Thursday, July 7, 2016

Oculus Rift, New York City, and the Terrifying Specter of Death!

The Background:

Have you ever felt primal fear?  When I say this, I don't mean an intellectual understanding of danger, what I mean is a fear so deep that it's involuntary and subconscious.  When I encountered a bear on a camping trip once, I felt a pretty high amount of fear, but this stemmed more from my comprehension of the bear's ability the hurt me than it did from something primal.   Recently, however, I stood face-to-face with a terrifying specter of death, and the fear was so deep and immediate and present that I knew it was primal.

What led me to this experience was my continued interest in the cutting edge of consumer technology, namely, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset  (for some expanded background on the device please see my blog post  Virtual Reality, Oculus Rift, and the State of the Computer Industry  )  This is the technology birthed by a then 19-year-old Palmer Luckey, who built the Oculus Rift as a cardboard-and-duck-tape prototype in his parent's garage.  As soon as the device became publicly known, He and the Rift became the subject of a continued international media frenzy.  The Rift has become the device to have for those interested in the future of computers and video games.     

Of course, being a tech super-nerd, I've been chomping at the bit to try this thing out! The problem is, there's been no way to try the device as it's still been in development!  Fortunately, Oculus has been on top of the situation. Early in 2016, Oculus announced that they would be hosting public demos around United States.  Yes! Finally, I would get to try the Rift!  Unfortunately, I found out that the closest demo to me would be in New York City about 300 miles away. I was initially upset because I had been wanting to try it for so long, and this seemed like a serious impediment to my desire.  However, impatience eventually won out, and I decided I was going to drive to New York in one day and try it out!

The Adventure:

At the heart of any adventure quest is some sort of holy grail or treasure. Often times, it turns out that the odyssey in question becomes less about the object and more about the journey itself. Well, I had just found my "grail," and boy was I in for an adventure.

The day of my quest,  I began by heading to the nearest gas station to get road snacks and  coolant for my motorcycle. Unfortunately, when I got back to my car, some lady drove by yelling out her window "stop texting while driving!" .....this was of course except for the fact that I was standing in a parking lot clearly not in a car.  I guess us young people all look equally guilty. :/
Anyway, on any motorcycle trip, especially one this long, you have to anticipate needs and prepare for eventualities. So, I packed up my food, brought a laptop to act as a charging station for my phone, and brought quite a few extra layers for cold weather.  Finally, after a couple delays, I was able to get going at about 9 a.m. Now, I figured that with an estimated 5 hour travel time, I could easily make it by my reserved demo time of 3:30 pm.  Yeah, right.

The biggest obstacle coming from New Hampshire, of course, is the perilous roads and semi-psychotic drivers of Massachusetts. Mass roads are in such a state of disrepair I would consider them borderline post-apocalyptic. For a motorcycle rider, this is equivalent to courting suicide.
However, after 2 hours of bumpy roads and nearly killing myself on potholes, I finally crossed into the beautiful state of Connecticut. Instantly the asphalt became dark and smooth and glorious. The morning sun cascading over the long stretches of valley highway combined with the tangible smells of spring and a soundtrack of classic rock heralded the fact that, yes, this trip was really happening! This transition was, of course, accompanied by vehement farewell proclamations of love for the glorious interstate system of the State of Massachusetts.  In other words:  get wrecked Mass!! 

Driving through Connecticut, what surprised me most was a section of highway close to the New York border that has 90 foot trees on both sides of the meridian.  They form a sort of tunnel canopy where the roads curve around sharp angles and over hills in a crazy 90 mile-an-hour 3D roller-coaster ride! The whole experience constituted a unique and memorable thrill!

When I finally got to the bridge that crossed into New York,  I stopped to pull out my cash and give it to the police officer who was manning the booth. Apparently, he was inexperienced with using the gate mechanism, because when I tried to go through the gate he sent it down crashing into my face. This was followed by an immediate up-motion which nearly lifted my helmet right off my head.  I looked at him and he simply shrugged with embarrassment.  Welcome to New York.

As I headed further into New York, however, my destination time kept creeping later and later because of the traffic. NY traffic basically clogs every artery of Long Island.  Finally, when I was on the last stretch of highway, the GPS told me that I was half an hour late and I was still in stop-and-go traffic. I thought to myself, "Was it worth it to travel all this way only to be disappointed in the fact that I didn't get a demo? Was it worth it?" Tamping down my rising frustration, I kept urging the cars to go faster. Unfortunately, by the time I got to my destination, my allotted time for the demo had passed. Even though I left an hour and a half early, I failed my mission; my only reason for the trip.  However, when I at last walked over to the Oculus Rift booth at the Long Island Best Buy, I was elated to discover that it was no big deal to bump my demo forward, I would just have to wait for one more person to do a demo!

The Demo:

Have you ever felt primal fear? My demo of the Oculus Rift had been going great so far.   I saw a low-polygon rendering of a forest with some animals, but what was fascinating about it was that when I turned my head, I could hear the direction where the animal sounds were coming from. Oculus calls it 3D audio.  I also was shown a miniature city that I could lean toward and look at where all the tiny people were going about the streets throwing frisbees, driving cars Etc.

This was what I had seen so far.  At this point it had definitely been pretty cool and it felt 3D, but there was nothing that had truly impressed me. Maybe it was a strategic decision on their part to structure the demo this way, because it was right then that I was transported into a huge atrium hallway. Looking around, I could see sunlight pouring in through a glass wall that was about 70 feet high and maybe four hundred feet long. I heard a noise and looked to the very end of the hallway. Stepping out into the sun was a T-Rex that started walking towards me!  As it came close, I looked up and my jaw involuntarily hit the floor.  I guess I never fully conceptualized how big T-Rex was, but you could feel its presence in that moment. But then, right then, it leaned its head towards me and looked me in the eye from about 5 feet away. Have you ever felt primal fear?? I almost almost took a step back cuz I definitely felt afraid! The thing was really there in front of me....and that was when I knew for sure; the future is here.


Although Oculus Rift is a very unrefined and primitive technology (the image looks kind-of grainy and it looks like you're looking through an old deep divers mask), the T-Rex demo helped me understand that this technology is going to change the world for sure.  I can just imagine being put inside of a Godzilla movie and actually feeling how big and menacing He is. I can imagine how crazy it would be to be in the middle of a Transformers battle with the sounds and destruction of Michael Bay explosions, and this only covers the entertainment ramifications! The potential that this technology has for upheaving the general computing infrastructure is massive.

The Detour:

After the 10-minute demo was over, I thought to myself, "I drove all this way to try something out for 10 minutes. Was it worth it?" As I was contemplating this, I began to think that maybe, since I had already driven all this way,  I should try to go to Manhattan. What I didn't realize, however, was that Manhattan is something like an hour and a half drive from Long Island. But I thought, hey, why not go for it anyway!  So I began the drive and finally made it into New York City proper.  I was maybe  15 minutes out from Manhattan when I inadvertently made a wrong turn and ended up in this really sketchy part of the city.  Normally this would be that big of a deal because I could just use my GPS to get me out of it. However, it was right then, of course, that Murphy decided he must not be denied and my GPS batteries quit on me. So, I did what any reasonable American caught in a sketchy part of New York without GPS would do: I got the fuck out of town ASAP!  Fortunately, after talking with a cabbie, he gave me very simple directions to get out of the city.

The return leg should have been the simple, uninteresting, and boring part of the journey, it turned out that the adventure was far from over.

The Way Back:

Half an hour into the return, the sun had set, and the traffic slowed to a state of stop and go. As I sat there, I realized that this exit must be some sort of massive weigh station for tractor trailer trucks  because I was literally boxed in on all sides by them. This continued for another nerve-wracking half an hour as we slowly inched by the exit. I'm not sure my clutch has ever gotten that much of a workout before.

After finally getting free of the truck jam, and spending another few hours on the road, my growing tiredness mandated that I pull over for a pick-me-up. The problem was, I had somehow neglected to bring my debit card and only had cash on me.  At the beginning of the trip I had made sure I had enough cash, but now, as I took stock of my resources, I only had $12 to make it 300 miles; a situation brought about by cash falling out of my pocket on the way to a toll.  So, using my phone calculator to estimate my margins, I determined that I could probably afford a turbo shot from Dunkin Donuts. I don't know if you've ever done a straight up turbo shot before but the concentration is intense.  Immediately it was like an adrenaline shot to a tired and ill-prepared circulatory system.  In other words, yeah, I was ready to get back on the road!

When I got back on my bike, I discovered that the temperature had been dropping precipitously while I rested. Even with all my layers on, my hands and toes were starting to get numb. Additionally, the cold was causing all the humidity in the air to condense into a fine mist. This caused the visibility to be very poor, only about 50 feet, and it caused my helmet visor to fog up such that I had to keep flipping it up to see.  In summary, the last leg of the trip was done practically blind, following only the small pinpoint circles of headlights in front of me, shivering freezing cold, and screaming out my favorite songs so I wouldn't fall asleep. This is all, of course, not to mention the fact that it was doubtful whether or not I had enough gas to make it home.   It was thrilling, awful, intense, amazing, and epic all at once. 

Well, finally, through luck or through sheer determination, I finally found myself down pulling up to my parking spot next to my apartment.
I  looked down at my gas tank and saw that, yes, the needle was on E.  It was literally a nick of time arrival. What. A. Trip.


Being out there in the back countries, and the crazy traffic, and the smells, and the biomes made me realize I had forgotten how much I love this country. Despite what I may think of it politically, socially, or otherwise, there's kind of a grand mystery to this place; a mystery that speaks of danger and calls out to the intrepid to leap, and to live, and to howl. Despite my misgivings about the profit-driven madness of the American corporate world, it's still pretty amazing that a teenager can start with cardboard and duct tape in his parents garage and end up being the figurehead of a two-billion-dollar corporation within two years.

At the end of my trip, I sat there in the hot shower for about half an hour letting the warmth seep into my bones, which surprisingly still felt cold.  All the while, the one thought that kept going through my head was "was it worth it?" Was it worth it to travel all that way and go through all that just to experience a 10-minute demo? Well it's funny, because it's a two-part answer. The first part is that every truly worthwhile adventure is filled with unexpected twists, turns, frights, perils, and dangers, so, yeah, even for the adventure alone it was worth it. But the second part of the answer is "have you ever felt Primal Fear?!" I felt it, and for the first time ever experienced how truly big a Tyrannosaurus Rex was, and for that alone I say was it worth it? Hell yes.

Virtual Reality, Oculus Rift, and the State of the Computer Industry.

While the progress of computer development is always at a sort-of breakneck pace, the computer industry as a whole is nearing a major turning point.  For the past 30 years, consumers have been interacting with computers using some sort of 2-dimensional screen.  However, computing hardware has finally reached a critical size and power threshold wherein it has become feasible to present the consumer with a fully simulated 3D interface.   No, I'm not referring to a 3D screen.That's too limited of an idea and not practical.  No, what I'm referring to is a set of technologies that can display fully simulated 3D worlds into the boundless space of a human being's field of vision. 

They call the technologies, collectively, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).  The best summary explanation I can make about VR is that it is a technology that takes 3D images rendered by a computer, and displays them in video format to each of a person's eyes.  This gives the person a sense of being someplace that isn't real.  VR, though it is similar to AR, must exist as a prerequisite to AR.  However, AR is a little more complicated to explain.  The fundamental idea of AR is similar, but its practical application is much different.  In summary, AR also displays computer rendered images to each eye, but it blends those images in with the real world to make it look like those virtual things are actually there.  It's more difficult to do because the technology also has to "keep track" of the real world and figure out how to display virtual objects so that they appear to blend.  

These ideas, though they may be new to some, have been hyped and speculated on for at least 30 years.  In that time, dozens of companies have risen up, promised everyone a virtual reality entertainment nirvana, and have summarily come crashing down in epic fashion.  The problem has been a simple one: economics.  It has never been, up until this point, feasible to provide individual middle-class consumers with a compelling virtual reality device. 

Enter Oculus Rift! 

The catalytic moment for the dawn of this real age of virtual reality came sometime in early 2012, when a 17-year-old kid named Palmer Luckey, working in his parents garage, built a cardboard-and-duck-tape prototype of a virtual reality headset.  His simple idea was this:  why not take a cell phone screen and use that to display images to a person?  It turned out to be the money question.  By building a VR headset in this way, he solved the economics problem that had plagued so many other VR attempts over the years.  The cell phone screen was a cheap, small, and readily available piece of supply infrastructure that didn't exist even 5 years before that!  You're probably thinking "this is all well and good, but I can go into my basement right now and tinker with some great technological idea but actually getting money and interest behind it is next to impossible!"  Truthfully, I would agree with you.  And so, as is it with most stories like this, Palmer encountered a lucky break.

The internet forum where he was posting his tinkering progress happened to be frequented by one of video gaming's most legendary designers:  John Carmack.  Carmack was intensely interested in Palmer's invention and asked if he might borrow it so he could do some software tinkering and show it at a convention he was attending. Of course, Palmer sent his prototype to Carmack, and the rest is history.  The appearance of the device at this convention was the stuff of nerd legend.  Although the device was tucked away in a small booth, the convention attendees, the media, the blogs, everyone, it seemed, went totally ape. Virtual reality is here!  John Carmack's new virtual reality headset could set the tone of the future!  It was the springboard that every inventor dreams of.  

It was then that Palmer named his device Rift, and started a company he called Oculus.  Palmer initially thought that he could use this publicity to sell the device as a kit that enthusiasts could use to build a cool little device themselves.  However, when he put the device on, a website used to help small companies build capital through public donations,  he raised 2.5 million dollars, completely blowing away his initial funding goal by something like 10 times!  It was one of the largest donation hauls the website has ever seen.

This was too huge just to be a product for enthusiasts.  Palmer then decided:  this would be a fully realized consumer product.  After this point, the interest in the device increased with seemingly exponential intensity. He obtained business partners, and a CEO.  They let wall street investors try the device, which impressed many of them so much that the company was able to raise tens of millions of dollars in additional capital.  This investment fervor climaxed with the buyout of Oculus by Facebook in 2014 for 2 billion dollars.  Thus, overnight, Palmer Luckey (along with a handful of other Oculus founders) became one of the richest people in the world. He has become the virtual figurehead of a very real computer revolution.