Archive for March 2014
John Carmack, CTO of Oculus Rift, tweeted:
Everyone has had some time to digest the FB deal now. I think it is going to be positive, but clearly many disagree. Much of the ranting has been emotional or tribal, but I am interested in reading coherent viewpoints about objective outcomes. What are the hazards? What should be done to guard against them? What are the tests for failure? Blog and I’ll read.
I have already blogged on this but will make this a more focused response to John specifically.
Here are my objective premises:
- VR goggles, as currently implemented by the Rift, conceal the face and prevent full optical facial / eye capture.
- VR goggles, ACIBTR, conceal the external environment — in other words, they are VR, not AR.
- Real-time person-to-person social contact is primarily based on nonverbal (especially facial) expression.
- Gamer-style “alternate reality” experiences are not primarily social, and are based on ignoring the external environment.
Here are my conclusions:
- A truly immersive social virtual environment must integrate accurate, low-latency, detailed facial and body capture.
- Therefore such an environment can’t be fundamentally based on opaque VR goggles, and will require new technologies and sensor integrations.
- Opaque VR goggles are, however, ideal for gamer-style experiences.
- Gamer experiences have never had full facial/body capture, and are based on ignoring the external environment.
- The more immersive such experiences are, the more people will want to participate in them.
- This means that gratuitous mandatory social features, in otherwise unrelated VR experiences, would fundamentally break that immersion and would damage the platform substantially.
- Goggle research and development will mostly directly benefit “post-goggle” augmented reality technology.
The hazards for Rift:
- If Facebook’s monetization strategy results in mandatory encounters with Facebook as part of all Rift experiences, this could break the primary thing that makes Rift compelling: convincing immersion in another reality that doesn’t much overlap with this one.
- If Facebook tries to build an “online social environment” with Rift as we have historically known them (Second Life, Google Lively, PlayStation Home, Worlds Inc., etc., etc., etc.), it will be as niche as all those others. Most importantly, it will radically fail to achieve Facebook’s ubiquity ambitions.
- This is because true socializing requires full facial and nonverbal bandwidth, and Rift today cannot provide that. Nor can any VR/AR technology yet created, but that’s the research challenge here!
- If Facebook and Rift fail to pioneer the innovation necessary to deliver true augmented social reality (including controlled perception of your actual environment, and full facial and body capture of all virtual world participants), some other company will get there first.
- That other company, and not Facebook, will truly own the future of cyberspace.
- If Rift fails to initially deliver a deeply immersive alternate reality platform, it will not get developers to buy in.
- This risk seems smallest based on Rift’s technical trajectory.
What should be done to guard against them:
- Facebook integration should be very easy as part of the Rift platform, but must be 100% completely developer opt-in. Any mandatory Facebook integration will damage your long-term goals (creating the first true social virtual world, requiring fundamentally new technology innovation) and will further lose you mindshare among those skeptical of Facebook.
- Facebook should resist the temptation to build a Rift-based virtual world. I know everyone there is itching to get started on Snow Crash, and you could certainly build a fantastic one. But it would still be fundamentally for gamers, because gamers are self-selected to enjoy surreal online places that happen to be inhabited by un-expressive avatars.
- The world has lots of such places already; they’re called MMOGs, and the MMOG developers can do a better job putting their games into Rift than Facebook can.
- Facebook and Rift should immediately begin a long-term research project dedicated to post-goggle technology. Goggles are not the endgame here; in a fully social cyberspace, you’ll be able to see everyone around you (including those physically next to you), faces, bodies, and all. If you really want to put your long-term money where your mouth is, shoot for the post-goggle moon.
- Retinal projection glasses? LCD projectors inside a pair of glasses? Ubiquitous depth cameras? Facial tracking cameras? Full environment capture? Whatever it takes to really get there, start on it immediately. This may take over a decade to finally pan out, but you have the resources to look ahead that far now. This, and nothing less, is what’s going to make VR/AR as ubiquitous as Facebook itself is today.
- Meanwhile, of course, ship a fantastic Rift that provides gamers — and technophiles generally — with a stunning experience they’ve never had before. Sell the hardware at just over cost. Brand it with Facebook if you like, but try to make your money back on some small flat fee of title revenue (5%? as with Unreal now?), so you get paid something reasonable whether the developer wants to integrate with Facebook or not.
Tests for failure:
- Mandatory Facebook integration for Rift causes developers to flee Rift platform before it ships.
- “FaceRift” virtual world launches; Second Life furries love it, rest of world laughs, yawns, moves on.
- Valve and Microsoft team up to launch “Holodeck” in 2020, combining AR glasses with six Kinect 3’s to provide a virtual world in which you can stand next to and see your actual friends; immediately sell billions, leaving Facebook as “that old web site.”
- Initial Rift titles make some people queasy and fail to impress the others; Rift fails to sell to every gamer with a PC and a relative lack of motion sickness.
John, you’ve changed the world several times already. You have the resources now to make the biggest impact yet, but it’s got to be both a short-term (Rift) and long-term (true social AR) play. Don’t get the two confused, and you can build the future of cyberspace. Good luck.
(And minor blast from the past: I interviewed you at the PGL Championships in San Francisco fifteen years ago. Cheers!)
I am watching the whole “Facebook buys Oculus Rift” situation with great bemusement.
I worked for a cyberspace company — Electric Communities — in the mid-nineties, back in the first heady pre-dot-com nineties wave of Silicon Valley VC fun.
We were building a fully distributed cryptographically based virtual world called Microcosm. In Java 1.0. On the client. In 1995. We had drunk ALL THE KOOL-AID.
(Click that for source. For a scurrilous and inaccurate — but evocative — take on it all, read this.)
We actually got some significant parts of this working — you could host rooms and/or avatars and/or objects, and you could go from space to space using fully peer-to-peer communication. Because, you see, we envisioned that the only way to make a full cyberspace work was for it to NOT be centralized AT ALL. Instead, everyone would host their own little bits of it and they would all join together into an initially-2D-but-ultimately-3D place, with individual certificates on everything so everyone could take responsibility for their own stuff. Take that, Facebook!!!
(I still remember someone raving at the office during that job, about this new search engine called Google… the concept of “web scale” did not exist yet.)
The whole thing collapsed completely when it became clear that it was too slow, too resource-intensive, and not nearly monetizable enough. I met a few lifelong friends at that job though, quite a few who have gone on to great success elsewhere (Dalvik architect, Google ES6 spec team member, Facebook security guru…).
I also worked at Autodesk circa 1991, in the very very first era of VR goggles, back when they looked like this:
Look familiar? This was from 1989. Twenty-five frickin’ years ago.
So I have a pretty large immunity to VR Kool-Aid. I actually think that Facebook is likely to just about get their money back on this deal, but they won’t really change the world. More specifically, VR goggles in general will not really change the world.
VR goggles are a fundamentally bad way to foster interpersonal interaction, because they obscure your entire face, and make it impossible to see your expression. In other words, they block facial capture. This means that they are the exact worst thing possible for Facebook, since they make you faceless to an observer.
This then means that they are best for relatively solitary experiences that transport you away from where you are. This is why they are a great early-adopter technology for the gamer geeks of the world. We are precisely the people who have *already* done all we can to transport ourselves into relatively solitary (in terms of genuine, physical proximity) otherworldly experiences. So VR goggles are perfect for those of us who are already gamers. And they will find a somewhat larger market among people who want to experience this sort of thing (kind of like super-duper 3D TVs).
But in their current form they are never going to be the thing that makes cyberspace ubiquitous. In a full cyberspace, you will have to be able to look directly at someone else *whether they are physically adjacent or not*, and you will have to see them — including their full face, or whatever full facial mapping their avatar is using — directly. This implies some substantially different display technology — see-through AR goggles a la CastAR, or nanotech internally illuminated contact lenses, or retinally scanned holograms, or direct optical neural linkage. But strapping a pair of monitors to your eyeballs? Uh-uh. Always going to be a “let’s go to the movies / let’s hang in the living room playing games” experience; never ever going to be an “inhabit this ubiquitous cyber-world with all your friends” experience.
Maybe Zuckerberg and Luckey together actually have the vision to shepherd Oculus through this goggle period and into the final Really Immersive Cyberworld. But my guess is the pressures of making enough money to justify the deal will lead to various irritating wrongnesses. Still, I expect they will ship a really great Oculus product and I may even buy one if the games are cool enough… but there will be goggle competitors, and it’s best to think of ALL opaque goggle incarnations as gamer devices first and foremost.
So why did Zuckerberg do this deal? I think it’s simple: he has Sergey Brin envy. Google has its moon-shot projects (self-driving cars, humanoid robots, Google Glass). Zuckerberg wants a piece of that. It’s more interesting than the Facebook web site, and he is able to get his company to swing $2 billion on a side project, so why not? Plus he and Luckey are an epic mutual admiration society. That psychology alone is sufficient explanation. It does lead to the amusingly absurd paradox of Facebook spending $2 billion on something that hides users’ faces, but such is our industry, and such has it ever been.
Realistically, the jury is still out on whether Oculus would have been better off going it alone (retaining the love of their community and their pure gaming focus, but needing to raise more and more venture capital to ramp up production), or going with Facebook (no more worries about money, until Facebook’s ad-based business model starts to screw everything up). The former path might have cratered before launch, or succumbed to deeper-pocketed competitors. The latter path has every chance of going wrong — if Facebook handles things as they did their web gaming efforts, it definitely will. We will see whether Zuckerberg can keep Facebook’s hands off of Oculus or not. I am sadly not sanguine… on its face, this is a bad acquisition, since it does not at all play to the technology’s gaming strengths.
It’s worth noting Imogen Heap’s dataglove project on Kickstarter. I was skeptical that they would get funded, but their AMA on Reddit convinced me they are going about it the best way they can, and they have a clear vision for how the things should work. So now I say, more power to them! Go support them! They are definitely purely community-driven, the way Oculus was until yesterday….