Interview with Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey: Part 1

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For me, one of the greatest pastimes I’ve had this year is finding and keeping up with exciting projects on the Kickstarter website. 2012 has had enormous growth in creative ideas coming to life on Kickstarter, especially in the world of computer gaming. However, one project in particular stands out in my mind that might have a significant impact on gaming (and perhaps beyond gaming) for years to come: The Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift Kickstarter project had an initial goal of $250,000 and ended up with $2,437,429 when all was said and done.   The goal? To create a truly immersive virtual reality experience that’s affordable to most anyone – but hit the ground running with developer kits so developers can start implementing support into their games as soon as possible. I was lucky enough to attend PAX Prime this year, and perhaps even more fortunate enough to try a hands on demo of the Oculus Rift prototype. I was initially supposed to talk to Nate Mitchell, VP of Products but ended up talking with the project founder himself, Palmer Luckey. The following interview was done on August 31st, 2012, opening day of PAX Prime. You’ll find my impressions of that hand’s on demo experience after the interview.  Now, let’s get on with the interview!

Palmer Luckey at PAX Prime

Palmer Luckey at PAX Prime

The Tech Stuff

Rumbleforge: Being that the screens in the VR headset are smaller, is this less intensive on GPUs?

Palmer Luckey: No, the size of the screens doesn’t have anything to do with it, it’s just all resolution.   The resolution on the current prototype is pretty low so you’ll get a performance gain compared to normal 3D rendering but at the same time you have to render two views so there is a performance hit compared to whatever you get normally.

Rumbleforge: I wasn’t sure, is there a mobile GPU built in or is this all off of the computer?

Palmer Luckey: No, it’s all running off of the computer.

Rumbleforge: What type of connections does the Oculus Rift have? Video card connections?

Palmer Luckey: Yeah, DVI, USB, and it will have a HDMI adapter as well.

Rumbleforge: Any potential for something like thunderbolt?

Palmer Luckey: Not in the developer kit. In the consumer version, you never know.  Thunderbolt, Wireless video, they’re all possibilities but it’s too early to say at this point in the developer process.

Rumbleforge: Is there an advantage to keeping the GPU off the headset, versus incorporating a mobile GPU?

Palmer Luckey: It’s really unlikely that we’re going to be able to throw a GPU on there that can rival what’s in a computer. It doesn’t make sense to throw technology on your head if it doesn’t have to be there or even in a external control box if it can be in the computer.  Maybe at some point in the future, I think thats going to be the future long term- mobile hardware driving all of this but that’s years down the line, not months down the line.

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Rumbleforge: Were there design choices that were sacrificed to achieve optimal function vs weight?

Palmer Luckey: Yeah, one of the big things that we’re doing is the optics in here, they’re pretty awesome optics.  So what they do is they actually compress more pixels towards the center of the screen so you have more more pixels in the center than you do in the periphery.  That also allows us to use relatively simple single element optics rather than going with a complex optical solution where you have everything be pixel perfect all the way through. That’s what allowed us to have huge weight and cost savings

Rumbleforge: I know you’ve been asked about people who wear glasses before, are there calibrations available for people with optical hindrances?

Palmer Luckey: For the developer kit, we’re not exactly sure. We have a scheme put together that might let it be somewhat eye glasses compatible. The problem is that eye glasses are going to push the lenses further away from your eyes, reduce your field of view, and change the distortion parameters. So what people can do for the developer kit, and the consumer version will have adjustable focus so you’re not going to need glasses anyways-you can just adjust them, but for the developer kit you’re going to either A) wear contacts or B), what I plan on doing, which is go and buy some cheap 20 dollar glasses, pop the lens out and just stick them in front of the [Oculus] lenses. That way you don’t have the big heavy frame of the glasses on your nose or have the lenses bashing against each other and scratching. So that’s another way to do it.

Rumbleforge: Do you think FPS matters more with a virtual headset than it does with a traditional monitor?

Palmer Luckey: Yeah, it’s huge. You really need 60 frames per second [in VR]. If you’re dropping down to 35 – 45 fps on a monitor you can just power through it and be like, “ah this kind of sucks.” Some people can go way lower than that. Some people have a tolerance for 15 FPS. I don’t.  It really needs to be 60 frames per second. Ideally we’d be running at 120 frames per second if we 120hz displays in there.  For a convincing VR experience you need the highest frame rate possible.

Built in Audio, Games & CAVEs

Rumbleforge: How about the potential for built in audio in the headset?

Palmer Luckey: I really think that’s a cool idea. It’d be awesome to have built in audio, you know? The problem is if we’re going to do audio, we’re going to do it right. It doesn’t make any sense to do audio and just be like, “Oh it has included headphones and they’re decent.” The only reason to do it would be if we could give an experience that’s superior to what people can get out there on their own.  One nice thing, people [developers] are already going to have to optimize games for the Rift so what we could do is have a specific really nice really set of audio hardware that’s included and built in. Then we can say to developers, “I want you to optimize for this profile, this particular hardware.” Because normally you have to optimize your sounds so that it doesn’t sound bad on shitty headphones.  It has to sound halfway decent across all of that.  So it would be nice if they could optimize for one particular set reference hardware. On the other hand, to do that is a significant cost, it’s a significant engineering effort, and some people will want to use their own headphones regardless of what we’ve optimized. They just have different needs or different wants or different “fanboyisms.” They’ll want to use their Turtle Beach headsets or their Astros or their official 360 headset. Perfectly fine headsets that they feel really strongly about, they might want to use those anyways.  And for the developer kit, it doesn’t make sense to do sound at all.  For the consumer version, we might end up doing that. It’s just too early to say for sure.

Rumbleforge: So if you did it, you’d want to offer the same level of immersion that the visual aspect is?

 Palmer Luckey: Yes. We’re only going to do audio if we can do a really good audio experience. It’s not going to be including audio for the convenience of including audio.

Rumbleforge: Did you design the Oculus Rift with games in mind, or did you hope it would push into other arenas of interest?

Palmer Luckey: I’m a big gamer, I designed it with games in mind. I mean, I’ve worked in other arenas. I used to work in a military simulation lab, so yeah. I’ve thought about it being used in other applications. But what we’re doing is- we’re not putting any limits on the developer kits.  We’re not like some hardware companies where there is a vetting process to get a dev kit, anybody can buy one and do what they want with it. We’ve gotten interest from military simulation people, medical simulation people, people who want to use it for dream visualizations- this huge spectrum.  It’s not that we’re not focusing on that, its just that we’re focusing on making really great hardware and getting it to the developers.  Then they can do what they want with it.  Now, it happens to be that I’m mostly interested in games. Most of our team is interested in games and most of the developers interested are also game developers. But there’s definitely other applications.  There’s going to be people who take it, integrate it in a system, and sell it to somebody else for 50 times as much and that’s fine.

An Example of a CAVE

An Example of a CAVE

Rumbleforge: I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Iowa State C6 virtual reality environment at Iowa State University…

Palmer Luckey: I have not.

Rumbleforge: I had a chance to work with it a bit in the early-2000s and they’re basically rooms set up with rear projections-

Palmer Luckey: Ah, so they’re CAVE setups.

Rumbleforge: Yeah, it’s CAVE setup.

Palmer Luckey: Oh, is it a six walled cave they have?

Rumbleforge: Yeah.

Palmer Luckey: Got it, yeah, Okay I have heard of it.

Rumbleforge: The guys working there, they’re working on all these projects and everything- but I think everyone was thinking about games at the time.

Palmer Luckey: I love CAVEs. I have one in my garage.

Rumbleforge: Oh do you? Haha!  It’s a little bit of a suspension of disbelief in that- well I was surprise at how easy you could fall into the “immersion” but at the same time, you know, its bending around corners-

Palmer Luckey: Were they using stereoptic glasses?

Rumbleforge: No, [not with my experience] just straight walled environment.

Palmer Luckey: Were they using head tracking?

Rumbleforge: No when I was in it the demos were running fixed track demos.

Palmer Luckey: When you have head tracking to adjust for the perspective and stereo 3d so your eyes aren’t converging on the near plane, they can look straight out, it’s a huge difference.

CAVEs are badass, except they cost minimum of single digit thousands of dollars or more realistically, tens of thousands, an enormous amount of space and rendering power.

Rumbleforge: There was a whole bank of SGI machines when I was there, at the time.

Click here for Part 2 as Rumbleforge and Palmer discuss VR in depth and Rumbleforge enlightens us with his hands-on experience! More information on the Oculus Rift can be found at: http://www.oculusvr.com Palmer Luckey can be found on Twitter: @PalmerLuckey

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About the Contributor

Rumble Avatar 3-1Aegir Rumbleforge, aka Rumbleforge the Dwarf, is a fantasy dwarf who loves magic battle hammers, good ale, good company, laying the undead back to rest, and can be found on Twitter at @RumbleTheDwarf. Occasionally he’s forced to spend time in the real world as a guy named Michael.

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One thought on “Interview with Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey: Part 1

  1. I’m really excited for this. His Kickstarter video was pretty amazing, and all of the big name developers that were vouching for it was really cool. The big issue I’ve heard about it recently was that since they got funded well over their expected amount there are going to be some huge delays as they didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the order amounts.

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