Virtual reality has long been relegated to the realm of science fiction, cool in theory and on the page, but it’s never crossed over to the mainstream. Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe says his company’s forthcoming Oculus Rift, a consumer-grade virtual reality headset, is poised to change that, by solving what he calls the “uncomfortable valley” problem. (It’s what happens when your brain doesn’t believe your eyes: If you’ve ever felt sick to your stomach while playing a first-person shooter or watching an IMAX 3D movie, you’ve done hard time in the valley.) But the Rift almost didn’t make it out of a dorm room at California State University Long Beach.
When a friend called to tell Iribe about an early VR headset prototype that was making waves at the massive E3 2012 conference, he initially passed on meeting with Palmer Luckey, the 19-year-old who had created it. “I said, ‘Virtual reality never works–I’m not interested,'” Iribe, a long-time tech entrepreneur, remembers. But his friend’s persistence wore him down, and he finally agreed to a meeting. “It was very science project-y; there are circuit boards exposed, and dangling wires, and it didn’t strap onto your face. But we turned off the lights, looked through this set of lenses and Palmer fired it all up. It was probably one of the most powerful moments of my life. Right away, I knew it was gonna change the world, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Just weeks later, he was. While Luckey was planning to gather his friends around a few pizzas and have them assemble hobbyist DIY kits, Iribe knew the market was much larger. So his team–culled from his past companies–went into hyperspeed, setting up the company and launching a Kickstarter campaign to sell professionally produced software developer’s kits in just weeks. They figured it was a great way to get the industry excited about the early headset, and get applications in the pipeline that could work with the planned consumer version.
They raised nearly $2.5 million via crowdfunding in August 2012, quickly followed by a $16 million Series A round of funding, and another led by Andreessen Horowitz this past December that pulled in an additional $75 million. “It was definitely the fastest I’ve ever launched a company, and it’s grown quicker than any project I’ve been a part of,” Iribe says.
A software programmer by trade, he and friend Michael Antonov (who now serves as chief software architect for Oculus) started a user interface middleware company, Scaleform, when they were just 19. They sold it for around $48 million, then moved on to work at gaming service Gaikai, which they sold to Sony for $380 million just days before jumping into the VR space.
Now at the helm of Oculus, Iribe is excited about the future. He expects that an upgraded developer’s kit will be available in a few months, and a consumer version will hit the market before the end of 2015. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can. The public is anxious for us to ship, but we want to get it right. That’s what we’re all about, delivering a really comfortable VR experience that everybody can enjoy and afford,” he says.
The unveiling of Crystal Cove, the latest public Rift prototype that The Verge crowned Best of CES at last month’s gathering, did little to calm the clamor. Those who demoed it say it delivers on the true promise of VR. Iribe certainly agrees. “It comes down to the sense of presence. You put on this set of goggles, and within seconds, your brain is convinced you’re now in a different, virtual environment. You’re somewhere else, and that somewhere else may be a video game, it may be in a real-time movie, a museum exhibit, or a medical surgical training app. There are all these places you can go when you have a 360 canvas to work with,” he says. “We’re pretty bullish. A decade or two from now, there’s gonna be a whole new VR industry that affects hundreds of millions of people. People are starting to believe again.” In virtual reality, much as in real life, seeing is believing.