to have organs that don't need anti-rejection drugs, you can grow things from your own stem cells, and there's X factors like aliens visit Earth, an asteroid comes out of a blind spot and wipes out the US. These are things we can't predict. I think perfect VR linking into your head is going to need a few X factors. And it could be we never get there. If we don't get there, it's not because it's not possible to stimulate a person's mind in a way to simulate a virtual environment; it may turn out that our minds are too different to apply the same work to everyone in a seamless way. And then the economics just won't make sense."

Image courtesy of www.youtube.com/gameon

So, back to the current reality. Right now Oculus needs to get a viable consumer VR headset onto the market. Luckey and his team are still not committing to a date, but they are getting close. The company wants to make a few more improvements to the technology and secure more made-for-VR content. As personable as Luckey is, he finally showed signs of frustration. He's learning what it's like to deal with celebrity and huge expectations.

"People imagine that we have some continuous development process. This is actually one of the more frustrating things I have to deal with. People are saying Oculus is just vaporware. 'Those guys have been showing prototypes for years.' I'm like, 'We've existed for 18 months!' And we've been shipping a dev kit for half of that. Products can take a long time to build and most of the time you don't find out about it until it's designed, ready to go and likely already in manufacturing. And then you find out about it and they give you a release date," he commented.

Luckey did his best to assuage fears and counter the notion that Oculus doesn't have a clear plan in place.

"We've shown people what we're doing from the earliest prototypes all the way to shipping the first dev kits. Normally dev kits ship under heavy NDA for tons of money with huge penalties if anything leaks about them... People imagine that we're letting feature creep get the best of us, that we're just developing and developing and that someday we're hoping it gets good enough. But we know what we need to ship," he said. "Valve talked about it at Steam Dev Days, what they think the minimum viable VR product is for consumers, and it lines up almost perfectly with what we think it needs to be. You can come to the same conclusions independently if you look at the kinds of resolution you need to achieve certain tasks, the kind of latency you need to trick a human mind into believing it's in a virtual space. The numbers work out to be about the same no matter who's doing the testing and we know what we need to build for a consumer product."

Although Luckey made it clear that Oculus is sticking to its vision, he also acknowledged that the company is in some ways at the mercy of technological progress.

"It's all a matter of tweaking the hardware, tweaking the software and waiting for content to come, and also components - we don't make everything, we're not a huge megacorp that makes every single component. Some components that we want to use in the consumer product do not exist in large volumes today. You can get bits and pieces to make the equivalent, but there are things we want to use that are just coming out now or aren't even in existence yet," he said. "And they're going to come into existence soon. If you have samples of something, it's not off in the distant future. We're not just sitting around waiting for things to get good enough; we're actively moving toward building that thing with the specs we know we need to ship."

The Road Ahead

The latest version of Oculus Rift we and many others in the press have tried, Crystal Cove, is impressive. It features full positional tracking of the head, and the EVE Valkyrie demo from CCP does a fair job in demonstrating that. Just how different will the final product be?

"It's going to be better, quite a bit better, but Crystal Cove does have most of the main components," Luckey said. "It has a low persistence display, it has full 6DoF (degrees of freedom) tracking. Those are really two key things. Other things like resolution, the weight and size and tracking quality, the lenses, those are going to improve. But Crystal Cove has all the major pieces."

"We're not doing market research around what's the breaking point for people to buy a VR headset; we're just trying to sell it as cheap as we can while still existing as a company"

Of course, we can rave about it and developers can make all the immersive software in the world, but that won't mean Oculus Rift will be successful. Apple products notwithstanding, expensive technology is a hard sell. Rift isn't going to become mainstream if it's going to require people to take on a second job (as Ken Kutaragi suggested when trying to justify the PS3's $599 price tag). Luckey definitely understands this, though.

"[Price] is to be determined but what I've always said is that if VR isn't affordable it might as well not exist for most people. We're not looking to make a rich person's toy, we're not looking to make a research tool. We want to make a consumer VR headset that pretty much anyone can afford," he stressed. "You can't sell an expensive piece of hardware and expect tons of content to show up. We're not doing market research around what's the breaking point for people to buy a VR headset; we're just trying to sell it as cheap as we can while still existing as a company."

Part of that equation is making the Oculus dev kits accessible too. Right now, they sell for $300 but could there be other incentives for developers? Software is what will drive VR and Oculus needs more interesting content to drive the market forward.

"We're not at a comfortable point where we can just be handing out tons of free dev kits. We're co-publishing EVE Valkyrie and we're working with a lot of other publishers, and big and very small indies. When very interesting VR software comes up, very often we end up talking to the people. And some of those people may end up with similar deals to the EVE Valkyrie deal where we'll work with them to publish their game because it's hard to get funding for a VR game right now," he said.

"It's risky enough to get funding for a normal game. They're betting on you making a fun game, and with VR they're betting on you making a fun game and that VR will be successful. Both of which are long-shot bets. Of course, we believe VR is going to be successful so we're only betting on your game being fun. So we've been spending some of our money investing in content. We want to help people."

One of the challenges for designers is to create games that truly immerse you in VR. That's a whole other challenge from simply porting a 3D title from a console.

"It's a lot harder but not necessarily from a technical side. We've tried to make the technical side as easy as possible especially if you're using an engine like Unreal or Unity that has an integration already. We don't want developers to have to understand the technical complexities of sensor fusion or motion tracking or stereoscopic 3D rendering; we want them to be able to focus more on designing a good VR game," Luckey noted. "When you compare it to a game console, that console is the same as the last one, which is about the same as the last one. It just looks a lot better. You'll be able to do interesting, new things, and with VR you need to start doing things completely differently. So I definitely say it's more challenging to make a VR game than to make a PS4 game or an Xbox One game."

The next step to make VR more immersive is to get away from existing input technologies. After all, EVE Valykrie uses an Xbox 360 controller. And that reminds you that you're really not in a virtual space. Luckey described a Minority Report-like input as the goal for VR.

"We need high precision, high accuracy one-to-one 6DoF (degrees of freedom) motion tracking. That's the most important part. Ideally we also want to be able to track the articulation of your fingers very well and you want to have haptic feedback that's not just a rumble motor," he said. "It boggles my mind that rumble motors have been around for decades and that's still the best that people can do in game controllers for some reason. There's much better haptic technologies out there; mobile phones have much better haptic technology than most game controllers. Why should a phone, made for calling people, have a better haptic feedback system than a game controller?"

"Games can expand so much further than where they are. If you can make almost any kind of game accessible to anyone who understands how to interact with the real world... your audience goes up from people who are hardcore gamers to anyone who wants to do something they can't do in real life"

So Luckey wants total body tracking. We joked that we'd all need mo-cap studios in our living rooms. "There are ways to do one-to-one 6DoF tracking without building a motion capture studio. A lot of it has to do with inverse kinematics - you don't necessarily have to track every part of the body all the time to know what the body is doing. If you know parts of it, you can guess pretty well. As long as the action is relatively close and plausible it's unlikely that there's going to be a problem. People are pretty predictable most of the time - we like to conserve energy," he explained.

And while the current motion technologies (Wii, Kinect, PS Eye) have proven tiresome to many hardcore gamers, Luckey reminded us that "there will always be lazy abstractions that take less effort, maybe it's about mapping a little motion to a lot of motion." In the end, the motion tracking wins out because it'll enable VR to be adopted by everyone. "The key thing to remember is some types of interactions are absolutely impossible to do with a game pad... People spend their whole lives learning how to look around the world and interact with their world. You could give any grandma a VR headset and give her a virtual gun and she could shoot it. You give her a 360 game pad... it's just not going to happen. So it's not just about more realistic action, it's about opening up games to people who would otherwise not have been able to play them," he said.

The possibilities are limitless, ultimately. "Games can expand so much further than where they are. If you can make almost any kind of game accessible to anyone who understands how to interact with the real world, which is most people, if you can make that happen your audience goes up from people who are hardcore gamers to anyone who wants to do something they can't do in real life. I think that's most people. There's a reason we've had fantastic stories going back to ancient epics and up to modern movies; people want to experience the fantastic and see things and do things that they can't actually do. As long as that's true, I think the potential for the gaming market to grow is gigantic... $100 billion a year, I totally see it coming," Luckey remarked.

Of course, Oculus isn't the only VR game in town - it just happens to be the one with the most momentum currently. But Valve, castAR, Sony and others are making a VR push as well, and as far as Luckey is concerned, that's only a good thing.

"The rising tide brings up every boat. VR is so early on that I don't think this is the time for cutthroat competition. It's much more about convincing people that VR is here, that it is real, and that it's here to stay... If someone makes something really bad and it's a poor quality experience, then someone could say, 'Oh this is bad and VR isn't as great as I heard it was.' But if people are building great VR hardware, it's only going to legitimize the efforts of everyone. So I'd say it's way too early to be worried about competition. The castAR guys are doing really cool things and I think that if we're more successful then they will be more successful and probably vice versa," he commented.

As long as Oculus remains in the spotlight and continues to impress, rumors will be running rampant. Some people think Microsoft, Google, Apple or any number of tech or gaming firms will purchase Oculus. And you can bet some have already tried. For now, Luckey insists that he's staying independent.

"We want to do things our way. There are certainly people who are interested... but we have a vision for our consumer product and we know that we're going to be able to pull it off. We don't want to be assimilated into someone who's going to have us working on their own product or their own vision of VR - we want to be able to deliver our own vision of what VR is," he said.

So even if a company like Amazon made a huge offer, it wouldn't matter? "Nobody can say it doesn't matter - everyone has a number," Luckey admitted. "But I don't think there's a reasonable number that would make me say, 'You know I was going to change the world with VR and try to change humanity forever but here's a number. It really is about making sure that we get to deliver our vision of consumer virtual reality."

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James Brightman avatar

James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.