Michael Abrash @ F8 and Quick Thoughts on VR

To me it’s quite remarkable that Michael Abrash and John Carmack have been reunited at Oculus and now at Facebook. They drove much of the innovation in first person 3D games while at id Software, with games such as Doom and Quake.

I remember in the mid to late 90s that there was a whole community that wanted them to work on VR and multi-player worlds, and it just strikes that it’s a near perfect hollywood script that they would end up together again ushering in this next wave of VR.

I’ve personally been interested in VR, starting with VRML (pronounced “vermal” – and maybe the worst pronounced acronym ever), the HTML of VR – and been super excited to watch Oculus and other entrants make their debut.

When people ask me why I’m excited about VR, the way I answer it is the following: The first time I tried the Oculus it was like using a TI/99 (or Apple IIe) for the first time. In that it wasn’t perfect, and had some very clunky aspects to it, but you could instantly imagine what version 5 or 6 would be like, and how mind blowing it would be. As importantly, Oculus was the first VR device that convincingly “tricked my mind” into accepting that what I was seeing was “real”. When I did a racing demo, I tried to crash into a wall, and as hard as I tired, I couldn’t help but flinch and really felt a visceral reaction. It’s hard to explain, but I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it yet to find a demo, or even better yet, head to a local VR meetup to see a whole bunch of demos and meet the people who are working on this cutting edge stuff.

Last week Abrash gave a talk at F8 on Virtual Reality, and I think it’s a must-watch to understand just why this time around VR might become a very big deal:

Time to look at VR again ?

When something new hits the scene, I’m often reminded of the Gartner hype cycle chart:

You can look at everything from the initial web 1.0 dreams that today are actually happening because we went from 100mm online users to a couple of billion. Or look at the medical fields and where we were with artificial limbs 30 years ago, and today’s amazing offerings.

So in that context, I think VR (virtual reality) might be hitting that “Slope of Enlightenment”.

In the early and mid 90s it was all about VR for gaming, military simulations, and I even remember seeing a demo for a shopping experience. There was a big bush for a 3D HTML called VRML that I worked on a bit for some clients, and Netscape bought a company called Paper Software that had a VRML browser plug-in. People were talking about how the Star Trek holodeck was around the corner. But quickly VR and the overall idea faded from the conversation.

Fast forward 20 years and quietly some cool stuff has been happening. A kickstarter project, Oculus Rift, looked to raise $250K for a developer VR kit, and received over $2mm when John Carmack gave it his unofficial blessing. CHeck out this video below:

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Then this evening I was reading over on Tom’s Hardware this hands-over review:

“Holy $#!+,” I blurted after the Oculus Rift VR goggles were slapped on my face. It had nothing to do with the device’s physical aspect – the Oculus Rift was surprisingly light on my head despite its bulky appearance. I just didn’t expect to see what my eyes were sending to my brain, and everyone in the dark room laughed at my sudden outburst.

I would have said more, but I found myself a little speechless thereafter, lost wandering the streets of the Epic Citadel demo. I knew the experience would be awesomely cool, but I didn’t expect to still be talking about it a week later to everyone I know.

If you were there when id Software and 3Dfx changed PC gaming, then you might know what’s coming for you. At the time, John Carmack and his gang turned the grainy, pixilated polygon-based world of 1996’s Quake into a super-smooth environment with believable lighting effects. Heck, I can’t even remember Quake without GPU support now, but I remember cursing the moment I saw what the difference dedicated hardware support made.

This will likely be the very reaction every PC gamer will have when they use the Oculus Rift. In the private demo held by the Oculus team, I was seated in a chair and given a gamepad. The goggles were placed on my head and I was asked to look up, look down, look left, look right, and then look over my shoulder for calibration. That’s right: you can see whatever is behind you without having to turn your virtual body.

So looks like it’s perhaps time to start paying attention to this field again 🙂