Thursday, July 7, 2016

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. 

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