TIME Innovation

Oculix, Netflix’s Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Demo, Looks Pretty Boring

Virtual reality interfaces should be more than clumsy-looking design transplants.

It’s a little discouraging watching Netflix’s Oculus Rift demo (a so-called hack it’s calling “Oculix”), the one where the screen pans through a black void in which the observer finds her- or himself circled by show portals.

Imagine iOS wrapped around your head like a towel: a vortex of lights, or a sheath of video boxes. (For some reason, it made me think of the Senate chamber in the Star Wars prequels with its movable hover-platforms.)

Pick a channel by waving your hands in the air (using LeapMotion’s gesture sensor) and you can stream movies or TV shows through Oculus’s head-mounted contraption direct to your eyeballs.

This isn’t what’s interesting about virtual reality to me. We’ve placed movies up close to our faces for decades, be that on giant screens or via glasses with special LCD displays designed to confound our sense of scale. But what’s so different about sitting in a comfortable movie theater (or for that matter, an Omnimax wraparound dome) looking at screens dozens of feet tall and wide, compared with watching video at home through a glorified, full-motion View Master?

Home convenience, there’s that, though I’d argue there’s little convenient about clapping hardware as unwieldy as World War I gas masks on our heads, then leashing ourselves to stationary servers with clumsy cables.

I’m less put off by the ungainliness of Oculus Rift (and Project Morpheus, and every other attempt to revive the buzz-concept “virtual reality” lately) than I am by the lack of imagination in these hacked-together interfaces, whereby a company takes the most obvious and mundane approach toward exhibiting the potential VR lays at its doorstep. Strap on Oculus Rift and you can watch Netflix videos up close to your face! Wave your hands in the air like Tom Cruise in Minority Report and take two or three times as long to do what takes everyone else microseconds with a remote or on a touch-based tablet!

To be fair, it is just a hack, and in a statement Netflix noted that it “may never become part of the Netflix product, internal infrastructure, or otherwise be used beyond [Netflix] Hack Day.” In other words, it’s just for fun, not even rising to the level “proof of concept.” This isn’t Netflix trying to sell you on either its stake in VR or the Oculus Rift headset itself.

I’m just surprised by its obviousness. If you’re going to hack Netflix into VR, why not do something no one’s seen before? Imagine, for instance, summoning a movie like The Matrix, only going into the extras and bringing up the making-of clips, then having the option to pan around virtual versions of the “bullet time” sets to see for yourself how that went down. You could be Keanu Reeves (or see what he’d be seeing) as he falls back limbo-like, his arms splaying, or you could be the circle of cameras themselves, wheeling around the actor’s frame at different velocities and elevations. Imagine reassembling a scene to create your own version of events, playing the role of virtual director with godlike visual command of the landscape.

Netflix is a viewing environment, an interface to conjure videos on demand, a kind of “visual carrier.” If we’re about to experience the visual paradigm shift everyone keeps telling us VR amounts to, it has a much bigger role to play in shaping what it means to stream a video in a virtual environment. To me, it at least means more than forklifting a bunch of screens into a wraparound environment, just because enveloping yourself in a cone of colors looks cool.

My hat’s off to the programmers who took the time to build the Oculix demo. I certainly couldn’t have done it. But next time, why not show us VR that feels like a compelling reason to use VR, and not just lights in a box on your face.

TIME Google

Google Just Released Its Most Low-Tech Product Ever

Google Cardboard
Google Google Cardboard

Google ended its annual I/O developer conference keynote with the peculiar announcement that it would be giving all attendees a piece of cardboard. It’s in support of a new virtual reality app for Android phones, appropriately called Cardboard, that Google says will allow people to “experience virtual reality in a simple, fun and inexpensive way.”

What that means is you boot up this app on your phone, stick your phone in a piece of actual cardboard, cut out some eye sockets in said cardboard, then stick your face in the low-tech device. You may recall this application from the time your parents let you play with a refrigerator box when you were five.

The app, which seems to be a real thing, includes the ability to look at popular Google services such as YouTube and Google Earth in a VR environment. Google has even offered some handy instructions for how to engineer your own cardboard mask. While the competing Oculus Rift virtual reality device costs $350, Google says a Cardboard headset is absolutely free if you happen to have an extra large pizza box lying around.

If this seems to ridiculous to be real, remember that an app that does nothing except send people the word “Yo” was recently one of the top programs in Apple’s App Store. One man’s trash is another man’s next billion-dollar project.

TIME Oculus Rift

Oculus VR Company Sued By Game Maker Over Copyright Claims

Oculus VR

Game publisher goes to court for its chunk of change after Oculus gets bought by Facebook.

ZeniMax Media and id Software have sued Oculus VR and its founder Palmer Luckey for allegedly stealing trade secrets and infringing on copyright, among other claims.

The rift began outside of court earlier this month when ZeniMax said that it’d been wronged by former employee and game development legend John Carmack. ZeniMax said Carmack, who became Oculus’ CTO in August of last year, did “extensive VR research and development” while still working at id Software, which is owned by ZeniMax.

Because of Carmack’s work, and a non-disclosure agreement signed by Luckey, ZeniMax felt it was entitled to a non-dilutable equity stake in Oculus, which would be worth a lot now that Facebook is buying it for $2 billion. Oculus previously disputed ZeniMax’s claims and pointed out that Carmack left Zenimax after it stopped investing in virtual reality games.

The lawsuit, as published by The Verge, claims that Carmack worked extensively on Oculus technology at id Software’s offices and even demonstrated the technology to the press there. ZeniMax also claims that it has been researching virtual reality since the 1990s and came up with a VR prototype for some of its major games, including The Elder Scrolls.

“As a result of their years of research, and months of hard work modifying the prototype Rift to incorporate ZeniMax’s VR Technology, Carmack and others at ZeniMax transformed the Rift from $500 worth of optics into a powerful, immersive virtual reality experience,” the lawsuit says.

Oculus has not yet responded, but with millions of dollars on the line, it’s safe to assume this is going to get messy.

Update: Oculus has responded with the following statement: “The lawsuit filed by ZeniMax has no merit whatsoever. As we have previously said, ZeniMax did not contribute to any Oculus technology. Oculus will defend these claims vigorously.”

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Virtual Reality

Chuck E. Cheese Tests Oculus Rift VR Game

72nd Annual Hollywood Christmas Parade - Red Carpet
Mark Sullivan—Getty Images Chuck E. Cheese

Virtual reality headset Oculus Rift will get a six-week trial fun in three markets for the birthday party haven known for its motto 'where a kid can be a kid'

When Facebook announced it would buy virtual reality headset Oculus Rift for $2 billion back in March, it was only a matter of time before America’s most high-tech organizations took note.

But one unlikely candidate is leading the charge: Singing animatronics purveyor Chuck E. Cheese. You know: “Where a kid can be a kid.” Home of the other famous mouse not associated with Disney.

Chuck E. Cheese announced Tuesday that they’ll roll out Oculus Rift at locations in Dallas, and then expand to San Diego and Orlando.

“Kids today have unprecedented access to game consoles and tablets,” CEC Entertainment President Roger Cardinale said in a statement. (CEC owns Chuck E. Cheese. We can guess at what “CEC” stand for.)

“Our challenge is to deliver an experience not available at home, and there is no doubt virtual reality does just that,” Cardinale continued. “Oculus Rift technology is the next frontier in the gaming industry, and we’re thrilled to be able to say it’s part of the Chuck E. Cheese’s lineup.”

This lineup.

The headset will be available at kid parties so that “birthday stars” can play a virtual version of Ticket Blaster.

Here how it will look:

TIME Innovation

Fly like an Eagle with Oculus Rift and This Funky Contraption

'Birdy' bills itself as an attempt to fly using virtual reality and a weird-looking table

Want to play a virtual reality version of Flappy Bird? This bizarre-looking Oculus Rift meets massage table meets Rube Goldberg mashup won’t do that yet, but it probably could — and while you’re waiting, it’ll let you fly like an actual bird by flapping your arms and sticking your face in front of a fan.

The table thing is something called Birdly, which describes itself as “an attempt to fly.” Like a bird, that is, not Superman: specifically the Red Kite, a bird of prey in the same class as eagles and hawks. The folks behind Birdly devised a platform on which you lay flat, stomach down, your arms resting on movable panel sections and your hands slipped beneath straps that let you raise and lower the panels like a pair of wings, rolling, nicking or heaving as you go.

Strap on Oculus VR’s Rift virtual reality headset and you’re transported to a virtual landscape (or rather, suspended above it), enjoying a bird’s perspective on the world. And in addition to the fan (which provides wind feedback that changes based on your speed in the simulation), Birdly provides smells and sounds, so if you’re flapping through a forest, you’ll also be able to smell the trees, or the dirt.


TIME legal

Oculus Calls ZeniMax’s Allegations of Theft False, Disappointing and Not Surprising

Oculus VR just sent across an email outlining in seven points what it views as ZeniMax's specious claims about Doom-creator John Carmack and Oculus' virtual reality technology.

Last week, ZeniMax accused Oculus VR Chief Technology Officer (and former id Software Doom mastermind) John Carmack of taking “proprietary technology and know-how” with him when he departed the Rockville, Maryland-based Elder Scrolls and Dishonored publisher for a job with Oculus.

Oculus’ response at the time was terse and absolute: “It’s unfortunate, but when there’s this type of transaction, people come out of the woodwork with ridiculous and absurd claims,” an Oculus VR representative told the Wall Street Journal. “We intend to vigorously defend Oculus and its investors to the fullest extent.”

Here’s a bit more of that defense, breaking this morning, with Oculus writing in an email to the media that it’s “disappointed but not surprised by Zenimax’s actions” and promising to “prove that all of its claims are false.”

The following list of points was also provided by Oculus in the email:

  • There is not a line of Zenimax code or any of its technology in any Oculus products.
  • John Carmack did not take any intellectual property from Zenimax.
  • Zenimax has misstated the purposes and language of the Zenimax non-disclosure agreement that Palmer Luckey signed.
  • A key reason that John permanently left Zenimax in August of 2013 was that Zenimax prevented John from working on VR, and stopped investing in VR games across the company.
  • Zenimax canceled VR support for Doom 3 BFG when Oculus refused Zenimax’s demands for a non-dilutable equity stake in Oculus.
  • Zenimax did not pursue claims against Oculus for IP or technology, Zenimax has never contributed any IP or technology to Oculus, and only after the Facebook deal was announced has Zenimax now made these claims through its lawyers.
  • Despite the fact that the full source code for the Oculus SDK is available online (developer.oculusvr.com), Zenimax has never identified any ‘stolen’ code or technology.


MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME legal

Doom Creator Accused of Stealing Virtual Reality Tech, Taking It to Oculus

Oculus VR

ZeniMax claims id Software co-founder John Carmack pilfered virtual reality tech when he quit to join Oculus VR last year, though both Carmack and Oculus are flatly denying the charges.

Well this sounds ugly, and bound to get uglier: John Carmack, the fellow gamers know best for helping birth Doom, and who left id Software last year to take a job as chief technology officer with Oculus Rift headset designer Oculus VR (who were in turn recently snatched up by Facebook for a cool $2 billion), has been accused by his former employer, ZeniMax, of purloining virtual reality secrets the games publisher claims belong to it, not Oculus VR.

ZeniMax Media, which also owns Bethesda Game Studios (The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3) and Arkane Studios (Dishonored) claims that Carmack was involved in “extensive VR research and development” during his tenure at ZeniMax, according to the Wall Street Journal. That, says ZeniMax, gives it dibs on “key technology used by Oculus to develop and market the Oculus Rift,” and thus the right to seek compensation.

According to the Journal, ZeniMax is staking its case on allegations that Carmack was in touch with Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey before leaving ZeniMax, that Carmack received a prototype headset from Luckey, and that he made innovations to the headset, which he then demoed during a convention.

“ZeniMax’s intellectual property rights arise by reason of extensive VR research and development works done over a number of years by John Carmack while a ZeniMax employee, and others,” writes ZeniMax in a press statement (via Engadget). “ZeniMax provided necessary VR technology and other valuable assistance to Palmer Luckey and other Oculus employees in 2012 and 2013 to make the Oculus Rift a viable VR product, superior to other VR market offerings.”

The statement continues:

The proprietary technology and know-how Mr. Carmack developed when he was a ZeniMax employee, and used by Oculus, are owned by ZeniMax. Well before the Facebook transaction was announced, Mr. Luckey acknowledged in writing ZeniMax’s legal ownership of this intellectual property. It was further agreed that Mr. Luckey would not disclose this technology to third persons without approval. Oculus has used and exploited ZeniMax’s technology and intellectual property without authorization, compensation or credit to ZeniMax. ZeniMax and Oculus previously attempted to reach an agreement whereby ZeniMax would be compensated for its intellectual property through equity ownership in Oculus but were unable to reach a satisfactory resolution. ZeniMax believes it is necessary to address these matters now and will take the necessary action to protect its interests.

Oculus’s response? Balderdash: “It’s unfortunate, but when there’s this type of transaction, people come out of the woodwork with ridiculous and absurd claims,” an Oculus VR representative told the Journal. “We intend to vigorously defend Oculus and its investors to the fullest extent.”

And Carmack himself has weighed in on Twitter:

That’s all we know so far, which is to say that it’s best to stay off the playing field just now in terms rallying for one side or another, since the only folks who know who’s telling (or twisting) the truth are John Carmack, ZeniMax and Oculus VR.

TIME technology

Now You Can Explore the Star Trek: Voyager Deck With the Oculus Rift

The virtual reality headset Oculus Rift already allows users to enter far-flung lands such as Tuscany, Game of ThronesWesteros and Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. Now Oculus owners can beam up to the famous spaceship from Star Trek: Voyager as well.

The new demo, created by independent developer Thomas Kadlec, features an incredibly detailed recreation of the Voyager’s bridge, complete with computer monitors lit up with buttons and windows that offer a view out to the stars. The demo was made using Unreal Engine 4, a new game development engine that should allow more complex worlds to be built for the Rift.

Oculus VR, the company behind the Rift, has released multiple iterations of its headset to developers, who have tinkered with the technology in fascinating ways. The company, which was bought for $2 billion by Facebook in March, has yet to announce when the Rift will see a release as a consumer product.

[The Verge]

TIME Technologizer

Jaunt Wants to Help Hollywood Make Virtual-Reality Movies

Jaunt Jaunt's 360-degree virtual-reality camera

Last week, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made a $2 billion dollar bet that virtual reality is going to be a big deal, by acquiring the maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset. In explaining the deal, he referenced some of the technology’s potential applications beyond gaming: spectator sports, education and medicine. And though he didn’t say anything about VR changing moviemaking, he might well have.

I recently wrote about Zero Point, a documentary about virtual reality, which is designed to be experienced as virtual reality on Oculus’s headset. It was created using a proprietary camera system that captures 360 degrees’ worth of 3D video and then stitches it altogether. Now a startup called Jaunt is talking about its own similar technology for what it calls “cinematic VR.” It plans to sell it to moviemakers in Hollywood and elsewhere who want to capture, edit and distribute movies for viewing on the Rift and other VR headsets, such as the one Sony is developing for use with the PlayStation 3.

Jaunt started experimenting with 3D VR cameras by building a tiny prototype using Lego parts. It’s moved on to more ambitious designs and now has a model–no Lego involved–with which it’s created some demo footage. The company let me sample the results at its offices, using the HD version of the Oculus Rift developer kit. The demo included several short scenes, including a horror-movie like bit set at sea, involving what seemed to be a monstrous octopus. That part had me spinning around in my seat to see the action all around me.

The company’s current hardware is a fixed camera setup, which stays in one place and captures almost everything around it, with the exception of the area directly below the cameras — basically, where your feet would be in the virtual-reality world. It also captures 3D sound, which is an important storytelling tool: In a VR movie, your ears will know there’s something going on behind you before your eyes do.

Of course, capturing 3D video and sound is only the start of the VR movie-making process. Jaunt is also developing the technology necessary to assemble raw footage into polished movies using industry-standard software such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editor. It’s also working on the question of how these movies will be distributed to consumers who have VR headsets–a necessary factor nobody has yet figured out.

Basically, VR movie-making is so new a concept that the company has to build an end-to-end system, a task it compares to what IMAX had to do when it was a startup. “After we starred, we realized it’s a much bigger project than we ever imagined,” says co-founder and CTO Arthur van Hoff.

Jaunt isn’t yet talking about when movies using its technology might arrive. That’s O.K. Oculus Rift and Sony’s headset aren’t yet commercial products, so it’s going to be a while before consumers will be ready to enter virtual worlds from the comfort of their own living rooms.

TIME Opinion

Xbox Co-Founder Is Skeptical About Virtual Reality. Me Too.

Oculus Rift headset
Courtesy of Oculus VR

Virtual reality's as inevitable today as it was two decades ago, but getting the timeframe right for wide-scale adoption is still a guessing game.

Most of what you’re reading right now about virtual reality is hype: more the wishful thinking of an industry looking for its next fix than an imminent phenomenon — an industry hoping to resurrect some very old ideas about reality manipulation and wish fulfillment scenarios whose time was always bound to come, but probably isn’t now.

The source of all this hype involves a pair of largish scuba-like goggles, dubbed Oculus Rift, that you clap on your face and tether to a computer. What it’s not: a sensation-gifting body mesh, nor a virtual retinal laser mounted to a pair of stylish lightweight glasses, nor the holy grail of holy grails that eventually makes any of this moot: a neural interface, probably using cell-sized nanobots, that’ll offer the option to engage any reality you like, anywhere you like, any time you like.

Getting the timeframes right for these things matters, and VR’s track record leaves a lot of be desired. If you’re not skeptical about Oculus’ technology or Facebook’s claims about what it means, you should be. And I’d recommend listening to former Microsoft guy and Xbox co-founder Ed Fries, who offered saner, more skeptical comments on Yabbly last week about the probability that VR is going to be a mass market force anytime soon.

Here’s Fries responding to a question about Facebook’s purchase signaling the advent of VR-as-mainstream:

Hardcore gamers love new technologies and experiences and are willing to do almost anything to get them so that’s a good market for Oculus. General users however are a different crowd. Given how little success the consumer electronics companies have had with 3D TVs with glasses, I am skeptical that general users are going to be strapping this thing onto their face any time soon.

Bingo. Oculus Rift is technology for enthusiasts, whether that’s playing games or having more visually reified social experiences all the way up to hypotheticals (use your imagination) involving virtual erotica. It involves relatively crude body-plus-plus technology that’s as cumbersome and restrictive as it promises to be liberating. It’s not a natural baby step forward from carrying a phone around in your pocket, it’s a radical shift toward wearing something unfashionable and subtractive (unlike augmented reality, Google Glass style, which treats VR as supplemental). It’s a somewhat more advanced version of a very old form of wraparound reality simulation, in other words, a clever trick that still employs a reductive sensory interface. It is, as TIME’s Lev Grossman poetically writes, the end of the frame, but I’d add not the end of the picture.

Tim Sweeney, who founded Epic Games and built the Unreal Engine, evangelized the tech in a Polygon brief yesterday, saying “It’s technology that I think will completely change the world,” then adding “I think it’s going to be a bigger phenomenon than smartphones.”

For some reason that got attention instead of the more interesting part of the interview in which Sweeney talks about shareware and 1991 and selling direct to gamers. But “completely change the world” sounds bolder and sexier and somehow imminent, and people like to dream, even if the notion that virtual reality’s going to change everything (for better or worse) has been in vogue with sci-fi writers and futurists since at least my 1980s childhood.

I’m not a VR luddite, I just see the timeframe for wide-scale adoption differently. I don’t think the tipping point for VR is putting scuba-gear on your face so you can pretend to sip virtual coffee with virtual friends, or use it to train to be a virtual helicopter pilot in a virtual flight sim. Someone’s going to want to do that, sure (and plenty already do using wraparound simulators), but this notion that Oculus Rift is going to be the iPhone of VR…it’s just wishful thinking.

I’ve already invested in Oculus Rift (you’re welcome, Zuck). I put my $50 payment down on a $350 devkit 2, due this summer, a few weeks ago. I can’t wait to dive in, but then I’ve been sampling virtual reality technology all my life, from kaleidoscopes and View Masters to Virtual Boys and amusement park one-offs (like a crude, fully-helmeted game I played two decades ago at the Mall of America in which I stumbled around a boxing-style ring firing virtual laser beams at another helmeted opponent). I get the excitement, I just don’t see these mass adoption timeframes at the same pace as companies like Oculus, or new-minted $2 billion VR proselytizers like Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuck says VR is the next big thing after mobile. But a year from now? 10? 100? VR’s one of these things we can talk about like solving aging, or eradicating superstition, or curing cancer and use words like “eventually” or “inevitable.” You can’t be wrong. But you can be wrong about the timeframes, and for all the excitement building around Oculus’ spendy scuba-gear, I don’t see smartphone/tablet levels of consumer adoption on VR’s menu anytime soon.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com