Barely two years ago, a 19-year-old Californian, Palmer Luckey, was fine-tuning the first prototype for what was to be the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that is the first to create an immersive experience worthy of the name. Last week, Palmer Luckey sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook for the tidy sum of 2 billion dollars, making him a billionaire.
Silicon Valley’s mystique applies to the Oculus Rift story: a young American reinvents the world by tinkering in his garage, in a manner reminiscent of William Hewlett and David Packard (whose garage is now a museum), as well as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founders.
Palmer Luckey’s ingenious idea was to put two LCD screens in a ski helmet, inserting two lenses so as to create a stereoscopic image. He then added motion detectors to produce a feeling of optimal immersion, coordinating head movements with the movements replicated in simulation.
After testing his invention with a few developers, Luckey founded Oculus VR. In August 2012, he launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. For $300, developers could get their hands on the first development kit. He reached his $200,000 target in under four hours and the overall campaign raised a total of 2.5 million dollars. Critics—gamers and developers alike—were unanimous about the product’s quality.
Such developers include Paul Raphael and Félix Lajeunesse, the two Montrealers behind the Félix & Paul production studio that creates 3D content for clients like Moment Factory and Cirque du Soleil.
We met with them in early March, at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, where they presented a 3D experience developed specifically for Oculus Rift.
The Patrick Watson experience steals the show at SXSW
There, Paul and Félix presented the project they’d been working on for the last eight months: a very high quality 3D video made at singer Patrick Watson’s Montreal recording studio. The two Montrealers worked on both the content and the capture technology. Patented under the name Lucia, the technology involves a device made up of multiple cameras. Working with Apollo Studio, Paul and Félix also developed a sound capture technology that is just as cutting-edge: binaural recording. The capture method strives to replicate how humans actually perceive sound.
The Patrick Watson experience is spectacular, taking us into a parallel world for eight minutes, and making us feel as if we’re right next to the artist. When its content is this good, the Oculus Rift headset is able to profoundly disrupt our perceptions. By simulating sight and hearing, the headset tricks our brain into thinking we are somewhere else.
The system is reactive: every head movement is replicated in the immersive world, and it is so well done that we instinctively look around for our hands and feet. As Félix warned us before we put on the headset, the Oculus experience definitely has a “before” and “after” to it.
The project that Félix and Paul developed on the side has quickly become a priority for the two Quebecers. “We’d been exploring 3D cinema for years, and felt the constraints imposed by the boundaries of the screen,” Paul explained. “When we saw Oculus on Kickstarter, we ordered it. We saw its potential as soon as it came in, even though the content was not great yet.”
In Austin, the short incursion into Patrick Watson’s world piqued the interest of the Oculus VR development team, which invited the two developers to present their creation at Oculus’s official pavilion.
“What’s unique about Lucia,” Félix explained, “is that it allows us to film 360 degrees of reality in 3D stereoscopic, capturing sound and images; right now, we’re the only ones who are doing it well.” Hands-on do-it-yourselfers, over time, Paul and Félix have acquired some knowledge of 3D stereoscopics which they’ve been able to extrapolate to virtual reality. Through trial and error, they have achieved a solution that works.
Does virtual reality cause nausea?
For now, the Oculus headset’s main flaw is screen definition. At 720p, the resolution means pixels can still be seen, which interferes with immersion. In mid-March, Oculus VR announced a second developer kit featuring a 1080p OLED screen. Oculus has pledged to improve the resolution every year, with 4K resolution to come next year, and 6K in 2016.
The new developer kit should also decrease the lag between head movements and their transposition into virtual reality, thanks to the inclusion of a little camera that situates the mask in space. Developers say this should reduce the nausea the device can cause in some people. The brain does not get why it feels like it is moving when the body is standing still. Nate Mitchell, VP Product at Oculus VR, was himself subject to nausea; he now says the problem has been resolved.
As for the Oculus Rift headset’s development potential, it seems clear that it will shortly be the first virtual reality headset for all wallets. The final version of the headset, to go on the market at the end of the year, should sell for US$350. It remains to be seen whether Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR will have an impact on the promised retail price. No announcements have been made yet.
A very promising future for virtual reality
Will the Oculus headset be just for video gaming, or will it reach into other media? For Félix Lajeunesse, the Oculus headset is an entirely new medium. A variety of video games should be produced in the coming months, and video experiences of all kinds produced specifically for the Oculus headset will certainly see the light of day shortly.
Virtual reality has the wind in its sails and Oculus VR is not the only one interested. At last week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony’s Worldwide Studios and research, unveiled the Morpheus project, which also takes the form of a headset designed to round out the PS4 gaming console offering.
Commenting on Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg remarked: “We want to start focusing on building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile”. Zuckerberg has just bet 2 billion dollars that virtual reality will be that platform of the future.
 The deal had not yet officially gone through at the time of publication.