The Inside Story of How Oculus Cracked the Impossible Design of VR
Palmer Luckey has never used an Oculus Rift.
That’s what the founder of Oculus keeps telling himself as he unboxes the commercial version of the virtual reality system he invented. Opens the package. Takes out the few elements—the headset, the single cable that connects it to a computer, the small cylindrical infrared camera that tracks it in space. Runs through the setup. And finally puts on the headset and takes stock of his surroundings.
Luckey has been doing this same thing over and over and over again, on different computers in different rooms on Facebook’s campus. He’s spent days repeating the sequence, putting himself in the shoes of a customer who has just received a Rift.
That customer could be anyone. Maybe it’s one of the hundreds of thousands of people who bought a developer-only iteration—the Kickstarted version in 2012 or maybe the more refined one that followed two years later. Maybe it’s someone who has spent the last few years with their nose pressed against the digital glass, following every wrinkle of the Rift’s progress on Reddit or podcasts or YouTube or in WIRED or even Oculus’ own lengthy, surprisingly transparent blog posts. Maybe it’s someone who experienced VR only recently, at SXSW or Sundance, and felt in their very marrow that the world was about to change.
Really, though, it doesn’t matter. After nearly four years of work, Luckey and his colleagues are about to share their long-gestating dream with the world. The Oculus Rift arrives tomorrow, and anyone who finds one on their doorstep must have an absolutely seamless experience. With all the momentum that VR has right now—the millions of people who are aware of it, the billions of dollars poured into it—Luckey would hate to see it stall because of something as pedestrian as a long wait for a driver update. So he opens a box, and he sets up a headset, and then he does it all over again. Because Palmer Luckey has never used an Oculus Rift.
When you set out to create a virtual reality headset, you soon realize that the idea of form following function is bullshit. It’s a reductive canard. Yes, both of those things matter, and the Oculus Rift does need to be both beautiful and powerful, but it’s not something you hold in your hand—it’s something you put on your face. That’s a daunting prospect: Not only are you blind to the world around you, but there’s the whole I-look-nuts thing. (There’s also the whole here-comes-Skynet thing, but on that front we’ve got bigger, Go-playing fish to fry.)
That’s only part of it, though; once you put it on your face, it needs to disappear. It needs to be not just comfortable but light—or at least feel light. After all, it’s less of a window than it is a wormhole; the more you remember it’s there, the less you’re able to lose yourself in everything happening inside it. (And what’s happening inside it is a whole other challenge, one we’ll get to later.)
“You’re never going to stand 10 feet away and say, ‘I love this thing’—it’s a big item on your face,” says Oculus creative director Peter Bristol. “It’s not a focal point; it’s an enabler.”
That’s a consideration that Bristol never dealt with in his first seven years at Carbon Design Group, a Seattle firm that worked on products ranging from medical devices to the Xbox 360 controller. But in 2013, Oculus reached out. The company needed input devices that would go along with the nascent Rift, and it wanted Carbon’s expertise—on both controllers and the headset itself.
Work began—but then a few months later, Carbon principal Willy Stiggelbout called Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. “We’ve got close to 70 percent of our workforce dedicated to Oculus,” he told Iribe. “If it gets any more than that, we’re in an uncomfortable position.”
“Funny you should ask,” Iribe replied. “We’d like all of them dedicated to the Rift.”
Just as the companies began talking about what that might look like, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion. That was in March 2014. “We suddenly had the means and ability to acquire Carbon,” Iribe says now. By that summer, the Carbon team had joined an ever-growing list of companies (at least five at most recent count, specializing in technologies from hand-tracking to room-mapping) that Oculus has added to its roster.
(L-R) Top: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey; creative director Peter Bristol; engineer Nirav Patel. Bottom: VP of product Nate Mitchell; CEO Brendan Iribe; chief architect Atman Binstock.
The first evidence of Carbon’s influence came before the acquisition, when Oculus released its second developer-only kit. That headset, the DK2, not only added new capabilities—most significantly, the ability to have its position tracked in space and a display technology that kept images clear even when users moved their heads quickly—but, with its rounded corners and smaller, less forbidding eyebox, it was immediately friendlier than its predecessor. “We don’t want the robot mask on your face,” says Nirav Patel, an Oculus engineer who helped design the motion-sensing brain of the Rift. “As we went from DK1 to DK2, we had in mind that we needed to overcorrect for that.”
But the DK2 was by no means perfect. Its ski-goggle-style head strap was soft, but to keep the front-heavy headset stable it had to be adjusted so tightly that long-term comfort was a concern. And cramming in all the capabilities Oculus wanted the consumer Rift to have meant bundling three more cables together, resulting in what Patel calls a “preposterous umbilical cord.” While DK2 did what it needed to do—provide developers a platform on which they could start building games and experiences—it wasn’t a product. Not by a long shot.
So Bristol and Patel and their teams made design prototypes. A lot of them. (At one point, while showing me a group of 10 or so prototypes, Bristol allowed that the assortment represents “probably a fiftieth” of their exploration.) And while all those prototypes solved problems, they invariably created others. Take the one that replaced straps with hard plastic wings that gripped the sides of your head. Upside: You could slide it on from the front. Downside: Not only did the lack of side anchors make the headset shift from side to side, but you felt like Bane during a visit to the optometrist.
“You’re always adding into the equation what people are actually going to be comfortable wearing and what looks appropriate,” Bristol says. “You don’t want to look like you came from some sci-fi movie in the ’70s.”
As the prototypes came and went, the team realized that ergonomics for a VR headset are about more than just stability. You could custom-fit a 3-D-printed headset, but that was for naught if it didn’t lead to a good time in VR. “We’d build stuff,” Patel says, “and we couldn’t actually prove out if it was ergonomically good until we actually went into VR. You have to see it in-experience to know if it solves the problems that you need it to.”
Slowly, the many tributaries they’d pursued dried up, returning them to a single course of design elements. The side straps became spring-loaded cantilevers, which would let you adjust the fit as you liked but still take the headset off (and put it back on) like a baseball cap, with no further readjustments. The integrated on-ear headphones swivel forward and back to fit onto anyone’s ears—then swing up and out of the way with a soft, satisfying click. “The right answer has to be exposed to the consumer,” Bristol says. “You’re not hiding it in plastic or decoration—there’s a raw honesty of technology and solutions.”
The common thread here, of course, is that every head is different, as is the placement of its features. But while being able to get your headphones dialed in is great and all, there’s one facial-spatial element that leaves no room for error: your eyes. Specifically, for the clearest focus in VR—integral for achieving and maintaining “presence,” your brain reacting to a virtual experience as though it’s real—a headset’s lenses must be centered directly over your pupils. That interpupillary distance varies from person to person, and what Bristol characterizes as being “the 5th-to-95th percentile” of adults spans a range of more than half an inch.
How to allow for that adjustment, though, was a mystery. The obvious choice—some sort of sliding plastic assembly for the lenses—would add more weight to an already component-crammed headset, Luckey says, and “it can get gritty, it can get locked up, and it isn’t comfortable.” Instead, the lenses are seated in a taut layer of flexible fabric that he calls “transformo.” Behind the fabric is a tiny dual rack-and-pinion mechanism that adjusts the lenses’ distance from one another. The fabric is dustproof (to protect the mechanism), transparent to infrared light (so as not to interfere with tracking), and does away with all the complexity and weight of a more obvious solution.
Little touches like that help turn the Rift from a device of the future into a device of the present. The eyebox is wrapped in fabric; the microphone is embedded out of sight. The many cables of earlier devkits have been winnowed to a single slim tether. Unlike the two other high-end VR devices coming in 2016—the Sony Playstation VR and the HTC Vive—the Rift doesn’t connect to an intermediary processing box. You plug it straight into your Windows PC. “It’s something that wants to be friendly,” Patel says.
“After you’ve used one of these for a while and you understand that it has this power to teleport you to a different world, you sort of look at it a different way,” says Atman Binstock, chief architect at Oculus. “This is the last thing you’re going to see before this magic power kicks in, and when you come out of this other world, it’s the first thing you’re gonna see as you take it off—and it has to be a comfortable part of this transition.”
Compared with the Vive and the Playstation VR, in fact, the Rift simply looks more accessible. That’s not to say that the other two aren’t comfortable or don’t have compelling visual identities: The PSVR could have come out of an R&D department in Tron, and what the LED-pocked Vive sacrifices in sleekness it makes up for in implied horsepower. But the Rift, from its Apple-like packaging to the subtlety of its adjustment straps, communicates ease.
And that ease is something that users have never needed—until now. As I wrote in the April issue of WIRED, everyone’s time with high-end VR has been chaperoned. It happened in a staffed kiosk somewhere public: a movie theater, an installation, a show like Comic-Con or SXSW. If a headset was uncomfortable or a PC froze, someone was there to help you. But now that that technology is finally coming into our homes, those minor annoyances threaten the growth of the industry. Early adopters tend to be ready to contend with setup woes or crashes. General consumers? Not so much. For VR to reach critical mass, there’s no wiggle room: It must be as simple and stable as possible.
Iron Man. Minority Report. The Expanse. For every movie or show with a futuristic bent, there’s a different brain-fizzing vision of how we’ll interact with technology. And that’s great—hell, that’s science fiction—but it ignores one very important thing. “You see all kinds of crazy UI plays in movies,” Jon Malkemus says, “but they’re not very practical.”
Malkemus, another creative director at Oculus, has overseen user interface and experience at Oculus since 2013. And for the first six months, he and his team looked for ways to take advantage of VR’s 3-D space. Maybe, they thought, users could pick up a bottle to launch a game. Wait, no! Maybe they could walk down a virtual hallway where each door represented a game and then walk through that door to launch the game. Things got a little bit … dorm-room weed-fest. (What if our universe is just a grain of sand, maaaaan?)
As it turns out, though, all that icing—what Oculus VP of product Nate Mitchell calls “VR for the sake of VR”—gets in the way of the cake. We’ve had more than a century of seeing information in basic gridded layouts; newspapers, websites, mobile phones, even TVs hew to this paradigm. Just because you have the luxury of navigable 3-D space doesn’t mean you have to reinvent that particular wheel—especially when you’re introducing people to an entirely new environment.
The answer was surprisingly simple: Put 2-D interfaces in a 3-D world. “We wanted to base concepts off existing patterns,” Malkemus says, “so that when people do get into VR, they already know how to use it.”
Today, when you put on a Rift, a tiny proximity sensor above the lenses loads an environment called Oculus Home. It’s a launchpad for games, yes, but it’s also a social hub, an incubator for new ideas, and—most important—a comfortable, intuitive place.
If you’ve used the Gear VR, the mobile headset Oculus designed to work with Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones, you’ve already seen Oculus Home—or at least a stripped-down version of it. (And if you’re not one of the tens of thousands of people who have, chances are you will be soon; the $99 headset is free if you buy a Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge.) You put your phone in the headset, put it on your face, and you’re there in an open, sun-drenched living room. Behind you, there’s minimalist furniture; in front of you, a scrolling menu of the games and experiences you own or can buy.
That mobile version of Oculus Home, though, is the living room you might have if you’re, say, an architect; the Rift’s version is the one you’ll have if you’re an architect who hits the Powerball. You stand on a casually rumpled rug, a few hardcover books strewn just so. Outside, autumnal leaves fall from a tree. In the distance, you see another house—it’s not Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, but it’s pretty close. A fire crackles nearby, its tiny cubic embers drifting up into a chimney, and stairs behind you climb up to a second floor. Are there Easter eggs hidden anywhere? There might be—just as there might be if you tear apart the Rift’s hardware—but no one at Oculus will cop to anything before launch.
Similarly, your navigation experience is a supercharged version of the Gear VR—and still surprisingly basic. Three menus in front of you—suspended in midair and positioned an optimally comfortable 2.5 meters from your eye—show your recently played games and experiences on the left, all available games in the center, and a list of your friends on the right. No hallways, no virtual bottles—there’s not a single interface element that you could consider a bell or a whistle. There’s not even anything hovering behind you waiting to wow you with the promise of 360-degree space. That may seem like a missed opportunity, but it would still be VR for the sake of VR. Also, the perceptual data that Oculus dug up didn’t support it. “Once you start to get outside a 90-degree field of view, you start to turn your head,” Mitchell says. “Imagine we used the space behind you for important stuff and you have to go back all the time—you’re going to start to get tired.” And fatigue is an enemy of adoption.
In Home, you select items by looking at them and using the small, simple remote that comes with the Rift. (An Xbox gamepad comes with it as well, for use with more complex games and experiences; later this year, the company will release handheld controllers that will bring your hands into VR in a more immersive way.) The easy visual analogue is a game console like an Xbox or Playstation. And just as with those consoles, Home will evolve through software and product updates. CEO Iribe teases the idea of digital pets and personalized decor—and of friends showing up.
If that sounds familiar, it should: Home will likely be where the impact of Facebook’s acquisition first becomes visible. In one early prototype, users could find picture frames around the Home environment displaying their Facebook photos. “We haven’t gone with any of that stuff for launch,” Mitchell says, “but there’s a huge opportunity to bring people’s experience outside VR into VR, and we’re going to look to push the boundaries of that in the future.”
For now, though, there’s just Day One. No more perfect demos, no more tech support—just users, in their homes, connecting the Rift to what might be the first PC they’ve ever owned. That’s why Oculus has been recruiting Facebook developers to do the same thing Palmer Luckey has been doing: getting from an unopened box into VR as fast as they can. But while Luckey can probably tear down and reassemble a custom desktop rig with half a frontal lobe tied behind his back, many Facebook staffers only know the world of Apple. “Some of them have never used a Windows PC,” Iribe says, “so we’re watching their experience, making sure that it’s as smooth as possible.”
The setup time Oculus is hoping for is somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour. Much of that is administrative—creating an Oculus account, email verification, going through a tutorial—but the company wants to pad the time to allow for things like graphics card driver updates. (Luckey’s fastest speed run is seven minutes, thanks to Facebook’s ridiculously fast Internet.)
It’s here, in user setup, that simplicity is paramount. “It should be easier to use a Rift than to make an email address,” Luckey says. “People are willing to deal with a download or a progress bar; what they mind is when there’s a problem they can’t figure out. If our process is such that our product seems broken, then our product is basically broken.”
So he opens another box, and he takes out a Rift, and he sets it up—because Palmer Luckey is telling himself that he has never used a Rift before.
He has, of course. But you haven’t. And you’re about to.
Senior editor Peter Rubin (@provenself) writes frequently about virtual reality for WIRED.