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Oculus VR's Chief Scientist: "We're All Headed Down the Rabbit Hole Together"

"Good VR isn't perceived as pictures at all. It replaces, rather than augments, the real world."


What we call “reality” is a limited perception of the world, and virtual reality can show us more than that, Oculus VR chief scientist Michael Abrash said in a mind-bending talk today at Facebook’s F8 developer conference.

“Unlike Morpheus, I’m not here to offer you a choice today,” Abrash said in a reference to “The Matrix” character. “No matter which pill you take, we’re all headed down the rabbit hole together.”

The human brain has a model for the world and fills in the gaps in what it can perceive with an educated guess, he said. These educated guesses are why optical illusions work, and Abrash packed his talk with examples of illusions like the McGurk effect (demonstrated in the video below) to show why the brain isn’t always right.

His point: Virtual reality, as provided through headsets like the Oculus Rift, is reality. The brain fuses the motion of your head and body with virtual images in a VR headset to try and convince itself of that simulated world.

“Good VR isn’t perceived as pictures at all,” Abrash said. “It replaces, rather than augments, the real world.”

VR has the potential to be as important a shift as the one from the Web to mobile, he added. In theory, with much additional technical development, any experience imaginable — not just those possible in the real world — should be achievable in the technology.

Facebook announced its intent to buy Oculus exactly one year and one day ago, a move that gave the virtual reality world a jolt of legitimacy. The $2 billion acquisition closed in July.

Last year, Oculus partnered with Samsung to release an “innovator edition” of the Gear VR, a virtual reality headset that ran off of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. Although the first release was aimed at developers and early adopters, Oculus CTO John Carmack recently said the companies plan to release and market to average users a “full consumer” edition of the Gear VR by year’s end.

People typically go to the movies with friends and family because they want to create shared memories, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said in the morning’s first keynote talk. He characterized immersive technology like VR as the next step after sharing photos and videos on Facebook, as people do today.

Schroepfer said the falling cost of hardware components was what made compelling VR possible today, but not in previous decades. He also showed a gameplay clip of EVE: Valkyrie, a VR space-dogfighting video game developed by CCP Games and set to be published by Oculus.

“You’re gonna be able to do this this year in VR,” he said. “This is incredible.”

Oculus’ first announced virtual reality headset, the PC-connected Oculus Rift — the platform on which EVE: Valkyrie runs — does not yet have an official release date, but is currently available as a $350 developer prototype. At South By Southwest, however, founder Palmer Luckey implied that the Rift’s consumer debut might not be in 2015.

Demos of the latest Oculus prototype, Crescent Bay, and the latest “innovator” version of Gear VR, were available to F8 attendees.

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