Introducing Michael Abrash, Oculus Chief Scientist
The Path to the Metaverse
I’m tremendously excited to join Oculus, and when I think back, it’s astonishing how unlikely the path to this moment is. I’ve told most of the parts of this story before, but never all together, and the narrative, now spanning twenty years, just keeps getting more remarkable.
Image credit Steve Grever, PC Perspective
Palmer, Michael, and John @ QuakeCon 2012
Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime. Around the same time, I saw the first leaked alpha version of Doom. I knew John Carmack from exchanges on the M&T bulletin board a couple of years earlier, when both John and I were learning how to write 3D graphics code, so I sent him mail saying how blown away I was.
John replied that his mother lived in Seattle, and maybe we could get together next time he was in town. Eventually he came by to visit, and we had a good conversation, in the course of which he asked if I’d like to come work at Id; being in the middle of shipping the first couple of versions of Windows NT, I politely declined.
In late 1994 or early 1995, John let me know he was going to be back in town, and asked if I wanted to have dinner. We met at Thai Chef in Bellevue. I knew he was going to try to hire me, and I knew I was going to say no. But he didn’t get around to doing that until after he had talked for a good two hours about how he was going to build cyberspace, and by that time it was hard for me to imagine doing anything else. John was as good as his word, and Quake was the start of a world of connected gaming that thrives to this day.
Quake was seminal and high-impact – it’s amazing what a team of ten mostly untrained twenty-somethings in the Black Cube in Mesquite, Texas, managed to accomplish – but it wasn’t the Metaverse. It was still, in the end, images on a screen, not Hiro Protagonist literally fencing for his life. And so John and I went our separate ways, John to continue to refine what he had created, and me to wander through a series of interesting projects that, in the end, always left me wishing for the pure focus, intensity, and impact of those two years working with John.
Fast-forward fourteen years. I’m at Valve – which started its existence by licensing the Quake source code – looking for the next big platform shift, and I conclude that it’s augmented reality. Thanks to Valve’s unique structure, I’m able to start working on that, along with several other interested people, including Atman Binstock, who I recruited over coffee at St. James Espresso in Kirkland; Atman is thinking about moving to Paris and writing a debugger, but finally decides to join up. John, meanwhile, is poking at virtual reality, seeing if it’s finally feasible. He sends me mail on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Quake’s release, saying that he has a feeling that something really big is just around the corner, something bigger than anything that’s happened so far. He’s talking about VR.
Then two things happen at about the same time. On one path, Palmer develops his first VR prototype, John and Palmer Luckey connect, Oculus forms and its Kickstarter is wildly successful, DK1 ships, and John becomes Oculus CTO. Meanwhile, I read Ready Player One, strongly recommend it to several members of the AR group, and we come to the conclusion that VR is potentially more interesting than we thought, and far more tractable than AR. We switch over to working on VR just as Palmer’s homebrew project is morphing into Oculus.
From that point, both VR paths have been pretty well documented, Oculus’s in this blog, in the press, and all over the Internet, and Valve’s in my blog and talks. The end result, a year and a half later, is a VR system that can create a sense of presence – the feeling, below the conscious level, that you really are someplace. This is an experience that no one except a few researchers using awkward, hugely expensive equipment had ever had, but within the next couple of years it should be available in a comfortable form factor at a consumer price. In the space of two years, a relative handful of people at two companies, none of them VR experts at the start, somehow managed to resurrect VR from the trash heap of technologies-that-never-were and make it the most exciting technology around.
What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be within Two Years, Steam Dev Days 2014
That wouldn’t have happened if Palmer hadn’t developed his prototype. If John hadn’t been investigating VR at the right time. If they hadn’t run into each other. If I hadn’t been looking for a new platform. If Palmer hadn’t met up with the right people to form Oculus and build DK1. If the community hadn’t been so overwhelmingly supportive of VR and the Kickstarter. If Atman had decided to go do a debugger instead. If a team hadn’t assembled at Valve, done a bunch of hard work to show that low persistence, excellent tracking, and a well-calibrated and well-tuned system enabled presence, and shared that knowledge with Oculus. If I hadn’t come across Ready Player One at the right time. Heck, if I hadn’t come across Snow Crash all those years ago, or the Doom alpha, or known John from the M&T bulletin board, or if I hadn’t known Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington from my days at Microsoft, in which case I would have had no reason to help them license the Quake source code…
You get the idea. We’re on the cusp of what I think is not The Next Big Platform, but rather simply The Final Platform – the platform to end all platforms – and the path here has been so improbable that I can only shake my head.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place on Tuesday. A lot of what it will take to make VR great is well understood at this point, so it’s engineering, not research; hard engineering, to be sure, but clearly within reach. For example, there are half a dozen things that could be done to display panels that would make them better for VR, none of them pie in the sky. However, it’s expensive engineering. And, of course, there’s also a huge amount of research to do once we reach the limits of current technology, and that’s not only expensive, it also requires time and patience – fully tapping the potential of VR will take decades. That’s why I’ve written before that VR wouldn’t become truly great until some company stepped up and invested the considerable capital to build the right hardware – and that it wouldn’t be clear that it made sense to spend that capital until VR was truly great. I was afraid that that Catch-22 would cause VR to fail to achieve liftoff.
That worry is now gone. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus means that VR is going to happen in all its glory. The resources and long-term commitment that Facebook brings gives Oculus the runway it needs to solve the hard problems of VR – and some of them are hard indeed. I now fully expect to spend the rest of my career pushing VR as far ahead as I can.
It’s great to be working with John again after all these years, and with that comes a sense of deja vu. It feels like it did when I went to Id, but on steroids – this time we’re working on technology that will change not just computer gaming, but potentially how all of us interact with computers, information, and each other every day. I think it’s going to be the biggest game-changer I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen quite a lot over the last 57 years.
I can’t wait to see how far we can take it.