Tuesday 6 December 2016

How Facebook's virtual reality plans got a Luckey break

Palmer Luckey is the 23-year-old grafter who sold his virtual reality start-up, Oculus, to Facebook for $2bn. He talked to Adrian Weckler

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

Using an oculus touch, with the hand controllers to 'recognise natural hand poses like pointing, waving, or giving a thumbs-up'
Using an oculus touch, with the hand controllers to 'recognise natural hand poses like pointing, waving, or giving a thumbs-up'
Palmer Luckey, the 23-year-old inventor of the Oculus Rift
Last August's cover of Time Magazine sparked a flurry of memes
What you see inside an Oculus Rift headset

'Would you come work with me at my time-travel start-up?"

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Palmer Luckey, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops on a cold and rainy November Dublin day, is refusing to yield to the damp fatalism of his grey, Irish surroundings.

And after spending 15 minutes completely immersed in a virtual reality universe with Luckey, I can see why.

In just a short period locked into Luckey's Oculus virtual-reality system, I'm a convert to the technology. Donning headsets and gloves, we have gone from flinging objects around in a lab to lighting firecrackers under the ocean. Although in different physical rooms throughout, we 'saw' and interacted with each other smoothly and naturally.

It was a startling, vivid, convincing experience. Luckey has created something that looks a lot like The Matrix.

This is one reason why Facebook bought his company last year for $2bn (€1.85bn). And it's why everyone in the social media giant - from Mark Zuckerberg down - is now describing virtual reality as one of the company's top three investment areas over the next few years, with some even predicting that virtual reality devices will be as common as mobile phones.

So it's no wonder that the 23-year-old can wear shorts and flip-flops in storm-battered Dublin or that he's pondering a time-travel start-up. Because he only spends half of his time in actual reality.

"Seriously, wouldn't a time-travel start-up be cool? Don't you agree?"

"Really?" I ask. "A time-travel start-up?"

"Okay, okay," he says. "I guess there's never going to be a time-travel start-up. I wish there was, though. Time travel is the only thing I could imagine giving up VR for."

Despite his name, there's little that is fortuitous about Luckey's rise through Silicon Valley's ranks to sit at Mark Zuckerberg's right hand. Unlike many billion-dollar unicorn princes, Luckey didn't go to a posh school or college. And he funded his own interest in collecting early virtual reality headsets by fixing broken iPhones as a spare job.

There was no big investment round to help him off the ground, either. Together with Brendan Iribe (who joined to become the company's chief executive), the Californian raised $2.4m on Kickstarter to make the first functioning models of the headset.

He did it principally to create an accessory that would blow the socks off serious gamers. But Mark Zuckerberg saw its potential for other things and swooped in with a couple of billion dollars to capture both Oculus and Luckey.

Now, the young Californian thinks that gaming is just the beginning for virtual reality.

"At some point, VR is going to be more ubiquitous than today's phones," he tells me.

What does he have in mind? What forms will it take?

"Well, it won't be all of these big goggles, that's a given. But eventually the cost is going to come down, the quality is going to go up and the form factor is going to shrink from being a big set of goggles to being more like a pair of sunglasses. Virtual reality is going to become something you either always wear or something that you at least carry around with you all of the time and occasionally use."

This vision is not unlike one that Microsoft has with its Hololens headset project. Except with Hololens, Microsoft is using 'augmented reality', which differs from virtual reality in that it superimposes virtual artefacts (like people, animations or objects) onto the real landscape that a person is looking at.

But haven't we been here before with computer glasses? Has the world not learned a lesson from the flop that Google Glasses - which let you navigate and use Google services inside framed glasses - became?

"Google Glass was a little different," he says. "People weren't weirded out by the fact that you were wearing an AR [augmented reality] headset. They were weirded out by the fact that you were wearing a video camera at all times. That's what people were concerned about."

Luckey has a point here. Across California, some bars and restaurants started putting up signs saying: 'No Google Glass, please'.

But even if the failure of Google Glass is down to paranoia over being recorded, Oculus still has to get over the 'dork' factor.

For example, on a recent trip to the US, I saw a traveller in O'Hare Airport with a bulky Samsung Gear virtual reality headset on. (This is a headset into which you can put your Samsung phone to create the visual impression of surround viewing.) People pointed and stared. Others took photos. He couldn't know this, however, because he was absorbed in whatever programme was running on the VR headset.

But most people are naturally shy about donning such stand-out equipment in public. It's a point that Luckey takes on the chin.

"Right now, VR is big and bulky," he says. "If you were to put on a headset like that and go out in public, people are going to laugh at you. Because it looks a little bit silly to walk around with these big bulky goggles on right now."

On the other hand, he says, people get used to things over time, if they prove useful.

"Look, there are a lot of things that you use in your home that look a little silly," he says. "People still use shower caps. Many people have had sweaters knitted for them by their grandmothers, often not very good-looking sweaters. But you still wear them, right?

"Like you're wearing a watch. You don't need to wear a watch. You could tell time with your phone. But it's become an accepted thing. So I think as VR gets slimmer, it won't have the same fashion stigma that it has today. Because that's really what it is - a fashion stigma."

Fashion is not the only thing that has held virtual reality back. The hardware has frequently left people feeling queasy, with simulations proving too realistic. Technically, this is down to a vestibular mismatch between the motion that your body is feeling and the motion that your eyes tell you you're seeing.

This, though, has improved significantly in the last 18 months, says Luckey.

"We've already largely solved the comfort issues for certain types of content, but we're not going to be able to solve it for everything," he says. "In terms of video games and TV, there are always going to be crazy camera movements, like playing a certain type of fighter jet simulators. The reality is that some things in real life make you sick. So there are always going to be things that you can do in normal video games that you can't do in VR.

"Anyway, that's not really a hardware problem. It's more a content-creation problem."

Even if we don't puke and are not mortified to be seen wearing giant cranial strap-ons, there is still the question: why?

As impressive and immersive as my 15 minutes in a virtual world with Luckey were, they seemed largely focused on escapism and gaming.

While that is certainly an identifiable market, are there other purposes to virtual reality that Luckey has in mind and that may make ordinary people take notice?

"Education is going to be one of the huge applications," he says. "Letting students see and experience things they could never have 10 years ago is now a possibility. You could see kids going on a virtual field trip to Paris. And although it may be better to do that in real life, lots of people who don't have the opportunity to do that could use VR."

Architectural walkthroughs are another obvious use, he says.

"There are also people who are using it for surgical training or for first-responder training to train in different scenarios, like fires or explosions, that are either too expensive or too dangerous to simulate in real life."

But there is one area of commercialisation that Luckey does not mention - a lucrative market that is associated with almost every emerging visual technology.

Is virtual reality set to create a new frontier for adult entertainment?

"I'm sure it will be part of virtual reality - like it's a part of every other part of media," says Luckey, slowly. "But no, we're not planning on putting any adult content on our platform. It's not something we're focused on at all."

This is not a surprise. Whatever licence Luckey (and Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe) may have had to incorporate sexual content into its advanced VR programming in the early days was extinguished with the takeover by Facebook. That's not to say third-party developers won't pursue the genre. But it's off the table for Luckey.

That Facebook is taking Oculus seriously is not in doubt. I recently talked to the social networking giant's global chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer. He said that Facebook was going all-in on the technology.

"We're investing heavily in this," he told me.

"We're building a system that gives you a sense of place, of being anywhere you want in the world and then, more importantly, with other people.

"So you can have a social experience in virtual reality or you can look at someone, give them a thumbs-up or hand them objects, even if they're not in the same room as you. You're going to be using this in your living room or in your airplane seat over the Atlantic."

Luckey is happy to have Schroepfer, Zuckerberg and the entire cash-rich Facebook infrastructure at his back. With these guys on board, there's no shortage of investment capital to make his plans come to life.

"It's been good," he agrees when asked about life after the Facebook takeover. "We now have the resources we need to focus on the long-term future of virtual reality instead of the near-term of trying to pay the bills, which is what we were struggling with."

And Zuckerberg's personal drive to ramp virtual reality up? That must be nice.

"Yes, it is that," he says "It's also that so many other big companies are investing in virtual reality now. You see Google, you see Sony, HTC. You see some of the other bigger players also investing. It's really this market-wide validation that shows me I'm not crazy."

Despite all of these heavyweights jumping into virtual reality, samples of the merchandise are few and far between. Samsung's Gear VR device is the only one that people in Ireland may have seen out and about (and so far I have only seen one). But that is set to change, say most of those involved with the technology.

Facebook's Mike Schroepfer says virtual reality sets will start to take off "next year", a prognosis Luckey agrees with.

"At some point, if you have glasses that are $100 and the size of sunglasses in real life, everybody is going to want one," says Luckey. "Right now, to get into VR you're going to have to spend at least $1,000 on your PC. But prices are going down over time - and eventually everyone is going to have a computer capable of running VR. Then the equation changes.

"Eventually VR is just going to be like a phone with chips built into the headset. And at that point you don't need to be tethered to another device - you just need the headset."

It will still all depend on the content, though. Right now, aside from games, movies appear to be a route being developed. Netflix has a virtual reality app that makes you think you're in custom chalet, watching a private cinema as you watch one of the films or TV programmes available on its streaming service. It's available to use now on the Samsung Gear VR and will soon come to the full Oculus device, Luckey says.

(I tried this out on a Gear VR device after our interview. While it is effective, it is not as impressive as other Oculus apps. Nevertheless, Luckey says that he "shares" movie experiences with friends who are in different parts of the world through the system.)

But there is no sign of time travel. This is a good thing, I suggest to Luckey. He could, after all, unravel the present.

"Ah, it depends on what type of time travel you believe," he says. "Like, are there multiple paths? Is there one path? Is there time traveller's immunity where I'm immune from the effects of changing my own path?"

Luckey has clearly thought about this. As he is only 23, there may yet be time for him to change paths and visit the past. Until then, he intends to stay the course with virtual reality.

"Time travel is the only thing I could imagine giving up VR for," he says. "But right now, if VR gets to perfect or close-to-perfect quality, it's actually might be as good."

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