Every year or so I touch base with the next generation of multimedia developers at Carnegie-Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, located at Electronic Arts’ Redwood Shores campus. ETC is the premier graduate program for interactive entertainment, a multidisciplinary endeavor run by my friend and mentor Carl Rosendahl (yeah that Carl as in PDI as in Shrek). Yesterday I made the pilgrimage to ETC, and the visit did not disappoint. I was treated to two excellent projects by the students.

One of the projects was an experiment in untethered virtual reality called Project Gotan (not to be confused with Gotan Project, the electronic tango band). Project Gotan is an experiment in virtual reality that puts a Durovis Dive 7 together with a Project Tango tablet, allowing you to freely navigate room-scale VR using a mobile device. The Tango continually scans the physical environment, creating a virtual world in real time to represent your actual surroundings. The upshot of this is that you can be in a fully immersive headset, optically cut off from the outside world, and yet walk around freely without fear of bumping into things and, more importantly, without wires and a cable sherpa keeping you safe.

That’s me, all over: walking around in room scale VR with no wires.

A nice touch was the procedurally generated, voxel-rendered world in the style of Minecraft. Unlike the game, this world doesn’t need to calculate surface areas using marching cubes or some other computationally challenging task on a tablet. The Tango is delivering point cloud data, which Gotan can render directly as those familiar grass-and-dirt block shapes without much fuss; this world had a few million points in it, easy.

The world of Project Gotan, with real-world physical obstacles rendered as voxels in the virtual world.

One small critique I had was that I thought the size of the voxels was deceptive. In Minecraft it feels to me like voxels are about 1/2 meter on a side each. Now this is the interesting part: even though I have only ever experienced Minecraft on a flat screen (hope that changes soon!), I have an unconscious sense of the physical size of a voxel. I brought this innate assumption with me into the Project Gotan environment, and during my first forays it tripped me up, literally and figuratively. The Gotan voxels seemed to be just a few inches on a side, which made me move very tentatively through the space until I got accommodated to the difference in scale. Don’t get me wrong; this is a minor complaint, and I only share the story for the observation about how our sensory systems are intertwined with muscle memory — crazy!

Even though I have only ever experienced Minecraft on a flat screen, I have an unconscious sense of the physical size of a voxel.

Project Gotan is a grad student project, an experiment to see how far we can push room-scale immersion. It’s still crude — but maybe it points to where we can take VR with a little imagination and a lot of hard work jamming for a grade. This was Unfettered VR and now that I’ve had a taste, well, the bar has been raised for me.

Being There

I had almost forgotten what a badass Bill Clinton is. Today, I was reminded in the most visceral way, thanks to virtual reality.

I just experienced Inside Impact: East Africa, an immersive short film for Gear VR documenting the work of the Clinton Global Initiative to improve conditions in the region. The best US president in my lifetime isn’t just resting on his laurels or polishing up his legacy. He is making a difference. I already knew this intellectually, but Inside Impact: East Africa made me feel it.

The piece, created by Felix & Paul Studios and Matter Unlimited,  opens with you seated face to face with the President at his desk at CGI New York City headquarters, where he tells you– you personally— about the work his organization is doing around the world in general and East Africa in particular. From there, you are taken to scenes in Tanzania and Kenya, each more heart-warming (or heart-rending) than the last, including a sit-down between Clinton and solar entrepreneurs, a classroom for young girls, and the abject squalor of slums. It ends back in 42’s office, wherein he concludes his tale, and where you’re still not believing that you are hanging out with the prez.

I see a lot of VR every day and as you can imagine, I am totally jaded. It takes a lot to impress me. Inside Impact: East Africa did more than impress; it melted my grinchy little heart. I can’t count the number of VR videos I have seen, and most of them have left me cold, little more than tech demos with the camera not in the right place and action that just wasn’t interesting. This experience couldn’t have been farther than that. I believe this is because Felix & Paul really understand how to direct for VR, they really care about the subject matter, and they know how to tell a story. I can honestly say– and I rarely say this– I felt like I was truly there. Inside Impact: East Africa took me there and delivered on one of VR’s core promises of being an empathy machine.

All this, even though I was looking through a glass darkly… the lenses were literally fogging up because I was in tears.

I’m a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. But go get Inside Impact: East Africa from the Oculus Home store first.

Crossing the Rift

Just got back from Oculus Connect 2, the company’s 2nd annual developer conference. Maybe it’s the hangover, or maybe the contact high from spending three days with over 1,500 of VR’s best and brightest, but I’m giddy, and now feeling extremely optimistic about the chances of VR leaping the chasm to market acceptance. OC2 was La Bamba, with great talks spanning tech, design and art direction, and another round of miraculous demos that topped last year’s, something I didn’t think was possible. While there was still a pioneering world-changer vibe going through the hall, you could also feel that the industry is becoming much more real and getting down to business. Consumer VR is going to ship soon, and it’s going to rock. Walk with me…

The featured demos were transcendent. ToyBox, a multi-user game room experience, is impossible to convey– like so much VR– but it goes something like this. I was in a room-sized space with another player, a real live Oculus employee, physically located somewhere else in the building, who acted as a guide, taking me through a bunch of fun activities. I mean, stupid fun: we threw balls, blocks, stuffed toys. We played ping-pong in real time. We lit fireworks and threw them each other. My guide’s avatar was (mercifully) rendered as an abstract, semitransparent blue man with an HMD. He was just a head and hands, actually– no body. And it’s the hands that are key: this experience was created to show the capabilities of Oculus Touch, the new hand controllers for the system. The controllers are wonderfully intuitive. As for the quality of the experience, there was no latency at all for the voice or the graphics.  This is just a must-see. I wish you could be inside my head right now!

I think they’ve almost nailed these controllers. I have a few small gripes; but they’re probably nothing the design team hasn’t already heard. The other noteworthy Touch demo was Medium, a sculpting program in the spirit of Tilt Brush, but quite different in many respects. Medium was wonderful. It made me feel like I was in control and could sculpt anything. The UI needs a lot of work, but hey, this was a demo. (Shortly after my session I bumped into Tilt Brush creator Patrick Hackett and asked him what he thought of Medium. He replied, “great, now I can keep working on a painting program, and someone else can worry about sculpting!” … or words to that effect. I thought that was pretty cool.)

The talks were excellent. After Brendan Iribe’s typical corporate fare, Michael Abrash once again threw down with a keynote about perception science and the ridiculous work his research team is doing on simulating all the senses. Then John Carmack gave his usual extemporaneous standup keynote, and only went over time by 15 minutes. (Maybe a personal best.) Inspiring talk! There was also an eye-opening session by the lead developer and art director of the amazing set of demos we saw last year at Connect 1. (I’m still quaking from the T-Rex experience). The session provided insights on everything from polygon budgets to performance issues in Unreal Engine, and gave us an insider’s look into the thought process that went into the designs.

If there was a weak spot, it was the gamepad demo suite. This was a set of demos designed to show off the Rift in use with an Xbox controller. I tried maybe four of eight available games. The controller worked fine (I’m a huge fan of using a gamepad to control VR, because for many uses it’s actually far more ergonomic than waving your arms around). The issue was that out of four games I tried, only one of them felt like it actually needed to be in VR. The others could just as well have been console or even smartphone games. The lone standout was Eve Valkyrie, a space shooter where you are in a starship cockpit in the center of the action. I felt like Luke Skywalker! Kudos to CCP and team.

The dearth of must-have VR games got me slightly panicky: Oculus is betting big on gaming as VR’s wedge into the market, but I didn’t see enough titles to convince me that we are going to see an impressive array of titles at launch. And I think that would be a big problem. I talked myself down from the ledge by rationalizing that Oculus has enough resources, and enough motivated game developers wanting to partner, that this will solve itself in the next six months. It better!…

Speaking of Eve Valkyrie… A personal highlight was having drinks with my (much taller) brother from another mother Hilmar Veigar Pétursson of CCP Games, the creators of Eve Valkyrie and Eve Online. This guy has a friend for life, ever since his VRML shoutout during this year’s E3 Oculus press event (starts at 20:35). Back in the day, Hilmar and his team at OZ Interactive made some of the coolest VRML stuff ever. Though our paths wound around each other for two decades, they never actually crossed until last night. Skål, brother! Good times.

Oculus Connect 2 was a wild ride. The conference is a great resource for developers and I felt privileged to attend. And extremely hopeful for 2016.


Virtual Reality app store censorship has claimed its first (non-porn) victim. As reported today in Ars Technica, VR journalist Dan Arthur created Ferguson Firsthand, a 3D recreation of the Michael Brown shooting, packaged as a Google Cardboard app for the iOS store. The app store booted the piece on the grounds that it referred to a “specific event”, and therefore its scope was “too narrow” to be considered a valid application.

I’m sure the appnazi behind this moronic decision was just doing his job, just following orders, as they called it back in 1945. And more’s the pity. In this instance, the result was both tragic and ironic. But more, it points to a fundamental deficiency of app store models. App stores aren’t set up for timely delivery of topical information. They’re set up for apps. Um, whatever those are. In this case, Arthur created an app to package up a story he wanted to tell, which, in the infinite wisdom of the store, was deemed too insignificant a hunk of content to warrant publication. I imagine if the piece had been included in a larger pack of content, say, Tragic Stories of Policy Brutality in America, 2015, then the app store might have approved it. (Would it have?)

Ferguson Firsthand is really a news story. But it’s packaged as an app for technical reasons: at the moment, the only way to get virtual reality delivered to people on a mobile device today is to package an app. With all due respect to its creator, this should never have been an app. It should be a web experience, instantly published, and instantly accessible without restriction and without app store gatekeepers. This is an issue of consumer convenience, but more importantly, it’s an issue of journalistic freedom.

Imagine news sites in the early days of the web. What if, back then, to get your daily news, you had to download a PDF? The web wouldn’t have happened– and you wouldn’t be reading this story right now. Information needs to be free, and the web is the key to that freedom. The Ferguson Firsthand incident is a sad outcome, and a perfect illustration of why we need WebVR, DIYVR, and an open ecosystem for VR in general.

The Metaverse is too big for an app store.

A Million Ways to Die in Silicon Valley

(sung to the tune of A Million Ways to Die, by Seth MacFarlane & Joel McNeely)

Founders and pioneers
Come lend your eyes and ears
I’ve got the need to testify
You can try to strike it rich
But the Valley is a bitch
There’s a million ways to die

Got your new startup
Main stage, TechCrunch Disrupt
One day your valuation’s high
They’ll cut your funding off
If the NASDAQ’s slightly off
There’s a million ways to die

A million ways to die!

You’ve got the killer app
Users and all that crap
Lord knows you even monetize
But if Apple does it too
Well then, my friend, you’re screwed
There’s a million ways to die

Bitcoin and IOT
Virtual reality
Shucks man, this unicorn can fly!
You can tweet it to the sky
But Andreesen won’t reply
There’s a million ways to die

A million ways to die!

The VR Headset Nobody is Building


Let’s just put this out there right now: the future of VR is mobile. Morpheus, Vive and Rift will make a big splash in the living room, but for sheer numbers we are going to see maybe 10x the number of mobile VR headsets in the next few years. I’m not here to debate the point. It’s just the way I think it’s going to play out. If you don’t agree, then nothing to see here, feel free to move on.

Still with me? Then riddle me this: why isn’t anybody building the “iPod Touch of VR?” That is, a separate, dedicated, fully contained VR device capable of running apps, games and videos, retailing for $300–500. It seems to me that this is what the world needs, and I have to wonder out loud why it doesn’t exist.

The Cardboard VR approach, where you can put your existing phone into a cheap housing, seems SO sensible. The total cost of ownership is next to nothing, as low as twenty bucks, and you don’t need to get a new phone. The cardboard box will likely be succeeded by evolutionary advances like the plastic Wearality Sky. It’s more durable, has a wider field of view and maybe most importantly, it folds nicely and fits in your pocket. Gizmos like this cost a bit more, but they’re still under a hundred bucks, and therefore could become a wildly popular phone accessory and, as advertised, be the entry point to VR for most consumers.

Problem is, with Cardboard VR, quality is all over the map. Only the highest-resolution phones provide a decent experience. And until Google and Apple unclog the awful refresh rate of the built-in accelerometer, even the best Cardboard VR will start making you motion sick after a couple of minutes. That development looks like it’s a year or so out. So for the moment, Cardboard is still Street VR: the stuff of parties, promotions and live event giveaways. And a nice stocking-stuffer.

Then there’s Gear VR. I love Gear VR. It’s the closest thing I have seen to realizing the true promise of VR, and I believe I’ve tried them all. Gear VR is not at the fidelity level of the Vive or the Rift CV, but so what? It’s lightweight and comfortable, the apps are plentiful and cheap, and the experiences are good enough to keep me in there for an hour or more. Oh and look ma: no wires.

Gear VR has shown the path to usable, mobile VR. However, it only works with two phones. These are phones that, before I wanted to play with Gear VR, I didn’t own. Of course I went out and bought them, but I don’t think most people are going to buy a different phone just to do VR… especially at the price point. I do think that Note 4 and S6 owners will find the Gear VR to be a nifty accessory, maybe even a must-have in the next few years. And perhaps prospective Samsung phone buyers will view Gear as part of a Samsung ecosystem and yet another reason to make the purchase.

What I would buy, and what nobody seems to be building, is a dedicated VR appliance: the display, headset and brain are all in one unit that’s basically a phone without the 4G. It can’t make calls, but it can do WiFi to download everything. It has sensible, ergonomic input accessories bundled with it. Under the hood, it’s probably just Android or iOS (or Windows 10 mobile, maybe? hint hint) with a VR shell. And it just works. I would lay out a cool $500 for this product. I’m sure many, many other early adopters would. Then, a few years out, legions more would take the plunge when the price drops to $300.

Note to phone manufacturers: this wouldn’t replace phones, or cannibalize sales in any way. In fact, app developers could design products that use the VR headset and the phone together, with the phone as a controller or input device. It’s sort of like the way watches and phones are starting to work together now. So this could sell more phones, in addition to selling another VR device. Oh and by the way, I don’t want my primary phone to be stuck in a VR headset. I want it to make calls, and all the other stuff it already does. So I’d rather have another device anyway. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this.

So what I’m saying is, phone people: this is a new product you can sell.

So why isn’t anybody building it?

A Growing Rift


While the tech press was busy fondling itself over porn as the week’s big VR story, a more significant development went largely unreported. In a recent blog post, Oculus Chief Architect Atman Binstock published the lavish min hardware specs for the Oculus Rift. Binstock also announced the company’s decision to suspend all OS X and Linux development indefinitely. The news undoubtedly came as a gut-punch to the VR faithful. The lack of universal platform support means that any dreams people might have had about VR for the masses will have to be put on hold — either that or it’s time to look elsewhere for salvation.

At least we can stop deluding ourselves about one thing. The Oculus Rift is for games — period; full stop. The announcement makes this crystal clear, but in hindsight it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We saw early hints of the direction at the first Oculus Connect developer event, where it was evident that our little clubhouse of VR believers had been invaded by refugees from console and mobile gaming. The escalating hardware specs; the omnipresence of shoot-em-up content in the demo salon; even the ass-grabbing that foreshadowed GamerGate —  yes, in the Year of Our Lord 2014 a woman actually got physically groped by another attendee while waiting in line for the keynote — it all felt more like a GDC than a first-ever conference devoted to building a shared virtual future.

In the months since Connect, the Oculus team had done a respectable job supporting the SDK for other operating systems. And Oculus reps at least smiled graciously whenever asked about applications that are obviously out of their gaming-first comfort zone. So it seems as if the company was really trying for a while there. But in the end it looks like they’ve decided to hunker down. I understand the strategy, and I actually think it’s the right choice for company. Developing for one platform makes the job easier. Focusing on a well-understood, lucrative product category reduces the business risk. Competition from the Vive and Project Morpheus has raised the stakes — we may have a real dogfight on our hands next year. Last but not least, Oculus is on the hook to ship something, anything, and I’m sure Facebook management’s patience isn’t infinite. I suppose it’s better for the Rift to be a success at something than not at all, so: godspeed, Oculus. But where does this leave the rest of us?

There’s hope coming from a couple of quarters. For desktops we have the Vive and OSVR. Valve has a good track record with supporting Mac and Linux, and HTC is committed to supporting all platforms, so it’s reasonable to expect we’ll get some love there. But — hello — nobody has a Vive in hand just yet. They ship over the next few months. OSVR is fully open, so I don’t think it’s out of the question that we are going to have solid cross-platform capability on those devices. Last time I looked, not that many people were using OSVR, but the move by Oculus just might open new inroads for it.

What about WebVR, you may be wondering? Oculus is the only desktop device that browsers support right now. Sign of the times: Josh Carpenter, my pal on the Mozilla VR team, told me they “just bought a bunch of PCs” and he’s got one on his desk next to his Mac Pro. Sigh.

On the mobile side, things are brighter, but still murky. Gear VR is the top choice, but it’s far from ubiquitous, and definitely not cross-platform. Cardboard looks to be the ultimate winner, but we’ll need more high-res phones and faster tracking. I hear the Cardboard team has been staffing up with high-profile talent, so maybe these are on the way soon.

Long story short… there’s no short story. Platforms are proliferating, and each of us is going to have to pick a battle. Oculus has made a choice which ultimately will benefit the industry — by all means go forth and make VR gaming a mainstream category! — but in the short term they have broadened the gap between game developers and everyone else.

The Right Stuff

Whoever controls the high ground of cyberspace controls the Metaverse.

Anybody who doubts that virtual reality on the web is a good idea needs to start paying attention. Last Friday, over 800 attended  the SFHTML5 Meetup, shattering attendance records, to learn about browser-based VR and chat with a high-powered group of thought leaders. For two hours, Mozilla’s Josh Carpenter, Brandon Jones from Google, Leap Motion founder David Holz, DODOcase’s Patrick Buckley and I dropped beats about creating low-cost, accessible, no-download VR just using JavaScript and your text editor.


After the meetup, we rolled to the Upload party to see the latest VR hardware, killer demos and body-painted go-go dancers. It was a VR night for the ages. It didn’t bother me that 100% of the demos I saw at Upload weren’t web-based. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier and faster right now to build a Unity or Unreal-based native app for Oculus and Gear VR. But as I’ve misquoted before: we don’t do these things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard. It’s going to take a while yet to roll out a VR web, but in the long run we think the effort will be worth it.

And so the intrepid group of warriors that kicked this night off brilliantly laid out. Virtual Reality is for everyone, not just the few: accessible, affordable and easy to create and share with the world. It’s our shared belief that VR will be on the web in a big way, and the web itself will have a VR interface in the not-too-distant future.

If you missed it, you can check out the video here.




Fab Gear!

2014 was a banner year for WebGL and my wallet. The consulting business took off and I even started seeing royalty checks from my O’Reilly Books (beer money FTW)!

So with the tax year end looming, I thought I should take a few more write-offs. I decided to drop serious coin on VR hardware, including a ridiculously powerful new Windows laptop (derp) that is only slightly smaller than my Prius, and a Samsung Gear VR with a companion Galaxy Note 4 phone that I would otherwise have zero use for. ($1000 dollars – cheap!) I made these purchases with some reservation – after all, I am Mr. DIYVR, and I’ve been quite vocal about the need for devices that anybody can afford. Well, right now I can afford ’em, so – there it is.

I had seen a few early demos of Gear VR and was pretty impressed. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love the retail version. Here’s me in our kitchen, enjoying my first postprandial trip through this mobile version of the Oculus Rift. Somewhat surprisingly, I kept my dinner down just fine. No motion sickness to speak of. And I stayed in there longer than I have ever stuck around in a Rift, playing games, flying through space and watching movie trailers.


Design-wise, I know, I know: I’m just another White Guy Wearin’ a Rift.  But this thing is way more sleek than that bucket they call the DK2. And look Ma: no wires.

But this isn’t the important part. It’s what’s inside that counts. Instead of blindly groping for a keyboard, or wildly waving my arms in front of me, I simply tapped the touch pad on the side of the headset to interact with the games and apps. Instead of continually removing the device to select a new game to launch, I merely swiped the touch pad to move through a gorgeous interface they’re calling the Oculus Store. It’s simple and beautiful, like the Xbox interface but in full 3D:


Now this is the shit. I need to make the interface to Third Eye as good as this – but for browsing the whole web. So that’s my new mission. Wish me luck D-)

In the meantime, kudos to Samsung and Oculus on making the first high-production, consumer-ready VR for realz. If they can get the price down, then we’ve really got something. This fab device is, well, “it’s gear.”

The DIYVR Manifesto

Patrick Buckley and Tony Parisi

Virtual Reality has the potential to be the most powerful medium ever devised. The ability to be transported to other places, to be fully immersed in experiences, to be really there– present— with others in real time, opens up unimagined ways to communicate. This is the beginning of an entirely new chapter of collaboration, one that has the power to reshape our culture much the way radio, television, the internet or mobile phones did before. The promise of this technology is so compelling that it has spawned an entire industry and fueled the imaginations of millions worldwide. Virtual Reality is the next revolution in computing and human communication.

Unlike the big companies vying for control of this new medium through high-end hardware and closed software, we in the DIYVR movement believe that smartphones, low-cost viewers, and open source software are where the Virtual Reality revolution should and will catch fire. The smartphone is to Virtual Reality what the PC was to the internet in 1991: a critical mass of adopted technology that only needs a novel component to turn it into something far more powerful. For PC’s, it was a modem to get onto the web; for smartphones, it is a box with 2 lenses to get into Virtual Reality.

There are close to 2 Billion smartphones in use across the world. A marvel of modern technology, these devices are packed with more processing power and sensors than the first computers we put into space. They have high resolution screens and the motion tracking sensors needed to create a virtual reality experience, and they are getting better and better every month. With a cardboard box and two lenses your smartphone can be transformed into a Virtual Reality device. That is amazing! 2 Billion people could get started experimenting with VR tomorrow– if this knowledge was evenly distributed.

Oculus and Samsung are doing awesome things by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with Virtual Reality. However, their products are either far away in terms of when they will ship– Oculus will not have a commercial product for at least another year– or not affordable by the average consumer: the Gear VR headset costs a few hundred dollars and only works with a Note 4, which is an $800 phone that few people own. They are building Lamborghinis, when what the market needs is a model-T Ford. These systems also require serious expertise to develop apps for, essentially requiring professional game development teams with high-end graphics programming knowledge and deep pockets.

We think VR should be for everyone:

  • Affordable headsets that work with any smartphone NOW – 2 Billion of them.
  • An open technology stack, based on web standards like HTML5 and WebGL.
  • Tools that make creating VR apps as easy as making a web page. There are over 8 million people who know how to use web development tools like HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.
  • Built on an open, democratic and inherently collaborative foundation like the Internet, so VR experiences can flow into each other seamlessly and anyone can publish their work without gatekeepers.

Virtual Reality is too important to be a closed system.

Imagine if the Internet was owned by AOL and we were all still getting CD-Roms in the mail with our allotted online minutes. Imagine if Gutenberg’s family controlled what got printed on paper. These are things that could have come to pass if people never fought for those technologies to be open platforms. The Internet and the printing press started as technology for the few, but became fundamental mediums of human collaboration, communication and creative exchange because they were inclusive, open and democratic with no single entity controlling them. Virtual Reality has the same potential, maybe even greater. But if the platforms are controlled by a small number of players, and the costs out of reach for most consumers, then VR will either remain stuck in its current technology novelty phase, never to cross the chasm to the mainstream, or– far worse– it will become just another corporate channel for blockbuster entertainment. Either way, it will fall far short of what it could become as a medium.

We have already lost major venues of communication to closed, locked-down proprietary systems (radio, television, mobile phones). You need to be a multibillion dollar company to afford the cost of entry to these mediums. Let’s not lose Virtual Reality. Let’s not enter a dark age where we let a couple of companies with a lot of money own Virtual Reality, and become the gatekeepers of what gets made, who gets to play, and who doesn’t. No one company or person should wield this much power. Virtual Reality is for everyone.


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