Mitchell and Luckey were brought together by Oculus Chief Executive Officer Brendan Iribe, whose office, named Inception, is just down from Mitchell’s. Above the desk and couches and armchairs is an odd steampunk-style bust by Jeremy Mayer, an artist in Oakland, Calif. Made entirely of parts from Oliver manual typewriters, the figure is dubbed Papa Oliver. He’s a nod to the past but also a wink at a bionic future, when we may live in haptic suits that sense and translate every movement and reflect them in our avatars, ocular implants show information on our retinas, and so on through the visions of Cline and others. Iribe bought one for himself and one for Zuckerberg.
Iribe, 36, has dark turned-up hair and an easy, confident manner; his mother says he never had trouble walking right up to the counter at the computer store when he was little, and sometimes right past it to the backroom. He has many roles, but the main one is making sure the final product Oculus is building today is elegant, intuitive, and comfortable—and doesn’t make people throw up. Nausea is the “Um, sir, there may be a problem” problem of VR.
He thinks bigger thoughts, too, about where VR might be years from now. He wonders about things like what would happen if Oculus one-upped Google Earth and mapped the whole world in 3D, or what it might take to get eye tracking right. “I sleep on and off—a couple hours—and then wake up and think about it, and then go back to sleep and think about it more,” he says.
Iribe grew up in Maryland and spent a year at the University of Maryland before leaving to work in software development. In April he went to his alma mater to inaugurate the construction of a computer science center named for him after he pledged $31 million. He stood under a tent with a senator, the governor, and Oculus executive Michael Antonov, also a former student. They all put on VR goggles and pretended to break ground. (With Antonov, Iribe founded Scaleform in 2004, which sold software tools to video game producers. It was bought by Autodesk in 2011 for $36 million.)
As Iribe remembers it, a friend called him from a product show in 2012 and told him, “You need to go meet Palmer. He has this really cool prototype, and I think VR is, like, finally ready to work, maybe.” So Iribe brought a group together at the STK steakhouse in Los Angeles, including Mitchell and others Iribe had worked with. At the dinner, he says, “Palmer walks in with his shorts and flip-flops and Atari T-shirt. I’d spoken to him on the phone, but I didn’t know how young he was.” Luckey was 19.
Brendan Iribe, Oculus CEO
Source: Courtesy Oculus
Iribe pitched turning Oculus, which had been a message board-inspired Kickstarter project to help people build their own VR headsets, into a company that could sell a fully designed headset direct to consumers. If this was the dawn of a new computing age, here was Steve Jobs telling Steve Wozniak that the Apple computer should be for regular folks, not just engineers.
But Luckey already had another job offer. “I was considering a lot of different options,” he says. “We met, and I talked with Brendan and his friends. He really helped convince me.”
Says Mitchell: “I do remember you said there was this one job offer, and you said, ‘Think about this salary. I’m going to walk away from that.’ Someone was like, ‘Palmer, if you start your own company, you can pick your own salary.’ ”
Iribe: “The big pitch to Palmer was, Look, we have done this before, and we’re all still working together. We’ll do a partnership, the four of us. … We’ll get equal share. I’ll be the CEO, and we’ll put the company and the product together, build a team, raise the money”—the company was almost entirely funded by Iribe, his family, Antonov, and Mitchell, in addition to the Kickstarter money—“and you’ll be the founder and evangelist, and you can go out and be spokesman. You have this incredible story, developing this in your garage for years.”
Luckey, remembering it all, laughs. “I wasn’t convinced for a while,” he says. “It took a few weeks. It was pretty clear that Brendan was the right guy to work with. I never wanted to be CEO. That’s just not my skill set. Some people can be that founder-CEO. I knew from the very start I never wanted to be a CEO. It’s not my type of role.”
Oculus Rift at the audio lab.
Photograph by Emily Shur for Bloomberg Businessweek
At Sanzaru Games, they joke a lot about getting the bucket ready. Sanzaru makes one of the 70 games and experiences Oculus has seeded, hoping they’ll come up with a winner. The bucket is for vomit. Tin Guerrero, Sanzaru’s creative director, is working on a sports game, and his team uses the bucket to answer questions like, “What will happen if we have the user running down a field with a football?” There’s a guy named Flemming Wahl who gets sick easily. When Guerrero wants to know if a feature works, he has Wahl test it. If he doesn’t get sick, it works. Wahl isn’t some kind of weakling—his hobby is racing dragon boats—but for some reason he’s sensitive to the vestibular distortions of VR.
Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus, spends a lot of his time studying perception. For Abrash, the great dress fight of 2015—where the world couldn’t agree on whether a dress was blue and black or white and gold—wasn’t a time-wasting meme, but a fundamental question about what the brain processes and why. For Abrash, Oculus can’t stop at games and gimmicky immersive experiences. It’s supposed to be as good as reality. It’s supposed to be reality.
“When you wake up in the morning, you don’t say, Ah, reality, what an interesting platform,” Abrash says, lifting his arms to show off the slice of life that is this Facebook conference room. “You don’t think, What’s the killer app? You think, Anything is possible.” He motions to his half-rimmed glasses and his phone. They’re examples of ways we already augment our perception of the world, he says. But before VR, “we haven’t ever had it so tightly coupled to our perceptual system and our environment.”
The problem for a research team benchmarking against actual reality is that Oculus falls short in so many ways. The way lenses are designed now, field of view is 90 degrees, not the 110 degrees your eyes have. And there’s no way to adjust depth perception so you can focus on a strand of hair and then something in the distance without highly precise eye tracking. “The only way to figure that out is to build it,” Abrash says. “This is only a perceptual psychology problem. The key is that what you experience is constructed in your brain.”
Tracking eyes, for example, isn’t as simple as tracking pupils—which change size and may not be symmetric. The eyes wiggle and the iris travels during each blink. “If you took a video of your eye and watched it in slow motion, it would be very disturbing,” Abrash says. Eventually, Oculus will need to track mouth movement and hand movement, which are potentially even harder, but necessary for people to hang out and have conversations in some VR chat app of the future.
Oculus early on committed 20 percent of its budget and hiring to the research division, and Abrash spends most of his time trying to find people who’ve actually studied the things the company is trying to solve. In fields such as nanofabrication, nanolithography, and waveguide technology, he says there are only a few people in the world to ask. Finding them has been complicated by how completely VR stalled after its failure in the ’90s. There was nowhere for a specialist in VR to continue to grow. “I talked to one of those people to see if he wanted to work with us—it turns out he’s a doctor now,” says Abrash. “Things just imploded so completely that people walked away from it.”
In the early ’90s, Abrash met CTO Carmack on an online bulletin board for 3D graphics. They got together and built Quake, a hugely popular video game, then went their separate ways, Carmack to ID Software and Abrash to Valve. About 15 years later, Carmack introduced him to the Oculus team, before Facebook bought it. Abrash tried a demo where he looked over the edge of a tall building and felt his knees lock up. That’s when he knew the future described in his favorite sci-fi novels was possible.
He quit his job, anticipating a long vacation before Oculus could raise enough money to get serious. Five days later he got a text telling him the company had been acquired for $2 billion. “I thought, Well, the train’s leaving the station,” Abrash says. He met Zuckerberg and grilled him about whether VR was a serious part of Facebook’s strategic plan, then he hopped on.
Carmack is at a Microsoft event the night before E3, the annual gaming conference in Los Angeles. VR is such a new, open field that competitors are more collaborative than they might be otherwise, and Carmack is at E3 to introduce the VR version of Microsoft’s Minecraft. The game runs on the Gear VR, a stripped-down $99 set of goggles that holds a Samsung smartphone inside. (The gear is a Samsung-Oculus collaboration based largely on Carmack’s work.) VR on mobile phones is the technology Carmack thinks will spread first and fastest. “The phone,” he says, “is the golden path to how we get to a billion users.”
Carmack, 45, has spiky blond hair and small rimless rectangular glasses. He answers questions with precise, unusually inventive language. He joined Oculus in the early days, after meeting Luckey through a message board devoted to VR. He describes Luckey’s first prototype as “a warpy, distorted mess.” Carmack worked with Luckey to refine it and brought it to E3 in 2012. “This little shoe box that Palmer had taped together with two plastic lenses and a surplus screen was better than these super high-end displays that cost a hundred times as much,” he says. “But this was the thing that made people go ‘Whoa.’ They saw it. They felt it.”
Minecraft, says Carmack, is “the biggest game in existence.” He spent months persuading Markus Persson, its inventor, to work with him, and then Microsoft, after it bought Minecraft, to let him turn it into a VR game. And then Facebook bought Oculus. “I was a big backer of the Facebook acquisition,” he says, explaining that he understood enormous resources would be required for true VR to come to fruition. He was so all-in, he even got a Facebook account.
He says he has no one reporting to him, which frees him to study problems like sensor fusion, the process of getting different locating technologies to work together. Carmack ran Armadillo, an aerospace company he founded, for about a decade, and he’s applying some of the same positioning technology to VR. “Sometimes you have an opportunity to build something from the future, before there’s a top-100 list for the genre,” he says. “I am more excited about this than anything that has come before.” Like Abrash, he met with Zuckerberg before joining Facebook. He wanted to gauge Zuckerberg’s commitment and came away convinced.
In a way, it all hangs on Zuckerberg, who tracks his personal and professional goals in an almost aggressively pedantic manner. He counts miles for a year of running and logs books for a year of reading. Asked at the interview in his office if he’s ready for the long term, he leans in, looks around the room, and fairly yells, “I don’t think we’ve met before!” Then he seamlessly slides into, “We’re a very mission-focused and long-term-oriented company.”