The Oculus Rift – A Matter Of Perception (NY Times)

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It’s nice to see the Oculus Rift getting some big exposure in the New York Times yesterday. The piece really outlines how the VR scene has been dormant for the past couple of decades and how the enthusiasm of Palmer and the rest of the OculusVR team is what’s driving its resurgence.

“The next big thing isn’t always a brand-new technology that you never heard of, It’s this thing that existed 10 years ago and quietly got better.”

- Cliff Bleszinski

Despite its missteps in the mass market, virtual reality has been a staple for many other industries for a number of years, including the industrial, military and healthcare spaces, where the high cost of headsets (anywhere between $1,000 – $50,000) is much less of a barrier-to-entry. For a many years, Hospitals have used head-mounted displays to train surgeons, whilst various militaries around the world have been using head mounted displays to train troops (without the need for live-fire exercises which can be both costly and dangerous), as well as to treat troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many of the crucial parts in the Oculus Rift are the same components found inside smartphones and tablets, including the headset’s 7-inch display and its sensors for detecting head movements. Because those parts are already being pumped out in enormous volumes in factories in China, Oculus can create a product that is likely to end up costing consumers something between $200 to $300.

If the Rift becomes a hit (which it quite obviously will), it will have a lot to do with Palmer Luckey, the 20-year-old founder of the company, who seems to have wandered out of a casting call for unconventional, young technology entrepreneurs. He pads around his office in bare feet, munching on cookies and prefers a spot on the floor (rather than at a desk) for his staff meetings.

Palmer was a home-schooled teenager living with his parents in Long Beach, Calif., when he began collecting virtual reality headsets, a habit he financed by fixing broken iPhones and Nintendo DS’s in his garage and reselling them at a profit. Mr. Luckey estimates he spent $32,000 on headsets in one year alone, about 45 of which he now has in his collection.

While he was passionate about virtual reality, Mr. Luckey realized that none of the headsets he bought offered the kind of immersive experience he wanted from the technology. He began tinkering with headset designs of his own. Last summer, he paid a visit to Mark Bolas at U.S.C., who hired him on the spot to help out with virtual reality projects at the university’s mixed reality (MxR) lab, a research group financed largely by the Defense Department.

“If there had been a perfect headset, I wouldn’t have gotten into virtual reality,”

- Palmer Luckey

Palmer’s biggest break came when he struck up an online conversation last year with John Carmack, the game programmer behind Doom and Quake. He sent a prototype of the Oculus Rift, which used Oakley ski goggle straps and was held together by silver duct tape, to Mr. Carmack, who took it to the E3 games conference and used it to demonstrate one of his games to a small group of attendees.

Michael Abrash, a programmer at the game developer Valve Corporation, who is working on virtual reality and other projects there, said Mr. Carmack’s endorsement gave Mr. Luckey’s headset “instant credibility.”

“He was there at the right time and just did it,” Mr. Abrash said. “Plus he is very smart and engaging, and a very straightforward, decent guy, and that certainly doesn’t hurt.”

“When we play games now, we’re looking through a screen into the game world… when you remove that screen, there is no longer that barrier. You’re really in the game.”

- Brendan Iribe

The headset is currently designed to work with computer games, not with the popular consoles made by the likes of Sony and Microsoft.

Oculus says existing computer games can be adapted for virtual reality without great expense. But some analysts are skeptical that consumers will be excited about buying a game headset, even if developers like it.

Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer in the 1980s, said he was rooting for Oculus to succeed. “It’s what I was doing when I was that age,” he said of the company’s efforts. “I think it’s lovely. I don’t know if this will be the one that hits or not.”

We know it will…

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