Oculus founder: ‘Everything is going horribly right’

14 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey calls augmented reality apps ‘boring’.

The excitement for virtual reality was obvious Friday at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin. Speaking at a panel today at SXSW, Oculus VP of product Nate Mitchell answered a long-standing question about the company’s Crescent Bay prototype headset: it looks so good because it actually uses two screens instead of one.

It can be easy to forget that there are a lot of videogame developers counting on the release of virtual reality (VR) head-mounted displays (HMD) in order to start making money. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey chimed in as well, saying that it was “super obvious” that the prototype used two screens, but nobody had really looked closely enough before to notice it. (The headset was announced in September 2014). When asked about the Microsoft Hololens, an augmented reality device that overlays virtual information on top of your field of vision, Luckey was skeptical. “Nobody has ever proven a killer application for augmented reality. Oculus VR itself is well aware of that and has even stated that ensuring the success of these developers is its ‘ultimate goal’ with the first consumer version of its widely anticipated HMD.

Most proposed [augmented reality] killer apps, it’s not that they’re not cool, they’re just kind of boring,” Luckey said. “It’s things like assisting you with how to use a tool or telling you where you’re walking or where do I go, the best restaurant nearby. My gait lurches from tentative single steps to single-minded strides to sudden stops — sometimes because I’ve clipped through a wall in virtual reality, sometimes because I’m about to run into one in real life. We’re not excited by those things as much.” He also acknowledged that it’s tough to predict the future, and said it’s possible that augmented reality could one day be as big or bigger than virtual reality. “I’m a lot more excited about virtual reality largely because we know we can make good games in a good medium. Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell said the company is more pressure on itself to deliver a great product than any pressure they’re feeling externally.

Even with perfected hardware, developers will push the boundaries of the experience. “One could say no one gets sick in this [virtual reality] headset, but under a very specific set of circumstances like not allowing artificial locomotion, not allowing rotation, not allowing for spinning horizons,” Luckey said. “But developers are going to make games that don’t adhere to those rules and as long as you let developers make any kind of experience, every [virtual reality] headset will have people who are getting sick in it.” And for those curious when the Oculus Rift will be available for sale, you’ll have to remain patient. The audience is represented by tiny boxes, torrents of them streaming through a simple replica of one wing, mixing and jostling each other as they pass. And everybody on the panel was excited about the idea that there would be more VR headsets, because it would drive the overall market for VR and incentivize developers. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” Mitchell said.

These digital seven-league boots are just one piece of the massive puzzle that Benjamin Knapp, director of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), and other researchers are trying to put together. In most of the tech world, virtual reality is slimming down and becoming more accessible, as developers learn to create simple experiences that anyone can enjoy. In the mid-’90s, the school unveiled a CAVE (a recursive acronym for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), a 10 x 10-foot enclosure with stereoscopic 3D images projected on every side. A successor to the CAVE — now called the Visionarium VisCube — is still around on campus, and two Cube researchers have previously worked on Visionarium projects.

Originally built as a black-box theater, the Cube is shared between ICAT and Virginia Tech’s Center for the Arts, used for both art projects and scientific research. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve VR; in 2013, the Cube theater hosted a live performance called Operacraft, where K-12 students used Minecraft avatars — projected onto a wall — to perform an opera sung by Virginia Tech musicians. One of the Cube’s biggest selling points is its sound system, which creates deafening 360-degree audio with 124 standard speakers, four subwoofers, and nine additional speakers that project hyper-targeted sound, like the aural equivalent of a spotlight.

It’s possible to create things that could never be replicated with an ordinary sound system, like an experimental composition by ICAT media engineer Tanner Upthegrove that sends metal and chainsaws whirling around the room and wouldn’t feel out of place in Hellraiser. Tape one to a tablet or headset, and the wall cameras will be able to “see” visitors as they explore anything from a very large molecule to a very small tornado, mapped onto the dimensions of the room. “The beauty of the space is that you now move through a virtual world by walking,” says Knapp. “I can explore this area in this space, and the model in this space, with you in there — and with anybody else.” A non-VR project called FutureHaus, for example, uses an old augmented reality trick: by holding up a tablet, you’re given a window into a simply rendered three-story home, its dimensions mapped roughly to the room. If you head to another floor and a companion stays behind on the lower level, you could hold hands and chat while your avatars walk several stories apart.

Instead of empty space, though, you’re looking at a bright, abstract funnel made of reds and yellows, representing the temperature of the air as a tornado sweeps across the ground. There’s a tremendous amount of space to track, and since everything has to be portable, you can’t rely on having a super-high-powered PC to render environments. The next step will be putting the ThinkPad into a backpack, and after that, the team is looking at streaming video through a Raspberry Pi, which would make the headsets truly mobile. For now, walking around in the Cube in a headset feels simultaneously retro and futuristic: you’re using a system that overwrites real space in a way that Valve and Oculus and Sony will never match, but in a bulky, awkward format straight out of a ‘90s X-Files episode.

He wants them to disappear altogether. “The crazy distant future is to shine laser light into the eyes themselves,” he says, while we’re talking about interfaces. At first, this sounds like a virtual retinal display, the same technology that’s thought to be used in Microsoft’s Hololens and the mysterious Magic Leap headset. Right now we’ve moved [from a] screen onto commercially available devices like the Oculus,” or next-generation headsets like Magic Leap. “But the eventual goal is to move all of that off-body.” Is that the future? A virtual reality theater where speakers are targeted to your precise location and sensors track your muscles, while the walls shine lasers into your eyes?

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