Last weekend, 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, the inventor and founder of the Oculus Rift, came to the Microsoft NERD Center to address the first Boston Virtual Reality Meetup. Oculus is based on the West Coast, but its two largest investors are local VC firms Matrix Partners and Spark Capital.
There weren’t any new announcements from the company, but Luckey brought a message that was crucially important to all of the virtual reality developers at the meetup.
The point of Luckey’s address was this: The issues that will give developers the most problems are neither hardware-, nor software-related. There are no computer science hurdles that will slow down Oculus development. Rather, the biggest impediments to the progress of the Rift are going to be human physical and neurological limitations.
The Oculus Rift is all about tricking your mind into believing it is somewhere it’s not. “Sub-conscious suspension of disbelief,” as Luckey termed it.
This is what makes the Oculus experience so amazing, but it is also why slight deviations from behaviors the brain is used to can take you out of the experience, and physically make you ill.
For example, Luckey explained the triggers for such a drastic reaction can be something as mundane as climbing stairs.
Stairs are an issue in virtual reality because, as your brain sees you running towards a virtual flight of stairs, it prepares itself for the bouncing motion your body does when climbing stairs.
However, in VR, stairs are handled like a ramp in that you just glide upwards, rather then unevenly bounce. Your brain expects a movement that never happens, and the result is, at best, a queasy feeling.
The only way to replicate the act of climbing stairs in a virtual world would be to somehow trick your inner ear, the nucleus of your balance center, into feeling movement that isn’t actually happening.
Distorting the way the brain handles balance is an easy way to make someone lose their lunch.
Luckey equated this issue to an Oculus experience he saw in which you get virtually decapitated.
“Your head goes flying off and tumbles away, and your brain doesn’t know what to do with that. It makes people sick,” he said.
This is just a sample of the phenomena Luckey mentioned that reportedly make people nauseous. Others he discussed included running backwards at 40 mph while jumping up and down, spinning around faster than humanly possible and falling.
The conversation at the NERD Center started in the early afternoon and continued well into the evening. It was clear from the audience’s enthusiasm that people are eager to dive into the Oculus platform, but there is still a lot of work to be done before Oculus is a financially- and physically- viable product.