Palmer Luckey is a California native who had an affinity for computer hardware, and for games. This led to him thinking about the bigger picture for this tech. "I had been building computers for years, spending all of my money on new graphics cards, new monitors, new input devices. So I started thinking, where will this actually be going in the long term? What would be the end game for gaming?" says Luckey. "It’s probably virtual reality, something like the Matrix: You plug in and you are inside the game. I started to look at old VR to see how they tried to do this in the past. How did they fail? What did they do right?"
So Luckey began creating prototypes using cell phone parts and other off-the-shelf computer parts. As we have relayed before, this led to some prototypes, which caught the attention of game developers, then game journalists. Soon Luckey and a few others founded Oculus VR and raised millions through Kickstarter. In March, they delivered development kits for game makers to start putting games together.
Luckey says, "The dev kit right now is not a perfect gaming experience, but it is a great tool for people to make VR content. We have great, high-precision, high-speed head tracking. We have a very wide field of view. And those are really two key components to start with. And then we have an SDK that makes it easy for people to integrate and make VR games. In the past, they all had to figure it out on their own, over and over again."
But he is the first to admit that this version of the Oculus Rift Headset isn’t perfect. "The things I’m not so happy with? The low resolution of the current screen—that’s what was available then. It’s only just now that better screens are starting to become available. Screens are going to continue to improve as time goes on. It will fill out those last few bad parts of virtual reality tech as it stands today," says Luckey. The company has already begun to show off a prototype with a higher resolution screen, something the consumer version will have when it is released, probably next year.
So what is the future for the Oculus Rift and virtual-reality tech? "A unified VR platform that allows people to interact with the virtual world in the exact side same way that they do with the real world. I don’t think we will get all the way there, but I think we will get much closer than we are today," says Luckey. "Right now, gaming revolves around using a controller to control an abstract representation of somebody on a flat screen. Once you can trick your brain into thinking you are inside your game, using input and output schemes that mimic real life, give you tactile feedback and stimulate more senses, we can start moving toward having perfect virtual environments."
An integral part of the future is the input schemes he mentioned. Luckey adds, "One of the things about VR is that it’s very natural for people to look around. Even normal people who haven’t learned to use a controller, they have the muscle memory to look around and track stuff," says Luckey. "So if we can make interfaces that are the same as reality, that means anybody can use this technology and they can use it with a higher level of precision than a controller. As long as you are controlling something else on a screen instead of actually feeling like it’s your arm moving in space, and having all of those instincts on how you need to move, it’s not going to be the same thing."
Once the VR tech is cheap and widely available, and the natural interfaces exist, the sky is the limit for virtual reality. And the potential is for more than games. Luckey says, "People have been using VR, even in its high-end expensive state, have been p=using it to treat it for phobias. Also people are using it for post-traumatic stress treatment, trying to help people who come back from war. There are a lot of people who use it for data visualizations, trying to make sense of huge data sets that are very hard to interpret or comprehend the scale of. And people have been experimenting with it for pre-visualization in movies, having actors acting on a green screen being able to visualize what should actually be happening, so they can react better."
But what Palmer Luckey is most looking forward to is how Oculus Rift and other VR tech could change social interaction. "Right now you have very abstract social networks. So it will be really interesting to see what happens if virtual reality ever progresses to the point where you can have a very realistic way of interacting," says Luckey. "The only difference is that you can be whoever you want to be, instead of whatever cards you got dealt in real life. It’s the stuff of science fiction, but we are not too far away. People already spend hours a day on Facebook. What if it was truly engaging and immersive, rather than a filtered version of your real self?"
[Image: Flickr user JD the Photog]