As he flew from Orange County to Seattle in September 2013, Brendan Iribe, the CEO of Oculus, couldn’t envision what the next six months would bring. The rhapsodic crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show. The around-the-block lines at South by Southwest. Most of all, the $2 billion purchase by Facebook. That fall Oculus was still just an ambitious startup chasing virtual reality, a dream that had foiled countless entrepreneurs and technologists for two decades. Oculus’ flagship product, the Rift, was widely seen as the most promising VR device in years, enveloping users in an all-encompassing simulacrum that felt like something out of Snow Crash or Star Trek. But it faced the same problem that had bedeviled would-be pioneers like eMagin, Vuzix, even Nintendo: It made people want to throw up.This was the problem with virtual reality. It couldn’t just be really good. It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying—you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead. But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick.
There were a million little problems like that, tiny technical details that would need to be solved if virtual reality were ever to become more than a futurist’s fantasy. The Rift had made enough headway to excite long-suffering VR enthusiasts, but it was still a long way from where it needed to be.
“This is the first time that we’ve succeeded in stimulating parts of the human visual system directly.”
But then Iribe got a call from Michael Abrash, an engineer at Valve; the gaming software company had conducted VR research for a while and had begun collaborating with Oculus. Valve had a new prototype, and it didn’t make people sick. In fact, no one who had tried the demonstration had felt any discomfort. Iribe, who was famously sensitive to VR-induced discomfort—“cold sweat syndrome,” he calls it, or sometimes “the uncomfortable valley”—flew up to Valve’s offices outside Seattle to be the ultimate guinea pig.
Abrash escorted Iribe into a small room tucked off a hallway. The walls and ceilings were plastered with printouts of QR-code-like symbols called fiducial markers; in the corner, a young engineer named Atman Binstock manned a computer. Connected to the computer was Valve’s prototype headset—or at least the very beginnings of a headset, all exposed circuit boards and cables. Iribe slipped it over his head and found himself in a room, the air filled with hundreds of small cubes.
He turned his head to look behind him—more floating cubes. Cubes to the left, cubes to the right, cubes overhead, floating away into infinity. Iribe leaned forward and peered around to see the side of the cube closest to him; he crouched and could see its underside. A small camera on the headset was reading the fiducial markers on the (real) wall and using that spatial information to track his position among the (virtual) cubes. So far, so good; no motion sickness yet....MORE
*From last week's "Seinfeld, Virtual Reality and Mild Revulsion":
The Uncanny Valley, Interior-Design Edition
The "uncanny valley" usually applies to human aesthetics. It describes that vague sense of revulsion you get when you see a fabricated person—a robot, usually—who looks aaaaalmost human … but not quite. So, for example, this lady. This dude. Anything displayed here. The "valley" refers to the emotional reactions humans have toward anthropomorphized machines, when those reactions are charted: It's the deep dip in comfort level we tend to experience, based on our finely honed survival instincts, when we humans come face-to-quasi-face with beings that are at once extremely like us and extremely not....MORE