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Mike Abrash said that everybody is going to care about virtual reality and the wonderful illusions that it will create. In a speech at Facebook’s F8 conference in San Francisco, the chief scientist of Oculus VR said that Facebook and his team are thinking about what reality means even as they devise a way to impersonate it with virtual reality, which makes you feel like you’re someplace you’re not.
Abrash joined Oculus VR shortly after Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion last year. He left Valve, the Bellevue, Wash.-based game company that has since unveiled its own Vive virtual reality solution in partnership with HTC. While Abrash didn’t release any real news, he did talk a lot about the research the Oculus team is doing about how the brain perceives reality. Presumably, the point is to design a better experience where you feel “presence,” or like you are really there. Abrash suggested that Facebook’s job in creating a good VR system is to create illusions to trick our brains into seeing something that appears real.
Abrash said he has been thinking about VR since reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which introduced the idea of virtual worlds in a novel. He was also inspired more by Ernest Cline’s Ready, Player One novel. He says we’re all going to care about VR. And he also brought up The Matrix, the sci-fi Keanu Reeves film, and recalled that the Morpheus character noted that “real is just electrical signals interpreted by the brain.”
“No matter which pill we pick, we’re all headed down the rabbit hole together,” Abrash said, in a reference to a choice Reeves’ character, Neo, makes about choosing to live in an illusion or a reality, by choosing a red pill or a blue pill proffered by Morpheus.
“It’s fair to say our experience of the world is an illusion. We have very little choice about what we perceive. That makes the occasions when we have a choice that much more special. Virtual reality, done right, truly is reality, as far as the observer is concerned.”
While Facebook’s focus is its 1.4 billion users on its social network, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset represents its attempt to build the platform of the future. Abrash’s talk followed a keynote by Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer. In his talk, Schroepfer said he always gets questions about why Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion.
“We are just meeting the minimum viable bar of presence now,” he said. “We are going to connect the world and build systems that fundamentally bring people together.”
Oculus has been showing demos for a couple of years, and each one is getting progressively more interesting. The quality of the visuals has improved, and so have the variety of the experiences. For about six months, Oculus has been showing its Crescent Bay technology, which is the successor to the Development Kit 2 (DK2) version that developers have been using to make games.
Instead of selling the Crescent Bay tech as a development kit, Oculus has switched its team of hundreds of engineers to focus on developing final products. John Carmack, chief technology officer said that the Samsung Gear VR, a mobile virtual reality headset that works with some Samsung smartphones, will debut before the end of 2015 as a commercial product. And Oculus VR is working to launch a commercial version of its virtual reality headset for desktop users too.
After Facebook acquired Oculus VR, it began adding resources to the team and widening the kinds of apps that could be used with virtual reality beyond gaming. Jason Rubin, head of worldwide studios at Oculus, told VentureBeat at South by Southwest (SXSW) that interactive cinematic VR and massive multiplayer universes will be coming to Oculus Rift.
Yesterday, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gave the keynote speech at F8 and showed a demo of a VR app that wasn’t a game, Facebook Teleportation, which streams live video of a location and allows the viewer to look around in 360 degrees to see different parts of the scene.
“We live in a 3D world,” he said. “Your brain does interpretations for you,” such as converting an image from 2D to 3D so that it looks like something you’ll recognize.”
Oculus also shared demos of games and interactive movies that it showed previously at the Game Developers Conference and 2015 International CES events.
In his talk today, Abrash showed us images that the brain interprets for us. The visual systems we have constantly correct for what colors we see in front of us, even if an image really is gray. The brain interprets what we see until it recognizes a familiar pattern and presents that to us. In other words, the brain creates optical illusions that we can understand, even if the objects we’re viewing are not really what we think they are.
The brain infers what is missing. The Crescent Bay demo presents images at 90 hertz, or 90 times a second. It has a 90-degree field of view and a limited color gamut. The real world has continuous illumination, continuous surfaces instead of pixels, a full color gamut, and a 280-degree field of view. But if the imagery is done right, you’ll feel like its real, Abrash said.
“VR is good enough to create experiences, but just barely,” he said.
There’s room for improvement in “haptics,” or using your hands to feel the world. The science and engineering of this tech is still embryonic, he said.
“It’s going to take time and some breakthroughs, but I expect hands to get much, much better in” virtual reality, he said.
He also said that visual quality will get better. To make it as good as reality, we’ll need 5K-by-5K pixel resolution per eye. That’s hundreds of times more pixels.
Yet he was optimistic. He said the tech is marching along. He noted Nvidia’s newest Titan X graphics card can do 7 teraflops of processing. That’s a billion times better than 30 years ago. He noted it has broad industry support with multiple systems shipping soon.
“It means buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye,” Abrash said.
He said that VR can change society — work, gaming, and socializing — in almost every way.
“VR is potentially world-changing,” he said. “I’m hoping you’ll want to be a part of it.”
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