The past and future of the Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift experience

The gaming headset called Oculus Rift has been the talk of the town since Facebook acquired Oculus VR, the virtual reality company that developed it. Facebook forked out $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares of Facebook stock (totaling $2 billion) for the purchase of the company in March 2014. Even though there are many people (mostly software developers) who have been die-hard fans and followers of the Oculus Rift, some of us may not be aware of the garage-to-riches type story that is behind its current popularity.

The story begins with Palmer Luckey, a head-mounted display (HMD) designer at the University Of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. He is a self-confessed enthusiast of virtual reality tech and became known for having the largest personal collection of HMDs in the world. He is also a longtime moderator on the Meant to be Seen (MTBS) 3D forums.

Through his moderation of the MTBS 3D forums, Palmer came up with the idea of a more wearable head-mounted display (than what was currently available) that would be inexpensive for gamers to purchase. Palmer had already been developing stereoscopic displays and head-mounts in his parents’ garage as a hobby but he found that nothing gave him the experience he wanted (he calls it being immersed in the Matrix). With his passion and idea driving him, Palmer founded the company Oculus VR. He did so with the help of Scaleform co-founders Brendan Iribe and Michael Atonov as well as Nate Mitchell and Andrew Scott Reisse (now deceased after a tragic accident).

The Oculus Rift prototype was demoed at the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in June 2012. By the 1st of August 2012, Oculus VR had launched a Kickstarter (the popular crowdfunding platform) project to raise money. It raised about $250 000 in only two hours and by the end of the project Oculus Rift had about $2 million in pledges. This made it one of the most successful Kickstarter projects of all time.

Backers who had pledged more than $300 on Kickstarter were rewarded with a dev kit version of the Oculus Rift. The first 100 people to pledge about $275 received an unassembled Rift prototype kit. These kits were intended to include Doom 3 BFG edition but at time of shipping, support for the game was not yet ready. People were compensated for this omission by receiving Steam and Oculus store discount vouchers. Later, in 2013, Oculus VR raised about $91 million through venture funding.

Oculus-Rift-2

Now, we’ve talked a lot about the company developing the Oculus Rift but what about the actual headset? The Oculus Rift looks like a pair of oversized goggles with a square, unified front. It has a stereoscopic (a technique used to create the illusion of depth) 3D view. This means that two unique images are placed parallel to each other and one is created for each eye. It has been designed to have very low latency. In other words, when you turn your head the image doesn’t need to catch up with your eyes but instead follows exactly where you look with little to no delay.

The Oculus Rift also has a large field of view. Regular HMDs have a diagonal field of view of 30 to 40 degrees and the image appears to be far away in the distance. This type of view makes you more aware that you are looking at a screen. The Rift, on the other hand, has a 110 degree diagonal field of view so that the “screen” envelopes you and you become immersed in the game as if it is real life.

Many big gaming developers have come on board with the Oculus Rift and have been big supporters of its development since its Kickstarter days. John Carmack is one of them and has been on-board since the beginning. He has developed such classic games as Quake, Doom and Commander Keen. Gabe Newell of Valve and the lead engineer of Guitar Hero are some of the other people that took an interest in the headset early on.

More than 75 000 developers have so far purchased developer kits for the Oculus Rift. Even though a consumer version was never on the cards for the company, they have since decided to develop it to suit a more general market. Dev kits were actually released so that Oculus VR could get feedback from developers and make the consumer version even better than it already is. Some of the features to be included on the consumer version will be improved head tracking, positional tracking, wireless operation and 1080p resolution.

Despite all the positivity, enthusiasm and passion that has fueled the development of the Oculus Rift, Facebook’s recent acquisition of the company has left a sour taste in the mouths of long-time Rift fans. Minecraft creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, was planning a collaborative effort with Oculus VR before the acquisition. However, as soon as he heard that Facebook now owned Oculus VR, he immediately cancelled all plans. Markus’ reason for cancelling? He finds Facebook “creepy”.

iStock_000019932825Small v2

The majority of criticism towards Facebook tends to focus on its perceived invasive nature and what that will do to the pure, entrepreneurial spirit of the Oculus Rift. There are fears that Facebook will invade the privacy of users, distort in-game views with intrusive advertisements (like on the Facebook site) and force users to interact more closely with Facebook to get the full experience.

People from all over the world have launched a hate campaign towards Facebook and Oculus VR because of the partnership and have even gone as far as verbally attacking family members of the owners and founders. Palmer Luckey has gone on Reddit (a news and social networking site) to defend his decision, saying that it is unnecessary to drag his family into the hate-filled rages and that many people are retaliating due to their ignorance of the behind-the-scenes processes that were involved in negotiations.

Mark Zuckerberg also released an official statement about the acquisition on his personal Facebook page (of course). Mark says that his company believes in creating a more open, connected world. Their involvement with mobile (take their acquisition of WhatsApp earlier in 2014 as an example) has been their main focus in trying to make this dream happen. Virtual reality, to Facebook, is the future of creating a more personalized and useful experience.

Mark also mentions that he won’t change the predetermined plans that Oculus VR has with the Rift and, at this point, they simply want to help build and develop partnerships to provide support for more games. However, Facebook has a much wider gaze once the other plans have been implemented. That gaze extends towards, for example, a person enjoying a live basketball game from courtside without leaving their home. Or allowing a person to have a face-to-face doctor consultation by simply putting on the goggles. In essence, they want to take virtual reality away from being exclusively games-orientated to immersing people in real-life situations.

Overall, the future of Oculus VR has always seemed bright but now the company is seen as a sellout by devoted fans. What Facebook’s involvement (or invasion) will be, will only become known in the future. For now, Oculus VR is still free to live out the ideas they planned to from the start (with more funds than they previously had) but at some point they will have to start complying with the milestones that Facebook has set out for them in order to honour their agreement. And that is what everyone is afraid of.