Oculus Rift: Palmer Luckey on throwing out the virtual reality rulebook

Oculus Rift

Palmer Luckey is a self-described virtual reality enthusiast and former engineer at the USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). Now his company Oculus is bringing, thanks to a huge show of support on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, what looks to be the world’s first viable gaming-focused virtual reality headset to market: Oculus Rift. Ahead of his keynote address at Evolve in London, we spoke to Luckey about his potentially revolutionary technology, why the time is finally right for VR and why indie mentality allowed him to innovate more than bigger companies.

Luckey’s talk at this year’s Evolve in London event, taking place next month, will be about how VR is going to change the gaming market, what developers need to do to create really good VR experiences and what we can look forward to from the technology that we don’t have today. There’s still time to take advantage of early bird rates, by visiting this page.

How did an enthusiast end up being the man bringing virtual reality technology to the mass market?
I guess that a lot of companies look at virtual reality as something that’s failed in the past – a high-risk proposition that’s not going to make someone say, “Hey, our company should do a virtual reality headset! It’ll be well received”. Virtual reality enthusiasts, me and a bunch of other people, we’re not sitting trying to figure out the exact risk/reward ratio, we just want to make virtual reality happen. And it’s pretty clear to us that the time is right to bring the technology to market.

What’s different this time around?
Last time VR was getting big, the ‘80s and ‘90s, the technology wasn’t even close to ready – LCD displays were heavy and low resolution, computers weren’t fast enough to run anything at 60fps, and sensor technology hadn’t evolved to the point where you could get accurate realtime tracking. But in the last few years, the mobile phone market has driven display costs down, the pixel density up, and every phone out there has a pretty nice motion sensor inside – you can get really accurate motion sensors cheaply now. And, obviously, computing power is just so much more advanced than it was back in the ‘90s. So all the pieces you need to make a good VR experience have come together independently of any focused VR research and development.

If the tech is there now, why aren’t we seeing more projects like the Rift?
We’ve got an enormous amount of press, but there are other solutions that are on the market, and coming to it. Sony has a head-mounted display that just came out, which is optimised for 3D movies. There’s a Korean company called Silicon Micro Display that just released a semi-transparent augmented reality display. And Google’s working on its Glass technology. And then you have Vuzix and Sensics and a few other companies. But none of them have really said, okay we’re going to optimise our headset 100 per cent for immersive gaming. And they’re also trying to work with existing content, whereas we’re going out to developers and saying, “Look, you’re going to need to adjust your content, add support into your code for head tracking etc, because that’s the only way to get a really good experience”. We’re the first people on the market doing that.

What puts the device ahead of the curve compared to other headsets?
One of the reasons is field-of-view – the size of the image. If you compare the size of our virtual image to Sony’s, ours is six times larger. Sony’s is pretty big for the market – we’re actually eight to ten times larger than the field-of-view of most displays on the market. With a lot of other displays it feels like you’re just looking at a floating television ten feet in front of you, whereas with the Rift you can’t actually see the edges of the screen, so you actually feel like you’re inside of the game.

The other big difference is that we have head-tracking, so you can look behind you, above you – turn your head in any direction and it will update the view on the screen to reflect that. Most other headsets don’t have that, so you still have to use a mouse or a gamepad. There are some headsets that do have head-trackers, but they weren’t designed for VR – you can’t roll your head in them, for example, they’re just basically emulating a mouse. You can use them to look around inside games, but you still can’t use them to actually feel as if you’re inside of the game.