Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe first began working with computers in the 1980s, just as personal computers were entering homes. “I always said that it was the most exciting, amazing time,” he says. “We had no idea that in some number of years, a personal computer would within two physical taps, revolutionize, say, the entire taxi service industry.”
He has since revised his definition of the most exciting time to be in computer science to “now.”
Virtual reality is about to become affordable for consumers. Facebook-owned Oculus is selling its developer kit headsets for $350. Sony has introduced a virtual reality headset called Project Morpheus it plans to sell as a PlayStation 4 accessory. Samsung partnered with Oculus to create a virtual reality headset powered by its Galaxy Note 4. And for even the most frugal technology shopper, there’s the prospect of Google Cardboard, a paper virtual reality headset that works with a smartphone.
The way Iribe sees it, virtual reality is at the same point as computing was when the first personal computers came to market. It’s ready to influence an immense range of experiences in our daily lives. “It’s bigger than 3-D graphics, maybe even bigger than computers,” he argues.
It was this belief that he says led him to recently donate $31 million to the University of Maryland, where he met one of his cofounders, Michael Antonov, before dropping out as a freshman. Most of the money will be used to build a $140 million computer science center that will bear his name.
Aside from serving as an academic center for computer science, Iribe imagines the center will be designed to accommodate virtual reality and technologies that complement it, including computer vision, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, face recognition, and robotics. That means open spaces for moving robotic parts, as well as spaces dedicated to hardware and electrical engineering. The idea, he says, should be partly to replicate the lab space and facilities that Oculus uses in its own office, which is currently being “redefined” (Iribe has shared the plans for the Oculus office with the University of Maryland for inspiration). Though he will be “advising and overseeing” the building construction, the University of Maryland will be making the design decisions.“Most schools don’t fully understand or appreciate the potential of virtual reality and how impactful this will be on so many different areas,” Iribe says. “They will. And it’s exciting that the University of Maryland will be at the forefront of this.”
It probably does not need to be said that when the CEO of a company that makes a virtual reality headset for consumers describes the future as being influenced in every aspect by virtual reality, he is speaking with a bias.
Some academics who work with virtual reality indeed do not appreciate nor fully understand Iribe’s vision, at least in the absolute terms in which he paints it.
“Part of me is saying, I’ve seen this all before, and it’s not as new as some people want to believe it is,” says Dave Culyba, who teaches a class about virtual reality at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. Someone, for instance, recently sent him a video of an Oculus-powered lightsaber experience. “We made that demo back in 1992,” he says. “Right now I haven’t seen anything that has made me go, wow, that totally redefined the idea of virtual reality and shown a new path to what the future may be.”
Ken Perlin, who teaches at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, sees virtual reality as a transitional technology for augmented technology. ”Color movies required black-and-white movies,” he says. “I think VR is important in and of itself, but in the terms that the CEO of Oculus is talking about, the future is going to belong to ‘we’re still in the real world, and I see your face, but we’re going to have an enhanced information space in our everyday world around us.’ I do not believe that anything that completely takes you out of the world will replace people’s experience of the world.”
Virtual reality is years ahead of augmented reality, he says, which makes it a good step for understanding how to build better augmented reality.
Though some academics might not be ready to call virtual reality a universally revolutionary technology before the first devices ship widely to consumers, that doesn’t mean they see the potential that making this technology affordable could have on the field. They’re just not as hyperbolic about it.
Perlin has been participating in a cross-departmental weekly meeting about virtual reality with faculty members from NYU’s game center, music technology department, computer science department, interactive telecommunications project, integrated digital media technology department, and across other disciplines. He says the goal is to pool grant money to build virtual performance spaces around VR and AR, and to offer cross-discipline courses with virtual reality by 2015.
NYU professors aren’t alone in pushing for more virtual reality education. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Houston both recently announced expansions of their virtual reality programs.
That virtual reality looks poised to make its consumer breakthrough is one aspect of this academic interest. Schools like Stanford and UCF have had virtual reality labs for years. Culyba’s virtual reality games course has been taught at CMU since 1998. But just as the Kinect made it possible for universities to teach 3-D camera technology without giving students access to an expensive piece of equipment, devices like Oculus and Project Morpheus encourage more experimentation with virtual reality, if only by solving a basic problem of access.
“Never before has virtual reality had this many developers playing with it,” Culyba says. “I am pretty confident if VR catches on, we haven’t seen what that experience will be yet.”
And that, presumably, is exactly what Iribe and the University of Maryland intend to discover.